THE HUNGER GAMES, CATCHING FIRE, MOCKINGJAY
I started writing this post back in June when I finished the third book of the Hunger Games trilogy. Based on the testimony of my friends, I expected the series to be full of violence, despair, and hopelessness, and while all three elements were present (in copious amounts), what I didn’t expect was the amount of *heart *in the story. I don’t think this is the greatest sci-fi/fantasy series of all time—I don’t even think it will last more than thirty years—but I am tired of Christians condemning it out of hand. (I do agree with Nate’s evaluation of the faux-revolution, but I don’t think that Collins should apologize because her protagonist isn’t a gladiator like Maximus Prime.)
Warning: This post is about as full of spoilers as the dumpster behind a Chinese restaurant. On the other hand, if you’re not familiar with the books, you probably won’t understand the discussion anyway, so you’re safe.
Needless to say, there is no comparison between Suzanne Collins’ writing and JRR Tolkien’s, or between the richness of CS Lewis’ imagination and the stark “realism” of the Hunger Games universe. Collins’ writing is almost painful to read sometimes, and the scenes between her “lovers” are as awkward and foolish as the imagination of a fourteen year old. Choices that are presented as dilemmas are almost laughable, characters make decisions that are nonsensical, and the whole world hinges on the principle that survival is the ultimate goal.
Or does it?
One of the most intriguing things about the series is its perspective. All three books are written consistently in first-person through the eyes of the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. Katniss is brash rather than brave, fearful rather than merciful, and desperate rather than sacrificial. She volunteers to replace her sister in the 74th Hunger Games. An act of sacrifice? Absolutely not. It is an act of self-preservation. Katniss has nothing to live for except her family. She says as much time after time over the course of the three volumes. She understands two things, family and debt. She cannot stand to rely on anyone or anything, despite her feral “loyalty” to her mother and sister. Plus, she is petulant, irrational, and angry for almost the entire story. The only times she isn’t complaining to herself are when she is being kissed by one of the two boys that she just can’t make up her mind about. “I love him, I love him not, I love him! Wait… I love him not?”
The story is written in the first person, in the present tense. Now, any writing teacher, editor, or good friend will tell you that the present tense is emphatically *not *the voice in which to write a novel. It almost always feels forced, gamey. It makes the action seem like a graphic novel. In this case, Collins’ editor was either an idiot or a genius. While reading the first chapter of each book, I nearly stopped several times because I could barely stand the writing style. It’s full of unnecessary details, explanation. Sentence fragments like lopped-off boughs. With the success of the books, I can hardly imagine what this story might have been in the hands of a master like Ray Bradbury.
But again, the book succeeds in spite of everything, and the quirky writing actually *helps *its case. The POV is, as I said, first person, which means we see the whole story filtered through Katniss’ thoughts. There were many times, believe me, when I wanted to slap that girl, tell her to get out of the way so I could see what the rest of the characters were doing. She is surrounded by people who are *vastly *more interesting than she is. But here’s the thing: Collins knows just how irritating Katniss is. Many of my friends suggested that I read the first book (The Hunger Games) and stop there. But if I had just read the first and not the others, I would have come away from the story hating Katniss. She isn’t quite as airheaded as Bella Swan (who surely deserves a Darwin Award), but she is just as selfish and almost as unreasonable. But again, Collins knows this. The complete story is one of self-realization and semi-repentance. Katniss comes to understand herself and her responsibilities… almost. No protagonist should be required to complete their journey by the end of the book. That is unfair and unrealistic. (I suppose that last statement will probably spawn a discussion all by itself, but there it is.)
Some people (many Christians) think that such a violent book should not be read by children. That may be the case, I won’t argue that point. What your children should read is no business of mine. But many of the arguments against the violence go like this: “It’s promoting a Darwinistic view of the world, that all we are is animals and violence is just part of life.” Well, that’s stupid. Read the story. That is exactly what it is opposed to. (See this post from earlier this year about violence in the movie version.)
