Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Catching Fire and Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

The more I think about the sequels to The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, the more I appreciate what Suzanne Collins was trying to say, and what she managed to do.  Without giving away too much of the plot and ending, let me make two points that stick with me.

The first, is that Collins illustrated a concept which I have been saying for years: Humans have an unending capacity to destroy each other, and when we really get going, we seem to enjoy it.  The Hunger Games themselves were sufficient to illustrate this, but Collins seems to have made the quantum leap from creating a dystopian fiction to creating a dystopian world to prove it.  Catching Fire illustrates the fact that no one is safe from those wishing to destroy them: the meager defenses we construct around our psyches and the lies we tell ourselves about our place in the world are easily cast aside by those with power.  Mockingjay takes this illustration ever further, and proves how effective those with the will to do so can be at destroying people who stand in their way.  I would have thought that I was reading too much into Collins’ work on this regard, were it not for the acknowledgements in the back of Mockingjay in which the author thanks her father for being diligent in teaching his children about the human consequences of war.  I doubt Collins could see the end of Mockingjay as she wrote The Hunger Games, but her ability to get to these revelations in the end is highly commendable.  For these reasons, I think that The Hunger Games series should become standard reading in high school English classes: giving students a way to connect to the concepts of human depravity through literary study might not touch all of them, but it should touch some.

Second, I initially thought that my concerns following the first book were valid – the author spent the second and third books trying to rebuild a dystopian world into something recognizable and lovable.  She succeeds, but by making her main character fail.  Following Katniss’s actions in both Hunger Games she participated in, and then the fall-out from her role as a revolutionary figure-head, there is no way that a human being would feel normal.  My concerns from the first book that Collins’ characters weren’t acknowledging upsetting emotions completely disappeared while reading books two and three.  Finally, Collins taps into the font of dynamics that exist in the world that she created where forcing children to kill one another for sport is a reality.  Following her actions that result in death and innumerable losses of all kinds, Katniss is finally forced to confront her emotional turmoil, and it almost breaks her.  And here’s where Collins’ genius steps in: while the world around her rights itself, Katniss is trapped in a dystopian reality from which it seems she can never emerge.  There is closure for the reader, knowing that the goodness that one always hopes to encounter exists in the world, but there is no denying that Collins taps into the purpose of a good dystopian fiction and leaves despair behind for her reader.

There are some problems with these sequels, no matter how good they are.  While reading them, they stood out at me, making me not want to continue the series, but in retrospect, I’m glad I pushed through.  The first problem was that Collins seemed to be retreading ground she had already covered in Catching Fire.  At the time, it reeked of trying to recapture the spark that brought The Hunger Games so much attention, and I wasn’t horribly interested in seeing where the story was going.  The second problem was with the third book, and it was the complete opposite of the problem I had with Catching Fire; Mockingjay is so far away from the first books that it’s hard to conceive that they are all part of the same series.  The Katniss we first meet enjoys the peaceable calm of hunting in the quiet forest, while the Katniss of Mockingjay is engaged in guerilla tactics at their most basic tenants.  There is no shocking break in the character profile, and the reader can follow the developments within that profile and it makes sense, but Mockingjay struck me as a book my dad (with his interest in military tactical history) would enjoy, while I would be hard-pressed to get him to read through the first 50 pages of The Hunger Games.  

Now that I think of it, that’s an odd shift: Katniss’ activities within the Hunger Games were also tactical and guerrilla in nature, but they are light-years away from how she is portrayed in Mockingjay.  Maybe it’s a question of setting and equipment, but there is a markedly different flavour between the first and third books.  Collins, then, must be acknowledged for her ability to make that transition for her characters without making it seem hurried or out of place.  

All in all, this is a great series of books to read – for youths and adults.  I have a feeling that I’ll be mulling over the plot and character developments for a few weeks while I try to reconcile myself to what Collins wrote and how it fits into my understanding of both human nature and literary development.  I am now greatly looking forward to the upcoming feature film The Hunger Games, and can only hope it does well enough to warrant film sequels as well.

1 comment:

  1. Well I agree with you. I guess there couldn't be a happy ending for Katniss after all she went through. I just felt totally unsatisfied when there wasn't a happy ending for her, since I had invested so much emotional energy in her and Peeta. I'm glad she ended up with Peeta, but I wish so bad it could have been her and Peeta from the beginning, not the end. Of course, not possible, but I'm being a selfish reader here. Plus, I think the Prim thing was a low blow. lol.

    The only thing I disagree with you on, and I'm sure a lot of people disagree with me on this, but to me this is NOT a children's book. Maybe OLDER teens, but there's no way I would let my kids read this if they were any younger than 16 or 17. Then again, I feel the same way about the Twilight series and the later books of Harry Potter. The themes are just too adult!