Catching Fire, the second book of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, was the rare sequel that outdid its predecessor. Collins reintroduced the Hunger Games competition in a plausible way with the Quarter Quell, which also significantly heightened the stakes (Hunger Games winners pitted against Hunger Games winners!). The clock face layout to the Quarter Quell (each “hour” of the field featured a different threat) was an inspired stroke. Katniss’s emotions — whether in regard to Peeta, who became the most compelling character of the series, or with becoming the face of the rebellion against the Capitol and the sinister President Snow — were increasingly nuanced, conflicted and, above all, honest. Then there was The Empire Strikes Back ending: our heroes divided; a narrow escape; and a shocking revelation, all perfectly setting the stage for the third and final chapter.
There are several things Suzanne Collins did in Mockingjay, the final installment of The Hunger Games trilogy, that we really liked. (This is the point at which you should refrain from reading farther if you do not want anything spoiled.) Mockingjay was surprisingly dark, even for a series that was about teenagers killing other teenagers for sport on live television. Collins painted the Resistance with considerable ambiguity. By adopting the Capitol’s Manichean worldview and spilling more blood (much of it innocent), was District 13 (led by the shrewd President Coin) any better than its enemy? The trilogy tapped into a gloriously bleak dystopian vein that went far beyond good and evil. In other words, it didn’t underestimate its audience. Collins knew her readers could appreciate the difficult moral judgments Katniss had to make on the fly — it’s what teenagers are learning to do every day. (And at younger and younger ages than what we had to deal with even just ten and fifteen years ago.)
We also commend Collins for making Peeta unlikable (more in a second); for killing Prim (we’ll explain ourselves); and for giving us something besides a happy ending. Why killing Prim? Because we didn’t think she would do it. Saving Prim was what set everything in motion from the very beginning. For Katniss to lose her — and from friendly (albeit intentional) fire! — was not something we saw coming. It was a gutsy choice. For that we liked it. It reminded us of Nina Meyers killing Jack Bauer’s wife at the end of the first season of ’24.’
(We’ll explain why we didn’t like it in just a moment.)
That pretty much dispenses with the pros. Now, alas, the cons:
Collins made Peeta unlikable (forgivable) and passive (not forgivable). We get that torture dehumanizes a person to the point he becomes unrecognizable, and Peeta paid a dear price at the hands of Snow. The moment when he sees Katniss and runs toward her, only to begin strangling her, was one of the best scenes in the book. The problem — and this was true of many things in Mockingjay — is that Peeta had his choices made for him. He did not choose to hate (or, we’d argue, love) Katniss; he was simply reprogrammed. Collins took the most intriguing character in the whole series and erased him. The Peeta who alternately sleepwalks and rages through Mockingjay bears almost no relation to the cunning, intelligent, loyal Peeta we previously knew. The internal drama of him trying to recall his past life — “Real or not real?” he constantly asks — was too remote to resonate with the reader. What interesting things Collins could have done with his character — particularly when he is assigned to Katniss’s squad in the Capitol — she squandered with episodes of random self-pity and withdrawal. Peeta orchestrated so many things in the first two books, even when he was offscreen; here, he is a passive observer, neutered for no good reason.
The payoff for killing Prim was not worth it. We get glimpses of the woman Prim is becoming — with her insistence that she be helping the cause, she is clearly her sister’s sister — but they are so few and far between that killing her off fails to deliver the punch it could have. For it to work, Prim needed twice as much screen time as Collins gave her.
It was overwritten. The final fifty pages in particular (beginning after the parachutes detonate in the Circle and Katniss asks, “Real or not real? I am on fire”) were overwritten and, too often, needlessly confusing. What exactly is going on after Katniss catches on fire?
The ones I loved fly as birds in the open sky above me. Soaring, weaving, calling me to join them. I want so badly to follow them but the seawater saturates my wings, making it impossible to lift them. The ones I hated have taken to the water, horrible scaled things that tear my salty flesh with needle teeth. Biting again and again. Dragging me beneath the surface.
Unfortunately, nothing in this passage gives us a clue. And this was just one of several outbreaks of purple prose that turn up at inopportune moments, making what should have been plainly dramatic melodramatic. What’s especially puzzling is that Collins is clearly a gifted writer and there was no trace of this up until the very end.
It was poorly plotted. The first two books were almost perfectly plotted. In Mockingjay, Katniss sits on the sidelines for the first 200 pages, hearing reports of battles elsewhere and left, like the reader, to wonder why she can’t be in the middle of the action. When Katniss does launch into battle, there is so much going on, and so little frame of reference for how the action is taking place (above ground, below ground, with IED-like “pods” and a device called a “Holo” that sounds like a military knock-off of Simon), that the drama is needlessly diluted by confusion.
This may have been the point — the set-up of the Hunger Games, with its carefully staged battles, was war created for mass consumption, and subsequently it read easily and vividly. It was entertainment. Actual battle, on the other hand, without Gamekeepers and magic parachutes, is chaos and confusion. If this was Collins’s point, though, it was sloppily made, and at the expense of clarity during the book’s most climactic scenes. Too little happened early, and too much happened late. Also,
Too much happens offscreen. Katniss’s video team realizes that the problem with her initial propos is that they’re too scripted, and that Katniss’s best moments come in battle. Unfortunately, Collins herself failed to realize this until too late. Too much of what we see and learn is indirect. The first two books crackled with immediacy; the final installment feels as though it’s on mute. This leads to what was likely the book’s biggest disappointment:
Katniss never made a choice. The question that most fans wanted answered by Mockingjay was not “Will Katniss live?” or “Will the rebels bring down the Capitol?” It was “Who will Katniss choose?” But Collins never let her make a choice. Gale, as remote as the other principal characters, suddenly becomes a hardened rebel content with an eye for an eye. He deserved a better ending. Katniss, left with a still-damaged Peeta, seems to simply run out of steam by book’s end. The one she picks is the one who still happens to be around. It felt like Collins made the same non-choice. Exhausted by the finish line, she looked at what she had and declared it the end. It certainly could have been worse; but it could have been so, so much better.
It was Ben who suggested using The Empire Strikes Back analogy for Catching Fire. Erin’s suggestion for Mockingjay? “The Godfather: Part III of young adult literature.”
What about you? Which movie would you compare The Hunger Games books to? And is our verdict on Mockingjay fair?
(Also, Erin just said the words, “But Andy Garcia was one hot ticket in that movie” with reference to The Godfather: Part III. We would not make something like that up.)