Destination: Panem (The Hunger Games Trilogy review)

Its hard to find the words to describe The Hunger Games trilogy. The books are not typical feel good young adult novels which talk about love and life, but rather draws readers into the country of Panem, its rich capitol and the realities for slaves who inhabit the 12 districts that comprise the country. The same 12 districts who tried but failed to stage an uprising against the Capitol 74 years prior and who are forced to send in a pair of tributes every year as representatives to fight in an annual death match — punishment for their insolence and as a reminder that the lives of their children are of no value to those in power except for entertainment.

The book reads like a movie, and readers will find themselves immersed in the world of District 12 from the point of view of Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year old girl who volunteers to take the place of her 12-year old sister Prim who is chosen to compete in The Hunger Games, an annual event which pits 24 teenagers in an arena to fight to the death until one is finally declared the victor.

When I initially learned about The Hunger Games, I was truly tempted to the buy the first book fresh off the shelves but in the end opted to wait until the third book was out before giving it a go. This decision turned out to be a very wise one as I could not have stood the suspense of waiting an entire year, and then another to find out what happens to Katniss or District 12 or what would have happened to her after the games.

The book’s brilliance lies in its rich characterizations and depictions of the environment, how it is viewed by the heroine, who is mired in poverty and resorts to illegally hunting and trading her goods in the black market to feed her little sister and her mother, who suffers from a bout of extreme depression following the death of her husband in a mining accident. A war between rage and acceptance is a very common staple in Katniss’s psyche, further fueled by the rantings of her fellow hunter and best friend Gale, who hates the government and the entire Capitol.

Actress Jennifer Lawrence who is set to play Katniss in a movie slated for 2012

Each street and each crevice is described to full detail, but not excessively, making the location and situations real in the minds of the readers — the general chaos in the Hob, the stillness of the forest beyond District 12, the peacekeepers, and the townspeople, who like Katniss, stake their own lives in the games by entering their names multiple in times in the lot in exchange for tessera, an allotment of oil and grain for one person for the entire year. The entries are cumulative, resulting in more chances for a single person’s name to be drawn from the lot the more tessera he signs up for.(Katniss’s name is entered roughly 20 times at the 74th Hunger Games while Gale has 42 entries) The first person narrative in the presence gives viewers a chance to understand Katniss, how their extreme conditions affect her logic, how the burdens of her plight turns her into a damaged shell of a human being, whose emotions are tamped down by practicality and a general air of ruthlessness.

The saga draws strength from its ability to get the readers to care about the characters. The storytelling evokes genuine emotions from the readers to build instantaneous affinity with the characters, making them want to understand what compels them to do what they do and make the choices as they have — Katniss Everdeen, the girl who sacrifices herself for her sister and eventually, whose defiance to the Capitol marks her as the symbol of the revolution; Gale Hawthorne, her best friend who is also a skilled hunter, eager to topple down the Capitol to end the injustices that their districts suffer; Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son who time and again willingly sacrifices his own life so that Katniss could have a chance at happiness; Haymitch, the drunkard mentor who at times appear ruthless and uncaring but suffers from his own demons as well; Finnick, the charming victor from District 4, whose horrors from the games far outweigh those of any Hunger Games champion; President Snow, the shallow and sadistic dictator who runs the show; Plutarch, the Gamemaker, President Coin from District 13, Boggs and plenty of others who face numerous tragedies in the quest to bring equality to the districts.

photo lifted from

The story differs from most young adult books because the romance angle — among Peeta, Gale and Katniss is secondary to the story where society is controlled by the greedy, and people from the lesser districts are made as sports to entertain as a symbol of the Capitol’s power. Actually, the Hunger Games was a tad similar to Richard Bachman’s The Running Man, its treatment dark and depressing, but still utterly compelling. Its plot is also a bit familiar but author Suzanne Collins tempers her story with love which comes in different forms — love for family, romantic love, love for friends and love for country. The sense of foreboding is also evident throughout the saga. From the very first installment, it is a given that there will be deaths — multiple deaths but still, readers will find themselves hoping that there is a way to save the characters that they have most related to.

