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So that was The Hunger Games. June 17, 2013

Posted by Erin Ptah in Erin Watches, Fandom, Meta.

Just finished Mockingjay. That was…unexpected.

And this turned into a lengthy reflection on the whole Hunger Games series, and in particular about Katniss’ characterization and arc. (Books only; I still haven’t seen the movie.) It all started off strong! Then…things happened.

That’s the short version. Here’s the long version.

(Spoilers for everything under the cut.)

The Hunger Games

I really enjoyed this one! Good worldbuilding. Well-developed, believable, engaging characters. Steady pacing that held your interest.

If I have one complaint, it’s that the Gale-or-Peeta “conflict” seemed forced a lot of the time. (Because every YA book has to have a love triangle!) And it’s not that big a deal, since the real story is still playing out around it, and still strong in spite of the periodic distractions.

Also, the final bunch of mutts in the Games was jarring. Suddenly, full-grown creatures that somehow have the eyes of a group of people assembled maybe two weeks ago! But maybe it only breaks my suspension of disbelief because it’s the biggest plot element that I hadn’t, through fannish osmosis, already been spoiled for. Can’t be sure.

Throughout the book, Katniss’ moments of initiative, even when fueled by anger, pay off. She fires at the Gamemakers’ dinner table, and gets the highest score out of the deal, followed by no consequences worse than she can handle. She tries to commit suicide and deprive the Games of any victor in order to get back at the Capitol, which is the move that gets both her and Peeta out of the Arena alive.

And it’s the choices fueled by genuine positive emotion that seem to pay off most. Even in this emotionally bankrupt scenario, there’s enough goodness left in humanity that it doesn’t pay to be 100% selfish and vicious. Volunteering for Prim: she keeps Prim out of the Arena, and comes back alive herself. Allying with Rue: it earns her enough goodwill from Thresh that he saves her life at a critical moment later.

Meanwhile, Peeta (who is the kind of good person that you would think should have no chance of surviving the Arena) makes it out because of their over-arching strategy, which is built around his feelings for Katniss. There’s a ton of fakery and manipulation and playing the audience involved, but the core of it is genuine emotion.

And if they’re still in danger after the Games are over, well, they have solid survival strategies; they just need to get better at them.

So that’s the first book.

Catching Fire

I liked this book when it wasn’t rehashing the first book! Which…means that a lot of it was iffy, unfortunately.

It was good to meet past Victors. To see more variety in the way Games have gone; to find out more about past survival tactics; to get a look at everyone’s different coping strategies — at all of Katniss’ possible futures.

And it was cool that this time they had a breakout strategy, and a Rebellion in full swing in the background.

But too much of Katniss’ arc was exactly the same — prep, look good for the cameras, training, interviews, fake some more emotion, scope out the Arena, try not to die, try to keep Peeta alive. (It couldn’t even be Haymitch in there with her, to shake up the dynamic a little. It was her-and-Peeta all over again.) And this was specifically a sequence she was never supposed to have to go through again; only a convenient narrative twist made it happen.

It’s especially grating because this is the exact opposite direction Katniss’ narrative arc should have been taking.

Imagine how it would’ve gone if she had been a mentor. A couple of tributes to protect would play into the protective instincts that have served her well so far. She would be able to shape these Games from the outside, giving her more knowledge and control, letting her direct her sudden bursts of initiative with more finesse. Her relationship with Haymitch would mature as she got the chance to strategize alongside him, rather than just being bopped around by a plan he unilaterally settled on. Especially once she learns a few concrete things (if not the entire plan) of the rebellion — which will push her to add some cunning and subtlety skills to her repertoire.

Instead, she gets a rehash of being railroaded along with other people’s plans, only this time she has even more agendas working on her, with even less knowledge or understanding of the real motives behind them. She makes a few shaky connections with people during training, which pay off in the Arena, but for most of the book she’s laser-focused on “be as ruthless as I need to be to protect Peeta, and then die” — which means that for the most part she shuts off any kind of emotional ties. Rather than getting people to watch over, and taking her first steps toward becoming Haymitch’s equal as a mentor, she gets a whole pack of (Haymitch-recruited!) experienced mentors watching over her.

Katniss’ big pivotal quest-beginning moment in the first book was when she volunteered for the Games. This time, she has no choice. That’s the difference between the two books in a nutshell, and it’s very frustrating.

(Also, I found the clock Arena super-gimmicky. Again, maybe that’s just me.)


And now it becomes clear that Katniss’ downward creep over the first two books was a deliberate trajectory, because this is where it stops creeping and starts plunging.

(We don’t get as much rehashing in this book, but there’s an uncomfortable subplot of it, with Peeta’s memories shredded and distorted. His and Katniss’ relationship can’t develop in any new and interesting way because they spend the whole time reconstructing the original version.)

As the Mockingjay, she’s 100% puppet of other people’s interests. What little leverage she has — to hunt, to keep the cat, to get her friends immunity — is based entirely on her willingness to perform.

And when she finally tries to take initiative again, it backfires on every possible level. Almost everyone she brought along dies horribly. Their deaths don’t even get to mean something: she doesn’t manage to assassinate Snow. Given the fact that he gets captured right then it wouldn’t have made any tactical difference if she had. (Maybe it would have satisfied her desire for personal revenge…but it turns out she was slated to be offered that anyway.) Given the fact that the rebel army makes it to his mansion at the same time she does, she could have skipped the whole sneaking-around-getting-picked-off routine altogether and just ridden in with them. If she had stayed in Thirteen in the meantime, it might have put her in a position to insist that Prim stay off the front lines! Instead, she gets to be in a position to…watch helplessly as Prim gets blown up.

