Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Revisiting The Hunger Games

It's been hard to miss that the movie The Hunger Games has recently come out in theaters. Jason and I haven't seen it yet, but I've heard back from several people who read the books and have now seen the movie that it's great, and follows the book exactly. Which, awesome! That's a relief, because book to movie transitions can be really tricky.

Because Jason and I are waiting to see it until it comes out in the dollar theater, I reread the books last week. I wanted to re-familiarize myself with them and also help myself remain patient while waiting to see the movie. Reading them again also prompted me to finally write this blog post, which I wanted to write the first time after I read Mockingjay, but never did.

Important note: If you have not read all three books of The Hunger Games and do not wish to know what happens, do not read this post. I am going to use details that will reveal the ending.

Everyone, it seems, loves the first book. Everybody likes the second, either more or less than the first. But the third book? Few people like the third book. Over and over when I've talked with people about the books, the consensus is the same: "No, I don't really like Mockingjay. I was disappointed. It isn't as good as the first two. It isn't a good book."

I disagree.

Mockingjay is not a happy book, but that does not mean I do not like it. It does not mean it is not good. When I think of Mockingjay, I do not feel happy. I do not smile. It does not bring me joy. It fills me with deep, powerful, sadness. I mourn for the loss of the people, friends, family members, who have been lost.  They are all dead, and I cannot bring them back. I mourn for the loss of sanity, the loss of wholeness, in the characters that remain. I mourn for their torn-apart world.

And that is exactly what Suzanne Collins wants.

Mockingjay is a good book because it is well written and it achieves its aims.

To substantiate this, we first need to define exactly what a "good book" is. What does a book need to be to be a "good book?" Does it need to be well known? Does it need to be popular? Does it need to be depressing? Does it need to be happy?  Does it need to be well written? Does it need to achieve its aims?

Let's take each point one by one.

"Does it need to be well known?" In my mind, this answer is clearly No. Say that some person lives as a hermit alongside a river in the middle of nowhere, and nobody knows who they are or that they even exist. And this hermit, out in the middle of nowhere, writes the best book ever. Really. It has everything - wonderful characters and character development, a great plot, perfect pacing, and a moving message that it is impossible not to take to heart. Is the book a bad book simply because it is not known, because no one knows it exists? No. It's still a good book. Simply because most people don't know it exists does not change that it is a good book. And so, we have to conclude that a book does not need to be well known to be good.

"Does it need to be popular?" Heck, no. Some of the most popular books are ones with very, very serious flaws (Twilight, anyone?). Just because it's popular does not mean it's well written. It means that it appeals to the masses in some way. I'm not saying all popular books are bad - that's obviously false as well. Many, many popular books are awesome. Harry Potter, for example, appeals to everyone and their grandma, and it's a great series. But we cannot use popularity as a barometer of "goodness."

"Does it need to be depressing?" My English teachers in high school certainly seemed to think so. Every single book we had to read - through all four years of high school - was depressing. The only exceptions I can think of were Huckleberry Finn (which was optional, so it doesn't even really count) and Catch 22 (which has some pretty depressing moments, though I do love it). Okay, it probably wasn't my English teachers' fault; it was whatever school board approved the required reading in our school district. They stunk. Anyway, sorry for the tangent about my long-held bitterness regarding the books we had to read during high school. What I'm really trying to get back to is that, no, books do not have to be depressing to be good. So many great books are hopeful, and uplifting, and good. Great plot, with good character development, and complex and thoughtful and intelligent stories. They end happily. And they are still good books.  So, no, books do not have to be depressing to be good.

"Does it need to be happy?" On the flip side, books do not need to be happy to be good books, either. Like I said, Catch 22 is an awesome book, but I wouldn't call it happy. Funny, yes. Fantastic, yes. But happy? No, I could not call it happy. Books do not have to be happy to be good.

"Does it need to be well written?" Now, this one I feel more confident saying yes, it has to be well written. The tricky thing here is that people will have different definitions of "well written." For the purposes of this discussion let's go with good characters and character development, good plot, good syntax, and good pacing/plot structure. I think a book has to have those things to be a "good book." If you're missing one or more of those things, you've got a problem.

"Does it need to achieve its aims?" Yes, I think so. If a book sets out with a message in mind, I think that it needs to convey that message clearly to its readers, especially if it wants its readers to act on that message. If it fails at its central purpose, then it must have some serious redeeming qualities to be considered a good book. But a book that sets out with a mission in mind, and then accomplishes that mission, is a good book.

