Spoilers abound! The Hunger Games and its sequels are beloved by readers of all ages, and for seemingly good reasons: it’s a fast paced series characterized by its brutality, struggles, and cliffhangers. I really hate The Hunger Games series, and here’s a few reasons why:
Katniss Everdeen is not a heroine.
Throughout The Hunger Games series, the protagonist is our reluctant hero. Actually, let me take that back. She’s not a reluctant hero — Harry Potter is a reluctant hero — Katniss is simply pushed around and put into situations where she simply has no other choice that to do something seemingly heroic. This point is even explicitly mentioned in Mockingjay when in a meeting with the District 13 to create more propaganda. In fact, most of her actions that one may consider heroic are more informative of the lack of courage Katniss has. Take the last few moments of The Hunger Games for example: Katniss decided to eat poisonous berries rather than kill her district-mate Peeta. This action does seem like a genuine moment of pacifistic courage, but in the context, these actions are suggested to be because Katniss can’t imagine killing another human being. Her pacifism in the first hunger games are not the actions of a brave woman, standing up against a omnipotent and corrupt system — these thoughts don’t even really occur to her while she is in the game. No, her strategies for self-preservation are more due to her being crippled by fear.
In Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins sets up Katniss to lead the rebellion against the Capital. If Katniss Everdeen wasn’t particularly brave in the first book, we can assume it’s simply because Katniss Everdeen was not a brutal savage. However, in this final book, Katniss is in a perfect position to exercise any bravery or heroism that she may have. Instead, we find that governing body of District 13 calling all of the shots in the newly formed rebellion. Not only does Katniss not call the shots, she doesn’t even really protest when other tell her what to do. Halfway through Mockingjay, Katniss decides to join the siege of the Capital, but her reasons do not involve freeing all of Panem from the grips of corruption. Her focus is on realizing her revenge against President Snow. She wants to risk her life attacking the Capital not for any heroic reason but simply because she wants to kill the man she perceives to be responsible for her own plight. Rarely if ever do her thoughts on vengance form for those that have died at the hands of the Capital, and trust me, we would know if they did (see below).
The only brave, heroic act that Katniss displays in the entire series happens very early in the first book. Katniss does take her little sister’s place by volunteering for the hunger games — no doubt this is an act of heroism. Perhaps this happens so early in the book that the author gives the character a pass at all future events — the reader sees that Katniss is a heroine in the first few chapters, so why waste precious plot or pages reinforcing that? Instead, the rest of the series follows a character that is simply stuck in a situation from which she cannot extract herself. Again, to compare to Harry Potter: Potter was stuck in a situation, but he was an active agent of his own direction. Potter made decisions. Katniss never makes a single decision after volunteering herself from her sister Prim. Making herself the face of the rebellion? Others put herself in that situation. Posing as one of two star-struck lovers? Chosen for her. Destroying the 75th hunger games? Tricked into it.
At the end of the series, Katniss finally gets her chance to achieve her revenge. She is given President Snow on a platter. Instead of chopping him into little pieces or boiling him in a vat of acid, she shoots the District 13 president. Was this an act of valor? Her psychologist thinks that was more a mark of insanity (I think this point is somewhat ambiguous though). Killing the new boss wasn’t an act of courage as much as it was another form of seeking reckless vengeance. Katniss just learned that District 13 killed her sister instead of the Capital, and she took it out on the people who called the shots. If you squint your eyes, I suppose this can be a heroic act instead of blatant revenge.
Being Katniss Everdeen: First Person Narratives and Use Present Tense
One of the most common complaints about The Hunger Games is the manner in which the story is told. Collins opts for a first-person narration rather than a more common omniscient third-person view, and this allows us direct access to Katniss’s thoughts. Katniss doesn’t really speak much at all throughout the series, so it is understandable to some degree that Collins would put the reader right in the middle of the protagonist’s head. Unfortunately, Katniss is such an uninteresting character (what thoughts does she have that are new? Interesting? Funny? Philosophical? Cathartic?) that it’s hard not to get bored or irritated with the inner monolog. For the most part, she wonders to herself why people are interested in her (good question!) or why Peeta would say he loved a normal gal like herself.
