Why I like The Hunger Games

Just finished the series, and reminded myself that I can, indeed, finish a novel in one sitting. I may write a proper review for Catching Fire and Mockingjay at some point, but that’s all specifics. The gist of what I’d want to say about them, and the series as a whole, I’m going to say now.

There is a lot that I don’t like about Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Most of that, I hate to admit, is Katniss. Though it’s for all the right reasons. She’s a well-realised character; I’m not saying I don’t like her because she’s not written well or realistically or anything – quite the opposite. I think she sums it up quite nicely herself: ‘Violent. Distrustful. Manipulative. Deadly.’ It makes sense. I can’t stand her, but it’s because that’s the point. Or if it’s not the point, it really should be.

Because this is what I love about The Hunger Games: it’s about reality television, in a way I never realised until I finished reading the first book. It’s about drama. It’s about twists and turns; it’s about manipulation and exploitation, about making every little detail really count, hit home as vividly and viscerally as possible. It is sordid and twisted and disappointing.

And it’s fantastic for it.

Katniss is really, really self-centred, and I liked that about her in the first book, the fact that she was very much uninterested in any kind of rebellion or radical action against the status quo of any kind. Her self-centred attitude is not one born of callousness or narcissism, but out of fear. True, it’s not enough fear to stop her and Gale to sneak out to go hunting on pain of nasty stuff happening to them, but that’s different. She is a product of her circumstances. She isn’t a hero. I really like that about her.

It’s also what I detest about her, but in doing so I just end up liking her for it all over again. The fact that there’s a war going on, the fact that there’s this tyrannical regime making life miserable for everybody and all she can think about most of the time is whether she’s worthy of Peeta or Gale’s affection, how horrible it is that she has to decide whether to let Peeta die or save the Capitol – it’s just so perfect. On the one hand, why the hell are these decisions being left up to a 17-year-old girl – and on the other, it’s exactly how she should think. She is a bit despicable, sometimes a lot despicable, and I really rather appreciate that.

Whether this is intentional or not is no longer of any concern to me; I have gotten very used to interrogating the values represented in books I’ve read and trying to figure out the morality of their writers, but with this series I’m sort of torn between giving it the benefit of the doubt of being a lot cleverer than I’ve heard people talking about and finding it as repellent as Twilight in many regards. Not as many regards, but even Twilight I can distantly admire for its sheer lack of restraint in the self-indulgence department. Never before have I encountered a story that was so brazenly unrealistic and driven by the promise of a ridiculous, impossible and even unethical Happy Ending, and certainly not one that achieved that ending. I can’t say I condone it, at all, but the sentiment, and the fact that it was even done, I do kinda have to appreciate. It adds a little flavour to the world.

Katniss does get really caught up in the love triangle stuff in the second two books, and it really did grate on me. I loved her obliviousness and the fact that she had other things on her mind than boys and how she felt about which one of them. By the end of Mockingjay the story just gets so depressing that I don’t actually know what drove me to finish it, but I think it was just a morbid desire to know how the hell all of this would turn out. I didn’t like the ending, the final conclusion, but I did love her fatalism leading up to her and Peeta inevitably getting together. It would have felt better if she’d been a more likeable person, but it still doesn’t feel wrong. I have to admit that this is only because people don’t always end up finding themselves dependent solely on the people who are good for them, and I can’t see how Katniss is very good for Peeta. It does seem like a very one-sided relationship. But that’s not to say I didn’t want her to have a happy ending – just a different one. Something that felt a bit more satisfying. I didn’t feel she quite deserved it.

But maybe that’s kind of the point. What does Katniss deserve, really? She’s been used and manipulated by a whole congregation of people for purposes that she cannot be expected to handle, not just given her age but just given the fact that these purposes are so twisted in and of themselves; nobody would be expected to handle it. She’s a scapegoat and a fall-guy just as much as a symbol of hope and rebellion; she becomes a brand, and all of these things are attributed to her – how brave she is, how heroic, and it all ties in with ideas about heroism and nobility and sacrifice and all the rest of it. And while you may certainly argue that she should have handled things better, is it fair to argue it? Because I don’t necessarily think it is.

I have to say, while I do certainly resonate more positively with depictions of selfless heroes who Do the Right Thing, Katniss is better than that in a very problematic way, because again, she’s not a hero. And that’s kind of the point. She makes some really selfish decisions and they have massive consequences, but putting that kind of pressure on somebody to perform to a certain moral standard, putting that much responsibility on them, and at that age and with her history and in that situation … it’s insane. It’s irresponsible. It’s immoral. She never really gets out of the Games. So even though I do feel like Peeta could have done better, it’s partly because I never quite got out of the Games, either.

Every step that these books take to paint Katniss in a certain light within the diegesis is mirrored through the story told to the reader. The Capitol decides to emphasise her romance with Peeta, so the story emphasises her love-triangle with Peeta and gale; Coin decides to make her the face of the rebellion, so the story exposes us to her every near-sighted decision, her bias and her limits and her general inability to be this iconic figure she’s supposed to be. It kinda lets you hate her.

It doesn’t feel like a victory by the end. This is partly because we don’t see the final battle, which is the thing you expect to get out of any story that features a Rebellion and an Evil Empire and some kind of final victory and defeat of the dark forces; instead we get Prim dying – which was really sad – and then Katniss being a complete wreck for the rest of the book, which is fantastic, absolutely my favourite part of Mockingjay and tied back really well to the way the story opens. The lack of a moral imperative for Katniss really is refreshing, and I wasn’t expecting it to stay that way when I got to the end of the first book and realised that she wasn’t rebelling, just trying to stay alive.