So, does Mockingjay have the qualities that make it a good book? Well, yes, it does. First of all, it is well-written. The characters are believable, as is their progression throughout all of the events that take place. They grow, learn, develop, change. They are three-dimensional. The plot structure is good as well; it builds in an arc to the climax, with a suitable but not overlong after-climax, and does it all at a good pace. The diction and syntax are well-chosen and varied. And of course, the plot itself is gripping and interesting. Even those who dislike it must admit that it is skillfully written.

Secondly, does it achieve its aims? Does it get its message across? Well, Mockingjay has several messages. It explores the justification of war. What is okay in war? What isn't? Is it all worth it? It also forces the reader to compare themselves to the shallow, apathetic residents of the Capitol, and draw unwanted, unfavorable parallels with their own lives. Finally, its main point, the point that's absolutely central to the third book, is that war is terrible, and unpredictable, and bad things happen that you can't take back.

It achieves the first point - exploring the justification of acts of war - through Gale's story. In Mockingjay, he works with Beetee to create new, unprecedented weapons and traps against the Capitol. Katniss, upon learning of the traps - which take advantage of things like love and compassion - is sickened. From the book:

"'That seems to be crossing some kind of line,' I say. 'So anything goes?' They both stare at me -- Beetee with doubt, Gale with hostility. 'I guess there isn't a rule book for what might be acceptable to do to another human being.'

'Sure there is. Beetee and I have been following the same rule book President Snow used when he hijacked Peeta,' says Gale."

The problem is (and Katniss realizes this), is that the capitol is evil. When you follow the same rule book as them, you lose your humanity as well.

Later, Katniss witnesses the pain caused by Gale's strategies first hand, when the rebels eventually approve of and act on his plan to trap thousands of people inside the mountain fortress "the Nut." While discussing how to overcome the mountain, Gale says:

"'We don't need to control it if we give up the idea that we have to possess the Nut,' says Gale. 'Only shut it down.'

'So you're suggesting we start avalanches and block the entrances?' asks Lyme.

'That's it,' says Gale. 'Trap the enemy inside, cut off from supplies. Make it impossible for them to send out their hovercraft.'

While everyone considers the plan, Boggs flips through a stack of blueprints of the Nut and frowns. "You risk killing everyone inside. Look at the ventilation system. It's rudimentary at best. Nothing like what we have in Thirteen. It depends entirely on pumping in air from the mountainsides. Block those vents and you'll suffocate whoever is trapped.'

'They could still escape through the train tunnel to the square,' says Beetee.

'Not if we blow it up,' says Gale brusquely. His intent, his full intent, becomes clear. Glade has no interest in preserving the lives of those in the Nut. No interest in caging the prey for later use.

This is one of his death traps."

Katniss is horrified. Through the next chapter - in which the rebels carry out Gale's plan and kill almost everyone in the mountain - Katniss keeps thinking of back home, of the mine accident that killed her father and Gale's. Katniss has not lost the perspective that these are still human beings, people with emotions and lives and families like herself. Gale, however, has lost that. His hatred of the Capitol and those who support it has blinded him, has smothered the normal emotions of empathy and understanding and compassion. He only has hatred and cold, calculated cunning left. And he uses it.

At the very end of the book, the very worst thing that could happen to Katniss does. She watches as Prim, her beloved sister, dies. And the cruel irony of Prim's death? She is killed by one of the very traps that Gale designed to be used against the Capitol. It is used, without his knowledge or consent, to kill the sister of the girl he loves. Obviously, Katniss can never forget this, never forget who designed the trap that killed her sister. And both she and Gale know this. He leaves her, after apologizing and acknowledging that there is a divide between them that can never now be breached.

Do you think Gale has a happy life? Do you think the horror of what he did in the war ever fully rests upon him? Maybe. Maybe not. But it is certainly something Suzanne Collins wishes us to consider.

A second message that began in the Hunger Games and continues in Mockingjay is the comparison that Collins forces the reader to make between themselves and the residents of the Capitol. It makes the reader question who they are more like - Katniss, the strong hero, or the Capitol residents, who are bathed in excess and do not realize how shallow their lives have become. They have an abundance of food, resources, and gizmos; they wile away their days with gossip and entertainment and silly parties. Meanwhile, the rest of the people in their world are suffering. In every district, people are hungry and dying and sick, unnoticed and uncared for by the people of the Capitol.

