Katniss Everdeen makes Bella from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books look like the hateful parody of womanhood that she really is. Even though, like Bella, the protagonist of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series of young adult novels is torn between two dreamy young men who love her, she isn’t some passive, swooning wretch. When the stakes are high—as they almost always are in this series—the incredibly competent Everdeen doesn’t bother worrying about her romantic life; in fact, she seems almost annoyed at having to worry about something as troublesome as a boy.
If you have any literate friends, you’ve probably heard something about The Hunger Games over the last year. (The series was recommended to me by booksellers, librarians, friends, and even—after a Q&A session at The Stranger’s offices—Mayor McGinn; over the holiday vacation, I finally decided to read them in what was less an active choice and more giving in to peer pressure.) In case you’ve tuned your friends out, here’s a basic plot summary of the first book in the series, The Hunger Games: In a dystopic, distant future, North America is ruled by a corporation named Panem. Besides the wealthy, luxurious capitol city, the continent has been broken up into 12 impoverished districts that specialize in one industry each. Everdeen, a typically poor young girl from a mining town in District 12 (roughly in the Appalachians) is forced to take part in the Hunger Games, an annual Panem-sponsored competition in which a male and female teenager from each district are chosen to battle to the death. Because she stays true to herself and defies the rules of the Games, Everdeen becomes a symbol of an underground rebellion against the corporate overlords.
On its own, The Hunger Games is a noteworthy work of science fiction. It’s harder to not read the book, as Everdeen learns that her years of hunting trips—trading squirrels and other wild game to neighborhood craftsmen so her family can have food and shelter—have made her an ideal fighter. Collins knows how to tell a story; each chapter ends with a cliff-hanger that practically turns the page for you.
While it’s true that The Hunger Games borrows elements from a number of other sources—schmucks on the internet are quick to point out similarities to Koushun Takami’s excellent 1999 novel Battle Royale, while simultaneously ignoring that people made to battle for the amusement of a wealthy class has always been a theme in literature (“The Most Dangerous Game”) and real life (are you going to claim that Gladiator is a Battle Royale rip-off, too?)—Collins is a confident storyteller with more on her mind than simple genre riffs. It’s good, violent fun, but by making Everdeen a believable character, the story transcends its pulpy origins to become something a little more.
The other two books in the trilogy never manage to perfect the pop-fiction alchemy of The Hunger Games, but they’re satisfying as extensions of the story. The second volume, Catching Fire, runs out of gas as it drags Everdeen back to the arena for a reprise of the games, violating the you-fight-just-once-in-a-lifetime rules that Collins laid out in the first book in a highly unconvincing way. And when Collins widens the scope of the story to a continent-wide revolution against corporate oppressors in Mockingjay, the story loses some of its charm.
But these complaints can be levied against virtually any story told in this kind of an epic scale; The Hunger Games works as a story because Collins never loses the surety of her grip on Everdeen as a character. As a narrator, she is endearing and clearheaded; the reader is charmed by her youthful lack of understanding in the first book—she doesn’t yet know that she is capable, attractive, and intelligent. A weaker writer would render Everdeen as a tomboy who resents any and all glamour, but as stylists prepare her for the reality-show onslaught of the Hunger Games by putting her in feminine clothes and makeup, you can feel a certain kind of appreciation behind her initial reticence; like almost any woman, she has a complicated relationship with beauty standards.
Everdeen’s relationship with herself and the world’s relationship to her is key here. The books could be said to symbolize so many things: the shame of sending young people off to war just when they’re beginning to realize what the world has to offer, the hollowness of reality television and corporate sponsorship (although Collins smartly recognizes that a powerful image, even if it’s meaningless when staged for the cameras, can have real, meaningful effects on the world), the complications that come with freedom. But really what they’re about is the transition from childhood to womanhood, that moment when you realize that the world is looking at you in a totally different way, when you lose a certain amount of control over what your body says to half the population, and you careen head-on into the strange new expectations that everyone has of you. Because of that specificity, that personal story told in broad strokes, these are books that will be read and adored for decades to come; Stephenie Meyer’s immortal, glittering vampires certainly can’t make that claim.