I’ve started the Popsugar Reading Challenge with Suzanne Collins’s Mockingjay, which falls under the YA Bestseller category.
Warning: I will be including spoilers so you might not want to read on!
I’ll begin by saying this wasn’t a book I was ever planning on reading, even though I’d read The Hunger Games, the first book in this popular trilogy, several years ago and was hooked by everything about it. I loved Katniss’s independence, her fiery nature and her flaws too. What a heroine! She’s cool, a skilled archer, and is no one’s fool. However, while I devoured the book in a matter of a few days, I felt emotionally exhausted by the end. The usual rules for writing suspenseful stories recommend that readers get a breather amongst the tension but Collins, somehow, managed to keep anxiety levels sky-high. It was almost unbearable. I don’t think I have ever read anything as tense before or since.
Soon after fininshing The Hunger Games, I had a quick peep at the second story – Catching Fire. After reading the first few chapters and learning that Katniss would, again, be returned to the Hunger Games arena, I felt I couldn’t put myself through that again and abandoned the book. However, after watching the film versions of the first and second books over Christmas, I decided I needed to know the outcome.
Mockingjay concerns itself with the rebel onslaught on the Capitol, after Katniss’s continued defiance of President Snow has inspired citizens of Panem to take up arms. After being rescued from the Hunger Games arena by Games Maker Plutarch Heavensbee and her mentory Haymitch, she struggles to come to terms with her ally and friend Peeta’s capture by Snow and the announcement that Alma Coin, leader of District 13 and of the rebellion, wants her to become the Mockingjay – the symbol of the revolution. Katniss discovers that this was the plan all along – that half of the ‘tributes’ who fought with her in the Arena knew this and made it their job to ensure she escaped. The question is not will she take up the role but how can she not, with her family, Gale and friends relying on her to provide the inspiration needed to overthrow Snow’s dictatorship.
I enjoyed reading Mockingjay but I didn’t feel as involved as I did in The Hunger Games. Katniss was less empowered in this than in the previous two stories, and I am sure that that was Collins’s point. Ironically, with her physical freedom from the Games comes personal constraint: she is constantly at the mercy of Heavensbee’s and Coin’s PR demands. She has to film inspirational ‘propos’ to keep the rebels’ spirits high but she’s initially prevented from fighting alongside the troops to achieve the desired outcome because the side needs her alive so the fighters don’t lose hope. However, as soon as enough victory has been secured, it turns out that Katniss is worth more dead to the side – a martyr will guarantee the Capitol’s total defeat.
The point Collins makes through this is key to the series, I think, and I hope younger readers pick up on it. And this point is that even heroes can be easily created and destroyed, and are thus indispensible. Those in power will use and abuse a person until they are no longer of value, and the media is key in manipulating both the hero(ine) and their supporters. Appearance is key – and this has been a constant theme throughout the series with the Hunger Games, and how a contestant’s image can secure their life or death. Katniss reluctantly engages in this but her most successful moments are when she reacts genuinely rather than according to a script. She never loses that ‘fault’ which becomes her strength.
However, I feel that Collins let her down a little in Mockingjay. She spent long periods in the hospital which was frustrating. Interestingly, in the films, these episodes were shortened which helped keep her more engaging and less mopey (in the books she is less likeable, especially in Mockingjay, as she veers from one sulk to the next). She can’t make her mind up as to whether she fancies Peeta or Gale, which also becomes tiresome. The debate is never as evident in the films as it is in the books, and this is a benefit to the storyline and the heroine. Both the book and the film are good at showing how Peeta suffered at the hands of Snow, though, and how being ‘hijacked’ poisoned his view of Katniss, almost irredemably.
Many people are split about how the book ends. In brief, the rebels win, though Katniss never makes it through to kill Snow, which was her aim throughout the book. Instead, she is seriously burned in an explosion that kills a huge crowd of children and her medic sister Prim, and which she discovers was caused not by the enemies but her own side in an act of trickery. Katniss is reduced to accepting that she helped lead the rebellion but now she is retired to the position of ex-victor but is guaranteed the job of executing Snow in public.
However, in a final act of defiance and self-determination (thank goodness!) Katniss uses the opportunity to execute Alma Coin, the interim leader of Panem, whom Katniss discovers would merely replace Snow not provide a better alternative (Coin wanted to hold a final Hunger Games with the children of the Capitol to satisfy the rebels’ calls for revenge). She is rushed away, taken back to District 12 with Haymitch and struggles to live with no purpose and no family. Peeta finally returns and the two are finally reunited. We learn that they live together and have children but are never free from the nightmares gained from their experiences. It’s a bittersweet ending – there is happiness but it’s never complete and never will be.
People hated that so many of the main characters died in Mockingjay. This is understandable – when you have invested so much emotion in a person it’s hard when they succumb to a (usually!) horrible death. However, it’s more realistic. It would have been unbelievable (yes, I know this is fiction) for them all to survive and live happily ever after. War isn’t like that. I felt bereft at the end, mainly because the realisation that everything Katniss faught for was as flawed and evil as the regime she was trying to replace was appalling. However, her execution of Coin ensures that a better future is possible, at least, and she ceased being Coin’s Mockingjay.
Fiction is a difficult thing. We demand verisimilitude but get upset when actually we feel more comforted by happiness. I love a happy ending, don’t get me wrong, but I think the ending we got was the right one for the book.
More generally, I think the films did the story better than the books – something that I never normally believe. Apart from the first book, perhaps. The cast was amazing and Jennifer Lawrence made Katniss more likeable and stronger in her portrayal. I am so weary of the adjective ‘dystopian’ now, with regards YA fiction but this is a story that will remain with me forever because it is so relevant to our supposedly not dystopian reality.
What did you think of the Hunger Games trilogy? Do share, please!