Monday, February 21, 2011

Literary Satisfaction and THE HUNGER GAMES

(Massive spoilers for THG all the way through to MOCKINGJAY. Before viewing this post, you are strongly advised to get your read on.)

Like many, I loved THE HUNGER GAMES. Suffering a severe case of premise-envy, the first novel stuck with me for days, particularly its unabashed and uncensored depiction of the inevitable slaughter – not to mention a female protagonist who actually did something. But CATCHING FIRE felt like a weakly plotted jumble of two distinctly different stories: the first half seemed desperate to establish the world’s most boring love triangle, until midway through the novel Collins went damn, this isn’t working, and threw them back into the arena for round two. (I swear Collins must be a total pantser.)

So when MOCKINGJAY rolled around, I was hoping for some redemption for this conceptually-exceptional series. After reading, though, I was confused for days as to how I felt about it. I was glad for the promise and execution of full-scale rebellion, and appreciated the moral ambiguity of many of MOCKINGJAY’s principle characters, not least our fiery heroine. On the other hand, the pacing got even weaker, and the plot even more flagging and disjointed – a flaw exacerbated by Katniss’ perpetual catalepsy. But it was the story’s dénouement that really had me confused – there was no happy ending! No real love story resolution, no satisfying resolution to Panemic dystopia!

No, I told myself, it was a good thing – realistic, reasonable, even, after everything these sixteen(!)-year-olds had been through and been forced to do. Collins was right not to plaster happy smiles on their faces and call it catharsis. Their lives had sucked. Of course, I reasoned, they were damaged. Broken. It was understandable.


I still hated the ending.

I get what Collins was trying to do – even if it was a little preachy – and I do understand it. But I still can’t get on board. I wanted a ‘happy’ ending, I realised. I wanted catharsis – for me and for Katniss. But instead Collins gave nothing: there was no redemption for the characters who had survived a war; no satisfaction, for Katniss or the reader.

And damnit, I wanted it! I wanted her to marry Peeta – to LOVE Peeta – and to have kids and grow old and find solace outside of her teenage years of war. I wanted hope for Katniss, and for her future. My dissatisfaction with MOCKINGJAY’s ending, and subsequent lack of ‘happy’, prompted me to an uncomfortable concern…

Am I a Wimpy Reader?

Surely not, I told myself. When it comes to (fictional) blood and guts, I’ve got no problem; one of my favourite keenest memories of Katniss’ first Hunger Games was the visual of the boy tribute spitting up blood all over Katniss’ face at the Cornucopia’s bloodbath. I applauded Peeta’s torture and psychotic break (something I know a lot of readers did not care for), particularly as it gave a previously thin character some personality. I was fascinated by THE HUNGER GAMES originally precisely because of its gory and fantastically creepy premise.

But, I have to admit… I wanted an ending that offered redemption. And MOCKINGJAY denied such a thing emphatically.

Perhaps it was obvious that such catharsis would be unlikely. Katniss’ trials, particularly throughout MOCKINGJAY, seem only to make her weaker, not stronger. She shuts down under the pressures placed upon her, turning later to addiction and suicide as the war dissolves her physical and mental strength. Katniss’ near-constant concussion emphasises this: she’s perpetually waking up post-conflict, having been knocked out (chemically or forcibly) during the battle, and hence rarely deals with any real action – especially during the second half of CATCHING FIRE and in MOCKINGJAY. Like her emotional relationships with Gale and Peeta, Katniss never truly has to deal with the consequences of her physical engagements; instead, she wakes up afterwards to be told of the fall-out. Aside from making her an increasingly ineffectual heroine, Katniss’ continual lack of consciousness creates a tell-don’t-show debacle that disrupts the book’s pacing and the reader’s interest.

Not all novels exist to give the reader a literary endorphin rush, and MOCKINGJAY is a testament to this. It is clear Collins did not intend for Katniss’ journey to result in a ‘happy’ conclusion. Like 1984, and like the Hunger Games themselves, its ending is brutal and unforgiving. MOCKINGJAY may be more moral than narrative – at times glaringly so – but its conclusion is resolute indeed: war is destructive, physically and emotionally… and often, there's no going back.

So, while I can’t say I overly enjoyed MOCKINGJAY, I do know I liked it. There is a difference, and it’s an important one. It works both ways, too, and its application to THE HUNGER GAMES world is particularly significant. In a series where children routinely slaughter each other, it may have been naïve to expect or even want a ‘happy’ ending. But does that mean we shouldn’t hold out hope for satisfaction from any conclusion? Is it bad (naïve/childish/wimpy) to want a happy ending?


  1. It's not so much that Katniss didn't have a happy ending, for me. It's that she didn't seem to have any ending at all. She just sort of faded. There was no real sense of recovery, or redemption, or any meaningful self-realisation at all. I wasn't sure if she'd really come out stronger in the end, or just stayed with Peeta just because he was convenient and she was tired (which would have been fine - just show us!). I think by the end I'd lost all sense of who Katniss was as a person, which was a shame because she'd been such a vibrant character at the beginning.

    Having said that, I still loved the books!

  2. Loved the post, and have just a couple of comments:

    I disagree slightly, but couldn't tell you why--I loved all three books equally, and felt satisfied with the ending, her and Peeta together, even if it isn't the sort of romantic love most teenagers get to experience...

    I do agree, however, with her getting knocked out and waking up after the fact. She should have been required to clear herself out of the mess as she did in Book 1.

    Even so, I'll keep them all on my shelf for a reread on a rainy day, because in spite of the flaws, I was totally captivated.