Suzanne Collins‘ The Hunger Games series has created a buzz in the Young Adult world. Her version of a future American dystopia is grim and disturbing. And compelling. The final novel, MOCKINGJAY (Amazon), was released in August with great anticipation… but was it worth getting all worked up about?
The series begins with THE HUNGER GAMES (Amazon), an exciting, brutal, and clever story. The setting is well done and artfully displays a society that’s rotting from both ends. HUNGER GAMES explores the themes of an influential propaganda machine and an extravagant Capital at the expense of the people, then takes it the next frightening step.
The second novel, CATCHING FIRE, is the weakest in the series because not only is it a rehash of THE HUNGER GAMES, the entire first half is a distanced narrative that doesn’t advance characterization and only minimally advances plot. It was as though Collins wanted to get the start out of the way so she could set up even more over-the-top Games for this round (which, I have to admit, were decidedly clever, the new characters interesting), and set up the events for the final novel.
In the third installment, MOCKINGJAY, the aftermath of the 75th games can now finally resolve book two’s cliffhanger ending. District 13, the name the rebellion has given itself, has taken over the former District’s underground bunker and created a new life for Panem’s refugees–one that’s startlingly similar to the Capital in it strictness and control. District 13’s leader, President Coin, wants to use Katniss Everdeen as the face of the revolution, call her the Mockingjay (a reference to the Capital’s past failed manipulations), and use the rebels’ own propaganda to garner support from the other districts. If they succeed in taking the other Districts, then they plan to invade the Capital itself. But will Panem only be trading one tyranny for another?
MOCKINGJAY expands the themes from the first two novels: Is war the best way to resolve conflict? Is revenge justifiable? Is controlling people ever reasonable? Collins succeeds in building on the the setting as she explores District 13 and its own distinct culture, and creates a world we’d be afraid to live in–a world frighteningly similar to the Games itself. Katniss must deal with Peeta’s imprisonment by the Capital, Gale’s romantic frustrations, and decide whether being the Mockingjay is the right thing to do. She has a hard road ahead of her.
Collins is consistent with Katniss’ character, her first-person present tense PoV clean, straightforward, and engaging. Katniss starts out the series strong and capable, if cynical; but when we reach MOCKINGJAY, instead of growing as a character, she stagnates. This is supposed to be a coming-of-age story and instead of growing into a woman she continues being a whiny and indecisive teenager who, despite a few bursts of independence, gives up. The only thing she’s truly decisive about is her desire to kill President Snow, but at the same time is ambivalent about the war. It doesn’t help, either, that she spends half the novel in the hospital or recuperating from injury, which was too much downtime. Katniss has spent her life taking care of her family in the absence of her father and has even survived the Hunger Games twice, so she’s earned the right to claim her adulthood–but instead fails to take the next crucial step. This alone will disappoint readers. But wait, there’s more.
The story starts out fine enough, but it progresses slowly with spurts of action. By the end the rebellion contradicts its goals, the battle’s high body count has no clear purpose, the PoV character Katniss doesn’t witness the climax, and then at the end there’s ambiguity as to what life will be like for Panem after the war. “But,” you say, “Collins is showing us how the powerful will control and hurt innocents to get what they want. And Katniss’ ineffectiveness is simply a result of their control!” My reply: Collins’ points could have come across just as well with a clearer resolution and more complete character arc. However, Collins is true to her story, and as a result the characters don’t emerge unscathed–for a story like this it’s difficult to have other than a bittersweet ending. This hard reality may leave readers ambivalent about how Collins chooses to end MOCKINGJAY.
If you haven’t read the series, perhaps you’re wondering if all three are worth reading. The up-side is that the novels are short so it’s not a huge time commitment to read all three. If you have teenagers, they’ll likely want to want to read the series, and you’ll need to know how to discuss its disturbing themes with them. But beyond that, what do I really think? Only read THE HUNGER GAMES and call it good enough.
- Recommended Age: 12+, or older depending on your kids, due to themes and violence
- Language: None
- Violence: Quite a bit, actually, for a YA novel. While most of it does happen off-screen, it's still disturbing and frequent for its target audience.
- Sex: Katniss is frustratingly oblivious to romantic overtures. There's kissing, falsely implied intimacy, and references to sexual abuse.