Monday, March 26, 2012

A Little Bit About The Hunger Games While I Decide Whether Or Not I Want to Write About The Hunger Games

Oh, The Hunger Games. 

There will be spoilers here, so if you've not read the book or seen the movie ...

If you don't want it spoiled for you ...

If you'd rather click away now ...


Have I scrolled us down far enough to avoid spoilers?




This book series has been part of my life since 2009. I read the first two books, then spent some time discerning whether or not my daughters (one of them is extremely sensitive) would even want to read them. In the end, I let them decide, knowing that we'd be discussing the books all the way. And we did. At two in the morning, for example, when Betsy finished reading the last book in the trilogy.

I've read that some people are upset because these books are "about kids killing kids." (The horror of the "games" is part of the storytelling vehicle, but that is not what the books are about. And, certainly, we are meant to be disturbed by it. Deeply so.)

I've heard from other people, fans, who were upset because the series did not have a tidy or happy ending (a happy ending would be impossible. War does not lead to happy endings.)

I've read comments by those who are horrified about "a girl who volunteers" to fight in the arena. (Katniss is not an eager or willing participant -- but when her sister's name comes up in the lottery, Katniss, desperate to save her sister, volunteers to go in Prim's place, effectively offering up her life for her sister. There is no greater love...)

You can see I'm not convinced by the naysayers. I see this series as political and cultural critique. It is about war and the ways in which power corrupts. It's about selling one's soul for a political end; it explores media manipulation, propaganda, the ethics (or lack of any) in reality TV.  It's about "bread and circuses" -- the country is not named Panem for nothing. (And, while we're on the subject of a circus, does anyone else think we already live in the world of the Panem Capitol's fashion sense?) The books ask important questions about personal choices, knowing who we are and what we want to be -- they examine the lives of people trying desperately to hold on to morality and truth in hellish circumstances.

Initially, as we are drawn into Katniss' world and the depravity of the bloodsport of the annual "games", we also find ourselves on the side of those who are plotting a rebellion against the Capitol. It's tempting to imagine a noble group of souls banding together to overthrow the evil President Snow. We want them to be noble, anyway.

We want them to be like "the boy with the bread" -- Peeta, the baker's son, who said in the first book,
"I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?" he asks.
I shake my head. How could he die as anyone but himself?
"I don't want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I'm not."

We want a Peeta to be in charge -- someone who can see that holding on to goodness is worth something. But when in the final book of the trilogy we meet the rebels of District 13, we find a highly rigid and militaristic group, led by the cold and calculating President Coin.


This is a war, and people are in it to win power. District 13, we discover, is capable of doing everything of which the Capitol was capable, right down to staging more games for revenge. President Coin is the flip side of the conflict, and the line between the good guys and bad guys has become maddeningly blurred.

We see characters making choices throughout the series that will define who they ultimately will be. Katniss's friend, Gale, hardened from years of pain, cruelty and loss, and another character (Beetee, from Catching Fire and Mockingjay) used their natural talents -- combining their brilliance, hunting strategies and battle tactics -- in ways that were chilling, and were portrayed as such.

As he became more deeply involved in the rebellion, Gale chose to join a world that ultimately Katniss wouldn't accept or live in.

There is an amazing juxtaposition of songs in these books -- there is one called “The Hanging Tree”, a song that Gale and Katniss share from their past. Its lyrics are an invitation to rebellion and death. They represent the fire of Gale -- the fire that Katniss, in the end, rejected.

And then there is a sweet, hopeful lullaby that is used a couple of times in the series. Katniss sings it to Rue (a little girl who was forced to fight in the arena and was murdered by a brutal participant) as Rue is dying. Katniss then decorates Rue's tiny body with wildflowers and her tears. This is one of the most moving scenes in the entire series, and it's the one that blew me away. A book "about kids killing kids" shows me this? That life is precious? Yes.

We later find out, in the epilogue of the final book, that Katniss sings the lullaby now to her own children. The lullaby always represented for Katniss hope, peace, and a kind of rebirth, which she found (in as full a way as one so wounded could) with Peeta.

The trilogy does not end "happily" exactly. Peeta and Katniss are psychologically damaged and scarred and always will be (as so many victims of wars are). And yet they married, they had children ... they did everything they could to embrace hope. There is, ultimately, a life-affirming ending, if a melancholy one.

As for our heroine, I have heard people say that they find Katniss unlikeable. There were times throughout the series when I was irritated with the character for her indecision and her flip-flopping thoughts and feelings, too.

