Hunger Games prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is released internationally today. Books editor Catherine Woulfe is all in.
The Hunger Games is 12 years old. Much of the hype and silliness that originally surrounded the series has faded, leaving a story that feels more grown-up, more permanent. It reads so much better now. To the point that I’m not just fangirl-amped about the prequel coming out – I’m intellectually invigorated. Coffee and quiet, please, while I sit with this new book and read it four times over. There are myriad questions I want answered but at the same time really don’t. It’s exactly how I felt when Margaret Atwood released The Testaments.
Yet some are still snide and dismissive towards Suzanne Collins’ trilogy. Perhaps that’s because it launched into the slipstream of Twilight and the two get conflated whenever we talk about the reinvigoration of young adult fiction. Perhaps also because, like Twilight, it was made into a series of blockbuster films.
But The Hunger Games is not like Twilight (I love Twilight, although I do see its flaws). The Hunger Games is a grown-up story, rich and deep and dark. It is complex but told with clarity. It sticks in the mind and holds together when you turn it over. It is not, truly, a gross-out story about kids fighting to the death – the actual Games, the scenes in the arena, take up a small part of the second book, and play no part in the third.
Collins says she set out to write about just-war theory, which she describes as “an attempt to define what circumstances give you the moral right to wage war and what is acceptable behavior within that war and its aftermath. The why and the how.” In doing so she covers politics and media, the central role of optics. She expertly examines trauma and how it changes a person. Addiction, capitalism, grief. She does it with breathtaking confidence and at pace. She does it with wisdom. I got a glimmer of this when I first read it and many reads later I’m sure: The Hunger Games is a classic.
I’m not alone in this conviction. I’ve just bought a book called Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy. Haven’t read it yet, but the blurb promises these essays, by various academics, have three elements in common: “an appreciation of the trilogy as literature, a belief in its permanent value, and a need to share both appreciation and belief with fellow readers”. These are my people.
But back to the people who think it’s a bit shit. Here are the markers of Level 2 NCEA English exams giving feedback to teachers a few months ago:
Popular texts and authors that worked well included Shakespeare (Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth), war poetry (Wilfred Owen and others), Owen Marshall, Maya Angelou, Carol Ann Duffy, Katherine Mansfield, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, 1984 and Frankenstein. It was pleasing to see a significant number of candidates writing on New Zealand and Pasifika poetry.
Some texts did not allow candidates to reach the required depth for Level 7 of The New Zealand Curriculum. These included: Wikipedia entries, magazine articles, short online texts, Teen fiction (e.g. Hunger Games, Feed), “In the Rubbish Tin”, “On the Sidewalk Bleeding” and various song lyrics.
A lot to pick apart there, but for now: Teen fiction. You can just hear the sneer. And to equate this series – and “teen fiction” in general – with Wiki entries?! With song lyrics? I cringe for the kids who adore The Hunger Games and who, like me, think about these books deeply. Imagine if, in this story, you’d finally found something you considered worth reading. Imagine if you found reading hard but felt this story was worth persevering for.
Teachers, hopefully, are ignoring this report. It is at odds with stacks of other content NZQA has put out over the years, like essay exemplars and teaching notes, where The Hunger Games is treated right.
Here’s a quick once-over of the plot. We’re in some kind of broken future world. America probably. What remains of humanity is corralled into 12 miserable “districts” – there are often parallels drawn with Gaza – presided over by a grotesquely opulent Capitol. At the apex is President Snow. (He likes to poison; he has a gruesome sweet smell; the prequel out today tells his origin story.) To keep the districts quelled the Capitol holds an annual Hunger Games, where they choose a boy and a girl from each district, stick them in a high-tech nightmarescape of an arena – the setting might be sea or desert or forest, it changes every year – and make the people watch until only one child is left alive.
Katniss Everdeen is born into the lowly, coal-mining District 12. Aged 16, she volunteers for the 74th Hunger Games to save her little sister, whose name has been drawn from the ballot. The boy chosen alongside her is Peeta Mellark. They win their Games, and in books two and three Katniss becomes a figurehead for the districts’ revolution. She quickly realises that’s not as noble as it sounds.
As I write this I’m also rewatching the first movie. Which is how it feels to read the books, too, once you’ve seen the films. The screen version scours off the worst of the barbarity and hurt. In the books, for example, Cato, the last survivor of the 74th Games besides our heroes, endures an excruciating night being mauled by the Capitol’s mutts. Katniss and Peeta spend that time horrified, listening, perched safe above him but unable to get off a shot to end it. Here’s Katniss: “It goes on and on and eventually consumes my mind, blocking out memories and my hopes of tomorrow, erasing everything but the present, which I begin to believe will never change. There will never be anything but cold and fear and the agonized sounds of the boy dying …” Much cleaner in the movie: Katniss is able to mercy-kill Cato after just a moment.
