The Hunger Games Left a Bad Taste in My Mouth

After enjoying the first Hunger Games movie, I tried the original book trilogy and found them to be uninspiring and unrelentingly dreary.

TAKING A BREAK from other pursuits, I’ve been catching up on some reading.  I don’t usually choose the kinds of books that make the bestsellers list, but when Amazon offered the entire Hunger Games trilogy for Kindle download for just $5, I jumped at the chance to finally read Suzanne Collins’s runaway bestseller trilogy.

I hadn’t planned on reading these books, although they’ve been wildly popular for some time. At least, not until I saw the movie based on the first volume and thought, “That was pretty good.” Friends told me that the film was a pretty faithful adaptation of the book, so I was interested in seeing how close the two were. (See my discussion of what makes a good screen adaptation of a novel). As I read the first volume, I saw that, as far as the story itself goes, the two are remarkably similar (just one or two minor characters get dropped in the film), but the effect of reading the novels was completely different from watching the movie.

The problem was the protagonist—I just didn’t like her, and I couldn’t take a break from her because the books are narrated from her point of view. In the movie, she may be spunky and inspiring, but Katniss Everdeen in the books is unremittingly bitter and cynical. I never really understood why she so bitter, though, since other characters who had to endure many of the same hardships she did were much more sympathetic and likable. I kept thinking that Katniss’s love for Peeta and/or for her little sister Gale might help her to overcome some measure of her bitterness—surely she would grow and mature?

Instead, her creator, Suzanne Collins, kept subjecting Katniss to more and more nightmarish tortures, making her ever more deeply damaged emotionally. By the end of the third book, other characters had moved on, literally and figuratively, but Katniss and Peeta, and even their children (as revealed in an epilogue), remained haunted by their grim world. At a climactic moment near the end of the final novel, I realized that the entire trilogy was little more than an extended anti-war screed. This explains why the author insisted that Katniss could never live happily ever after—because she is the poster child of the “war is hell” message, and to suggest that the evils of war can be transcended would undercut that grim-but-not-very-original message.

This touches on the thing that I found most irritating and unrealistic about these novels: the total lack of any kind of transcendent hope or faith. Although the stories are set in a North America of the far future, and traces of regional culture remain (the hard-scrabble coal miners of Appalachia, field gangs of virtual slaves in the deep South), none of the people of any of the districts of Panem seems to have retained any kind of religious or philosophical belief that would suggest ways to transcend the harsh conditions of their lives. Theirs is a world utterly without hope. Leaders on both sides of the rebellion are equally cynical and corrupt. Even after the rebellion succeeds and life moves on, there is no sense that anything is, or ever will be, any better.

If only Katniss had been a bit more like Theseus and a bit less of a downer.

This is too bad because, on the face of it, the books have a lot of promise. The basic premise of the games seems to be a modern up-dating of the ancient myth of Theseus and the Minotaur: young people being sacrificed in a gruesome sort of public entertainment.  The plot is technically well-structure plot, and some “games” are quite inventive, but Katniss is no Theseus, refusing to be a real hero and remaining a dreary downer. She is not improved by her experiences but winds up even more bitter than she began, taking the story down with her rather than enlarging the reader’s view of life.

I guess I was hoping that, despite the disagreeable personality of the lead character, I would find that the Hunger Games would be a good story, in the sense that C. S. Lewis defined the term in An Exercise in Criticism—i.e., a story that makes the reader feel “enlarged” or in some way better off for having read it. Instead I felt nauseated. Reading these books was like eating a feast at a chain restaurant—looks good, smells great, all your friends say you’ll love it, but too late you realize that every dish is full of chemical additives that provide no real nutrition and may actually prove indigestible. Rather than being nourished in any way, I felt damaged by this trilogy’s corrosive commentary on life. In the end, I was heartily glad to say goodbye to Katniss Everdeen and her dreary, soulless world.

2 replies on “The Hunger Games Left a Bad Taste in My Mouth”

Thanks, Mary. I find that most of the stuff marketed for "young adult" (i.e. teen) readers these days suffers from similar problems. At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, I must say there seem to be few contemporary novelists to compete with the ones I loved when when I was a teenager. I loved Madeleine L'Engle's novels and Heinlein's juveniles — L'Engle showed the mystery that lurks beneath the surface of the "real" world, and Heinlein's spunky young protagonists made me feel that anything was possible, if one just possessed a keen set of wits and a can-do attitude. I think readers, young and old, could do with that kind of inspiration these days.

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