Then I realized that Collins quite deliberately chose first-person/present tense for the book (something that is sadly but understandably lost in the movie) for exactly this reason: By living the story moment to moment with Katniss, we see her immediate responses -- good, bad and ugly. We’re privy to every awful thought that flits into her head (just the kinds of thoughts we have) and every loving impulse (just as we have) and every wrestling match, debate and bit of confusion she experiences (just like what we endure in our heads, too.)

Katniss doesn’t act on every ugly thought or every generous impulse, and she doesn’t give voice to every mental wrestling match. Neither do we. But we have them, don't we? And in seeing her mental process, we can identify with her -- with the real Katniss that no one else sees as fully as we do.

It makes her both less likable and more so. It makes her human.

And this is YA literature, you say? Whatever happened to redheaded girls who talk too much?

Yeah, I know. And I'm not trying to convince you to read the books. I'm just saying that there's more to them than meets the eye.

So, here's the thing. I loved these books. But yes, they required loads of discussion with my daughters. Great discussions that I'm terribly glad we had. My daughters and I take these books seriously. So, yes, it bothers us a bit to think of things like gimmicky movie showings complete with games (which couldn't encourage anything but a circus atmosphere, could they? Let's say "irony"...) and school re-enactments (Really?) and the fact that some kids probably laughed or cheered when certain characters in the movie met their end. But here's the other thing: the fact that there are a handful of kids in every movie theater reacting or laughing inappropriately doesn't change the fact that there are good, serious books and movies out there to be read, watched and discussed with our kids.

Am I sad or concerned that many, many parents aren't discussing these books with their kids, and aren't discerning appropriate ages for kids to read them? Yes, I am. Just as I'm sad and concerned that many parents aren't reading anything with their kids, or talking to them about anything at all. Suzanne Collins is not the problem.

And, umm, about my post title? I guess I decided to write about The Hunger Games.


Lynch Family said...

We read them out loud as a family. I am so glad we did. The subject matter is completely appropriate for young people as they enter into those teenage years when the weight of the world presses more heavily. I am a firm believer that the heavy nature of dystopian fiction is one of the best ways to help young people discern who they really are and what they want to be in the world--especially when parents are along for the ride.

Sara said...

That was a great review; I'm glad you decided to write it. I've read the books and discussed them with my kids a bit, not to the extent you have or I should have, though. My 10 yo saw the movie without reading the book, so there are more discussions. I think the movie loses a lot in terms of understanding the horror of the games and the extent of Panem's control. You don't see as much of a picture of how awful life is in the districts. The movie is excuse to watch kids killing kids.

Colleen said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Karen! I've read the books (based on your recommendation) and plan to share them with my kids when they are old enough. I think one of the marks of a good book is that it makes the reader think and these books certainly do. I'd be curious to know your daughters' thoughts on the series, teenagers' reactions to these YA books.

Jennifer said...

I think the books included a lot of good things to think about - particularly on reality TV, as you said. I can understand all the points you are making on why it was a valuable book, but it just didn't click with me! I feel like such an oddball! Maybe I need to read the last two books.

Margaret in Minnesota said...

Have you and the girls seen the movie yet, Karen? I'm trying to decide if I want to watch it the first time without my 14- and 12-year-old sons (both have read the books) to discern whether or not it's just TOO MUCH.

I'm aching to go, though.

And plus? You nailed it in this review. As always. How do you DO that?

Hillside Education said...

Great post, Karen. You said it so well. I really don't want to see the movie . . . My dd saw it and her critique was enough for me. I'm sure I'll rent it and watch it secretly sometime down the road : )
I think they are important reads for all the ways we are slipping into this. Slipping into a reality TV view of life and a media dominated, technolog-saturated world. I have much more to say . . . someday.

Faith said...

Excellent review! Thank you, Karen.

Love2Learn Mom said...

Margaret - I've been trying to figure out too whether I should let my 14 year old watch the movie. I've pretty much decided that my husband and I will see the movie first for a date night and then let her watch it later. Yes, we probably will let her watch it, but even getting to tell her ahead of time if there's something she should look away for makes a big difference to me.

Great review Karen! Thanks much!!!

Gae said...

Dear Karen,
Oh how I wish I had your way with words.
I see the books as you did and I loved them for the reality that we can never forget, a possible future.
I felt like you with Katniss, the way her mind worked, but so true to life, not a pretty person but a real person.
I also think the movie isn't as good as the books and cannot portray the intricacies that we can read in a book
I did my own review before reading others and going to the movies
Perhaps you would be interested in reading too
God Bless

sarah said...

What a wonderful post! I feel very strongly about the value of these books, I have taught class on them and would love to teach more because I think they are rich, so rich, with discussion topics.

But the movie? Ugh. I wouldn't fear taking a child to it, the violence was minimal and the power of the books was so watered down, I came out fuming. Certainly my 12 yo had no problem with it at all. (I let her read the books, but folded over some pages, especially in Mockingjay so she didn't read those.)

