(Hungered is an ongoing series.)
So at some point I became emotionally invested in The Hunger Games trilogy. I’m not sure when this happened and I’m not exactly sure what I became emotionally invested in. I don’t think it was the characters. I don’t think it was the story. So why am I feeling feelings?
But that’s only part of the problem. Apparently I had no idea what this trilogy was about. I also had no idea that Mockingjay (2010) would mostly consist of Suzanne Collins repeatedly dragging me to Room 101 and shooting me in the back of the head.
Maybe I wasn’t prepared for this series. After Boardwalk Empire ran a train through my chest I was sure I had no ability to tolerate anything gut-wrenching, personal or even slightly manipulative. In fact, Empire hit me so hard I was convinced I’d never wanted to commit to another series- televised, written or otherwise.
But I did commit to this, and now it’s over. Although the Games trilogy didn’t emotionally destroy me it has definitely left an impression. It was pretty damn relentless and bleak, but it’s nothing a bunch of cocaine won’t fix.
So here’s my breakdown:
1) Welcome To District 13
Okay, so District 13 turns out to be a totalitarian sham. I don’t like who’s running it and I loathe just about everything they do. The plot gets quickly taken over by the reality TV aspect of the series, which I thought would be unnecessary by now. Instead it takes center stage (no pun intended). I really didn’t care for it.
Then there’s how Katniss is handling everything. If this book could have a “I Hate This/Everyone/Especially Myself” amp, it would go to 11. The somewhat grounded, resourceful and compassionate girl has disappeared from the narrative, replaced by a self-loathing basket case. Once I realize this I begin having Order Of The Phoenix flashbacks and hope it will let up. It doesn’t until page 387, three pages before “The End.”
I can now finally answer the question I’ve asked myself with each book: do I like Katniss Everdeen?
Sadly, the answer is no. The main reason why I don’t like her is because of how she handles things and how she views herself (see above). The aspects I appreciated about the “earlier” Katniss were her kinder moments, when she thought outside of herself, helping and empathizing with others. A person with some fight in her. Instead she becomes isolated and self-obsessed, fixated on how everything is effecting her.
Then there are the screaming fits and breakdowns, of which there are many. After a while I lost count of how many times Katniss lost consciousness in this book. I understand that this is a deeply traumatized girl, but that can only go so far when the girl has no interest in helping herself. In fact, her interests funnel down to one before the show is over: killing herself. That is her only objective. I’m shocked to be writing this, but I thought that kind of thinking was left to stupider heroines like Bella Swan.
And, just like Bella, Katniss overhears a conversation between the two boys vying for her affection. Once again this is pure female fantasy. It’s night. She pretends to be asleep so no one will suspect her. The boys speculate about who she will ultimately choose. Suddenly I’m back in that goddamn tent in Eclipse (2007), a place I never thought the Games trilogy would take me.
In the end, I’m not sure what Collins’ intentions were with Katniss. She emerges as someone who is rather unfeeling, reckless and damaged. Bitter, even. I would say the worst passage in Mockingjay is when she agrees that Capitol children should be subjected to a final bout of The Hunger Games. “For Prim,” she says.
Yeah… that makes absolutely no sense.
Gale and Haymitch back this stupid idea as well. These are the heroes of our book talking here. At this point I’m like, “I’m done with all of you. This book is absolutely insane.”
Wow. We don’t really get to know Gale until this book. Now I know why. Apparently when bad things happen to him he responds by becoming self-righteous and homicidal on a grand scale. I mean, the guy masterminds burying thousands of people alive. He also builds weapons that prey on human “weaknesses,” like empathy or trying to protect others.
And he’s a love interest? I really couldn’t swallow this. I kept thinking, “No, this is wrong.”
What’s strange is that Katniss isn’t bothered by his construction of these weapons or when District 2 becomes a snowy mass grave. Their romance is still a possibility until the bombs he designs kill Prim. Oh, and light Katniss and Peeta on fucking fire, scarring them for life.