Katniss’ arc in the first book is “Make a choice to avoid having to watch Prim get killed — fight hard, take risks, work with allies, all successfully — become a folk hero.” Her arc in the last book is “Be exploited for perceived heroism — fight hard, take risks, work with allies, all with painful failure — have no choice as she watches Prim get killed.”

It’s brutal. It’s…strongly plotted, and solidly written. And I can’t say the series hasn’t earned it, unlike some YA series I could name totally-unjustified traumarrific endings (*cough*Animorphs*cough*).

But I don’t think I like it.

It plays right into the theme of the book that Katniss votes to hold that final Hunger Games with Capitol children. Even though she’s just gotten a firsthand view of refugee kids in the Capitol, watching some of them were shot and a whole lot of them were used as a human shield and then blown up. Her ability to empathize with them — her ability to look at them, as she did with Rue, and think “wow, you’re just like Prim, you don’t deserve this” — is another characteristic from the first book that’s been systematically and completely wiped out.

I definitely don’t like that. And I don’t think I buy it, thematic resonance or no thematic resonance.

Because the last few chapters turn around and try to rebuild Katniss, so that she can be some semblance of a functioning human being as an adult — and if she was destroyed enough to cross this particular moral event horizon, I can’t see there being enough of her left to rebuild.

(Her personal emotional state aside, I also can’t believe that a majority of people in the Districts are similarly morally shattered to the point where “let’s make twelve-year-olds from somewhere else fight to the death!” would inspire their loyalty rather than their outrage.)

I do actually like the idea of Katniss having children. Her original aversion to them was out of an aversion to putting them at risk for being reaped; that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t have wanted them under the condition of “I can look at them and not have to think about the possibility that they’ll be killed in the Games.” And remember how she was referring to all the other manipulation, from the Capitol and District Thirteen both, as “we’re still in their Games”? If Katniss Everdeen of all people has decided to have kids, that means it must be a pretty safe world for children on all levels, not just the “will we be chosen as tribute?” level.

…but the whole thing only works if you ignore how, even when looking at her own children, Katniss never gives another thought to the children she sent off to die. Only to the ones who were victims of the Capitol.

Sloppy writing? The author’s uncomfortable awareness that if she wants us to sympathize with Katniss, her best bet is to hope we forget it ever happened? Or maybe the whole let’s-have-another-Games scene was introduced into the narrative at a late stage, on the grounds of “wouldn’t this be a thematic punch to the gut?”, and never really got integrated with what came after it. I hope it’s the last one.

A couple of random questions

Do we know what the population of Panem is? There are a bunch of references to “leaving enough people alive for the human race to survive,” which would imply it’s awfully small. But do we ever get any hints about what happened to the rest of the world? They still have the technology to communicate across long distances — there’s no reason they couldn’t get in touch with other continents if they tried. And yet nobody even suggests trying. It’s as if they all take it for granted that they’re the last of humanity.

So what kind of disaster would wipe out humanity everywhere except North America? (My best guess right now is “a world war in which the US released a deadly pathogen somewhere in Eurasia, and it wiped out the population not just in the enemy country, but across the continent.” And…somehow they managed a 100% quarantine of North & South America for the duration. I don’t know.)

Is it weird, the gender split in how Katniss relates to people? All the people she trusts, looks up to, ever seeks comfort from, are male. Gale, Peeta, Haymitch, her father, Cinna, Boggs, Finnick. Female characters are mostly to be protected, and in some cases pitied (Prim, Rue, Annie, Wiress, Mags, Effie), or distrusted and sparred with, if not outright enemies (Joanna, Coin, Jackson). Katniss’ mother is a competent and admirable healer by the end, but starts out deeply depressed and dependent on Katniss, who never really comes around to relying on her again. And there are a bunch of evil men in the Capitol’s power structure, but the only one who’s a major character is Snow.

So that was my reaction to The Hunger Games.

Thoughts, comments, questions, critiques, feelings, ideas?

And if anyone wants to point me in the direction of your favorite THG fics, or meta you’ve enjoyed, that would be much appreciated.


1. purplekitten - June 18, 2013

One of my friends did a chapter-by-chapter reading of the trilogy that you might find interesting based on your comments, though she gets harsher quicker: http://farla.livejournal.com/?skip=50&tag=the%20hunger%20games%20series

Erin Ptah - June 18, 2013

I’ll check it out. Thanks for the link!

2. Star - June 24, 2013

I figured the reason for the decline was to illustrate how being a slave to the interests of others undermines yourself. In the first book, she’s her own agent and has a best turn out. In the second, she’s being manipulated, but from a distance, hence her weaker result. In the third, she resigns to let others control her – and that’s why her world goes wrong. she surrendered the agency in the first book and doesn’t realize that she’s thrown in with people as bad as Snow until it’s too late. She sacrifices her independence and loses what she cares for most as a result.

She earns redemption by stopping the cycle (via killing Coin) before it begins again, which is what lets her live out her life with Peeta. Coin would’ve likely had her and Peeta conveniently die if she’d continued to allow the new tyrant to rule like the old.

Erin Ptah - June 24, 2013

It’s a reasonable decline, certainly. But there are two ways to illustrate the problem with being a slave to others: (a) character becomes more and more of a slave to others, and gets increasingly undermined; (b) character takes control and breaks away from being a slave to others, and gets increasingly strong. And I would have enjoyed the books a lot more if they’d gone with (b).

Star - June 24, 2013

(B) is more of an uplifting path. Collins was clearly going for the dystopia route. She lifted many elements from 1984 (surveillance, the deliberately planned poverty of the outer districts) and Brave New World (the opulence of the main city and their disconnect with reality). So (A) fits that illustration of descent. It would’ve worked with an even bleaker ending, but at least we got something bittersweet.

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