28 October 2011
On my recent vacation I finally got the chance to catch up on some reading I’ve meaning to do for a very long time: at the top of the list, The Hunger Games. My Bookshelf guru Rachael loves the books and I’m more than psyched for the upcoming movie, so when the time came for me to jump into the bestselling series, I couldn’t wait. And while I sped through all three hefty novels in a matter of days, thoroughly invested throughout, I’ve got to say I wasn’t quite as taken as I thought I’d be. Don’t get me wrong, I loved The Hunger Games, I really did. But I just wasn’t as deliriously in love with it as I expected.
*Warning, this whole thing will be spoilers. Turn back now if you must*
There was the repetitiveness of the second book, the lack of clarity in the third; I struggled a bit with the lack of development given to series linchpin Prim until well after she needed it, and with the inconsistencies with Haymitch’s character. But those are nitpicky, none of them a particularly big deal. Ultimately what softened my love of the series, as much as it pains me to say, was my issues with Katniss Everdeen. The entire action of the series takes place in about a year and a half of the teenager’s life. That does great things for the urgency of tone, believability in the ever-changing world and intensity of relationships. What it also does is trap its antisocial and temperamental heroine into her 16-year-old self. Imagine if Harry Potter had narrated his entire series in the first person, functioning the whole time at the emotional intensity of book seven with the self-centered maturity of book five.
Katniss is awesome- she’s strong and loyal and extremely capable- but her short-sighted, self-centered bad decision making skills put a lot of people in danger very often and to think her a 100% heroine is next to impossible. And I don’t blame Suzanne Collins for it. In fact, Katniss’ less tolerable moments gave me faith in the author’s belief in her character and her audience- in letting her be a 16-year-old brat at times and trusting us to know that’s not what’s at the core of her character. It was a brave choice, but I wish it hadn’t gone quite so far- the intense self-deprecation that had her playing the loner when everyone loved her; her somewhat unforgivable behaviour towards Peeta and the way she took him for granted; her dismissal of others as easily beneath her (Effie, Haymitch, Finnick, etc…); her insistence that what she wanted was more important than everyone else (the biggest example for me being her insistence on going back to District 12 at the beginning of the 3rd book, even though it would cost the resistance funds, time and man power they couldn’t spare)- I have very little patience for such things. It’s a catch-22, without such flaws Katniss would be more caricature hero than complex and fallible human being and her relationships and foils wouldn’t be nearly as poignant. But Collins asks for an awful lot of patience from her readers, a request that sometimes felt too demanding with Katniss as the inescapable narrator, her oft-misguided opinions buzzing obnoxiously in the ears of readers who were sometimes 10 steps ahead of her (seriously, the head gamemaker surreptitiously flashes a hidden mockingjay symbol at you and it’s another book and a half before you figure out he’s on your team?!). I’m all for the complexity of the fallible heroine, but next time lets go with a nice, harmless limited omniscient narrator who can tell her story with a little less subjectivity.
The fact that we were inside Katniss’ head was also a factor in my other major opinion on The Hunger Games– the love triangle. Don’t freak out- this part I loved (generally), I’m done with my harsher criticism of your beloved series. You may now breathe.
Let’s start with Peeta, because he’s frankly more important than Gale. Here is where the first person narration was both a blessing and a curse. Without it, Peeta was just way too awesome; rash perhaps, a bit of a hindrance in the arena, but just so damn wonderful of a human being that he could have grown tiresome, if Katniss hadn’t spent so much time telling us he wasn’t trustworthy. But every once in awhile (read: way more often than is okay) I found myself holding it against Katniss that her character judgement was so awful. On the other hand, her unflinching loyalty to Gale actually elevated his character. I mean, I love Gale, I really do- he’s smart and sensible, strong, protective, surprisingly funny and I’m a sucker for the one-true-confidante character- but in Katniss’ eyes only Gale’s absolute best traits got noticed. You had to pay close attention to see Gale’s darkness, because while Peeta spends much of the series as a villain (or at least the lesser man) in some context or another, to Katniss, Gale was always pure hero- until he wasn’t.
I had trouble throughout the series picking who I thought she should end up with. I think the obvious choice was Peeta; his unwavering goodness was important for bringing the best out of Katniss and poor Gale could never understand what she went through in the Games. It may have been her and Gale against the world for many years, but when her life was really on the line all she had was Peeta- that’s a powerful thing. But as I was processing that reality (somewhere mid-book 1), I couldn’t help but feel like, despite her protestations that she would never fall in love, what Katniss wanted was Gale. Every single time the idea of loving Peeta came up (and sometimes completely unprovoked), Katniss’ mind would wander directly to Gale. Before the first reaping, the topic had never been broached between the two best friends, why then was he where her mind went every time she thought about romantic love? At the end of book 1 when she told Peeta that there’s nothing between them (ignoring the butterflies her stomach felt in that cave), she chose Gale. In book 2 when she decided to fight instead of flee, she chose Gale. Without even meaning to- in thought, in conversation, in basic consideration- she chose Gale. I’m a believer that following your heart over your head in these matters is
usually the way to go (especially when choosing between 2 men who are both incredibly deserving and good). So while I would have picked Peeta, for Katniss I was on team Gale.
