(On Cable TV, December 2014) There are few surprises in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. If you’ve read the Suzanne Collins book, it’s a pretty faithful adaptation. If you haven’t, then it’s a straight continuation of the previous film, with somewhat better direction by Francis Lawrence and a structure that consciously echoes the first film… before breaking out of it. Jennifer Lawrence continues to be the anchor of the series, while Josh Huchinson does his best to stay out of the way. The background details of that imagined future still don’t make sense, and the story gradually picks up steam until it sparks into the long-awaited insurrection. Otherwise, though, it’s serviceable without being particularly memorable. It sets down the necessary element required for the sequel. If that’s less than enthusiastic as a reaction, it’s largely because there’s a glut of such young-adult films all crowding the marketplace and their cynical intentions are only too apparent. It is what it is, though, and as far as execution is concerned, this second volume is competent enough, with just a bit more spark to it than the first film. Bring on the third and fourth movies… it’ll have to end at some point.
Scholastic, 2010, 400 pages, C$19.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-439-02351-1
Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” trilogy wraps up to a close with Mockingjay, a final entry that abandons the previous novels’ structure (which was admittedly wearing thin in Catching Fire) in favor of an outright story of rebellion against the established order of Panem.
After the events of the story so far, series narrator/heroine Katniss Everdeen shows up in Mockingjay even more damaged than she has ever been. Forced to abandon the ruined remnants of her home district, coerced in acting as the Rebellion’s “Mockingjay” spokesperson, Katniss certainly isn’t an enthusiastic rebel. It doesn’t take a long time for her to realize that the rebels aren’t necessarily morally superior to the regime they’re fighting against. The book doesn’t end with another bout of the Hunger Games, but sends Katniss deep in enemy territory in the hope of ending the war.
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Mockingjay is the depiction of the heroine as a traumatized survivor. Katniss’ heroics have only bought her most pain and suffering. As the book progresses, she sees her ambiguous paramour Peeta brainwashed by opposing forces to the point that he tries to kill her. A lot of people die around her, more poignantly toward the end of the novel. Her thirst for vengeance isn’t noble or admirable, but twisted and self-destructive. War isn’t glorified, but shown as an atrocity, and she can’t even be sure that the rebel leaders will be any better than the established order, which is the kind of thing that tempers any kind of enthusiasm. Readers are brought along cringing and fearing the next plot point, especially when characters openly start discussing what is real and what isn’t. (One can argue that the epilogue is just a hallucination, but that’s being a bit too mean.)
Fortunately, this increasing grimness isn’t a jarring evolution in the series. The Hunger Games was noteworthy for its blood-thirstiness even in today’s unsentimental Young Adult marketplace, and Katniss’ gradual deterioration well in-line with her character’s arc through Catching Fire. Given that she narrates the events, however, it does become a bit tedious to live in her head. The announcement that Mockingjay would be adapted on-screen as two separate movies raises a few interesting questions regarding the re-structuring of the novel, especially given how much action takes place away from Katniss and thus far removed from her narration. There are a few plot cheats in order to give her essential information, but it’s going to be interesting to see how the novel makes the leap from first-person to third-person narration. More explosions are likely, but what’s going to be more interesting is in seeing whether the rather loose plotting of the book will be further diffused by spreading it over more than three hours, or if the filmmakers will be able to tighten up the story. (Given the first film’s clunky third-person exposition, it doesn’t bode well.)
Otherwise, it does bring the series to a conclusion, even though some plot threads are cut short in the rush to complete the ending. Katniss, damaged as she is, is still a likable protagonist, and the characters surrounding her all have a role to play in the unfolding of the story. Anyone who makes it to the third volume is likely to be satisfied, even though this novel is substantially different in structure from its predecessor. While the trilogy may not be entirely believable nor all that pleasant to experience, it’s a well-told story with a strong heroine, and the bittersweet conclusion decently wraps it up.
