Let the Games End

I recently finished the book Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins1, which is the last in a trilogy including both The Hunger Games2 and Catching Fire3. I was warned, by my sister, prior to starting the series, that she considered the series excellent, but she pretends that the last two books in the series don't exist. I'm still unsure why her hatred of Catching Fire and Mockingjay (this last one in particular) are so intense. I found that the books told an interesting story, albeit in a rather immature and unpolished writing style. This is a short review of each of the books in the series, ending with a review of the series as a whole.
The Hunger Games

This book introduces the characters that will tell the story of a revolution. Specifically, it's told from the perspective of one Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl from a place called District 12. District 12, we find out, is one of twelve (formerly 13) districts in a country called Panem. Panem exists as a country, ruled by a totalitarian government that is located in a separate district, called (unimaginatively) The Capitol. Each of the districts provides much needed food and supplies to citizens in the Capitol, which are essentially an aristocracy bend on doing nothing, but yet have an unsatisfying urge to be entertained. The Capitol pushes each of the districts to the brink of starvation, but keeps them subjugated with brutal enforcers known as Peacekeepers.

We find out early in the story that there were previously 13 districts, but District 13 incited a rebellion against the Capitol, resulting in it being entirely obliterated. As another repercussion of the failed coup, each district must give two children (known as Tributes) to the Capitol each year for a sport they call, "The Hunger Games." In the Games, the children essentially fight to the death in a complicated arena for the entertainment of the Capitol's citizens (and horror of those parents and friends watching from the other districts). Each year, there is exactly one winner.

The rationale for calling this bizarre circus "The Hunger Games" isn't immediately clear, until you find out that from each district, every child between the ages of 12 and 18 must sign up once per year from their twelfth birthday, to be chosen as a tribute. So, for example, if a child is twelve, they must enter their name once. If they are thirteen, twice. After that, you can put your name into the pool of potential tributes additional times for "tessera," which are basically additional rations, in the event your family is poor and cannot afford enough food.

Now, I won't ruin the story for you in telling all of the dramatics, but suffice it to say that Katniss is chosen as a tribute (albeit through a roundabout way). Likewise, a male tribute is chosen from District 12 named Peeta Mellark. Peeta and Katniss have an interesting history, which basically entails a sort of "love from afar" idea, but you don't learn about this until later on in the novel. It's used as a plot device to springboard into the rebellion that comes in the later novels.

All in all, the book is interesting. I enjoyed the concept of the arena, and how the Hunger Games are played out. The novel feels like you're watching a grisly reality TV show. It's a fascinating environment Katniss and Peeta exist within, and you're thrown into this world that is similar to our world, but in many ways, you're not sure what has been remembered from the time before Panem. I do thing it would have been interesting if more historical context were given. For example, a sub-story begins to develop when Katniss recalls a girl that was taken by the Capitol before her and her friend, Gale's eyes. We find out that the girl has been turned into an "Avox" - which essentially just means her tongue was cut out. But no connection is made between this and the rest of the story. It's as if the whole thing is simply a roundabout explanation of Avoxes in general. Instead, I think it would have been more interesting to have that part of the back-story lead somewhere, rather than simply being told and then dropped. I also had a number of questions like "Where did the hovercrafts come from?" and "How is an arena chosen and constructed?" which were left similarly unanswered.

There were some great lines from the book. I especially liked the line "May the odds be ever in your favor." I find it exciting when an author can create a phrase, which, at first glance, seems uninteresting, but the more you read it and it rolls around in your mind, the better it seems4.

The major criticism I have of the novel, and really of the entire series, is that there doesn't seem to be any character development. Every character is basically the same, personality-wise, from the beginning of this novel to the end of the last novel in the series. Especially Katniss Everdeen - she doesn't seem to change throughout the entire series, even though we're basically reading her thoughts and fears. They don't seem to change from the moment we're thrown in to the novel. This is probably partially a result of the book reading as though it was written by a twelfth-grader. Many of the sentences are short and direct. There isn't a lot of self-reflection or complexity to the characters or the settings. The book is very focused on action and navigation from one plot point to another - one problem/climax/resolution set to another. Everything in the novel is black and white - there isn't a lot of gray area shown.
Catching Fire

Katniss and Peeta are returned to the arena (in a special Hunger Games called a "Quarter Quell"), each having made a "deal" with Haymitch to keep the other alive. The reason for their being returned to the Hunger Games is mostly inferred to be a political move on President Snow's part. He is attempting to crush the rebellion that started with Peeta and Katniss refusing to let only one victor be taken from the arena in the previous novel. Katniss learns that just their unwillingness to obey the manipulations of the Capitol and instead put up a small resistance of their own has sparked sentiments of unrest that have been growing for quite a while.