As you read, you think about your own life, and the people in the world that you are ignoring or forgetting about. Yes, you think, I have a comfortable home and lots of food and clothes. And yes, there are thousands, millions, billions of people in the world who are hungry, who are suffering, who live under oppressive and cruel governments. And I am doing nothing…

Unwillingly, you are forced to come to the conclusion that you are more like a resident of the Capitol than of the districts. You are not starving; you are living in excess. The things you buy that are cheap are cheap because they are made in poor conditions by people paid too little on the other side of the world. And what are you doing to change that? Do you care? Or are you too concerned with yourself? Your appearance? What the celebrities are doing in Hollywood? The comparisons between ourselves and the Capitol residents are chilling, and impossible not to make. Yes, Collins successfully brings this point home.

Finally, the main point - that war is terrible, and unpredictable, and irreversible. Oh, how Suzanne Collins makes this point. Finnick dies. Prim dies. Cinna dies. Boggs dies. Rue dies. Madge dies. Portia dies. Thresh dies. Cecelia dies. Wiress dies. Mags dies. Countless others - in District 12, in District 8, in the Nut, across the whole country, in the Capitol - die. Annie loses her husband. Gale loses the girl that he loves. Peeta is tortured into insanity. Katniss loses her home. Her best friend. The boy she loves. Her sister. Everything.

If this book were like so many others - where the hero never questions the justification of their actions, where all the main characters somehow make it through intact, where the story takes a straightforward path and only minor endeavors fail - I think people would like it. But none of those things happen. Katniss questions the rebels and their leader, President Coin, because she sees unsettling similarities between them and the current cruel leaders. Katniss does not have a "clean" motivation to bring down the government; she's ruled by emotions such as hate and revenge that cloud her vision. Prim and Finnick and Cinna and so many others die. Peeta is tortured into insanity and has to battle his way back to his true personality. The plot isn't strictly linear, the battles aren't clean, and sometimes there's questionable tactics used against others. Katniss's last mission, which takes up the last third of the book, is a complete and utter failure. She doesn't accomplish her goal (assassinating President Snow) and several good characters die along the way, sacrificing their lives for…for what? Nothing. Their lives are wasted.

At the very beginning of Mockingjay, Katniss asks herself, "To become the Mockingjay…could any good I do possibly outweigh the damage?" And I think that is a central question of the book. Is this war just? Yes, absolutely. The people in the districts are being killed, tortured, enslaved. They need to overthrow the Capitol and start a new government. But does that mean this war will be any less terrible than any other? No.

So does the good that they achieve outweigh the damage of the war? If you look at it objectively, you have to answer yes. They free hundreds of thousands of people from slavery, abuse, and death. They create a new republic that will protect that freedom and allow people to live their lives as they wish and to have a chance of happiness.

But you, the reader, have slowly learned everything about Katniss Everdeen - her past, her family, her friends, her desperate desire to survive and to save all those that she loves. And you are haunted, tortured, when she does not succeed. You, who have been inside Katniss's head for three books, who like and care about her, Peeta, Prim, Haymitch, and everyone else, do not look at it objectively. You care about the individual cost the war extracts. Who cares that it is almost a statistical impossibility that everyone you care about will live through the war? You want them to. And when they die, one by one, you care. You care when Finnick dies and his wife Annie is left a widow. You care when Peeta is tortured into insanity. You care when Gale crosses invisible lines of humanity and kills thousands of people. You care when Katniss watches Prim burst into flame and die. You are not reading objectively. And when everyone you care about is dead, or insane, or severely traumatized and depressed, you will not be happy.

So why don't people like Mockingjay? Because of all the bad things that happen and all the people that die. But what did Suzanne Collins need to do to get her point across that war is truly terrible? Have a lot of bad things happen and have a lot of people die. So, it was really inevitable that most people were not going to like Mockingjay. Its fundamental message was always going to go against what readers wanted out of it. They wanted a war that was terrible, but not that terrible. They expected characters to die, but not those characters. They knew that people can be psychologically broken by war, but not Katniss. Her life couldn't be destroyed. She couldn't get post-traumatic stress disorder. Not her.

And that's Suzanne Collins' point. She wanted to get the message across that war is crazy and unexpected and terrible. People die that you don't want to. Things happen that you wish never did. Even if a war is just and needs to be fought, as the one against the Capitol certainly did, it is still terrible.

Before Mockingjay was published, Suzanne Collin's editor read the book (obviously). When she reached the moment where Prim is killed, she cried out in despair and called Suzanne. From the New York Times article describing the moment:

"'No!' Stimola wailed. 'Don't do it.'

She was reacting as a reader, not a career adviser. but perhaps in the back of her mind she was imagining the emotions the plot twist might provoke in the book's youthful fans: depression rather than inspiration, desolation rather than triumph.