Scholastic, 2009, 391 pages, C$19.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-439-02349-8
The plot summary for Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire, sequel to The Hunger Games, almost reads like a cheap joke: After surviving the deadly Hunger Games of the first novel, protagonist Katniss has to… do it again. It’s a legitimate tactic for sequels to repeat favored plot elements from previous books, but… really?
Ah well; this isn’t the series’ first uncomfortable encounter with the problem of basic suspension of disbelief, and while one could fault the author for going back to the same formula, Catching Fire does feel different enough to hold our interest.
It’s clear from the beginning that series heroine Katniss Everdeen has been severely damaged from the events of the first volume. Back in her home environment of District 12, Katniss has been freed from daily concerns: her victory ensures that her family and her district are well-fed, but at the same time have isolated her from any semblance of normal life. It’s also clear that she has made powerful enemies during her time in the arena: A surprise visit by oppressor-in-chief President Snow makes it clear that her stunts have not been appreciated by the ones in charge, and that she better behave.
Of course, things don’t go as planned, and telling surly Katniss how to behave is bound to backfire. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that the entire country is about to go in flames, with insurrections fanned by Katniss’ own behavior.
The twist of the knife becomes more obvious mid-way through, as the Seventy-Fifth Hunger Games participants are culled from past winners… landing Katniss and her ambiguous paramour Peeta back in the arena. These Games, taking up the last third of the book, are a great deal more fragmented than the first ones, in-between Katniss’ increasingly fragile state of mind and various manipulations by the game-masters. And that’s not even mentioning third-party interference in the conduct of the games…
While The Hunger Games focused on the Games in a general contest of rebellion against authoritarian rule, Catching Fire clearly shifts the emphasis of the plot onto the growing insurrection. For Katniss, the political becomes undistinguishable from the personal as she and her immediate circle of friends and family are directly targeted by the regime. Surviving the Games once was enough, but being thrown in the arena again? It’s a wonder the regime in place actually expected that to work.
This, if dwelled upon, rapidly leads us back to the series’ severe credibility problems. In fact, the more we learn about the future world of Panem, the less-believable it becomes. We’re supposed to believe in a mixture of very advanced technology intermingling with a poor coal-producing District 12 with a few mere thousand citizens. This lack of believability is where Collins’ series continues to run aground, but it’s not clear whether this is a evidence of Collins’ lack of skill in world-building, or an unsuccessful attempt to simplify a plot structure in order to make it understandable to young adult audiences.
Fortunately, there are more interesting things to discuss than the series’ unconvincing background. Katniss’s narration seems even more fragmented here than in the first volume, lending a clipped rhythm to the prose that does a lot to propel readers forward. Her refusal to play anyone else’s game seems even stronger here (especially now that’ she’s dragged back in the arena rather than volunteering for it. Her attempts at self-sacrifice get less and less effective.) Collins also adds a number of other characters to the series, adding complexity and nuance along the way.
The science-fictional nature of the story seems more obvious in Catching Fire, which suggests spectacular visuals given the inevitable movie adaptation. Adult readers with an interest in the current cultural teen zeitgeist will find little that’s objectionable here for young-adult readers, and even quite a bit of entertainment along the way as they zip through the book. It’s a middle-of-the-trilogy book, but a competent one… and readers who make it to the final line of Catching Fire will immediately jump to concluding volume Mockingjay to find out what happens next.
Scholastic, 2008, 384 pages, C$19.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-439-02348-1
So, what are the kids up to these days? From the best-seller lists and the mass marketing push accompanying the release of The Hunger Games movie, it’s obvious that they’ve moved on from Twilight and Harry Potter onto Katniss, bow-wielding heroine of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. Tell no one, but I enjoy reading Young Adult books to find out where the zeitgeist’s at: They’re usually good books, don’t take too much time to read and they give conversational material in case I unaccountably find myself hosting a middle-school party.
So it is that The Hunger Games (first volume of a trilogy by the same name) introduces the world of Panem, a post-apocalyptic North America that has the luxury of dispensing with every familiar social institution in order to set up a tyrannical regime in which the twelve districts of the empire are kept in their place through a cunning piece of social engineering: Annual survival games in which the districts each send two teenage participants. The last of the 24 contestants left standing wins a title, and the district gets extra food rations.