Then came “Mockingjay”, the tumultuous third and final book of the series. Without the framework of the Games, “Mockingjay” felt disjointed and odd, introducing mountains of new characters, events getting lost in the pattern of “Katniss is brave, then she’s in the hospital”. But here is where the game changed for the love triangle. By this point Katniss had definitively concluded that Peeta was a wonderful and deserving guy who really did love her- about time; her quest to save him above herself in book 2 (“Catching Fire”) finally solidified that she sees how irreplaceably good he was and was fighting for him just as much as he was fighting for her. But it was only in the third book, when Peeta and his unconditional love were taken away, that Katniss really appreciated them. Time after time, after confrontations with the hijacked and vicious Peeta, Katniss declared him, them, their love, their friendship, whatever, a lost cause. But time after time she returned to him, finally realizing just how much she wanted the real him back. As that realization began to dawn on the heroine I shifted my pick for who gets the girl back to Peeta. Now he and Katniss were more even, thoughts of Gale were less frequent as Katniss wholeheartedly missed the real Peeta.
But Gale was still there, and as idiotic as it was that she couldn’t keep her best friend, as long as Gale was around, the question would always be in Katniss’ head- should she have picked him? Could she still? It was never in question that Katniss loved Gale. I would even argue she was in love with him the whole time (it’s the word “in” that makes keeping their friendship an impossibility). But Peeta was the right man for her all along, and now that she actually deserved him, something had to take Gale off the table. So Collins took away the one thing Katniss had always loved more than Gale- her little sister. By this point, Prim had gotten enough page time (mostly in the third book) that she’d become someone the audience loved just as much as Katniss did, someone really worth saving. So of course Collins had to kill her. It brought the book full circle, it tore down any little bits of her old self that Katniss had been able to hold on to, it made it so that she could never return to a time before the Games. By killing Prim, Collins geniusly propelled Katniss into a new life- Peeta representing the changing world of Panem while Gale had always represented the home she now could never really have again. Thematically killing Prim did exactly what it did practically- make it so that Katniss could never be with Gale. Putting the thought in Katniss’ mind that it might have been Gale’s bomb that killed her sister drover her from him but also brought to light exactly why she shouldn’t be with him anyway- he’s too much like her, violent, defiant, dissatisfied. Katniss needed someone who would pull her from her darkness. Gale would just make the darkness bearable, staying there with her.
The love story in The Hunger Games is the most complex triangle I’ve read in years (you can tell, can’t you, by the way I rambled on about it). It doesn’t have a villain, an outside force keeping one couple apart, or an obvious right choice. Peeta and Gale are both unbelievable men, opposites anyone would dream of having in their lives. Who Katniss ends up with is not a matter of who’s the better man, it’s a matter of the person who she becomes. The dystopian social commentary of the books is superb, but its the love story that really makes the series shine.
As much as I adored Peeta and Gale, the issue of my favourite character is not so cut and dry. I said earlier that I would have chosen Peeta- but I wouldn’t have wanted to give Gale up either. I love him, he’s wonderful and if he doesn’t take the prize, he comes pretty darn close to being my favourite character. When it came down to it, there were just too many characters I couldn’t get enough of. I believed until the very last page of “Mockingjay” that my beloved Cinna would reappear in all his soft-spoken and courageous glory (a result of “he’s mostly likely dead” usually actually meaning he’s alive. Not here, apparently). I adored Finnick, trusting him chapters before Katniss ever did and literally gasping his name out loud on a train to King’s Cross when he didn’t make it out of the sewers alive- that killed me. I loved Rue, as I’m sure everyone did, crying dramatically whenever her name came up in the later books, but I also had an unexpectedly strong fondness for Thresh, one of the most quietly defiant and undervalued characters in the books. I loved Boggs and really liked Johanna, the prep team, Cressida and her crew, and love love loved the baker, Peeta’s father. The supporting characters were so memorable and wonderful, from the ambiguously horrible President Coin to the sinister President Snow, constant Greasy Sae, kind Hazelle, cunning and unnamed Foxface (though the overkill on Roman Shakespeare-inspired names did grow a little tiresome after a while; Lavinia for the tongue-less girl, really?!). And there was Madge, for some reason the character who always made me cry. Katniss’ only real friend, from long before Katniss bothered to notice her friendship, Madge was undervalued across the board but gave Katniss her most treasured possession (her aunt’s mockingjay pin that she had worn when she died in the Games) and was, in her own small way, the spark of the revolution.
I loved reading The Hunger Games. I haven’t been so fully engrossed in a literary world since the 2007 end of Harry Potter. And while it may be far from perfection, what Suzanne Collins has created is nothing short of extraordinary. And unlike Harry Potter, I have every confidence that the films will only improve on the Hunger Games legacy.