Somehow the split between Katniss and Gale is amicable after all of that. He doesn’t even say he’s sorry. What a complete toolbox.
Since Peeta is one of the few decent people in the trilogy, Collins has to try extra hard to make him unpleasant. She never fully succeeds but manages to make him quite an obstacle. She also makes sure he suffers more than any other character in the book.
Which was awful. Out of all the characters in this series, I was sure that Peeta would die. After what he goes through death would be peaceful, even deserved. Why? A) Because what he went through was just that terrible, and B) He’s just too decent to survive. In times of war or oppression the righteous and kind are rarely the ones who make it out alive.
In fact, I found myself thinking of Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl and his writings on this subject. In Man’s Search For Meaning (1946) he observed: “We who have come back, we know- the best of us did not return.” Peeta is one of the “best,” but he is somehow spared. I’m not sure why. There are plenty of opportunities for him to die, where he and other characters invite the idea, but he manages to evade death every time.
Fortunately he doesn’t survive to become a lost cause. Peeta may be the only truly compassionate, sane character at the end of Mockingjay. He is also the only character who fits with some of my personal philosophies.
For instance: there’s nothing wrong with trying to be better than the worst thing that happened to you. Frankl believed this too: “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
That pretty much sums him up.
The big reveal about Finnick? He was pretty much sold into sexual slavery at the age of fourteen. Think about that. Think long and hard.
This is never explicitly stated in the text because the Games trilogy is supposed to be for kids. Think about that long and hard as well. It also glosses over the other sex crimes he was exposed to- “incest,” “seductions,” etc.
Why is this in a YA novel, especially when it’s so obviously censored? Beats me.
And in the end it’s just salt in the wound. Read on.
6) The Denouement
Spoiler: if you’re a secondary character in the Games trilogy, you are probably going to die some grisly, unceremonious death. Like getting decapitated by lizard-humans (good-bye, Finnick).
I was expecting this. It’s why I made sure not to get attached to anyone. When Mockingjay careens toward its final battle you’re rewarded with a heady dose of reality: war is absolutely awful. For a YA fiction novel, Mockingjay is all like, “Don’t worry, I won’t hold back on this. In fact, I’m going to revel in it.”
The result? Reading it is like listening to R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” on repeat, only your legs have been blown off by a rocket launcher. And your eyes have been gouged out. And you’re sitting in someone else’s urine.
Then the actual war begins, with tons of refugees getting gruesomely killed by pods or carelessly gunned down by rebels. And then Gale’s bombs are dropped on wounded children and medics. One of which is Prim. Katniss watches her thirteen-year-old sister go up like a torch, then gets her turn to burn as well.
No comment. Still trying to process why the hell that happened. The only note I wrote down was: “Facepalm infinity.”
Then there’s the Coin assassination, Snow’s death and the return to District 12. There is rebuilding but Katniss isn’t very interested in participating or getting better. Neither is Haymitch, who continues to be the alcoholic recluse he was at the beginning of the trilogy. Fortunately Peeta shows up. After that some semblance of life resumes.
I think I totally missed the point of what the Games trilogy was about when I started. It’s about the futility of war, how it ruins everything and everyone involved. Land is destroyed. Lives are lost. The survivors are scarred, emotionally and physically. What’s worse, it’s implied that nothing changes and never will. Some hope persists, but it seems overshadowed by the 300+ pages that have preceded it.
This is an interesting contrast to the Harry Potter series, which also explored how people handle war. However, unlike Potter, Games has no interest in exploring a best case scenario. It is firmly fixed in what actually happens: traumatic, sloppy, morally ambiguous, at times inexplicable.
Was there any way for this trilogy to end nicely? I’m beginning to think it was impossible.
In my first entry I noted: “There needs to be YA novels there where protagonists aren’t always the winners. These books need to prepare kids for real life.”
I suppose Collins succeeded on that count. She made sure everyone loses.
In the aftermath I think I should devote myself to lighter fare. Like 30 Rock. It seems like everyone I know is watching that at the moment.
No one gets decapitated or blown up on that show, right?