After reading “The Hunger Games,” I knew I had to finish the series. So, I bought the last two installments on Kindle and promptly devoured them (one on the train ride to St. Petersburg and one on the flight from Moscow). And I can now say unequivocally that Suzanne Collins has revolutionized young adult literature. These are not your average sci-fi thrillers. These are wrenching, emotionally devastating stories of war and humanity…and savage critiques of societal decadence.
After her victory in the Hunger Games, heroine Katniss Everdeen and fellow warrior Peeta Mellark return to their homeland of District 12. But the eyes of the sinister, dystopian Capitol are on them: after Katniss’ bold defiance of the Capitol in the arena, no missteps will be tolerated. The Capitol and its massive propaganda machine have no patience with dissidents. Soon, it becomes clear that Katniss’ glory days are over: the Capitol wants revenge, and will literally stop at nothing to exact it. Katniss, Peeta, and their allies are eventually swept into outright rebellion and a nationwide war.
The story arc sounds familiar. But the conclusion to the Hunger Games trilogy is anything but predictable.
Of the second and third installments in this bestselling series, “Mockingjay” is by far the superior. “Catching Fire,” while well-written and important for story advancement, doesn’t hold a candle to the outstanding final volume. (My ability to comment on specific plot points is limited for fear of spoilers, so I’ll speak in general terms.)
This is, without doubt, one of the darkest trilogies I’ve ever read (just to put that in perspective, I found it far more jarring than Stephen King’s landmark apocalyptic-horror thriller “The Stand”). The person who slapped this series with a “young-adult” label should lose his or her job. The violence is beyond horrific – literally nothing is sacred or safe in Collins’ hellish world. Think “All Quiet on the Western Front” with children, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect here. (That’s not an overstatement.) I cannot in good conscience recommend this series for anyone under 16 or 17.
Yet, oddly, it is this very darkness that is the book’s greatest strength. Collins boldly does what too many authors fail to do: she shows the darkness of humanity in all its horror. There are no wishy-washy “we’re all basically good people” sentiments here – rather, the human capacity for evil is on full display. Too often in real life, fairytale endings don’t happen, and the Hunger Games series reflects that.
Obviously, that’s a pretty grim sentiment to label as a “great strength.” But Collins doesn’t stop there: she effectively employs this darkness as a critique of modern culture. Our society’s obsession with the media, with fashion, with power, with personal comfort…these are relentlessly skewered against a stark backdrop of brutality. In contrast, family, love, and self-sacrifice are constantly celebrated. These elements provide glimmers of hope throughout the series, culminating in a deeply moving final sequence.
The greatest weakness in the trilogy, though, is its startling godlessness. The series is by no means an apologetic for atheism, but it’s striking that there is absolutely no mention of God or of transcendent ethics. The absence of external morality makes the series feel even more hopeless. In my review of “The Hunger Games,” I wrote that life in the novels’ universe is truly “nasty, brutish, and short” – paraphrasing English philosopher Thomas Hobbes – and nothing has changed in the sequels. If anything, the books feel darker than ever before.
I’d like to believe that Collins is trying to make a subtle point (that life without God is ultimately grim and empty) but that’s probably wishful thinking. If there is a consistent worldview on display in the Hunger Games trilogy, it is nihilism: that all is ultimately meaningless. The only moments of hope offered come through other humans. And too often, as Collins mercilessly depicts, humans are prone to failure and collapse.
Sometimes, this “realism” degenerates into grotesquerie. With the exception maybe of Prim (Katniss’ innocent little sister), there are no genuinely “good” characters here. There is no moral center around which to rally (again, linked to the books’ pervasive nihilism). Innocence exists only in the form of those sheltered from conflict, and as the trilogy progresses, Collins systematically destroys more and more of these innocents. It’s one thing to offer a realistic view of man’s depravity: it is quite another to destructively brood over it.
From a political standpoint, a very clear anti-war statement is on display. Collins’ experiences with her father, a Vietnam veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, obviously influenced the story. Some of its most wrenching moments come when soldiers try to return to their normal lives…and quickly find that the past comes knocking. This opposition to war is fundamentally consistent with the books’ worldview: if this life is all we have, and no absolute values exist, why spend the time fighting and killing each other for nothing? From a nihilistic standpoint, nothing is really worth fighting for in the long run. That’s not to say Collins doesn’t make strong points – she certainly does – but the motivation behind them is cold indeed.
Given this sharp criticism of its worldview, why such a high rating for this series?
As a novel, “Mockingjay” is virtually flawless. Whereas “Catching Fire” suffers from too much exposition and hints of a “Twilight”-style love triangle, “Mockingjay” is a searing war novel with the power to devastate even jaded readers. I’ve read a lot of books, and I can say that “Mockingjay” gripped more more than any other novel I’ve read in the past five years (since Ted Dekker’s “Showdown”). In many similar books, readers know the outcome before even cracking the cover: the good guys will win, the bad guys will die horribly, a handful of minor protagonists will get killed off, and everyone will live happily ever after. “Mockingjay” shatters the mold, offering a dark but realistic portrait of conflict.
And though the series lacks an overarching sense of moral cohesion, it does contain a consistent (albeit vague) understanding of right and wrong. Important ethical questions – do the ends justify the means in wartime? when is it permissible to manipulate the media? is martial law justified in survival situations? – are probed throughout. Although oftentimes the answers are messy and grim, “heroic” characters generally try to act in a morally sound way. While they are still deeply (and problematically) flawed as individuals, the decisions they make are motivated by some notion of ethics. If nothing else, these are important questions that deserve reflection.
Finally, the books do an excellent job of attacking cultural vice. Many have compared Western decadence to the last years of Rome – a simile which Collins hints at throughout. The fact is, we are a morally declining society – and even if she offers no brighter alternative, Collins recognizes this. That’s more than most modern authors dare to do.
Would I recommend this series to older, thinking readers? Absolutely. It’s brilliantly written (if flawed by its grim worldview) and deeply moving. Would I recommend it to its target demographic? Not a chance.
The Hunger Games trilogy will likely sell millions of copies, especially after the film adaptation is released next March. (How “Mockingjay” will ever get toned-down to a PG-13 rating is beyond me). Readers may want to know what they’re getting into before they start – I know I certainly wasn’t prepared for the finale.
But maybe, that’s what Collins intended all along.
VERDICT: 9/10 (8/10 for “Catching Fire,” 10/10 for “Mockingjay”)
Highly recommended, but not for the faint of heart.