This semester, I had to read (among others) The Hunger Games. Of course, there was no had about it. I've already read the book three or four times. One more time did not feel in the least bit like work. (And getting to write about Katniss for one of my papers? So much fun!). I definitely read with a more critical eye this time around, though. When I first read The Hunger Games, it was pre-craze, so I came to it without preconceptions and was completely swept up in the fast pace and startlingly scary world that Suzanne Collins had created. There was barely time to focus on the words, let alone critique anything of the writing. The second time through, I read to re-experience that wild ride, and I'm pretty sure the third time I read it was post-movie, when I wanted to check things and make comparisons.
This time, though, I wasn't reading to see how things turned out or to refresh my memory on the story arc. The characters, the plot twists, and the bleak world of Panem are all pretty familiar to me by now. So I was a little nervous. I love these books, but I'm well aware they are not classics. As well, I'd recently read some debates about the books' bleakness and a critique of their violence. As I went into reading The Hunger Games again, those criticisms were the little cartoon devil on my shoulder. Does this book stand up to the re-reading, in spite of these objections?
It does -- for me, at least. And grandly. As I read again (warily), I couldn't help but be impressed by two things in particular: the pacing and the characterisation. I think Suzanne Collins nailed both, and these, combined with the gripping worldbuilding of dystopian America, are what I think makes the book (and its sequels) work so well.
But what of the violence and the bleak perspective?
Collins' treatment of these themes, which are key to the text (and key to most of the criticism I've read about The Hunger Games) is gritty and realist. However, it is never gratuitous. This might sound contradictory. If violence is fictional, and if it is explicit (which it occasionally is in The Hunger Games), then isn't it, by nature, gratuitous? I don't think so. I think violence is gratuitous when it exists for its own sake. I think violence is gratuitous when it exists to bring pleasure (when it gratifies). I think violence is gratuitous when it has no meaning, or when it is revelled in. And I think violence is gratuitous when it is divorced from consequences.
None of this can be said for The Hunger Games. I think Collins' perspective on violence and what it means to live in a violent society comes through incredibly clearly. In no place is violence praised or upheld. Those who enjoy violence (like the Capitol which creates the Hunger Games, and the Career tributes bred for fighting) are recognised to be depraved. Even when Katniss is pulled into the violence of the Games and feels a brief surge of triumph at conquering one of the other tributes, it leaves her feeling empty and soiled: she has been forced to take a position that revolts her.
The arc of what violence does to the individual and the society follows through in the other two books of the trilogy. Mockingjay, the final book of the three, is emotionally wringing to read. The intensity of Katniss's world and the sensibilities of war take their toll on all the characters -- and those who are destroyed physically may have the easier time of it. The conclusion to The Hunger Games trilogy is not an entirely happy one, but it is satisfying. Does that seem like an oxymoron? There are no puppies and rainbows, but the story ends the only way it can.
There is an honesty to sad books that is not always present in books with fairytale endings. Certainly, sadness in literature can be just as self-indulgent as cheer, but when it is done well (or maybe even just honestly), there is an authenticity to it that is enriching. I've heard people complain about the lack of sunshine, but I relished the ending because it was an honest one. A character -- a person -- cannot experience the kinds of things Katniss did and remain unchanged by them. Grief changes people; hardship changes people. I think Suzanne Collins was very truthful in her presentation of that.
And in spite of the lack of confetti and streamers, the ending to The Hunger Games trilogy is a hopeful one, and that is where I think these books make another important distinction. Life is tragic and life is wonderful. Freeze the frame at a sunshiny moment and you have your comedy. Freeze the frame in another and it's a tragedy. But regardless of whether the sun shines, there is hope and a sense that, because of the future, the past has not been for nothing.