Thursday, January 1, 2015

Catching Fire & Mockingjay: what it meant and how it should have ended

[Spoiler warning]

Against sound advice, I finished the Hunger Games books. Quality-wise, it was more of the same – very engaging, but with a lot of nastiness and unnecessary detail about uncladness. I didn’t find Catching Fire to be overly whiny, although I had already seen the movie (and been told about the third book), which may have made it easier to bear. I wasn’t really sure about some of the details at the end, like why they split up and how exactly Enobaria was in on things.

With the third book, I knew the ending basically, but I figured that reading it would clarify stuff. I actually was okay with the first half or two thirds, mostly. I mean, it wasn’t super exciting but it seemed to a least flow logically from the first. As things wound up, though, I think the main impression that I have is that I just don’t get it. The book, the story. What is it about?

It is most definitely not about a rebellion. Most of the war details are mentioned in It weirded me out how Katniss kept going insane and trying to resolve things with killing and suicide. And as for the whole “still in the games” mission to kill President Snow – absolutely nothing comes of that, as far as I can tell. If the author wanted to spend that much time on it, there should have been some kind of outcome other than having Katniss watch the end of the war from up close (and of course becoming even more immersed in watching people die and killing.) There seemed to be some kind of character development happening, and she does have some sort of breakthrough at the end. But I’m not sure what it was.

Here is my best guess though: Katniss hates the capitol and she loves her family and friends, but and sthe story moves on she is motivated more and more by simpler priorities. Staying alive is the priority for a while, and then not getting herself or her friends (mainly Peeta) tortured. In the end the priority is to kill President Snow, even though he’s not necessarily an important military target. In that state, she kills a civilian without thinking (although presumably she views the woman as a threat to her life, since she’s trying to call for soldiers.) And she’s very miserable at this point – all she can see in the world is the suffering she has contributed to. Gale is also caught up in this, and his involvement culminates with his battle preparations contributing to the death of Katniss’s sister. This, and the relief Katniss feels when she learns that Gale is gone and won’t come back, might be seen as a “revenge won’t fix things” motif. In contrast, Peeta’s willingness to sacrifice himself, plus his kind nature, are why Kantiss pick him in the end, and they are what drag her back from her depression to a place where she can participate in the world. That, along with Katniss’s project about recording the good things she remembers.

So I guess that’s what the story is supposed to be about – Katniss learning to cope with evil by focusing on good things. But man, it’s a depressing journey with not much to show for it other than her survival.

There was one bit at the end that was glossed over, though, that seemed very significant to me: the part where Katniss votes to hold one last Hunger Games with the Capitol leaders’ children. Sure, it’s presented as an alternative to wiping out all of the Capitol citizens, but clearly it’s not the only option, as evidenced by several dissenting votes. And right before she votes “yes”, Katniss thinks about how horrible it is that the rebels are bringing the games back. Apparently she casts her vote in desperation, effectively giving up on humanity. But still, why is she willing to participate? If it’s so awful, and if she felt so wronged, why would she agree to murder innocent children? Whatever the answers to these questions are supposed to be, they’re swallowed up in Katniss’s subsequent mental and emotional breakdown.

As a literary point, I think that was a mistake. If Katniss’s personal journey of depression and revenge really has led her to the place where she would support the Hunger Games, then the book should have ended with that. Specifically, I think a better ending would have been to show Snow’s granddaughter as she prepares for the games, ending just as she goes up through the tube and enters the battlefield. That was an intense moment in the first book, switching from preparation to the actual horror that had been looming for the whole book, and showing Katniss as someone who orchestrated this for others would have made the whole “revenge doesn’t help” point much better. Especially if you had heard Katniss’s voice announcing the start of the games or something. Oh well.