29 May, 2012


I had strong feelings about The Hunger Games and shared them a couple weeks ago. I didn't decide to read the last two in the series in order to blog review them, but now that I have I may as well share some thoughts.

Up until the very end of the third book, I found the reading pleasant and the story engaging. By the end of Mockingjay, the series was just too heavy for me. I was seriously disheartened by the story, and never felt like the author made it worth that cost for me. My review would be that as a thrill ride, the trilogy meets expectations. As young adult literature, it's a poor offering.

Why? Simple. By the end of the book only a handful of characters have shown themselves unambiguously good, and they have been destroyed. Peeta is the best of the bunch, and by the end he's been destroyed and remade so many times as to be unsurvivable. The series does a phenomenal job of portraying the pointlessness of good.

From here, I'll be putting up big *** spoilers. ***

There were two big hooks on which the story hung, romance and politics. Let me take them in order.

The romantic money quote was Gale's, "Katniss will pick whoever she thinks she can't survive without."

Gale is right, and the author's description of Katniss' self-assessment is consistent with the character's story arc. Katniss really is so mercenary through every the page of the story.

She suffers an army of doubts and guilts as each of her decisions hurts Gale, Peeta, and a legion of innocents  along the way. Suzanne Collins adds Katniss' traumatic issues to her original poverty and loss issues, creating an insurmountable cluster of obstacles to her ability to love. Katniss grows further and further from being able to make those decisions necessary to build a family.

The portrayal is compelling and sad.

Why do this to a character? What's Collins' point?

In the last handful of pages Katniss gives a thumbnail sketch of how she and Peeta overcome the scars each bears. Katniss does not grow into the skills of inner survival within the story. The story is unrelentingly about scar layering on scar. Incredibly and pointlessly, the salvation of Katniss never makes it into the dramatic narrative. Suddenly it's the last chapter of Mockingjay, Gale is gone, and Peeta is inevitable. No choice. No struggle. Just a convenient end to turmoil. Katniss never crawls out of the deep crater into which Collins' story has blown her. She just sort of tells us about her twenty years of recovery as if emerging from it were a difficult but undramatic thing.

Politics holds center stage in Mockingjay (immediately behind the action, of course.) The rebel District 13 stands opposed to the tyrannical capitol, Panem.

Panem gave us the hunger games in the first place. Panem is debauched on the luxuries stolen from the twelve districts. Its citizens are weak in body, mind and character. Its leader is greedy for power in its purest form, and will do anything to make sure his people continually swim in the bread and circuses that are so key to securing his power.

District Thirteen is the mirror image of Panem. Its citizens know no pleasure, and are strong in body, mind and discipline. Its leader is also hungry for power and will do anything to make sure her people continually swim in the revenge dream that's so key to securing her power.

The mirror imaging builds steadily throughout Mockingjay until it culminates in the rebel leader's decision to either exterminate her vanquished foes or subject them to a hunger games populated by Panem's children. Collins labors mightily to move the reader from sympathy with the rebels to disgust with Panem, the rebels, and presumably all governments.

The money quote of the political story is Plutarch's. He delivers this whilst the rebels are dreaming of the peace and the new republic surely just around the corner upon the war's end. Katniss asks him whether he's preparing for another war. He replies, "Oh, not now. Now we're in that sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horros should never be repeated. But collective thinking is usually short-lived. We're fickle, stupid being with short memories and a great gift for self-destruction. Although who knows? Maybe this will be it, Katniss." Plutarch being named after the great historian and being cabinet-head of the new nation, this quote is quite fitting. More to the point, it's hopeless and delivered in a moment of giddy happiness. The contradiction should not be lost on the reader.

Mayhap government in abstract is OK, but it'll never work in real life. Collins doesn't give us a money quote on the principles of governing (she does offer a vague hope in republicanism) but my impression is she wants to scream out to our children that the worst of us always rise to the top. At the very least, we should be very suspicious of any and every government ... and of any who would oppose government.

To say in giving us Coin she's given us no Washington is the deepest of understatements. Coin is as evil as Snow, and in every way. Before the book ends, Coin has attempted the murder of Katniss, succeeded at murdering Prim, killed hundreds of innocent children, and re-instituted the hunger games for exactly the same purpose as Panem instituted them in the first place. It also bears saying Coin is no Lincoln, and has no interest in reconstruction. Given the opportunity to give our children an incredible set of role models, Collins ignores every redeeming character of history.

Instead, she's given us the ugliness of the French Revolution without all the inconvenient restraints of reality. Robespierre and Napoleon couldn't genetically engineer monsters that hiss Katniss' name, smell like roses, and hardly knew how to die, nor could they invent parachuting presents with which to immolate children. What's more, I question whether even such monsters as Robespierre and Napolean would have done so if they could. Collins' leaders only regret that their evil is thwarted. She carefully mingles her mixture of fantasy and hyper-reality with her presentation of geo-politics. In the end, the conclusion is unstated, subliminal, and unavoidable. Leaders are the real inhuman monsters.
The message can actually be helpful - in its place and time. It reminded me the "helpful" intrusions of the TSA into our privates and the intrusion of thought police for our well-being are not to be blindly trusted. She has a solid point, but I question whether it's the point to be making to adolescents. And I'm sure the use of hyper-violence and the lack of any redemptive character are unconscienable in a book for teens.

America is still a republic, and government of some form is necessary. People do very poorly without some kind of objective justice system in place, and the despair this series promotes is an enemy of that cooperation needed to form a just society. The instinct to cooperation is much harder to build than that to selfish cynicism. If The Hunger Games contained any meaningful example of constructive cooperation, I missed it.

In the end, every character's arc shared one commonality. To the degree that character was strong and willing to be unscrupulous, he or she was a winner. To the degree a character was weak and/or good, he or she was a loser. I believe Peeta, Boggs, and Finnick were the best characters in the book. I hardly need to tell how they were rewarded for their decency. May the Lord shower blessings on those who decide to be like Peeta after all they saw him endure. And need I point out Katniss was a winner? A guilt-plagued winner, but a winner from start to end.

The author's stated purpose in writing this series was to explore the effects of war and violence on those coming of age. I cannot imagine any value in this book, except to inflict a small piece of that  damage on our children, and that without any redeeming counter-example to the destruction. It's an emminently readable series, up until the far too heavy ending, and that discourages me only more. Rather like the taste of fine liquor, once it's grown on you it seems hard to ever lose it again.

I wish our children didn't have such a taste for this fare. I wish I didn't.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I doubt I'll take the time to read the books I have far too many on my list. I've yet to read To Kill A Mockingbird to honor my brother and at the request of my son it's a must so I've added that one to the pile.

Miss Littles is hard at it as I type reading one of the books. One of my friends has read them all and is eager to sit with the girls and talk about them.

As for me I watched the movie and found it to be okay. Nothing too exciting.

I quess I'm not against them. My son read them quickly and seemed to like them, my daughter was drawn in.

I know that there are far worse then these books out there. Trust me I know.