(If you haven’t finished all three books, I’d recommend steering clear of this post. THERE BE MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD.)
I know you probably read the title of this post and were ready to hit me with the cruciatus curse, and you know what? It’s cool. I get it. But let me qualify the title. In terms of the scope and vastness of the Harry Potter books, nothing, in my mind, comes close. More specifically, as a YA book, I don’t think anything is in the same stratosphere. It’s no contest. But that doesn’t mean that other books or book series can’t do some things better and this is essentially the point I want to make.
I finished the 3rd book a few weeks ago and I needed some time to let it all sink in. Obviously, the 3rd book is a heavy one. It’s thick in both size and emotional density so when you finish it, you want to unbutton the pants on your brain and just sleep it off.
I’d gotten a lot of feedback about how the last book is the worst or it’s too dark or whatever so I was curious about how I would perceive it and I was a little surprised when I loved it.
While it is true that the tone shifts considerably (significantly from the first book and considerably from the second) this shift is completely necessary in order to serve the story. That may be off-putting to some, but the gradual shift is necessary to support where the story is taking us. It’s easy to forget this, just as it is easy to forget that the ritual of the Hunger Games is about child sacrifice and humiliation. Remember, Katniss and Co. are trying to take down a ruthless Capitol that has systematically oppressed, impoverished and murdered children, so things will get dark. They will get weird. And bad things will happen.
Below are the 3 ways I think The Hunger Games surpasses Harry Potter:
+ The realism
Part of the impact of The Hunger Games was how it provided a universe that was more real than Harry Potter, because it was more relatable. This made it seem more possible. Also, it was vivdly real in that most all the characters were presented not as heroic or non-heroic caricatures, but as complicated people with shifting motivations and propensities for unlikable behavior.
This is a departure from stories like Harry Potter where characters were largely either starkly good or starkly bad. The only truly iffy character was Snape who was defined by this singular trait of iffiness. In other words, it was the great exception in the story and because of that, it had no nuance. Extending this idea even further, Snape was the gray rook on a chess board full of white and black pieces.
But within The Hunger Games, the distinction of uber-villain didn’t really exist beyond President Snow.1 And this is to the story’s credit because the world isn’t full of Dumbledore’s and Voldemorts. It’s full of people like Haymitch and Gale.
+ Unfortunate but logical conclusions
When the last Potter book came out, JK Rowling discussed how she handled selecting who would die and who would live. She mentioned how when good and evil do battle, bad things have to happen and she was brilliantly right in this. Like I mentioned earlier, the third Hunger Games book is about overthrowing a Capitol with an entrenched power base who has made child sacrifice a yearly national celebration. Purging the world of a ruling base like this is going to be nasty, nasty business.
If you are dealing with those grand notions of ultimate good vs. ultimate evil, casualties have to occur, just as Rowling said. But I think the fandom and belovedness of the Potter books forced her into stopping short of truly embracing this ideal. It didn’t make the series bad or the last book bad. Both were great. They just didn’t stick the landing as well as The Hunger Games did.
+ The ending
Besides Finnick Odair, my favorite aspect of the series was the ending. Was it a happy ending? I don’t know. I feel like I could write thousands of words in support of either answer. But what’s true for both is this: There are elements of happy and sadness there and that’s probably the best way to go about it.
For the Potter books, the end is essentially a happy ending. True, some beloved characters were lost, just as there were in The Hunger Games but for me, the ending is all about the lasting effect on the core three of Ron / Hermione / Harry vs. Gale / Peeta / Katniss. The Potter 3 all survived and seemed to endure very little in the way of permanent damage. In fact, we’re allowed to see them in an epilogue. all as parents dropping off some future generation of benevolent wizards at Hogwarts – and it feels good to see this. We feel like they’ve earned it and it’s a great payoff for us.
But the Hunger Games 3 don’t get this kind of ending. They all survive and figure out how to carve out some degree of happiness for themselves but they are never able to outrun the trauma of opposing absolute evil like the Potter 3 did.
- Gale is a different person and his relationship with Katniss is forever altered because of the tactics he helped author during the rebellion and how his strategies played a role in Prim’s death. Peeta’s mental compromising never fully subsides and Katniss must cope with the trauma of a lifetime of tragedy and personal responsibility within those tragedies. In this sense, everything is bigger, bolder and deeper. It’s the difference between losing a finger or toe (Potter) vs losing an appendage (Hunger Games).
This is why I love the ending so much; when the stakes are made to be so great, the fallout and consequences have to be equally as great. When our soldiers are sent to war, they don’t come back perfect; they come back a little broken and I guess that’s the difference. The Hunger Games allows us to see those scars, while Harry Potter mostly obscures them.
What do you think? Is this comparison between the books real or unreal?
- You could argue that Peeta was the closest thing to a white knight that the series had, and while this is true, his goodness is mitigated by his brain-washing and how he tried to strangle Katniss. Obviously, it wasn’t really Peeta, but this detail served to complicate his character, even though it was a technicality. [↩]