I finished the Hunger Games trilogy over the weekend (THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD), and while I think it’s fairly effective Young Adult fiction, down to the Harry Potter-like epilogue (Do kids these days really need to be reassured that everyone gets married to the first person they ever loved and had adorable children? Really?), the story seems uniquely unsuited to the genre in which it’s set.
First, there’s the matter of the main characters themselves. They’re ultimately fairly simplistic. Katniss may go through a lot of trauma, but she capitulates to the cascade of events surrounding her. Collins makes a token sacrifice by killing Katniss’s sister Prim in Mockingjay, but it’ the kind of compromise death that readers will feel, but that they won’t necessarily be hideously wounded by, the same sort of decision J.K. Rowling made in killing off auxiliary characters but leaving her core trio intact. Peeta’s recovery is miraculous, and he doesn’t seem to have really changed when he’s recovered—Katniss is overwhelmed by his sweetness like she’s in sugar shock. He doesn’t have a personality other than goodness.
But really, the focus is just wrong. The tributes and victors are the dullest part of the story. Far more interesting are the Head Gammakers, the presidents of the Capitol and District 13, the drunk turned rebel leader. If the rebellion was engineered by the victors themselves, then the focus on them would make sense. But it’s not, and they’re not even militarily crucial. The series isn’t an incredibly insightful explication of what it means to be a political symbol, either, so the decision to make them the leads seems entirely a matter of attracting an appropriate audience, rather than serving the story best. Because the book does such a poor job of setting up Katniss as an acute observer of her society, or as an analyst or leader, her decision to kill President Coin really seemed like a bad one, rather than a redemptive, intelligent choice. It’s not a nuanced vision of war to pretend that things are black and white. President Coin’s impulse to hold a final Hunger Games might be morally disgusting, but it’s an understandable impulse, and her heroism in holding District 13 together is more important and more interesting to the actual evaluation of the war.
And ultimately, I think the trilogy fails at what it’s mostly about: providing a searing examination of what our reality television industry means not just for entertainment, but for society at large. We almost never get the reaction of anyone who watches the Hunger Games to the proceedings, and the novels never really explore the difference in audience between the districts and the Capitol. Part of what worked so well about The Truman Show was that the movie built a sense of audience investment. But if Collins wants to give readers a full-on portrait of a society, she needs to actually engage with people outside her set of main characters.