Book Review: Approaching the Hunger Games Trilogy: A Literary and Cultural Analysis, Tom Henthorne (2012)

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

Fresh Insights into THE HUNGER GAMES Trilogy

fiveout of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

An enthusiastic fan of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, I was super-excited to win a copy of Tom Henthorne’s Approaching the Hunger Games Trilogy: A Literary and Cultural Analysis through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program. When it finally arrived some three months later (seriously, McFarland, why so slow? it’s almost like you’re trying to tease us!), I didn’t waste any time digging in, and devoured it in all of two sittings.

Henthorne prides himself on producing an academic volume that’s accessible to scholars and lay fans alike. Take, for example, this blurb from the back cover: “Analytical rather than evaluative, this work dispenses with extended theoretical discussions, academic jargon and even footnotes.” In this he’s most certainly succeeded: engaging and informative, Approaching the Hunger Games Trilogy provides fresh, original insights into The Hunger Games, particularly when it comes to issues of gender, war, reality television, and the series’ literary standing – no small feat when you consider the number of books already written on the topic.

In fact, this is the fifth THG guide I’ve read in about as many months, the others being the Girl Who Was on Fire, edited by Leah Wilson; Of Bread, Blood and The Hunger Games, edited by Mary F. Pharr and Leisa A. Clark; Katniss the Cattail by Valerie Estelle Frankel; and V. Arrow’s The Panem Companion – not to mention the many articles I’ve poured over online – and yet I still found myself surprised by many of Henthorne’s observations. (Gotta love those aha! moments.)

The book is indeed light on jargon, and the author is careful to provide brief, 101-style introductions to the various academic approaches he employs in his analyses. For example, the chapter on gender begins with a short background on the difference between sex and gender, including the social construction of gender and its political implications.

Depending on the topic of discussion, Henthorne – a professor of English and women’s and gender studies at Pace University – “draws from literary studies, gender studies, history, psychology, and cultural studies as well as social sciences.”

– Chapter One considers whether The Hunger Games qualifies as a literary text, taking into account the series’ genre (a delightfully messy blend of science fiction, dystopia, war stories, YA romance, survivor stories, and Bildungsroman); the structure of the novels (three acts, each with an unresolved ending); the first-person narrative mode (as difficult as it is to maintain consistently); Collins’ use of deictic markers to create a feeling of immediacy; and her use of verbal patterning to augment major ideas and themes. This chapter in particular gave me a greater appreciation of the series’ complexity and sophistication.

– Chapter Two – the charmingly titled “The Importance of Being Katniss” – examines issues of sexuality, gender, and identity. Henthorne argues that the Capitol is a patriarchy, and uses gender (among other things) to create divisions between its citizens. This sexism is evident in the Hunger Games: the Career Tributes excepted, the boys usually arrive at the Games better-prepared than their female counterparts due to their gendered socialization. (Peeta, for instance, was afforded the opportunity to practice wrestling in school.) Likewise, the Tributes are all but forced to perform their genders during the pre-Game spectacles; whereas the boys put on an aggressive show, the girls are styled as objects of desire. It’s only by operating outside the law that Katniss has acquired the skills needed to survive and triumph. In many cases, Katniss provides a foil to the Capitol’s sexism and heteronormatovity: with her masculine dress and behavior, she subverts gender stereotypes, and in her refusal to choose between Peeta and Gale as romantic partners she rejects the idea that women must subvert themselves to men through marriage.

(More below the fold…)