You do lose a lot when you lose those raw edges. You can’t just watch the films and assume you know the books. (I wonder whether that’s what last year’s exam markers did.) But there is a precisely right quality to the lighting and costuming, and to Jennifer Lawrence – that perfect sarcastic curtsey after she shoots at the gamemakers! – that means the films tend to overwrite any other version a reader might envisage.
Anyway, super appropriate to have half an eye on the TV, given Collins’ fascination with surveillance and perception and performance and surfaces. This is certainly a thread you could pull on with an hour and a silent exam room. A large part of Katniss’s power comes from her skill in front of a camera – not her charisma, by any means, but her understanding of what audiences crave and how a single well-chosen line will land and foment. By book three she is speaking in shorthand: “propos”, she calls the propaganda videos she shoots for the rebels. There you go: sprinkle a few Noam Chomsky quotes on top, maybe cast to Trump and Fox et al, and you’ve got yourself an essay. A Merit, at least. (Chomsky!)
Now and then, especially during scenes of the Games, snatches of university Foucault come swimming back up at me too. The arena is essentially a prison. Those inside can’t see its edges let alone see out of it. Those on the outside are always watching, and because there are cameras secreted everywhere they can see everything. The Districts themselves get pretty panopticon-shaped, too, if you think about it.
So yeah, I’m leaving the TV on. Right now Katniss is slamming Peeta against a marble wall. Now they are on a rooftop looking down at the lights of the Capitol. The two of them far above the madding crowds. Talking about goodness and death.
Can we talk about symbolism, and how it is so beautifully drawn, so smooth and even, throughout these books? If you went through with a highlighter every couple of pars would be lit up. Flowers, for all that is good in the world. Bread, as a token of kindness and kinship and respect. Makeup, for superficiality and deception. And arrows. Arrows for truth and insight and for directness. For piercing to the heart of things.
The opening ceremony of the 75th Hunger Games, from the 2013 film Catching Fire.
It’s very Classics, too, of course, Katniss with her archery. You might write about that. The explicit jostling for power; the pageantry and feasting, the whole gladiator setup, the Games themselves. I’m reading Madeline Miller’s Greek myth-inspired novel Circe at the moment and seeing parallels all over the place. Collins has said she was riffing on the myth of Theseus:
As a young prince of Athens, he participated in a lottery that required seven girls and seven boys to be taken to Crete and thrown into a labyrinth to be destroyed by the Minotaur. In one version of the myth, this excessively cruel punishment resulted from the Athenians opposing Crete in a war …
In the second book we meet Finnick, the beautiful youth who swims like a fish and kills with a trident. (Also very Classics: one of the darkest aspects of all three books is Finnick’s backstory. That golden, godlike boy who won his Games was then sold for sex, for years, with a series of wealthy patrons. His family would be killed if he did not comply.)
Finnick and Katniss are among the many tributes living with post-traumatic stress disorder. Collins writes about this, and mental health more generally, at length and with intelligence and great, restrained compassion. For me it’s a hallmark and a highlight of her work. Trauma and how it manifests: any young person who lived through the Christchurch earthquakes, who suffered during lockdown, who is desperately anxious about our falling-apart planet, will see themselves in these books. Our young people might recognise the way Collins handles addiction, too – on this she is wildly better than the films, where Haymitch’s drinking is largely treated as light relief. In the books it is relentless and chaos-inducing.
There are two love interests in the mix but it’s made clear that in choosing one Katniss is, more importantly, deciding something about the human condition. About her human condition. This is no moony triangle and it’s certainly not the engine of the book. Collins has plenty else to power her.
It is a pleasure to re-read the series and realise that it’s more than stood up. That what Collins wrote as a thought experiment has matured into a sort of prescience. (Look at Trump’s gilded tower and his wall, his tearing apart and caging up of migrant families; at smartphones and Love Island and Facebook; at the opioid epidemic and its links to ever-ratcheting inequality; at the millions soon to be displaced by climate war and famine.) On a base level it’s simply very cool to know that a classic – a masterwork – was published in my lifetime, and that I unabashedly loved it.
In the end, Katniss makes the best choice. She remains seriously messed up. We leave her as an adult and a mother, vastly changed. I believed her story completely.
Collins wrote about the making of a person. I can’t wait to see her do it again – only this time with that syrupy, chuckling, cruel old man, Coriolanus Snow.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic, $29.99) is available as an ebook today. Tomorrow you can buy it from Unity Books.