09 December 2011

From player to winner: THE HUNGER GAMES and MOCKINGJAY

982: That's the number of words I used in Monday's post about THE HUNGER GAMES without remotely getting to the point I wanted to address when I decided to read the popular young-adult series. I feel that my curiosity was satisfied by the first two books in the series, but called into question a little by the third, MOCKINGJAY.*

For me the appeal of THE HUNGER GAMES lies in the hands of its stubborn, prickly, at times decidedly unlikeable protagonist Katniss Everdeen. Katniss doesn't like you, she doesn't like the attention brought on by the Games and what she sees as the falseness of the enterprise. As a preteen I devoured books where the protagonist discovers that s/he is somehow special and elevated, but Katniss harbors no such illusions; she always knows what she is and isn't capable of, and it's only the rest of the world that's catching up to her. That's why her performance in THE HUNGER GAMES isn't unbelievable or improbable. She resists that Mary Sue-ish necessity of suffering from self-doubt; what people tell her she is doesn't make an impact. She doesn't have to be "special" to be exceptional.

Her self-determination allows her passage through some of the perils of the Games; she doesn't seem specifically tempted to play the heroine, and when she does, it's an impulsive decision. (More on that in a bit.) I'm not well read enough in YA to say that she's the first nihilist in the field, but she's probably not in much company there. I would have quit the series much earlier if accompanied by a chirpy Pollyanna down into the depths.

Before I get into spoiler territory, a word: I haven't been able to confirm my suspicion that the HUNGER GAMES trilogy began life as one self-contained book (that is, CATCHING FIRE and MOCKINGJAY were the brainchildren of the publisher after reading THE HUNGER GAMES, not what the author had originally envisioned). It is my suspicion that this is the case. But even that would not fully explain why THE HUNGER GAMES is taut, well paced from the opening of the Games on -- I could have done without some of the costuming and pageantry, frankly -- CATCHING FIRE is better paced, but performs the classic middle-book-of-the-trilogy deus ex machina, and the ultimate volume in the series is an overstuffed mess.

Spoiler discussion through MOCKINJAY will now commence.

No, seriously.

Get out.

At the end of CATCHING FIRE (told you! Turn back now!), as you know or are resigned to finding out, on the point of certain death, Katniss is yanked out of the Quarter Quell (a Very Special Anniversary Hunger Games) by the resistance forces who have amassed in District 13. Because of the defiance she showed in the first book, she's being elevated to play a role in their reality television, the on-camera leader of the resistance -- although in practice, Katniss will have to defer to President Coin. The name they give her is the Mockinjay, the hybrid creatures that ironically can only copy poor human singing, not sing or speak for their own the way that Katniss is scripted into promos for the rebels. (Shades of "Wag the Dog" here -- and that was much appreciated in this quarter.)

Trouble is, the way that Katniss has been defined runs at odds to the task she and the fellow rebels are facing up to -- of taking over the Capitol -- and if her adventures up to this point have changed her, it's mighty difficult to tell. She still doesn't play well with others, she still doesn't take criticism, and her resistance to the role that the movement wants her to play starts to take their valuable time away from, oh, I don't know, military strategy? And her character starts to roll downhill from stubborn and self-determined to bratty and dangerous. Risking the security of the compound for Prim's cat, for example, may not be strictly a selfish act, but it seems out of character for her.

All of these are challenges Katniss could work through if given more room on the page, but MOCKINGJAY is forced to run those conflicts double-time against the war with the Capitol and the forthcoming invasion. At the risk of sounding like the ivory-tower litsnob we all know I am, too much happens in this book! The events compressed into MOCKINGJAY should have spooled out over two books, not only to salvage the abruptness of the ending -- really, an epilogue? -- but to keep building Katniss as a character in the same realistic way the first two books did. She's our portal into this place, and mostly I cared about the political upheaval of MOCKINGJAY through her eyes. So the conflict isn't fruitful because it elides things that I as a reader wanted to see, and pushes through the changes in Katniss in an unrealistic manner.

I'm not saying I didn't enjoy parts of MOCKINGJAY, but I should have been staying up late reading it; instead I put it down for weeks between starting and finishing it, so the one truly shocking twist -- the President Snow double-crossing revelation -- didn't pack the punch it needed. (Which is not to say I don't want to talk about it, because clearly I do.) I can't say definitively that this book was lost in editing, because no one can see that who isn't directly involved, but I could have used more room. As I understand that the "Mockingjay" movie will be a two-parter (a la "Breaking Dawn" or "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows"), this may afford an opportunity to correct it onscreen -- if more aspects of the series aren't broken in order to get there.

*I just discovered in stirring up this post that I have been spelling MOCKINGJAY wrong all this time. All this time! But it just looks wrong with that added G!


P said...

Fantastic! I love the year-end sweeps on your blog.

I think you make some valid points here. Katniss does seem out of character in the third book particularly. Some argue that she's facing PTSD which I can see too, but I question how valid that is.

It's funny, I haven't quite decided how I feel about the last book. I read positive reviews and agree with points in them, and then I read negative reviews and agree with points in them as well.

In any case, looking forward to the movies!

Ceska said...

I greatly enjoyed the whole series but sadly there was less about the romance and the epilogue was maddenly short and left a few open ends. But nevertheless, an AMAZING book and definitely read the series, all of them.