I will be the first to admit that I tend to be tardy to the literary trend party. For example, although Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was released in 1998, it wasn’t until I received a paperback copy for Christmas 2000 that I became hooked on Harry (and Ron, and Hermione). The same goes for Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo - in fact, initially I tried reading the sample on my Nook, was bored to tears by the dry first chapters, and quit before I had even reached the end of the sample pages. I only gave that book a second chance after a few friends implored that the rest of the book made up for the boring introduction, and by that time, the third book in the trilogy had been released. (The exception to this rule is Twilight. In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that as a die-hard “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer” fan, I refuse to buy into the idea that vampires freaking sparkle in the sunlight. Give me a break.)
My point is that it should come as no surprise that despite widespread accolades, including those from friends whose reading recommendations I respect, I did not pick up The Hunger Games, the first book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, until less than a month ago.
I finished Mockingjay, the third book, exactly one week later.
For those who haven’t read the trilogy, you may be wondering, “Truly, WHAT is the big deal? Aren’t these ‘Young Adult’ books?”
In my opinion, the answer to those questions lies in the fact that the underlying themes of The Hunger Games transcend the fine line between “Young Adult”/”Adult” literature. Without spoiling anything, the basic premise of The Hunger Games trilogy is this: Set in post-apocalyptic, dystopian North America, each year the twelve districts of Panem are “punished” for their previous rebellion as the Capitol forces one male and one female teenager (“tributes”) to compete in a nationally televised fight to the death, in a selection process known as “The Reaping.” The protagonist of the books is sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who, in a moment of utter desperation, volunteers to take her younger sister’s place as the female District 12 tribute. The books also explore Katniss’ complicated feelings towards two men from home: Gale, her best friend and hunting partner; and Peeta, who is selected as the male tribute from District 12.
Although the first book starts out a little slowly, the plot soon quickens and sucks you in, as you start rooting for Katniss despite the fact that the odds are stacked against her. Ms. Collins has written Katniss as an identifiable character - she isn’t exceptionally pretty or strong, but she’s smart, and she uses her adolescent angst (as well as her hunting skills, sharpened out of the necessity to survive in District 12) in her favor.
Throughout the novels, Ms. Collins explores rebellion on an individual level as well as within the context of a civil war; the struggle to define on which side of the line one takes a stand; survival of the fittest; and the widening gap between the “haves” and the “have nots.” And of course, the idea that all of this is happening on national television makes you consider the desensitizing effect that reality television has brought upon the fictional society of Panem and of our reality.
One thing that really surprised me about this so-called “Young Adult” series was how graphic Ms. Collins’ descriptions of violence were throughout all three books. No one can accuse her of holding back when writing about the (oftentimes fatal) injuries inside the Hunger Games arena, but it’s exactly this commitment to vivid storytelling that allows the adult reader to be drawn into the adrenaline rush of the games.
I also appreciated that the romantic elements - specifically, the love triangle between Katniss, Gale, and Peeta - really took a backseat to the action, despite the fact that The Hunger Games made the American Library Association’s list of most banned books of 2010 due to the claim that it is “sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, and violen[t]” - a designation I find almost humorous. Violent, yes. Unsuited to age group, debatable. Sexually explicit? Compared to the oversexualized nature of many other “Young Adult” works, The Hunger Games barely registers higher than Harry Potter on the sexy scale. (I may not have read Twilight, but I am fully aware of a certain birthing scene involving Edward and Bella. Ew.)
Bottom line - you needn’t be embarrassed about checking out The Hunger Games, even if it requires a detour into the “Young Adult” section of the bookstore or library. In fact, now is the ideal time to check out The Hunger Games. Read the first book (and if you become addicted as I did, the second and third), and then you can see the movie and decide if it translates onscreen.