The Hunger Games: 10 Years Later
One of my favorite books is Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. It’s a Japanese novel set in an alternate future where Japan won World War II, and the government has created a program where certain junior high classes are randomly chosen to compete in a battle to the death where only one student survives. The book was published in 1999. The next year, a Japanese film based on the book (which honestly does great injustice to the book, though people love it for some reason) came out.
In 2008, The first Hunger Games book by Suzanne Collins was released, with the first of the film adaptation to release in 2012. The books were wrapped up by 2010, while the films didn’t conclude until 2015 with the second part of a film that split the last book into two. And the entire time, people said it was a Battle Royale ripoff. It isn’t. It’s actually quite different outside of the general concept of a government event that forces kids to kill each other until there is only one left. Battle Royale actually gives a perspective to every child, though some are more central than others (and you could probably pluck a few out as main characters). The Hunger Games focuses entirely on Katniss, though there are important side characters.
So why, 10 years after the last book and 5 years after the last movie, are we talking about these now? A couple reasons: my daughter finished reading through the trilogy, and we re-watched all the films (we also all watched the final film for the first time, as none of us had actually gotten around to it yet–and I’ll get to why). The other reason is that a few months ago, author Suzanne Collins released a prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes–a book that explains how the Games began through the (younger) perspective of the trilogy’s primary villain, Snow. I have not read this book, and I doubt I will, and I know my daughter doesn’t want to. Because there are issues I have with this franchise that go beyond the Battle Royale comparisons or even some of my issues I had when I first read them.
I was a big fan of the first two books when they first came out. I also enjoyed the first two films. And then the franchise fell apart with book 3, Mockingjay. If for whatever reason you haven’t read this series yet, there will be spoilers.
The books are based in a dystopian future where there is an annual Hunger Games–one boy and girl from each of the 12 districts are chosen by lottery to participate in a televised death match where only one will survive. At the beginning of the first book, Prim–the little sister of main character Katniss–gets chosen during her first year qualifying for the games. Katniss then volunteers in her place, picked along with Peeta, a boy with a crush on Katniss. There’s also a love triangle story between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, who is essentially Katniss’ best friend and illegal hunting partner. By the end of the Games, Katniss rigs a double-win by attempting to kill both Peeta and herself, which undermines the games and begins a revolution within the districts. This civil unrest builds throughout the books, turning it into Snow vs the rebels, most of whom reside in the defunct and destroyed District 13.
This leads us to the third book and all of my original issues with the series. Mockingjay is a rushed mess of a book, and it feels that way while reading it. The writing is rushed and sometimes incoherent. The action scenes are incredibly hard to imagine based on their descriptions. And then out of nowhere, rather unceremoniously, and only for purposes of plot over character and theme, Prim dies. The idea here is President Coin (of District 13) sent the bombs as a military and political move, which ends up killing Prim and causing Katniss to realize Coin is no better than Snow. But that is a weak reasoning to kill Prim, especially since the same message could have happened without Prim’s death. In fact, Prim dying completely nullifies the rest of the franchise. The entire reason this franchise exists is because Katniss does everything in her power to keep Prim alive. To kill Prim is to take the franchise and move it to a much darker, nihilistic place that doesn’t tend to sit well for the age group that it was written for. The last third of the book is written in a new style that all kind of flows together, as Katniss is dealing with PTSD, shock, and all stages of grief. She also doesn’t kill Snow. So basically, we go through 3 books to have Prim die anyway, the primary villain left alive (though he does eventually die of his poison), and at least half the book written incoherently.
Those were my thoughts and feelings 10 years ago. Now, they have altered slightly, though they are more or less the same. I understand what Collins was going for more now, though I don’t think it works how she wanted it to. And while the first two books still have great moments, there is something about them that is emphasized in the movies–particularly in splitting the final book into two: these stories are unnecessarily slow and dragged out. The first half of every book is set-up, while the last half is the action. Again, I get why this is done, but that first half of each book (and film) is such a slog to get through that by the time you get to the Games, you’re just excited that something is actually happening. Again, this is particularly apparent in the third film, which is just the first half of the last book. Nothing happens. It’s a dull film. And with my distaste for the book and my dislike for Part 1, we never got around to actually watching Part 2 until recently. For the record, I liked Part 2 more than Part 1, but it still isn’t great–mainly due to the source material (and I’m still baffled why they needed to split the book–it could have easily been one movie. In fact, the only franchise that even needed splitting in the first place was Harry Potter, where I feel it actually worked).
Another issue that becomes strikingly obvious is that it is a franchise of its time. The books were written in the heyday of young adult fiction thanks to Harry Potter (the books of which had just ended in 2007, and the films were ending in 2011, a year after the final Hunger Games was released) and Twilight (the books of which had just ended in 2008, and the films were ending in 2012). Twilight had inspired the love triangle theme to every other young adult franchise, while Potter inspired the last book split into 2 movies concept that was also seen by Twilight, Divergent (another of-the-times series), and later The Hobbit (which would get 3 films from one book). And that Twilight love triangle concept got old, especially when it was forced–much like in Hunger Games.
Gale is mostly a useless character. He’s her friend and primarily only in the first handful of chapters of the first book. Then he comes back for the first little chunk of the second book to remind you he exists and is important for some reason. And then the last book amps up his appearances, though by this point, all he does is fight or mope around because Katniss prefers Peeta, who has been captured, tortured, and brainwashed by the government. While he does do more, like help Katniss’ family behind the scenes, it really comes off like Gale only exists to force fake love triangle drama. And this led me to realize that, honestly, so much of these books are either unimportant or a mishmash of ideas that sometimes work or are not given enough time to develop. Or, like with Catching Fire, all the interesting stuff is happening behind the scenes because they didn’t want Katniss to know, so you also don’t know, more for the sake of a story twist than anything.
I don’t dislike the franchise now or anything. But I do see now how flawed it really is. This is further pushed by Collins’ bizarre decision to write a prequel following Snow, as if that’s what fans were clamoring for over the last 10 years. As expected, the book has received mixed reviews, many citing just that: it might be entertaining in moments, but… why does this exist? And while I might read it further down the line, I can’t find myself racing to check it out.
Instead, if I feel the need to re-read a book about a dystopian future where a group of kids have to fight to the death and try to figure out a way to punk the system, I will stick to Battle Royale.