So I read the whole Hunger Games trilogy over the course of a week. Last month I read all six volumes of Scott Pilgrim in about 24 hours. It’s kind of funny to try to compare the experiences. Both are well-known stories, popular enough to be moviefied, to which I am a late arrival and am really only getting around to reading now because I prefer to read a book before seeing the movie (a lesson I learned from a harrowing date involving the film of The Golden Compass).
The result of reading Scott Pilgrim that fast, breaking only to walk around for an hour or two through an absolutely frigid night and see some Christmas lights in an unfamiliar neighbourhood where I felt like I was in a movie that might yet turn out to be either a touching drama or a slasher, was to emerge feeling hopeful, wrenched, and renewed. To have been dragged through a wringer, had all the impurities of me extracted and shoved in my face for examination, and then see justice done and to rejoice in enlightenment. (Yes, this from a comic book about video-game-style kung fu hipsters. Silence, unbeliever.)
The result of reading The Hunger Games trilogy that fast, even spaced out over eight days with regular tasks like work and laundry and Bad Movie Night with therapeutic alcohol, is to feel that there can never again be joy in the world because it will be taken. Because there are simply too many evil people waiting, and good people don’t get what they deserve, and to be happy is to give more power to evil people to make you dance as they choose. Everything will be taken. There is no safety. The only peace is in unconditional surrender.
Basically, if you can stomach it, Hunger Games is amazing. The first book is more or less predictable, but has a few legitimately clever moments and certainly didn’t let me down on evocation. When it wants to get sad, it gets freaking brutal. Unlike the common trilogy model (think Star Wars) the first book is not a potential end point for the series; it’s extremely clear that there is a huge story left to tell. The second book is an impressive continuation, and even the rehashed aspects feel rather fresh. The third book is a substantial shift in style and does to hope and optimism what itchy rhinoceri do to wicker furniture. It’s not pleasant, is what I’m saying.
Now it is SPOILERS TIME because I’m going to talk about the thing that made me love the heroine and the thing that haunted me most after the end of the story. The second one is a bigger spoiler than the first. Our hero* has lots of classic heroing qualities – determination, self-sufficiency, combat skills, deep adoration for her sweet little sister – and has been accused of Mary Suedom more than a few times, I’m sure. My conclusion that she’s not, in fact, such a Sue is based on her lack of idealism (she doesn’t try to save everyone; as soon as she’s in the Games she fully intends to kill as needed, and does) and her tendency to screw up in ways that have serious consequences, such as permanent crippling injuries to herself and those she cares about. But that would only make her fun to watch, not necessarily a character I adore.**
The key moment for me was when Katniss was surrounded by her prep team, as they waxed and painted and styled her up for the audience, and she’s thinking about how awful and shallow they are, chattering about parties and luxuries and gossip when she’s going to be facing mortal peril soon. And then, for a moment, she pauses and wonders what it’s like to grow up in the decadent Capitol and be taught your whole life only to care about gossip and not those scruffy District children who fight in the arena – she asks herself how sure she is that she would be any different. It’s not enough to exonerate them, but it is enough for compassion. In that moment, she gets how privilege works: what it means to not have to think about how hard it is for people who aren’t you. They aren’t right, and she isn’t wrong, but she doesn’t think of herself as better than them, either. From that moment on, I was sure I could trust her – and, although she still made the occasional terrible decision, I was more or less right that I could, because Katniss’ most devastating skill isn’t with a bow. It’s getting into other people’s heads: animals, fops, soldiers, politicians.
So I did adore the heroine, but that isn’t why Mockingjay seared me. The first book feels like it makes the best of a terrible situation, and the second is about beginning to defy the system, but the third is haunting, and it all comes back to Finnick Odair and the desperate need for everything to make sense. Finnick was introduced as a shallow seducer, which is not an archetype that charms me, but I was amused by the idea of him joining the party at the Quell (plus you gotta take the only guy who trained in resurrection spells***). He became steadily more sympathetic with his true love back home and his grim secrets about the president forcing the victors into prostitution, and steadily more likeable as the only source of humour and coping mechanisms. Finnick may well have been my favourite character. I really should have known that he was going to die.