The tension, which is already high in the first book, steadily escalates in the succeeding installments — Catching Fire, and Mockingjay, where the resistance finally turns into a rebellion, gains strength and develops into a full blown war. The Capitol’s hand is evident and strong — emotions are used as weapons to break the enemy. The horror of the games revived for the victors who are forced to participate in the Quarter Quell, the 75th Hunger Games.

In the war, children who are barely in their teens are used as soldiers, as pawns, an utterly detestable scenario but central to the story. From the first book from when each death was treated as a mere casualty in the games, each death grows in value throughout the saga, as characters who readers connect to risk their lives to rebuild society and fight for a cause, which even they are uncertain of.

Corruption, deceit run aplenty in the recesses of even the revolution that serves as the hope for a new tomorrow. Friendships are tested, characters are questioned, and the lines between right and wrong are blurred beyond recognition. This perhaps, is why readers are gripped by the story, because it gets them to think. What would they do differently in a similar scenario? What can they do to ease the despondency in the districts, and will they allow themselves to be subjected to the same treatment as the district’s citizens have? With the visit to each district as part of the Victory Tour, Peeta and Katniss witness a new face of oppression, and like puzzle pieces, they are able to complete the big picture and realize the magnitude of the Capitol’s power, and how challenging it will be for the resistance to contest it. The books are filled with drama as well, and suspense so steady that the climax will surely blindside readers whose sigh of relief from a perceived victory is only the harbinger of more betrayals to come.

Actor Josh Hutcherson, who bagged the part of Peeta for the movie. Excellent choice, I must say)

Personally, the character that reeled me into the book, more than Katniss was Peeta. Kind and unassuming Peeta, whose ability to speak the truth is as powerful as the accuracy in which Katniss’s launches her arrows. Peeta, who was viewed as the weakest because of his inexperience in fighting. Peeta, who has saved Katniss from dying of hunger and risks being punished so that she can have some bread. Peeta, who used himself as bait so that the Careers would not get to Katniss, who gives her a locket symbolizing what his life can buy her — a chance at a normal life with her family. The boy, who in the end, is forced to wage a more complicated battle than the war between the Capitol and the districts — a battle to remain himself just so he would not cause harm to others. It broke my heart to no end as Peeta suffered horrors that no man should go through at the hands of those who are in power, as he is treated as a pawn in a complicated power struggle in and out of the arena. Peeta, the one person, who brings out the softness in Katniss that balances out her strength. Their common plight in Book 1 during the first Hunger Games and again in Book 2 for the Quarter Quell tournament has sealed the bond between them that started when Peeta gave her the bread when they were 12 years old. It’s really hard to top common experiences of terror and sanity.

In all fairness to Katniss, her journey is no less complicated. Her greatest advantage perhaps, is her inner strength, developed by years and years of struggle in the District, starting from when her father died at the mines. Going into the arena, she is more mature than most of her competitors and is equipped with the needed skills to survive, just as she had back at home. Her greatest vulnerabilities has always been her family and when she stepped up to sign her death warrant by volunteering to go in place of her sister, when the crowd gave her the three fingered silent salute, the moment was so poignant that even the hardest of hearts will have trouble resisting the story.

The book concludes with a happy ending, relatively happy that is or as happy as it could get, but it comes with a cost. Some are irrevocable and some, the characters just have to deal with and move forward. I liked it. I thought it made sense, but many would probably disagree.

To say that the the saga is amazing is an understatement. It is the kind that sticks with you after you’ve read it. It is the type of book that you would want to keep by your bedside when you feel out of sorts. It is the type of book that you would want to read over and over, and never get tired of, the type of literature that you would want the next generation to read about to better appreciate the freedoms that we have. Kudos to Suzanne Collins and her imagination for giving birth to this masterpiece.