Add to this the growing tension between Gale and Peeta after Katniss and Peeta's return from the Hunger Games, and there's an actual story here. There is also some mystery revealed about the aforementioned District 13, previously thought to have been destroyed, actually being alive and well, albeit beneath the surface of the original district. The oppressive hand of the Capitol swoops down on District 12 in the form of additional security, and both Katniss and Gale have a run-in with the new guards, most of which aren't as easy to appease as the previous ones were.

Tributes are chosen from among the other district's victors, and surprisingly, instead of outright trying to kill Katniss and Peeta within the Games, some of them actually protect the newest victors from the dangers of the arena (and the other tributes who have decided, for whatever reason, not to "play ball"). In an epic conclusion, they actually assist Katniss in escaping from the arena without the games being finished. Peeta, however, isn't quite as lucky. He gets left behind and we are led to assume he's been captured by the Capitol.

Of the books in the series, this novel was probably my favorite in several regards. Before we get into the details, though, one needs to overlook the stupid repetition that is reminiscent of another plot hole that leaves one thinking, "Really? That's the best you could come up with? A second Death Star?" (Oops.. I meant "Hunger Games." A second "Hunger Games.") Once you look past that, though, you begin to see the complexity of what's happening. The idea of the clock as an arena was really intriguing, made even more so by the first showing of the watch to Katniss during the celebrations by Plutarch.

And then there's the whole idea of District 13. Are they still around? It is interesting to think the Capitol has been using the same video shots over and over, if they could have actually gone back to the original site. But, if this were true, why wouldn't have District 13 been clandestinely aiding the other districts?

It also gives rise to a bunch of questions that really aren't answered - where are the arenas physically located? Are they within the Capitol or somewhere outside? How does the force shield enclosing the games work? What is the back-story behind all of the tributes? This last question, in particular, could have made the story MUCH more interesting. Using Catching Fire as a jumping-off point, the rebellion could have lasted a number of additional books, and been told from the point of view of each of the tributes involved in Catching Fire - in a sort-of Lost way - which would have made the story leagues more provocative. Instead, it seems to sort of leave us hanging at the edge of our seats. This is fine with me - I love cliffhangers - but what's not fine is that all of the enticement goes unfulfilled in the final installation of the series.
Mockingjay

The last book in the series, Mockingjay concludes the story of Katniss Everdeen. After escaping from the Quarter Quell with the assistance of the other tributes, Katniss is taken to District 13 for recovery. Once there, she learns that District 12 was obliterated due to her lack of willingness to cooperate, and as punishment for what President Snow feels was incitement for the Districts to rebel against the Capitol. Although it isn't really stated, the other districts are in open revolt against the Capitol, led by District 13, which has the weapons and technology necessary to bring the fight to the Capitol.

Although Katniss is a wreck because Peeta was captured during their escape, District 13's President Coin entices her to be used as a propaganda puppet. In exchange for amnesty of Peeta and they other tributes, as well as the opportunity to kill President Snow, Katniss agrees to utilize the concept of the Mockingjay debuted in Catching Fire by her stylist, Cinna, in order to sway public opinion against the Capitol.

Most of this novel has to do with Katniss' internal struggles. It's pretty grisly, as war is in real life. Many of the characters we've come to like or even tolerate don't make it through the story alive. Those that die usually suffer horrible deaths, such as how Finnick dies at the hands of "muttations" while tredging through the Capitol's sewers, trying to get to President Snow's palace. Eventually, Peeta is rescued, but he's been turned against Katniss and the Rebels via a technique called "hijacking", where the venom of mutated yellow jackets (called "Tracker Jackers") is put into his blood while he's focusing on memories of events in his life, twisting and warping his sense of reality.

The story moves very quickly. It's difficult to follow at times, because you're unaware whether a few minutes or a few years has passed. The rebellion seems to last a very short amount of time - only a matter of months. I found this difficult to understand, as the fictional story I most commonly associate with rebels overthrowing a totalitarian government - the Star Wars saga - takes almost an entire generation for the Rebels to actually get to the point where they are making progress against the Empire. Most of this novel's description of the overthrowing of the government happens in the course of 100 pages.

The criticism I have for this part of the series is pretty much the same as the criticism I have for the other two books: There's no character development. In this novel, though, it's even worse, as my sister points out so eloquently:

I didn't particularly love the way that death was dealt with in the book. Several people die in instantaneous - completely unadorned ways (Prim, Cinna, Snow, Finnick). It was very blunt- just death, over. Katniss never reflected on the deaths really nor did she ask herself questions about why/how people died, she just accepted it and moved on (particularly in the case of Snow and Finnick).

