Friday, November 15, 2013

The Hunger Games: In Defense of the Third Novel, Mockingjay

With novels like The Chocolate Wars, A Separate Peace, and Lord of the Flies under its banner, Young Adult literature was never a bastion of sweetness and optimism.  Rather, Young Adult literature (or "YA," as it is fashionably called) is used frequently to explore dark themes about ourselves and our society.  In fact, one could even argue that YA novels are often darker than adult novels, not only because the events are happening to kids, but also because authors can take advantage of the "kids' novels are safe" misconception to push the envelope.

Certainly The Hunger Games trilogy does not shy from darkness.  It's a post-Apocalyptic world where North America has been separated into 13 districts, each with its own specialty, while an oppressive Capitol rules over all of them.  If you have not read The Hunger Games, or you have only seen the first movie, stop reading now because I will be discussing the first and second novel along with the third installment.


Although The Hunger Games was about kids killing each other in a ritual series of games, the author was clear about its true intention: to expose the ugliness of a society that would turn children on one another.  Even though Katniss successfully killed kids from other districts, she knew that the true enemy was the Capitol, headed by the cruel President Snow.  While she was technically the "winner" of the 74th Hunger Game, she knew that there were no true winners while the Capitol kept the districts and its citizens oppressed.

This was made quite clear in the second novel, Catching Fire.  Katniss and Peeta's fleeting displays of solidarity with the other districts were met with a harsh crackdown -- they and all of the previous Hunger Games winners were forced to compete in the 75th Hunger Game.  At first Katniss's chances of survival looked grim, until it became clear that the other players were protecting her because she was the Mockingjay, a symbol of hope for the growing resistance.  Yet even though Katniss was spared, her district, District 12, experienced a much grimmer fate: it was bombed into rubble, killing most of its people (including some significant minor characters).      

That is where the third novel, Mockingjay, comes in.  Katniss is taken from the 75th Hunger Game to District 13, the mining and science district that was thought to be destroyed.  Instead, its people have gone underground -- literally.  The citizens of District 13 live in a network of underground caverns, designed like bunkers to withstand enemy bombing.  Led by President Alma Coin, they have been plotting to enlist the other districts in a great rebellion and bring down the Capitol.  For that, they need Katniss to present herself as the Mockingjay, around whom the masses can rally.

Criticisms and Defense of Mockingjay

Mockingjay, in many ways, seems like the inevitable final chapter of such a saga.  Where else can a story about citizenry abused by their powerful overlords lead except violence and death?  Yet many people object to Mockingjay as being too dark.  Katniss suffers grim tragedy upon grim tragedy -- first her home is obliterated, and then her sister Prim, the good-hearted person for whom she volunteered to be in the 74th Hunger Game, is killed during a bombing that seems to occur as an afterthought.

Prim's death is the sickening conclusion of what looks like the most satisfying portion of the novel: Katniss leading a band of rebels through the Capitol in order to take out President Snow.  The entire sequence feels like yet another Hunger Game, as it turns out the entire Capitol is boobie-trapped, much to the surprise and horror of Capitol citizens.  Katniss overcomes great obstacles, as one after another of her team succumbs, and then just as she reaches President Snow's mansion... nothing.  Defeat.  Even when Katniss gets another chance to kill President Snow, she instead redirects her fire and kills President Coin.  Katniss does get a happy ending of sorts, but it doesn't seem to even remotely make up for what she lost.  Maybe it would have been naive to expect a truly cathartic ending, but damn.

I can understand the frustration of readers who went into Mockingjay thinking that Katniss would finally settle scores with the Capitol.  If anything, Katniss is more helpless in Mockingjay than she ever was -- a pawn of President Coin, used in propaganda films and kept out of actual combat until she is forced to go it alone.  Even the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale is unsatisfying, with Peeta brainwashed by the Capitol and Gale becoming a hardened combat soldier.

At seventeen, she's seen enough for a lifetime.
At the same time, I like that the author, Suzanne Collins, chose that direction.  Mockingjay is an inversion of the usual trope that has the hero in a final battle with the Big Bad, after which everyone lives happily ever after.  Real life isn't like that, and young adults will get a taste.  Mockingjay shows us that the line between "good guys" and "bad guys" is not always clear; that even after the Big Bad is finally killed, society can still be in ruins with little hope of an easy fix.  The Capitol ruled with an iron fist for generations; that can't just be undone overnight.  Victories are small scale, such as Katniss and Peeta's cautious efforts to build a new life and raise their children without fear.  Their entire world could fall to pieces again at any moment, but for now, it is holding up.  What is wrong with exposing young adult readers to that different sort of ending?

The Flaws of Mockingjay

I find Mockingjay to be a fairly courageous book, as Collins had to know that she would receive some criticism.  At the same time, it is not perfect.  Prim's death happens "off screen," as it were, and is too sudden and random to have the desired impact.  Also, Prim herself is not a well-defined character, so I didn't feel anything from her death except sadness for Katniss, knowing what Prim meant to her.

Likewise, Katniss's murder of President Coin does not resonate as much as it could have because Coin is not that distinct a character.  She is cold, no-nonsense, and calculating, but otherwise decent enough until Katniss learns that she was behind the attack that resulted in Prim's death.  I felt like Katniss was too quick to side with President Snow against her based on his claim that he would never lie.  Of course he would never lie, the murderous sociopath who had no qualms about pitting children against one another in combat.  Even if President Snow is telling the truth about Coin, what makes him less horrible, less deserving of death?  "Sure I'm evil, but at least I'm upfront about it"?  Coin might be ruthless, and her idea of putting Capitol children in their own Hunger Games pretty horrible, but I just don't feel her enough as an evil person.  Her revealed evil just feels too plot driven, like "we're in the final third and there needs to be a twist, so here you go."  It would have worked better if Coin had a more fleshed-out personality.  Where we had come to trust her, only to realize, with a chill, that her evil was there all along.

Otherwise, I can't fault Mockingjay for the twist.  Sometimes the good guys can be bad -- for understandable reasons -- in different ways.  Interestingly, Gale appears to be on his way to becoming one of the "bad guys," but in his case, we understand his journey, why he would choose that path.  Maybe the final twist should have been Katniss realizing that Gale purposely orchestrated the attack that killed Prim, and then killing him instead of Coin.  Katniss killing her childhood friend?  Heartbreaking.


So there you have it -- my defense of Mockingjay.  Not the perfect book, but a challenging one, and better for having chosen a bleak ending over the happy shiny one.  So many adult novels, let alone young adult, fail to do this, so thank heaven for the ones that do.

The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

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