As you may or may not know, Book One in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy has been made into a movie—the first of a projected four. (Check out the preview here.) It’s opening this Friday, March 23rd in theaters nationwide. If you’re not hiding out under a rock, you’ve probably witnessed the full-on media blitz and general frenzy surrounding the film’s release. Bookstores are planning Hunger Games parties (It’s slightly amusing to imagine the conversations during party-planning: “Well, we don’t want kids to actually attack each other, so what kinds of games should we play?”). Diehard fans are camping out overnight for tickets to the premiere. Electronic and print books are flying off the shelves. Who knows; maybe archery lessons are up too? It’s what we in the industry like to call A Publishing Event.
Yet even without the film’s pull, the books themselves are (and always were) doing exceptionally well on their own. A few impressive figures? There are more than 26 million copies of all three books in The Hunger Games trilogy plus the three movie tie-in titles currently in print in the United States. The books have also been sold into 47 territories around the world. The Hunger Games (the first book in the trilogy) has spent more than 180 consecutive weeks on The New York Times bestseller list since its publication in September 2008.
In light of all this hoopla, I have a confession to make: I just finished Catching Fire (the second book in the trilogy) this past weekend. I read the first book about a week before and I plan to read Mockingjay (the final installment) in the next day or two. I know, I know. For those of you who had their hands on these books way back when the first one was published, this sheepish admission of guilt must sound like blasphemy to your ears. You must think I’m woefully behind the times. But despite being a late bloomer when it comes to such things, I can now wholeheartedly add my two cents’ worth of praise to the already gargantuan heap.
But first, if you’re anything like I was and haven’t read the trilogy, here’s a bit of a primer—at least to the first book. Set in a futuristic dystopian North America called Panem, Suzanne Collins’s Orwellian world consists of 12 autonomous districts (13 before a brutal uprising wherein the 13th was obliterated off the map as punishment). Each district has a specialty (lumber, textiles, grain, etc.) and is governed (i.e. controlled) by the Capitol. Draw all the connections you wish but as with any oppressed society, 99% of the wealth resides with the people in power (i.e. the Capitol) while the 1% (the people who live in the districts) are overworked, underpaid, downtrodden and starving.
The book’s title refers to an annual televised competition where a girl and a boy from each district (who are called tributes) are chosen via a lottery system to compete against each other like bloodthirsty gladiators in a gigantic arena. Using various learned skills (tying knots, archery, making fires, climbing trees) they fight each other for days until there’s one tribute left alive. Lavish costumes are worn, parades are thrown, and every citizen from every district is forced to tune in to see which tribute will prevail. An ongoing punishment for the original rebellion that annihilated District 13, the Hunger Games serve as a constant reminder of the Capitol’s control over its people.
Sounds gruesome? It is (even though the movie is rated PG-13. Not sure how they managed that.). There were moments when I couldn’t help but think “Can that graphic, blood-soaked scene honestly be healthy for kids to read at such a young age?” But the kids in question swear that thinking like mine amounts to pure hogwash. Every middle-grader and teen I’ve polled within the last few months has practically taken a frying pan to my head when asked if the books are too violent. One child went so far as to say to his friend (sarcastically, of course) “Is this lady serious? Has she even played a video game?”
Firebombing and spear-throwing aside, Collins’s The Hunger Games is a quality read. Her heroine, the sterling Katniss Everdeen, is as confident and likeable as they come. There isn’t any sloppy kissing, let alone sex between her and Peeta (her fellow competitor from District 12) or Gale (her childhood friend and on-again-off-again love interest). The plot’s pace is pure adrenaline and the writing itself? Hallelujah, it’s actually good!
As for the movie directed by Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit”, “Tale of Despereaux”), it’s anybody’s guess, but it does have Suzanne Collins on its side. “I’m really happy with how it turned out. I feel like the book and the film are individual yet complementary pieces that enhance one another,” Collins wrote recently in a statement posted on Facebook. “It’s amazing to see things that are suggested in the book fully developed and so brilliantly realized through the artistry of the designers.”
“And, my God, the actors,” Collins continues. “The cast, led by the extraordinary Jennifer Lawrence, is absolutely wonderful across the board.”
In addition to the 21-year-old Academy Award nominee who starred in "Winter’s Bone" in 2010, Woody Harrelson plays Katniss's and Peeta’s constantly sauced mentor Haymitch; Donald Sutherland is the ruthless President Snow; a sure-to-be marvelous Lenny Kravitz flounces across the screen as Katniss’s lead Hunger Games designer Cinna; Elizabeth Banks (“W”, “Our Idiot Brother”) as Effie Trinket, and Josh Hutcherson (“The Kids are All Right”) and Liam Hemsworth (“The Last Song”) play Peeta and Gale respectively.
Before you head out to the theater, be sure to pick up these movie tie-ins:
The Hunger Games: Movie Tie-In Edition. If you missed The Hunger Games when it was first released, there’s now a new paperback edition with a revamped cover featuring an emblazoned mockingjay. Yes, it’s exactly the same book as the original, but with a flashy makeover.
The Hunger Games Tribute Guide. An insider’s backstage guide to the 24 tributes competing in Panem’s 74th annual Hunger Games and the journey from the reaping to the arena. Each spread contains a full-page portrait of a tribute along with key biographical information (height, age [although this isn’t always included. Not sure why!], and what district s/he is from). Other sections include a list of districts and their respective specialties (ex. District 12: Mining); a detailed description of the reaping including a play-by-play of District 12’s fateful ceremony when Katniss volunteers in place of her sister Prim; and chapters dedicated to the remake and training centers (where tributes are physically and mentally transformed from lowly villagers to heroic competitors), the tribute parade, participants’ interviews with host Caesar Flickerman, and much more. Quotes and photos taken from the movie are aplenty.
The Hunger Games: Official Illustrated Movie Companion. This thick and glossy movie-extra contains 160 pages of movie stills (of the actors on and off-camera, of behind-the-scenes filmmaking, of various props) and in-depth interviews from the people who worked on the movie, including exclusive profiles of Suzanne Collins, Gary Ross, Jennifer Lawrence, and others. Readers interested in finding out how movies are made will particularly like this fun-to-read tie-in because it focuses on the process (i.e. scouting for locations, designing the set, creating the costumes, training the crew) rather than the end result (i.e. there aren’t any plot spoilers).
There’s also a new book released on March 23rd called The World of the Hunger Games. I haven’t seen the final book yet (Yep. It’s embargoed until the movie release date, even for reviewers.), but I’ve heard it contains even more photos and other surprises from the games themselves, in case you can’t wait and want a sneak peek before dashing out to see the movie.
And . . . if you still haven’t gotten your fill, here are two books that aren’t directly affiliated with the Hunger Games franchise, but do profess to carry the soul of the project. Sort of.
The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook. Unsanctioned but still scrumptious recipes from the kitchen of Emily Ansara Baines. 250 pages full of more than 150 recipes from the book like Rue's Roasted Parsnips and Gale's Bone-Pickin' Big Game Soup. (Note to Veggies and Vegans: Most recipes have some form of meat or milk in them.)
You can’t have phenomenon without someone poking fun at it. The Hunger Pains: A Parody is a mostly amusing parody of the first book written by the editors of the Harvard Lampoon. (Note: This spoof is aimed at parents, not kids). And yes, if you think this is funny, there are bound to be many more copycats like it.
Like most bookworms, Alexis Burling has loved reading since she could crawl. She has worked in the publishing industry for over a decade and has reviewed both children's and adult books for prominent media outlets such as teenreads.com, Publishers Weekly, and the Washington Post.