My theory on this subject is pretty simple: Katniss didn't reflect about anything in The Hunger Games, so why should she all of a sudden stop and start reflecting now? Oh, right, because characters should develop over the course of the novel, in order to better attune the reader to them as a person, and give them more depth and dimension than the simple black and white that's on the page.

In general, the novel moved too quickly for my taste. It lacked subtlety and style. The plot skipped from one action sequence to the next, almost as if the rebellion itself were a series of snapshots or video clips. Or, like a storybook reading to a child, where the narrator is asked to skip the sections which the child cannot understand or appreciate, and therefore are considered "boring." The most interesting aspect of the whole novel - the possibility that President Coin herself committed the acts of atrocity toward the children at the end of the novel (including, by the way, Katniss' sister, who was the reason Katniss volunteered for the Hunger Games in the first place, and thus the reason for much of the storyline) - and therefore were not committed by President Snow - was even underdeveloped. It's almost like an afterthought that perhaps President Coin isn't the savior everyone thought she was after all, except that in Katniss' mind, it's certain enough that she deserved to die.
Overall

I understand that the point of the series is that war has an insurmountable cost, but that some things are worth fighting for. This is true even if the price for those things you hold most dear is steep. The problem with this "moral" so to speak, is that it's not handled with care. All of the things worth fighting for in Katniss' life are taken away. She's left with an empty shell of a life - sacrificed so much - that the point of the war becomes unclear at the end. Even Peeta, with whom she survives, is not the same as he was at the beginning of the series. But, that's due to a sudden and involuntary change - not the change one would expect of a character after going through so much hell.

It's also unclear, at the end of the series, what the point of the war actually was. The Rebels from District 13 aren't really any better than the original totalitarian government. President Coin, after the Capitol has been taken, puts an absurd choice to the remaining Hunger Games victors: Either everyone in the Capitol is put to death, or all of the children from the Capitol are taken and put into one final Hunger Games. What? How does this make any sense? Why would the Rebels, who have just fought and died to overthrow a regime that keeps them in constant fear of losing their children actually want to make such a choice? And why is the choice created in the first place? Where did it come from. I mean, that's ridiculous. There's no need to just kill everyone off that doesn't agree with you. Even a child can see that's how totalitarian regimes begin in the first place. This story just takes an incredibly strange turn as the end approaches - there doesn't seem to be any heroes or villains left at the end of the novel. It seems almost as though the author got tired of writing and decided to just speed up the conclusion. I feel that a good author needs to carefully choose the themes of the story so that he/she can illustrate the differences and similarities inherent between good and evil, black and white, day and night. A really good author either decides to separate these things completely or blend them together so much as to make it indistinguishable when the line has been crossed from light into darkness. Traditional stories, such as most fairy tales and one of my favorite mythologies that I mentioned earlier, Star Wars, take the former approach. Darth Vader is pure evil. He's represented in black, and has no problem killing others. Obi Wan Kenobi, Yoda, Luke, and eventually, Anakin Skywalker, refuse to sacrifice others for their own good. They act in very moral and justified ways. An example of the latter approach might be A Game of Thrones or Lost - it's not really clear why people are doing the things they are, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that no one individual is completely good or completely evil.

The Hunger Games series disappoints on this account. It initially tries to present a clear demarcation of good and evil, but later in the series decides that it is more interesting to blur the line. The problem is that not enough thought and time were put into how this line is shaded. Instead, in my opinion, it ends up becoming a smudge across the face of an otherwise interesting story.

On a somewhat unrelated note, as I was writing this post, I happened to go and see Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows at my local theater (that movie is pretty good, by the way). Before the movie, there was a preview for the movie version of The Hunger Games, which looked pretty interesting. I'll definitely go and see the movie version of this story. My hope is that the screenplay writers took the original story and spiced it up a bit - made the dialogue less tinny, enhanced the overall grandeur of the plot, and in general added special effects that make up for some of the shortcomings I see in the original novel. My hope is that this will be one case where the movies are better than the original novels.

  1. Mockingjay

  2. The Hunger Games

  3. Catching Fire

  4. My favorite example of this is the first line of Stephen King's The Gunslinger: "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." This is a very simple, but yet eloquent introduction to the novel. It is short, but yet leaves so many questions unanswered that you must continue reading. I once read that Stephen King thought this was one of the best lines he had ever written. (Don't quote me on this, though, because I am unable to substantiate from where I retrieved the quote).

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