I had a ridiculous title for my first iteration of this post—Hunger Games, Reality TV, and Our Sensationalist Culture—which I started after watching the first book and movie, but before I had finished the entire series. Now, I've finished the trilogy, and my perspective has certainly changed.
SPOILER ALERT! You have been fairly warned.
This is not a review per se. Instead, I'm just thinking out loud. I think that Suzanne Collins has written something that will endure the test of time, and in our entertainment culture, that's rare. I'm not sure the movie will endure the test of time, but I think the books will—that in 50 years, it will remain a series that we will expect thoughtful readers to have read by the time it seems age appropriate.
In the first book, I thought a lot about the parallels between the book and our modern day sensationalist entertainment culture. Suzanne Collins says she drew some of her inspiration from reality television juxtaposed with news of the Iraq War. From our long ago history of the games of human sacrifice in the Roman Coliseum to sensationalism at the expense of our children on modern Reality TV (see Toddlers and Tiaras or Dance Moms), Collins' fictional world is not THAT far fetched.
I also thought a lot about the concepts of dystopia and eutopia. The Hunger Games series is described as dystopian fiction.
Dystopia – a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2012.But there's an interesting juxtaposition in the first book. While Panem is dystopian for the majority, it's utopian for the minority in the Capital. Their utopia comes at the others' expense. Not unlike our 1%. Yet in future books in the series, we realize the moral ambiguity among the 99%. It becomes increasingly unclear over the series who exactly has the moral high ground.
As I got into Mockingjay, the final book in the series, sensationalist reality TV no longer seemed relevant. Notions of utopia and dystopia faded in my head. Instead, it became somehow about me. I started clearly identifying with the mental battles Katniss faced when Peeta, after being hijacked, made a comment to Katniss that seems to echo her own self-loathing and self-condemnation. I pretty much cried the rest of the way through.
The beauty of a well written fictional book is the variety of ways we can make it our own. And I related to the Game outside of the arena in Mockingjay in my own personal way that I will not try to universalize for others. I related to it as a strong woman, at least perceived as strong by others, who often feels close to undone on the inside by the tug of others' perceptions of me and their expectations of me. But most of all, like Katniss, feeling close to undone by my own perceptions of the ways I have let others down.
The end of Mockingjay is brutal, probably because very little ever seems redeemed. Katniss is abandoned with her grief for months during her trial then deposited in her home in District 12 with only a note from her mother. When Haymitch walked out her house and didn't come back, I felt her profound loneliness. Used in the first Game, then even worse so in the 2nd Quarter Quell. But used most of all in the game outside the Games. Used, and then left as a burnt out shell of the strong woman we met in the first book. It was all a big, brutal game, and all the people she loved turned into players.
I don't read books that don't draw me in. I just don't have time for mediocrity at this stage of life. But these books drew me in. Immersed me. Mostly I felt wave after wave of brutal disappointment as the story went on. Not at Susanne Collins or how she wrote the books, but the kind of brutal disappointment that identifies with the main character, the kind that Katniss felt as each revelation took her apart mentally. That probably sounds ridiculously narcissistic—that I would identify with Katniss. Ha! Me holding my own with a bow and arrow in a game with Careers—truly ridiculous. Yet that's what makes these books great stories, because Collins does manage to draw me in and causes me to closely identify with Katniss. It's not narcissism. It's incredible story telling. All that to say, Mockingjay was emotionally brutal to me because I could hear Katniss in my own head.
When I finished the last book, I had some serious emotions to deal with. Why did I resonate with Katniss' emotional downfall so much? In the end, there was a singular truth that cleared it up for me. I was most disturbed by the realization in the books of the game outside of the Games, and how that bigger, global, all encompassing game separated Katniss from everyone she loved in her life. But I am not in a game. I am in a story! And that truth puts Katniss, Peeta, Gale, and the gang back into the fictional cubby hole where they belong. I leave them, having enjoyed their fictional story, but clear on why identifying with their emotions was just a result of good fiction and why it wasn't relevant to the reality of my life. While the setting of reality TV gone haywire in an oppressive society is believable, even possibly close at hand in modern day reality, the betrayal by those closest to us is believable, and the profound loneliness as we endure utter devastation with no emotional support from those who used us is believable, ultimately you and I are not in a game. We are in a story, and it's a story with a good Author and secure outcome. That makes all the difference.