And by the end of the series, she’s not only still doing that, but I realised that she was always doing that. Even when she decided to take on the Capitol and get revenge, it was still driven by the need to survive, to endure, to just not fall completely to pieces. It’s why, I think, Mockingjay felt so comparatively shallow in places, like she was kind of swinging from one decision to the next like bars on a jungle-gym. Or it could be because I powered through it over the last 6 hours after finishing Catching Fire and decided that I needed to know what happened to dear sweet Peeta. Seriously I love that guy. I think it felt that way because it was exactly what she was doing. She was not really in control at any point, except when she had a clear focus, and it was never a long-term focus, never really well thought-out or noble or transcendent. ‘Keep Peeta alive.’ ‘Kill Snow.’ ‘Make impassioned propo.’ ‘Kiss Gale.’ These are not plans; these are life-rafts.

When I read these books, I’m faced with the amount of investment I put into this idea of the Hero archetype and the fact that Katniss just doesn’t fit what narrative convention suggests that she should, as the central protagonist. For that alone I’m glad I read these books. Her happy ending with Peeta was inevitable; I still don’t like it as much as I’d like to, but it makes sense. She gets through the chaos and she makes a life, and I think this is where she should be judged, because before that she’s already a total wreck. It’s only at the end of the book, in the epilogue, where we get a sense that she’s done any healing at all, or even any growing at all. She goes from not even considering standing up to the Capitol to being a pretty hot-blooded radical, yes, but that’s at least partially a situational thing. It takes her a long time to get on board, and even longer to commit. The opening to Mockingjay drove me insane due to how spiteful she was being, how she just didn’t seem to see that, again, according to narrative convention, District 13 was the way to go if she ever wanted to see Peeta alive – and more importantly, that there were bigger things at stake here than her confused feelings of affection for and obligation to him. Like the freedom of millions of human beings. And I mean there was the very reasonable fact that there was no guarantee that Coin would be any better than Snow (spoilers she’s not), but still, this is not the mindset of a heroic leader. This is the mindset of a self-absorbed teenager.

It’s just … it’s so good.

I don’t have to like Katniss as a person to like her as a character. And I like her a lot as a character. I like what this series has to say about the expectations that we have of our icons, of the characters presented to us and what they’re supposed to mean according to … whatever. Social expectations, gender norms, narrative convention, shared morals. As though any of those things is understandable out of context of the others.

I really like The Hunger Games because it makes me think about important things, and ask questions that I didn’t realise needed answers – or, to be more specific, questions that I thought I’d already answered for myself. And I like Katniss specifically because, really, I don’t like her at all. I can’t help but judge her, and in doing so I can’t help but judge myself, either.

Well played, Suzanne Collins. Well played.

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7 thoughts on “Why I like The Hunger Games

  1. Terrific analysis. Definitely agree with what you are touched on about Katniss’ inability to be the hero WE (The Capitol? Readers? Viewers?) want her to be and her desire to subver that. As consumers of the media we so easily want her to stick her middle finger at the Capitol…not always how we react when the “public” or “audience” is us.

    However, not convinced that her and Peeta’s ending up together is anywhere near “good.” In fact, to put together two such mentally ill people who don’t always have their bearings and can’t own their truth (think about how important that always was for Peeta to have his own morals, princciples and agency) does not resonate as happy to me. It seems bitter and sad; they are there surely because they love each other but also because only they know the trauma the other has seen. A far cry from infatuation and romance.

    Also, you raise good questions about how morally responsible we are giving extenuating circumstances. If you’d like another good young adult discussion of this Patrick Ness’ second book in his Chaos Walking series, “The Ask and the Answer” delivers in a way I find far superior to Mockingjay’s. While Collins seems okay letting her characters off the hook in a way for being mentally traumatized, Ness’ puts his two juvenile protagonists into situations where they must authorize torture and violence and still find their moral compass at the end of the day.

    We’re all responsible though, yes? We all either enable or undermind–it’s naive and terrifying if we deny that agency to anyone, no?

    • Thank you very much for leaving such a considered comment! Great point about Peeta and Katniss not really being that good for each other. Now that you mention it I really like that aspect, makes me think about The Bachelor/Bachelorette-style shows where two people are pretty much destined to end up together whether they should or not and we call it a ‘happy ending’ because it fits that particular cultural script, just because two people got together, and how that could even be commentary on the state of YA novels and their reliance on oftentimes shallow romance. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be happy at all …

      I will look into the Chaos Walking series, always looking for interesting depictions of adolescent characters!

      • Hmmm totally agree about the reality TV thing. Hah! And with Collins, I wouldn’t put it past her that’s she’s mocking something about our desire that our protagonist find true love with each other, regardless of how much they actually make each other better.

        (Interesting comments by Gale later on about “How Katniss will choose the one she’s can’t survive without.”)

        Anyway, as a fellow half Asian person, hey!

      • Holla back fellow half Asian person! Yeah I like to at least imagine that’s exactly what Collins was going for haha, I really do think these books are a lot more intelligent than they appear. I just wonder how many people picked up on it!

    • Yeah absolutely agree, I found her to be really compelling specifically because she was so unlikeable at times. But I think she was only so unlikeable because she was also the main character, who we expect to be selfless and heroic, and instead she was very self-absorbed and hesitant, which was rather unpleasant but also refreshing because, I think, it points out how ridiculous it is to expect anybody to be that perfect in the first place. I really think she’s a fantastic character.

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