Perhaps it’s because The Hunger Games is a Young Adult series, but Collins seems intent on making Katniss just a normal everyday teenager. She’s a relatable character (I suppose) to teenage women in modern times: her thoughts are preoccupied with annoyance of authority figures and a love triangle. However, in The Hunger Games, a seemingly inordinate amount of pages are dedicated to Katniss wonder why Peeta would say in public that he loved her. In Mockingjay, too much time is spent inside Katniss’s head while the rest of the country falls to complete turmoil. If the books spent more time on the external world rather than the internal one, not only would the stories be more interesting, but they would be more substantive.
The use of the first-person narrative coupled with Collins’ use of present tense (e.g., “Peeta rolls around in the mud, bleeding to death, and now I’m wondering why he threw bread at me ten years ago”) makes the prose very immediate and engaging. It intentionally places the reader not only in the mind of the protagonist, but in the mind of the protagonist in real time. This style has defined The Hunger Games’ fast pacing, but it also eliminates opportunities for hindsight, self reflection, and appropriate foreshadowing. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to hear The Hunger Games and Catching Fire told from the perspective of someone who saw it through to the end? Maybe, but maybe not. Part of the fun of the series is only knowing as much as Katniss, but there are several times in the series where readers will figure out the situation long before the narrator does. This leads to an infinitely frustrating experience: if the narrator worries or wonders about something that is obvious to the reader, that narrator quickly comes across as stupid or naïve.
Creating Plot Out of Thin Air: Deus Ex Machinas Ahoy!
Most viewers of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village were outraged by its twist ending. Why was this twist ending hated in particular when compared to those in Unbreakable or The Sixth Sense? The issue lies with how stable the rules of the fictional universe are: in The Sixth Sense, the twist makes sense in the context of the movie because you can figure it out – it doesn’t come out of thin air as it does in The Village. I bring this up because The Hunger Games is plagued with these twists. Collins very conveniently creates plot mechanisms to keep Katniss (and the readers) on their toes. At some level, it may be hard to fault the series too hard for this because it is “built into the arena”.
Throughout The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, rules are changed on the fly, and traps are created out of thin air. During the first book of the series, this worked well. Those in control of the hunger games truly felt all powerful because in a sense, they really were. They could do anything at any moment to any one at any time. By the time of the second book, readers should be familiar with these convenient plot mechanisms. Are the stakes not high enough? Let’s set the trees on fire. Let’s unleash a swarm of rabid monkeys. Let’s send out a massive hurricane of mutant bees. The reader’s expectations are consistently violated, and the result is that you cannot predict or foresee any of the upcoming obstacles Katniss and the gang will be facing. It’s a sword that cuts both ways: when Katniss is winning, the reader knows that some deadly trap will be created almost literally out of thing air to thwart her; when Katniss is losing, she receives a care package of some kind or something else completely unforeseeable happens along to help her.
Because the rules of the novels are always changing, it is hard to invest in any of the characters. Characters and their deaths (with the exception of Rue) are hardly mourned, but this is not because there are so many characters that die through any given Hunger Games book: it’s the manner in which they die. Take Prim for example. She literally just blows up apropos of nothing. The emotional anchor of the book is suddenly, irreversibly removed from the series without any build up, preparation, or hint. If Prim were faced with a threat beforehand (e.g., captured by Snow, held hostage by rebels), her death would have had some impact. Along the same lines, the choices that others make throughout the series would also be given more impact. Instead, the novel’s universe is one that seemingly has no steady rules: events happen independently of pre-existing contexts.
It Just Works, Okay?: Half-Baked Sciences and Settings
While the first novel of the series builds its world well enough in the first half of the book, readers discover almost nothing new for the rest of the series: what you learn about Panem in the first 50 pages of The Hunger Games is 80% of what you’ll know about it by the end of Mockingjay. Panem is an interesting dystopian setting, but readers are never really allowed to discover its history or its inner workings.
The same objections that I’ve raised towards the setting of Panem can be applied to the technology and science of the novels. The Hunger Games are classified as science fiction, but the science fiction of the series only exists to allow for immediately accessible plot mechanisms. The idea of the hunger games is terrifying, surely, but it isn’t inherently science fiction. Take the “muttations” for example. These genetically spliced (we assume) creatures appear in the first novel bearing the same eyes as previously fallen hunger games contestants. Are they made from the same DNA as the old contestants? Were they premade, ready to go? Are they clones? If, as it is hinted, these creatures do retain some part of the deceased humans, why? What purpose does that serve? If the Capital is using high speed monorails, hover crafts, etc…, why are they so reliant on old ways of manufacturing (i.e., what the districts have to do)? At best, the science used here is just a convenience to have hunger games present incredible obstacles for its contestants.