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Happy Hunger Games!

English: A map of the fictional nation of Pane...

English: A map of the fictional nation of Panem from Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And may the odds be ever in your favor!

I want to take a moment to express my gratitude to Suzanne Collins for creating a trilogy that actually kept me as enthused as the Harry Potter books did. And that’s saying something considering the seven long years it took between the day a boy in my fifth grade class, Michael, beseeched us all to read Sorcerer’s Stone and the near-transcendental moment when Deathly Hallows entered my grasp at a Barnes and Noble midnight book party.

I did not think such a Herculean feat would ever be possible, but she managed to pull it off. Sure, I was at first highly skeptical of this futuristic world called Panem in which children fought to the death on live television while most of the North American population teetered on the edge of starvation.

It sounded charming. Who wouldn’t want to read it? Apparently everyone else was eagerly flipping pages and thinking that dystopian governments were the cat’s pajamas. In fact, I was probably the only college English major for miles and miles who had not cracked the glossy front cover of The Hunger Games.

But thanks to the incredible enthusiasm of my dear friend Caroline who insisted I read the series, so I could chat with her at-length about its philosophical ramifications–we’re liberal artsy like that–and my amazing friend Jacqui who patiently explained the premise of the first book when I went to the movie premiere with her, I became curious enough to start reading. Then just like everyone else, I got hooked. So hooked that after finishing book one at the beach, I jay-walked across an eight-lane road just as the sun was slipping from view to see if either the Food Lion or the Rite Aid across the street from my hotel had a copy of Catching Fire.

Before I watch part 1 of the final movie in the series, I’d like to reflect on the final novel.

It might come as a surprise that I dragged out Mockingjay for as long as possible. I didn’t want it to end, and I was convinced about halfway through the war-against-the-Capitol bloodbath that either Katniss or Peeta would probably die. This was too depressing to me after Katniss had already lost her father, numerous fellow tribute-friends, chunks of flesh the size of playing cards and quite possibly, Peeta, whose mental health was certainly suspect. I think I wanted to freeze the book when Peeta begins to return to his senses in the tunnels underneath the Capital right before Finnick dies, tell myself they all somehow lived as happily ever after as it’s possible to in Panem, and close the book for good.

But alas, I persevered. And to my surprise—since I am usually a sucker for happy endings—I was not saddened by the conclusion of Mockingjay. Prim’s death didn’t move me the way it probably should have and while I wanted Katniss’ mother as well as Gale to be emotionally stronger, more resilient, and maybe even better people. Their swift and abrupt exits left me with a personal sense of relief even though the exits were executed like a narrative nightmare.

Sure, I was thrilled that Katniss and Peeta got married, had children, and settled into a quiet and seemingly secluded life in District 12 (even though a small and delusional part of me thought they might become King and Queen of Panem despite their lack of political ambition), but to me the ending felt rushed and unsatisfying.

Endings always flow from what comes before them, and while it was a stroke of sheer brilliance for Collins to have Katniss kill Coin rather than Snow, I disliked the apparent trust and covert agreement spontaneously forged between Katniss and the man she wanted dearly to assassinate throughout the entire tale. The scene in Catching Fire where Snow states that it would be easier if the two didn’t lie to each other after the 74th annual Hunger Games seemed to me like a sneering remark from Snow to press through Katniss’ deception. This was also the man who orchestrated hundreds of children’s deaths, forced Katniss into a bridal gown—not to mention another round of games—and threatened Gale’s life. I never thought she would take his words to heart at the end of the trilogy and make life-and-death decisions based upon them.

Nevertheless, even I doubted Katniss’ true motivations and loyalties when Coin suggested one final Hunger Games to punish the Capitol’s favored children and their parents. When she agrees to the Games “for Prim” and states that now is the moment when she will see how much Haymitch really understands her and how alike they are, I originally thought she wanted still more bloodshed and was repulsed. After sorting through the ending though, I believe she and Haymitch agree because they are quite crafty at this point and seek to lure Coin into a false sense of security to make her believe they are on her side and will support her new regime. But could Coin’s assassination really have been premeditated by Katniss? It’s hard to say.

Perhaps it was a stylistic choice on Collins’ part to represent Katniss’ increasingly fragile mental health throughout the war by giving the reader less and less access to her thoughts and desires. Katniss was more confused than ever with her home in smoldering ruins and her loved ones in constant danger, and that’s understandable. But as her hair was singed off and her body broken by explosions and gunshots, I couldn’t help but think that I was losing a sense of her identity. In a way, Collins is smart here because one of Katniss’ chief complaints is that she is always a pawn in someone’s games—as a tribute, a star-crossed lover, and a mocking jay.

At least for the first half of Mockingjay, I really believed that all the drugs she was taking for shock from the Quarter Quells were altering her narration. What if all the confusing, broken narration and mentions of reality-altering drugs were also a way to keep readers removed from any hint of the surprise ending? We see Katniss hazily, as if through a veil, a confused and broken girl losing her savvy determination – not to mention things worth fighting for.

While that might have been the author’s intention, I think the Katniss we see in Mockingjay, the girl who carries off a master assassination plan with Haymitch at the novel’s conclusion, is very much the same girl who managed to beat the Capitol at its own game with the berries she finds via her hunting instincts in the first arena. After all, she’s still willing to be front and center in the battle of District 8. But Snow’s death shows how you don’t always need a hero to save the day and kill the villain. Sometimes, man’s thoughtless inhumanity to man is enough to get the job done by mere trampling. I felt like this death was a metaphor explaining how darkness lurks in humanity and, in a moment of manifestation, overcame Snow in a single, crushing wave.

Most importantly, Katniss softens fully over the course of this last leg of her journey. She’s willing to claw at Haymitch’s face when he fails to deliver Peeta safely to District 13. She is even willing to defend the Capitol stylists’ character to Gale when he mocks and sneers at them. Like Peeta, she is having trouble understanding what is real and what is not real – but somehow, the boy with the bread becomes her family, gets under her skin, and softens her. Gale tells Peeta that Katniss will choose whichever man she needs most. In a world of brutal warfare, starvation, death and pain, she needed the first dandelion in spring.

 

 

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