I felt the movie veered too closely to all the criticisms people made (unfairly) about the book - the love triangle, the kids killing kids, etc. I guess that is a danger with movies?

In any case, I really loved your analysis of the books. I wish more teens understood them at this level, or had someone wise to discuss them with. Maybe then we wouldnn't have "Team Gale" and "Team Peeta", or Hunger Games parties.

Theresa Gonzalez said...

Excellent review, Karen. I can't think of a thing to add!

Anonymous said...

As an avid reader and a Catholic homeschooling mother, I find the series disturbing . To argue that because good discussions come from reading this is like saying the ends justify the means. The Bishops review (from Catholic News Service) for the movie has given this an adults only rating. Please heed their advice. St.John Bosco says it well,"No poison is more fatal to youth than bad literature . More than ever today bad books are to be feared because of their abundance and disguise."
Lisa Purcell

Buffalo Bill said...

I totally think this movie is not appropriate for non-adults. Kids killing kids is a terrible premise. I served as an Infantryman in the US Army and am not overly sensitive to these topics. Come on people, kids killing kids... The ends don't justify the means...good discussion topics don't justify the evil portrayed. This is not The Culture of Life portrayed by Blessed JPII.

Karen Edmisten said...

Thanks for weighing in, everyone.

Lisa, you said, "To argue that because good discussions come from reading this is like saying the ends justify the means."

I respectfully disagree, and as a Catholic, I don't live with an "ends justifying the means" mentality. I think that's an inaccurate interpretation of what I said.

I don't advocate *just any* reading that ignites a good discussion or consider everything worthy of our time and attention regardless of the material. If I'd said, "It doesn't matter *what* the kids read as long as it results in a good discussion," then your comment would be accurate, but that is not what I said or what I mean.

I've argued that the books 1.) have merit in and of themselves and 2.) sparked great discussions about their subject matter and that merit. Those two things go hand in hand.

Now, if you want to talk Twilight, I'll call in the St. John Bosco quote. :)

Thanks for commenting.

Karen Edmisten said...

Mags, you asked about the movie, and I have been meaning to get back to that -- I'm so sorry to have taken so long!

Here's a link to IMDB's content advisory, which might be helpful. It gets pretty detailed.

Kids are so different in temperament, sensitivity, etc., that I hesitate to judge for someone else's child. My girls are 18 and 15, and they looked away from some scenes. They are fairly sensitive to visuals. Some of the scenes that they thought would be horrific were really toned down, so in a way, it wasn't nearly as violent as it could have been, (as Fr. Barron said in his video comment.)

Does this help at all?

Karen Edmisten said...

Alicia, you said:

"Yes, we probably will let her watch it, but even getting to tell her ahead of time if there's something she should look away for makes a big difference to me."

Yes! That's how we often deal with such movies, too. My girls like to know what's coming and I like to know, too. :)

Karen Edmisten said...

Thanks for sharing your post and your thoughts, Gae!

Karen Edmisten said...

Oh, and Mags -- yes, I saw it, too, but again, just can't judge for someone else's child.

I will say that it wasn't as violent as I thought it would be -- my reaction was similar to Fr. Barron's in the clip I posted today.

Anonymous said...

I truly can't believe how many people are saying that The Hunger Games have any good in them in any way shape or form. Kids forced into killing other kids.....???? No matter how you try to make it seem okay, it just isn't.

Jenn said...

THANK YOU!! I've reversed my decision and will let me teens read the books & watch the movie. Your thoughtful review was VERY HELPFUL!!

Jenn said...

THANK YOU for your thoughtful review! I've reversed my decision and will now let my teens read & watch with me.

Kelly@inthesheepfold said...

Great analysis, Karen. I especially liked what you said about Katniss and her hodge-podge of thoughts. All of us think lots of thoughts and, thank God Almighty, we don't act on all of them.

KC said...


That was a great analysis of the books. When I first picked up the books, I couldn't get past the first few chapters. I decided to finish when the movies were coming out. I enjoyed them for the very reasons you stated.

Kaz said...

Karen, Hi.
Great to find your blog and your comments. I had avoided these books and haven't yet seen the movie, largely due to the hype. However, a critical article in our local daily newspaper piqued my interest, followed by a chance conversation and then it ll snowballed and I thought, 'I just have to read the darned thing now...'I also have a blog, and I write about what I'm reading, and did - and the discussion was very interesting... You might like to read it, as it's quite different to the discussion you generated. My blog is at and it's the most recent two posts that are on The Hunger Games.
Good to read your post and hear some different perspectives.