WARNING! SPOILERS for the Hunger Games series, particularly the end of the last book!
When I first heard of The Hunger Games, I thought it kind of weird that the latest sensation in the world of young adult books involved kids fighting to the death. It wasn’t until recently that I decided to actually read the books, and I did enjoy them. That said, though, they ARE pretty bleak in many ways. The series takes place in a post-apocalyptic North America known as Panem, which is actually Latin for “bread.” As spelled out in the last book, it’s a reference to the Latin expression “panem et circenses.” In this case, the circuses are the Hunger Games themselves. I think the name Panem might also have been chosen for its similarity to “Pan-American,” and I get the impression that a lot of the names have multiple meanings. Peeta, for instance, is a baker, so his name could reference pitas. At the same time, the name is similar to Peter, which means “rock,” and he’s characterized as dependable (well, at least up until the last book). And once again we see the bread theme at work, so it all comes together, I guess. Panem is ruled by a totalitarian government modeled pretty heavily on Rome, and most of the inhabitants of the Capitol have Roman names. Panem is divided into twelve administrative districts (originally thirteen), each of which is devoted to a different industry. If there are hints about where in America these districts are located, I missed most of them. It is stated that District Twelve, the home of the main characters, is in modern-day Appalachia. I do have to wonder how much of the continent Panem covers, as these districts don’t strike me as being very big. The Hunger Games, in which two people from every district are forced to fight each other in an arena, are held every year. Suzanne Collins has claimed inspiration from the myth of Theseus, and the Minotaur might well have been influential on the genetically engineered monsters that show up occasionally in the series, the only real fantasy element in the books.
The hero and narrator of the books is Katniss Everdeen, who very much fits the archetype of the female bad-ass. She’s sixteen at the beginning of the first book (seventeen in the other two), and is an expert archer with a rebellious streak. She’s hard not to like, even when she’s killing people. And to be fair, she IS placed in life-or-death situations. When Katniss’ sister Primrose is chosen as a tribute for the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers in her place. The first book details the intensive preparations that go into the games, and takes us through Katniss’ experiences in the arena itself. It’s played somewhat like a reality show, with cameras filming everything that’s going on and the authorities in the Capitol having the power to intervene at any time. Katniss uses a trick to save herself and her fellow tribute Peeta, who has a crush on her. It works, but the president isn’t too happy about it, as seen in the next book.
Catching Fire was, admittedly, a little disappointing because it gave us another Hunger Games, and I kind of feel that angle was already pretty thoroughly covered in the first book. It was well-written, certainly, but it just didn’t seem like there was all that much new in it. It did, however, introduce some new characters and the rebellion against the government. It also emphasizes just how brutal and ruthless the Capitol can be in maintaining its power, and exposes how vulnerable it is in some respects.
If that’s the case with Catching Fire, however, Mockingjay was not a retread at all, but a totally new development in the story. There’s a lot of moral ambiguity to be found here. Katniss joins the rebels, but questions whether a new government would really improve things. She’s also unsure about many of the techniques the rebels are using, deeming them no better than what the Capitol would use. Meanwhile, Peeta has been captured and brainwashed by the government, and the rebels have to try to restore him to his old self. Much has been made of the love triangle between Katniss, her best friend Gale, and Peeta; but it’s really never all that central to the plot, and it basically resolves itself at the end. I do think this story kind of demonizes Gale to make us root against him, though. He’s often presented as an advocate for the ends justifying the means. On the other hand, Peeta tries to kill Katniss while he’s brainwashed, so they both have some strikes against them. The ending was really rather depressing, with the fact that Prim dies when Katniss’ whole goal in the first book is to protect her giving the whole thing a sense of futility. Most of the main characters do get endings that, while not necessarily happy, do provide a sense of closure.
It looks like the movie is on Netflix Instant, so I’ll have to watch that sometime soon.