The Hunger Games (2008)
Catching Fire (2009)
Suzanne Collins, U.S.
Much of my reading March was spent reading Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy for the first time. It was mostly chance that I picked up the first one from the library, but I quickly knew I would be reading all three. I feel like there are so many things that I could mention here as I think about these books. The descriptions of food in Book One—I was struck by the plenty, as related by a narrator who has had a life of meager meals. The references to Roman society, from arena to myth to names. The names as clues to not just home district but to character—looking up many of the real life Roman namesakes for Collins’s characters I was able to accurately guess both the politics and the fates of The Hunger Games versions. But what strikes me most in the end was the violent society depicted and how emotionally impacted I was at the end.
Because something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences. You can spin it any way you like. Snow thought the Hunger Games were an efficient means of control. […] But in the end, who does it benefit? No one. The truth is, it benefits no one to live in a world where these things happen.
Mockingjay, Chapter 27
The final pages of Mockingjay were like a punch in the gut. I don’t know why, precisely. Perhaps it was in part the binge of reading I did to finish out the series. Perhaps it was the culmination of the violence in the series—which in a way felt so meaningless in the end. Perhaps it was that through all three books Collins so successfully depicts PTSD among various characters and it is clear by the end that such trauma never truly goes away—and knowing that my second cousin, after two tours in Afghanistan, suffers from it. He carries the bullet that should have killed him, had his enemy’s gun not misfired. Perhaps it is the university acquaintance—my age—who lived through the horrors of Sarajevo when she was just a kid, nine, ten. Never knowing if she would see her friends again, huddling in the basement, afraid. My biggest worry at that age was whether my best friend could come over for my birthday or not. Maja’s story came to mind as I read the final book. Whatever it was, I was so impacted by the closing chapters that my sleep was restless that night, and I found I couldn’t read fiction for a week after.
And I’m forced to wonder: do people really pay attention when they’re reading these? Do they think about this? How possible it could be for us to turn on each other this way? That perhaps we are already Panem?
My—American—society is so violent. Violence permeates us—our entertainment, our values (turning the other cheek is not generally considered a virtue), even our language. Shortly after the Newton school shootings I started paying attention to phrases in American English (at least in American—they are idiomatic; I don’t know if other dialects use them) that may seem innocuous on the surface but come from violent background. An NPR story discussed just the gun-related metaphors. Shoot from the hip. Ride shotgun. Straight shooter. The phrases may have become non-violent in used meaning but they seem to begin to reveal just how deeply aggression pervades culture—and how it is valued.
And perhaps this is why I am so impacted by the darkness in these books. I feel no particular affection for any of the characters, as far as that goes, yet I can find the deaths so tragic, and more easily see how broken the survivors are, rather than the strength that allows them to survive and the hope that allows them to try anew. Rather than being too fantastic, The Hunger Games series seems too realistic.