I had sworn I wouldn’t read these, because I’d been told they had cannibalism. On the short list of things that freak me out (clowns, heights, the dentist), cannibalism is at the top. I can handle a lot of topics but anything to do with people eating other people makes me upset in a way that transcends description. So I figured these weren’t the books for me. There were other run-ins with people that prejudiced me against the books (one woman who thought Harry Potter was evil but this book about children killing children was just dandy, ripping fun) and I figured I could live without reading them.
Fast forward to this spring, when two people whose intellectual mettle I respect both read them for the first time. I gave in and bought the first one, saving it to read for my birthday.
The only cannibalism in the first book was a mention that it had happened before and was now outlawed. So I was at ease and breezed through The Hunger Games in about three hours. It was one of those quick, compulsive reads. A good story told with an economy of words that fit the subject matter. I didn’t feel like I was drowning in gore or grimness and the world of the story came well alive in the manner of fairy and folk tales. I liked the book very much. So I dived right into book two, Catching Fire.
That second book expanded nicely upon the world building, showing the protagonists what life was like outside of their walled district. We learned more backstory of ancillary characters and repeated the jeopardy scenario of the first book in a way that worked oddly well. But by the time it was over I found myself rooting through our medicine drawer in search of an old SNRI scrip. The relentless misery of the world of Panem was overtaking me. It was either the Vanity Fair of The Capitol, the Dickensian poverty and lash of the Districts or the desperate, senseless violence of the Arena. What love exists in the book is mocked and denied by the heroine. Katniss clearly knows how to wound, with or without a bow.
I knew I was in trouble when, in an author interview, the books’ creator listed her favourite books. I do not kid when I say that her favourite books were my LEAST favourite books. All of them are dark and dismal accounts of the world–Lord of the Flies, Anna Karenina, Slaugherhouse Five–and that was the story she ended up telling.
Collins clearly had a gripping idea that would have made for a solid one-off novel. We could have had the whole first book, the first half of the second book and the rounded it out with a conclusion which was thematically consistent and true to the characters.
Instead, Collins pads the second book with a rerun (“let’s do The Hunger Games AGAIN”) and then completely goes off the rails in Book Three.
I hate books where the author so obviously has a contempt for her audience and her characters. That contempt blended with her realization that the popularity of the first two books gave her a bully pulpit. So she threw everything that people loved about books 1 & 2 (strong heroine, intriguing romantic options, real and surrogate familial relationships, sense of place) and threw them out the window. In their place Collins gives us an “eff you, war is hell/suck it up” mishmash. She gets to belabor the point about War, What Is It Good For? Absolutely Nothin’ for page after page. Katniss turns from self-sacrificing, self-assured huntress to a cowering, selfish mess. The characters who aren’t killed in order to keep hitting us over the head with her point get to become wholly unrecognizable and completely unsympathetic.
I venture to guess that most readers of these books knew already that War Is Teh Badness. They read YA books about strong heroines conquering darkness as an edifying escape. But Collins wanted to be more than a YA storyteller. And she became less.