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. For Katniss, the lullaby always represented 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?) 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.