Anyway, back to the games. There are essentially three Games in the trilogy, one per volume. The first Games are unexpected and violent. They turn our characters against one another and against themselves. They are just as shocked by the reality as any of us would be if we were suddenly thrust into the same situation. What do you do, in the absence of Christ? You fight for your life, and if you survive, you try to forget. Remember: all these characters are at the best agnostic. They argue for the sanctity of life, but they realize that men are full of violence and deceit. I am sick of books that pretend that man is basically good. Wrong. Man is depraved, evil, heartless. The sooner he realizes that, the better. By the end of the trilogy, Katniss has more hope of finding Christ than many Christians who cover their children’s eyes when they see the book on the checkout counter at the library.
By the way, Tolkien does the same thing with his ending. His ending is not all roses and sunsets. He is more or less realistic about it (apart from the tearful affair with Frodo at the Grey Havens): the Shire is sad and full of soot, the hobbits clear it up, then set about fixing it up. Sam and Rosie get married and have children. It’s always tough to end a fantasy story. Lewis gets around it because of the episodic nature of his stories, as well as by moving into the actual Narnian eschaton at the end of The Last Battle. In any fantasy series you can think of, where the fate of the (known) world is turned around, there are two options for a satisfactory ending: 1) a victory and brief respite, with the hope of resurrection and final judgment, or 2) the actual judgment itself. If you have a respite with no hope of final judgment, you have yourself a cosmic battle between good and evil, with no hope of satisfaction.
What makes the book tolerable, more than anything, is the fact that Collins loves her characters. She put them in this world, in this story, and she cannot let them live in a world that is inconsistent or unfair. It may seem unfair to them, certainly, but what’s unfair (really unfair) about kids stabbing one another with spears in an arena? Do these children deserve death less than anyone else? The Bible says that the sins of the fathers will be visited on the children. I don’t think these children are necessarily suffering for their crimes, except the crimes of selfishness, cowardice, envy, gluttony, pride, idolatry, and being related to Adam. Too violent, is it? Far less visceral than the world that we live in.
Is Collins treatment of the world unfair to her readers? There is laughter in the world, as well as sadness. Life as well as death. Joy as well as sorrow. Remember, though, that we are reading this story as Katniss, a bitter, angry girl who hates the world, hates everything in it (including her sister). So it’s no surprise that the world seems heartless and hopeless. With a certain attitude, everything will.
You can only tell a story by its ending. I began the third book of the trilogy with great trepidation, as many (many) of my friends had told me not to bother reading it. Again, the love triangle is nauseating and again, I found myself wanting to push Katniss out of the way so I could read the story. But as everything goes downhill, the characters only get more compelling.
And most importantly, Katniss finally comes to realize the depths of her selfishness. There are several great moments in the story (Peeta’s cold dismissal, Boggs’ evaluation) where Katniss sees herself through the eyes of others and recognizes how selfish, foolish, and manipulative she really is. Worst of all, Katniss has to ask herself what she really wants. She wants to kill President Snow, save her family, absolve her debt to Peeta, keep Gale as a hot-bodied friend. But what does she *really *want? She says something in book 2, I think it’s when Peeta is holding her for the first time, “For the first time, I stopped feeling scared.” She wants to stop feeling scared. And then, as Gale says in book 3, “Katniss will choose whoever she can’t survive without.” Katniss is scared, and more than anything, she wants to survive.
Collins does a good job of subverting the genre as far as the plot is concerned (no war is as clean as those presented in typical fantasy literature), but the heart of the story comes back to her characters and the change they undergo. The story ends with Katniss trying to remind herself that there is indeed goodness in the world, in spite of everything she’s seen. She makes a list of every good thing she has ever seen anyone do, and repeats it to herself in her head. But how can goodness wash out that much blood? If you asked Katniss, she would say something along the lines of, “Because it has to.” And she’s right. We know that bad is not good enough. That there is evil in the world and we can’t fix it ourselves. There is no explicit mention of Christ in The Hunger Games, but throughout the story, there are yearnings that point to Him. He is deafening in His absence. The whole trilogy feels like the prostitute who dragged herself into the house of Simon the Pharisee to wash the Messiah’s feet. Dirty, ragged, broken. But willing to repent.
Collins knows that her story is incomplete, and her characters know, and that makes all the difference.