When the first book in Suzanne Collins‘ Hunger Games series became a worldwide phenomenon upon its release in 2008, it could be argued that it was so successful because it filled the gap in the Young Adult fiction market that was left after the final Harry Potter installment was published the year before. While that may be true, such a conclusion fails to account for the series’ merit and storytelling excellence. The quadrilogy boasts relatable characters (both children and adults), tight writing and pacing, and a fresh concept complete with creative and fully realized world-building. After all, over 100 million copies sold worldwide and four feature film adaptations don’t lie.
The story takes place in a futuristic and war-torn North America called Panem, where 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her young sister’s place in the annual “Hunger Games”, a televised fight to the death between 24 kids instituted by the country’s totalitarian Capitol. Each of Panem’s 12 districts must send one boy and one girl as “tribute,” which the Capitol does to remind Panem of the Capitol’s immense power and discourage the subservient districts from rebelling.
The Hunger Games is a unique book series in that there’s not a bad one in the bunch, just varying degrees of success. So whether you’re bingeing them for the first time or embarking on a re-read in preparation for the upcoming fifth prequel movie, here are all four books in the series, ranked.
Mockingjay picks up after Catching Fire‘s explosive (and cliffhanger) conclusion with Katniss extracted from the arena and District 12 obliterated. Indirectly addressing Katniss’s PTSD from both rounds of the Games, in addition to depression, flashbacks, and nightmares, Mockingjay is the darkest and most “adult” book in the series by far. The tone is incredibly grim (especially given some of the book’s big deaths) which makes it a heavy read, but Collins succeeds in making it ring true to the series’ characters as Katniss, Peeta, and Gale incite a rebellion against the Capitol.
Despite being the only book in the series not to feature the annual Hunger Games, Mockingjay still manages to amp up the action. In fact, it’s one of the book’s high points. The rebellion’s plans, tactics, and combat as they fight their way through the battle zone-like streets of the Capitol is incredibly thrilling and reads like an adrenaline-fueled war movie. It’s also a testament to the story that Collins manages to keep the series’ mythology fresh by introducing the “destroyed” District 13 and the mysteries surrounding it.
Mockingjay is a grim story but ends up being a satisfying ending for the Games themselves, as well as Katniss and Peeta’s arcs.
3. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes
Released 10 years after Mockingjay, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is way better than it has any right to be, especially considering it doesn’t continue the story of Katniss and Peeta from the original trilogy. Instead, Collins takes a bold gamble by taking a step backward in time from the events of the first book (64 years to be precise) and featuring a teenaged Coriolanus Snow as the main character. It’s a risky move, trying to make readers care about and become sympathetic towards the future tyrannical ruler of Panem, but it more than pays off. Snow’s character (along with his grandmother and cousin, Tigris) is fully developed and Collins deftly shows that Snow wasn’t merely born evil; rather, a complex set of life circumstances, misfortunes, and betrayals that led to his crossing to the dark side and future murderous tendencies.
It’s also a welcome surprise that Collins manages to create another fully-realized female character in that of District 12 tribute, Lucy Gray Baird. Her rebellious nature and smarts in putting on a “show” for the Capitol are reminiscent of Katniss, and it’s incredibly enlightening and fascinating that these similarities. Along with Snow’s anger at allowing himself to be vulnerable and care about Lucy as he acts as her Games mentor, it just might be the underlying reason for Snow’s later hatred of Katniss.
The Hunger Games may be a YA series but it has never shied away from violence or the dark side of humanity. Songbirds and Snakes doesn’t either. The brutality of the initial Games is horrifying, and Snow’s status as a main character allows readers a front-row seat to witness the Capitol being just as malevolent as Katniss suspected, complete with hangings for treason, genetically-modified animals, and the villainous Dr. Gaul.
Ballad lags at times (at 517 pages, it’s the series’ longest installment) but its complicated characters, along with the exploration of Panem’s “Dark Days” and how the Games came to fruition, make it a largely successful effort and a hugely compelling read.
2. The Hunger Games
The book that started the worldwide phenomenon is also one of the best. Readers and writers of sci-fi and fantasy fiction might recognize how challenging it is to create a world that feels both foreign and believable with enough rich details that also don’t bog down the story with info-dumps of exposition. Collins more than succeeds in this department. Her deft skill for world-building is on full display through her introduction of Panem, its 12 distinct districts, the tyrannical Capitol, and the nauseating pageantry of the Hunger Games themselves, showing firsthand that a lot can be done with a little. The dystopian world of the story bears enough resemblance to our present in terms of reality television and mistrust in authority figures to make it both relatable and a cautionary tale of the dangers of war, class systems, and an all-powerful government.
The decision to let main character, Katniss Everdeen, to tell her own story via first-person narrative is a smart one, allowing the reader to become more deeply invested in her thoughts, experiences, and story. Katniss is imbued with enough distinctive characteristics, growth, and depth to make her feel like a real person with wants, desires, and flaws. She’s a relatable entry point into the series, and her relationship with fellow District 12 resident (and Hunger Games competitor) Peeta Mellark feels genuine as it spans complex feelings like love and hate, disappointment and appreciation, and resentment and contentment, instead of the trite and cliched romances often seen in lesser YA series.
The Hunger Games is fast-paced, tightly plotted, and its many cliffhanger chapter endings make it a successful endeavor and a compulsively bingeable read.
1. Catching Fire
Catching Fire takes what The Hunger Games excelled at doing and amps it up half a dozen notches. The characters that we know and love are back and further developed as they’re plunged into deeper interpersonal and political conflicts than before. This is especially true for Katniss and Peeta who find themselves forced back into the arena for the 75th Hunger Games, a Games where the tributes are comprised of past victors. A sequel that repeats a playout of the Games could easily have been a lazy retread of the first book, but instead, it raises the stakes since it’s no longer about Katniss and Peeta merely surviving the arena. Now, the lives of their friends, family, and all the residents of District 12 depend on the pair’s willingness to “play nice” and put on a good show for Snow and the Capitol.
The new Games arena is visually and conceptually unique, complete with interesting and relatable new characters in Finnick, Johanna, and Mags, and fresh action that assists in making Catching Fire the series’ fastest-paced installment. It’s also advantageous that a large portion of the book takes place before we even get to the Games, which gives readers time to catch up with Katniss and Peeta as they grapple with the events of the previous book and ponder their uncertain futures. The restraint that Collins shows by not rushing into the Games’ action is admirable and allows the story to breathe and the characters to deepen. This, combined with the excitement surrounding the Districts’ Katniss-inspired rebellion and the book’s massive cliffhanger ending — with Katniss extracted from the Games arena and District 12 completely destroyed — tantalizingly sets the stage for the series’ final Katniss-centric installment.