Note: this is a review of a trilogy — and, as a result, contains spoilers. If you haven't read all three books, proceed with caution.
Dystopian literature can be tough to read, and Suzanne Collins doesn't sugar-coat the life of a hungry, angry teen in her very successful Hunger Games trilogy. I wasn't able to get past the first chapter the first time I tried to read it, but I was able to get through the entire trilogy after seeing the first movie. I emerged at the end, exhausted, wrung out — but glad I read it.
Life is tough enough for teens without showing them a terrible, depressing world. And Panem is about as bad as it can get for people of any age: after an uprising that nearly destroyed the central government, rulers did the best they could to divide and conquer. After obliterating those in the area of the country that led the uprising, the rest of the country was divided into districts.
To keep the districts at odds, the government created a competition, "The Hunger Games," in which two children from each district would fight to the death until only one remains. The district of the winner receives extra food for a year.
Katniss Everdeen is an unlikely hero: she second-guesses herself to death. She doesn't appreciate her skills, she doesn't politic and she isn't ruthless. And yet, when her little sister is chosen to be the "tribute" for District 12, Katniss doesn't think twice before she volunteers to take her place. The second tribute is Peeta Mellark, a boy from her town whose family owns the bakery.
The arena is another character. The venue changes each year: desert one year, jungle another, forest in part of the arena while the rest is a prairie. The Capitol creates the environment and its hazards. A gamekeeper manipulates the players with amazing elements created as the game plays out.
Each book has its own arena. Katniss' district after her performance in the Games is an arena as well because, like in the games, no one is safe. Katniss' ability to manipulate the public with her incendiary ideas that the Capitol doesn't really control her turns her into an enemy. Peeta, Gail — even Prim — are in danger because of their proximity to The Girl on Fire. The best way to neutralize the problem is to create a situation in which the state can safely assassinate her: the Quarter Quell that involves all surviving tributes. The rules of this Quarter Quell are a broken promise from the Capitol: tributes live protected by the state (except for their obligations to mentor tributes from their districts for the rest of their lives) and never find themselves back into the arena. But then again, the Capitol already broke its promise of a single victor...
Frankly, I find Katniss a bit of a pain. She doesn't learn from her experiences and doesn't trust the people she's supposed to, those who have proven to be trustworthy. She's not terribly sympathetic for much of the series, often destroying any slack the reader has extended her because of her bonehead decisions. I suppose this is one way to compel the story forward, but still, it's exhausting to keep making the leap of faith that Katniss is worth liking through yet another mistake because she didn't trust Haymitch or tries to protect someone on her own.
I agree with the consensus: the third book is the weakest (and that's the one that gets two movies, heaven help us). The Hunger Games as a first book is compelling and sets up the games very well. Readers get the rhythm of Panem (whose name is a reference to Rome's "bread and circus").
Normally, I find the second book of a trilogy a bridge. However, Mockingjay is an exception — and the book I liked the best. It's riveting, bringing us up close and personal to the districts and the insidious President (and all he has wrought). Katniss and Peeta take their victory lap and step back into the mouth of danger while Katniss is trying to sort through her complicated feelings for Peeta while maintaining her "love" for Gail. All of this while she has to try to stay alive in an ever-changing arena outside the gamekeeper-controlled game arena.
I knew there was something going on with the Gamekeeper, but Katniss was too self-involved to clue in. (Peeta would have gotten in, and he's much more likeable, to boot.) I can't wait to see him come to life in the second movie.
There are many more important characters, so consider a cheat-sheet to keep them straight. Don't make Katniss' mistake of under-estimating these characters; instead, enjoy them for who they are and let Katniss flounder by herself in her own obtuseness. And yes, feel free cry your eyes out, even sob aloud, when the inevitable (and unspeakable) occurs to those you love most.
Catching Fire finishes the job. Halfway through, I was almost too exhausted to go on. The revolution is being orchestrated by the gamekeeper and the general, and Katniss is trying to not get caught in the machine. She finally has the good sense to start listening to Haymitch. And Gale? He is himself, which explains why her feelings are so complicated. I needed Peeta as much as Katniss did, and I missed him as much as she did. Thank heavens for Buttercup, is all I can say, so Katniss and I both were allowed to cry (very, very hard).
The finale? Confusing. I had to re-read the culmination a few times, and I still think I missed something. Plus, I was exhausted: so much happened in the last book, I wondered exactly what happened to her editor (fired or sent on holiday so Collins could become as drawn-out and disastrously unfettered as Stephen King at his worst). I could have absorbed District 13's problems in half the time. However, I adored the final encounters between Katniss and President Snow, the latter of whom proved to be even more complicated and attractive than I expected.
Having said that, the series was compelling. The story was original and interesting, the characters were amazing and memorable and the setting was unique. Take the plunge and read the trilogy: it's worth the time and effort.