'Oh, but it has to be,' Collins told her. Stimola, paraphrasing, recalled the explanation Collins offered her over the phone: 'This is not a fairy tale; it's a war, and in war, there are tragic losses that must be mourned.'"

And, as much as the reader hates it, that's the truth.

So, is Mockingjay a good book? Yes. It is well written, and it gets the message across that it set out to spread. It is not a happy book. It is a book that puts you through the wringer, distresses you, makes you feel like you are losing people you care about. People do not like Mockingjay because they do not like those feelings. But don't shoot the messenger. Focus on the message.


  1. Wow, very good review Jocelyn! And I completely agree. I thought the book was definitely a tough one to get through emotionally, but I think that's what made it so good. I actually felt feelings other than just pure entertainment while I read it! I think that's great. Good post!

  2. Nicely written--I do agree with you. I really don't like reading any of the Hunger Games books. They all disturbed me and gave me nightmares and left me feeling depressed for weeks. But I read them anyway, because they're powerful and just so well done, and I couldn't stop. ;)

  3. Actually, my dislike for Mockingjay had nothing to do with the book being unhappy. In fact, the horrible war-torn world was exactly where I wanted the books to go. Of course they were not going to be happy. The first 2 weren't happy even if they weren't as depressing as the third.

    But I do not think the portrayal was done well. As you said, there were some points that Collins managed to get across, but I felt the book as a whole lacked a central idea. Though there were certain ideas that the reader could tell she wanted to get across, I felt they were disjointed, that the book lacked an overarching purpose, especially when you look at the series as a whole. It also bothered me that after all of that there was no real conclusion. We don't get to see what happens to the world after the new government takes over, and with what Katniss learns at the end, who is to say that the new government is any better than the old? If Collins wanted to say the world wasn't going to be perfect after the war, that's fine, but it would have been nice to at least know what happened after all the fighting and death.

    I also do not feel that the world was explored and developed as well as it could be. I felt that way even in the first book, and my fears were confirmed in the second. I think Collins only developed the world she created enough to give background for the Hunger Games and then decided to proceed with the series after. By that point, she had already established the world and could not change it enough to suit her needs. I feel we are given only a shallow account of why the world is the way it is and that instead of doing that for a purpose, Collins just didn't bother to go into greater depth herself. This is exemplified by how rushed Mockingjay is. I mean, you have the first 2 books that are really mostly about the Hunger Games (plot-wise at least) and then the war starts and ends all in one book? The development just isn't there. If she wanted to truly portray how horrible war is, she would draw it out more, allow for the rebellion to develop and allow for Katniss to develop with it. There could be so much more with what happened with District 13, what happened during the first war, what has been going on with each of the districts for the last 75 years, what people in the capital think happened, even what happened before all of this that made the world the way it is now. I think if this was going to be called a "good book," it would have clearer and more in-depth development, both as a story and as a post-apocalyptic world.

    I'm not trying to say it's a bad book or that I didn't enjoy it, and I'm sure you're right that a lot of people didn't like it because it was so horrific. And I think you do make some good points about what is good about the book. But to me, the book and the series felt disjointed and incomplete, and to me, that is not the makings of a well-written, "good" book. To me, it was more a good attempt by a first-time writer, but I hope she learns from the experience because I did think the series had a lot of potential, and I'll be interested to see what she writes next.

    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful and well-written response! You bring up a lot of good points.

      I can definitely see where you're coming from when you say the third book feels disjointed and lacks an overarching purpose. One of my personal problems with the book is that the conclusion feels so conflicted with itself and can't seem to make up its mind about its own message. One moment it seems to be offering comfort, saying that things will be okay, and the next moment implies that no comfort can ever be real or complete. It also seems torn whether the war was really worth it (something I think is tied back to Collin's personal ambivalence about war). And, most of all, it can't seem to decide whether to treat the human race with hope or with cynicism. I especially dislike that Katniss voted to hold new Hunger Games with the Capitol's children. It seems to show that she didn't learn anything, and if she didn't, did anyone at all?

      I also know what you mean about the world not being developed enough. Collins did indeed seem to create a world big enough to put her story across, but no bigger. When I picture the world in my mind, I see a lot of empty spaces - I can picture District 12, the Capitol, kind of District 13, and kind of District 11, but everything else is fuzzy. I think this is because Collins didn't really give us anything else to go on - she gave us the basics of each place, but not more, and didn't go into almost any detail about several of the districts. The history of the world is, as you say, shallow and incomplete.

      As a series by a first-time writer, I think it is unique in that the first book seems to be the best and the focus and direction of the subsequent books goes down from there. Usually it's the other way around. Yeah, it'll definitely be interesting to see what she comes up with next.


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