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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Hunger Games: No Comic Arena

You probably know the Hunger Games novels. Maybe only by name?

In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.

Suzanne Collins began her series two years ago with epic-level action and suspense. As I wrote then, "Games is full of promise for sequels that will equal--perhaps even surpass--it in conflict, development and satisfaction." The YA trilogy's final installment hit shelves last month, and even before its release, Mockingjay was one of the most talked about books of 2010.

It's tempting to embrace a story, any story, that pours so much water on the Twilight fire, but don't leap before you look. Remember that Collins is writing for adolescents, pliable minds, who, more than any other target audience, are actively building the beliefs that will shape their future lives.

"Because it presents the child with a portrait of a world he is, in real life, only just coming to know, every book teaches a new way of thinking about that world. The question is not whether a book teaches but what and how and whether its intent is to humanize a child or merely to socialize him." John Goldthwaite, The Natural History of Make-Believe.

So what does Mockingjay teach?

It's realistic, in that it doesn't try to paint rainbows. But the ending lacks any hint of a redemptive future, which is what makes tragic novels truly meaningful and inspiring. Instead, we see a listless fate that just stretches on and on. A husband, sure, a couple of kids, sure, and yet you can almost hear the heroine heave an impassive sigh as she narrates these developments.

Ever-after life is not always happy, not always exciting, very true, but the worldview that shines through hardly humanizes Collins' readers. Post-war life in Panem is empty, and her main characters seem almost dead inside. Which is absolutely the reverse of, say, the early Christians, who lost everything they loved, were persecuted almost to death, and yet still counted life worth living. "To live is Christ, to die is gain."

Compared with that mindset, the atmosphere of Mockingjay is nihilistic, a world where there isn't much point to anything, no reality except love (perhaps). Not quite the kind of satisfaction I anticipated two years ago.

For sure, Collins didn't take an easy Twilight out, where "everyone gets everything they want, even if their desires necessitate an about-face in characterization or the messy introduction of some back story. Nobody has to renounce anything or suffer more than temporarily—in other words, grandeur is out." (Publishers Weekly)

There is plenty of suffering and renunciation in Mockingjay. More than enough. However, that last line definitely rings true for both series finales--"grandeur is out."

As John Goldthwaite would add, "Such a belief [that the world is Sustained in its travels] is the one just warrant for inflicting pain in a children’s book—for only by its felt presence can the pain be borne.... The only lasting justification for make-believe literature is the redemptive grace of agape, through which the world, with all its perils and squalor, may be revealed to children as a comic arena socially and a terra incognita invested with true mystery and true light."


  1. I agree completely. I LOVED the first book, read the second with bated breath, then when I read the last pages of Mockingjay, I was SO disappointed.

    I realized the author felt more concern for her agenda/war homilies than for the character arc she so brilliantly built-up. It was truly a redemptionless ending that did not satisfy. All my kids read it and they felt the same way.

    I read an interesting article at Salon saying while Twilight's Bella was weak and driven by her romanticism, at least she went after what she really wanted and got it--unlike Katniss. *sigh*

    I would still recommend The Hunger Games trilogy as a worthy read, just don't get your hopes up for a worthy ending.

  2. I'm glad to see someone else wanted some hope at the end of Mockingjay. It's not that I necessarily wanted a "happily ever after" ending. I understand that a lot of times real life doesn't have happily ever after. But books aren't life. Characters don't have to win, but I want them to be better in some way for having gone through whatever happens to them in the story. Katniss is no better at the end of this series, and actually may be worse than before. It's very bleak.

  3. Hmm. I don't know if I agree that she was dead inside.

    I saw it a little differently, and perhaps this comes from suffering from a very difficult childhood myself.

    To me the ending of Mockingjay is beautiful and realistic. Katniss and Peeta have a relationship bound by more than just storybook love. It's real, it's actual, it has issues... sometimes he doesn't really like her (for whatever reasons) sometimes she screams in her sleep. She is scared for the future of her children, she is scared at having to talk about those dark choices in her past.

    Are these not things that every relationship has to deal with (minus maybe the screaming in the sleep)?

    She's not dead inside, she's alive in a new, far more realistic way.

    I thought it was beautiful, and that she was better. Because she had survived and grown and learned and gained.

    I saw Katniss as stronger... it's a fragile, unwanted sort of strength but it's a beautiful realistic outcome that is realized over and over and over in our world today.

    It reminds me poignantly of an article I read about the child soldiers of Africa. This one couple had escaped to the United States and was now married with a child. They spoke of finding a new rejuvenation of life through their infant, how they were capable of seeing hope on the horizon because they had one another and her. This is how I imagine Katniss.

    I cried at the end of the book knowing that she was able to find a semblance of joy in adulthood.

  4. Oh... and then I forgot to link to my own review of Mockingjay ::head-desk:: which you might find as far more joyful. :)


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