But it happened with impossible speed, and it was, in the narrative, disorientingly sudden. One of the few stylistic issues I had with the books was the tendency to end every chapter with a Wham Line – as soon as I saw a half-blank page coming, I knew that I was about to be Shocked by a Plot Twist, possibly with a dramatic dun dun dunnnnn. This is true for possibly every other death of an important character in the series (I’m trying to think of an exception). Finnick, though: the lizard mutts have just been decapitating folks, the heroes scramble to escape up a ladder, Katniss looks around, rattles off who she sees – Finnick isn’t there. He was left behind and we didn’t even see it, and then his head is being pulled back to a bite, and then they’re all incinerated. And then they keep running. No last quip, no final stand, no glorious sacrifice, he was just at her side one moment and being murdered the next.
That’s what I was left with when the book was done, when another dozen atrocities and injustices had been done and the dust had settled and I was replaying it all in my head. Was it worth it? His death wasn’t, obviously; it was bad luck, a meaningless casualty. Why was he there? Because they chose to keep pushing on toward their target even when they were expected to pull back from the mission. Was that worth it? What did it gain them? Did they gain any important intelligence? (No, the last important intel they recovered was the use of decoys to disarm the defensive pod traps; that happened before they decided to push on.) Did they get to some vital place where no one else could reach? (No, they reached the Capitol building at the same time as the rest of the army.) Did they save anyone who would have been lost? (On the contrary, they got more noncombatants killed.) Why was any of it worth it? Why did they have to keep pushing on instead of turning back when the mission first went bad? Why did they have to keep going why were they in that sewer WHY DID FINNICK DIE?!
I don’t think a book has ever done that to me before. It may be the most honest and realistic depiction of a wartime casualty ever. Sometimes people make dangerous gambles and all they do is lose and it happens so fast they don’t even have time to think about it. It was their choice (Finnick included), it was their mistake, and it was their fault. Ish. Well, the mutts weren’t their fault. The pods weren’t their fault. The war wasn’t their fault. The entire horrendous mess wasn’t their fault. But they still could have made a different decision – one that wasn’t based on a hunger to kill the enemy leader – and things might have turned out differently.
Finnick was a fisher: handy with a trident, knew his way around nets. When he could do nothing but wait, and his mind was full of thoughts that threatened to rend him because he knew that something big was happening that would either end in his absolute joy or his utter despair, he tied knots. Lots of knots. So many knots that his thoughts would be too busy thinking about the next hundred knots to think about anything else until at least news would come and he would know his fate.
What do you do when there is no news left, because everything is already over? What do you do when what you’re waiting for is someone to explain why it all had to be that way – why the losses meant something, and were a price knowingly paid? You can wait a long time for that. Lotta knots to tie.
*I’m just going to refer to her as the hero, on the basis that hero really doesn’t need to be a gendered term. Heck, it’s even been used as a female name. I’m always torn on things like that, where there is a feminine variant of a title but it seems superfluous, and especially if it’s ‘male term + suffix’. More on this when I get around to the big gender post, which will totally happen eventually.
**I wrote the rest of this post and never found a good place to insert my thoughts on the Obligatory Love Triangle, so this seems as good a spot as any. My thoughts: there isn’t a love triangle. Aside from Gale being a borderline nonentity for most of the story, Katniss only once actually thinks to herself that she might actually want him, and it’s not a romantic longing – it’s a terrified flight from reality to a mental place before the Games, when her life made sense. Gale isn’t a romantic rival. Gale is Nega-Katniss, with all of her devastating skills but none of her compassion. They are each others’ alternate realities. The whole time they were friends, she tuned out his rage – there was always zero chance of them ever being happy and whole together.
***The Hunger Games occur in the same region of the multiverse as most media, such as Doctor Who, where CPR is not actually a form of first aid. It is actually the only known and replicable form of magic, wherein one pounds a beckoning rhythm upon the chest of the corpse and then breathes into their lungs to attract spirits from the netherworld and beseech them to raise the dead.