As a premise, it’s far-fetched enough to make SF readers reach for their “one big deviation from reality is allowed” suspension-of-disbelief card. There’s practically no precedent in American culture for this kind of deadly contest (no, reality TV doesn’t count), and you’d think that sacrificing 23 teenagers per year would stoke populist anger rather than put it in its place, but hey –one big deviation from reality is allowed. This is a YA novel and its whole point is to pit teenagers against each other in a fight to the finish, no matter how thin the rationale leading to this point can be.
Our heroine to guide us through the inevitable rebellion (but not yet, not in this first volume) is Katniss, a bright sixteen-year-old girl from poor District 12, the coal-mining Appalachian backwater of Panem. As the novel begins, Katniss is struggling to put food on the table for the ineffective mom and younger sister. Fortunately, she’s handy with a bow and isn’t afraid to venture beyond the fences of District 12 to hunt down wild game. Otherwise, she’s got an ongoing not-quite-romance with neighborhood boy Gale and seems headed for a quiet life of eternal desperation. But then… the games come calling and her sister is picked as a District 12 representative. Fortunately, she can volunteer to take her place, and that’s how she ends up on a train to Capitol, stuck alongside a boy with a crush on her (Peeta) and a boozy mentor who hates them both.
Things get more interesting during the lead-up to the Games, as Katniss and Peeta are groomed like reality TV contestants, a romantic storyline manufactured out of thin air to make them seem more compelling to the audience. We get to see them undergo wardrobe design, physical training, TV interviews… and a few political games alongside hints of Capitol’s terrifying power. Little of the background details sustain any kind of scrutiny: there’s enough advanced technology around to fix the problems that the Districts seem to be having, suggesting either a deliberately cruel society, or more plausibly incompetent world-building.
Fortunately, there’s more to The Hunger Games than cardboard-thin landscapes: Katniss’s first-person narration is a no-nonsense blend of clipped sentences, tangled emotions, descriptive statements and overall skepticism when confronted to the wonders of Capitol. She’s not buying into the mystique, but there’s little choice than to comply in order to get to the games. She doesn’t have any illusions regarding her chances for survival, especially when confronted to the contestants from the richer districts that actually have training programs for Game contestants. It doesn’t really help that Peeta reveals his crush on Katniss, and that their mentor seems particularly ineffective.
Soon enough, though, the action moves into the gigantic arena of the Games, where fairness is just a concept to be discarded by the game-masters, and where some contestants band together to hunt down their isolated counterparts. The book isn’t particularly sentimental about the violence perpetrated by the contestants (there’s even a mention of a particularly psychotic past contestant), all the best to raise the stakes against Katniss. Much of the action takes place in a wilderness fortunately similar to District 12’s forested hills, and Katniss soon finds herself in the last half, then the last quarter of the surviving contestants. There’s no doubt that she’ll survive, but it’s all in the way she defeats her opponents… some of them outside the arena.
The Hunger Games survives its unconvincing premise thanks to a blend of effective prose, lively plotting and an admirable heroine. Katniss is both endearing and credible: her abilities are impressive, but she has the self-doubts, indecision and cynicism of a teenage girl. She’s not a victim, not a prize to be claimed by someone else and actively resents the “star-crossed couple” narrative imposed by the game organizers on Peeta and herself. Even by the end of the novel, it’s not too clear whether her emotions about Peeta have settled in a definitive form. It’s not surprising if the book has found a large audience in its target market, especially with young women.
Given this, the success of The Hunger Games with its teen audience has a comforting lining to the edge of its violent premise. It’s an engaging read, and while it’s hardly surprising, it does wrap up nicely and it sets up its two sequels effectively. Better yet, it gives some compelling reason to read those two sequels… and given that a lot of box sets of the series are being sold in the wake of the film version’s success, that’s a really good thing.