Oh yes: it’s a double-header of posts. You see, due to my egregious lack of attention to this blog over the past month or so, I feel the need to make up for lost time. To be a good blogger, I should put up one post about why I haven’t been posting to satisfy what few readers I may have left. However, there is a far more pressing issue that has been gnawing away at me and those around me for some time that I have to resolve. The solution? Combine both in a bargain two-for-one package. How’s that for marketing?
Ok, First Title: I did not fall off it. I simply fell into a massive amount of college scholarship homework that robbed me of the energy to do anything with my free time beyond melting my brain in a vat of Once Upon A Time and Star Trek marathons. (Believe it or not, marathons help tremendously. So do large amounts of coffee.) Anyway, the end result was better than I ever hoped it would be. My parents and I had an amazing weekend at The King’s College in NYC. My scholarship presentation went well, and dare I say I had fun doing it? I met so many incredible students, most of whom I am blessed beyond measure to have as my future classmates. The faculty and current students at King’s were just as wonderful, patiently answering my constant barrage of questions and putting aside any doubts I had about the school. God is calling me there, and I couldn’t be more excited to go!
So that’s where I was. Now that I’m back, on to the Second Title: I’m talking about The Hunger Games. Don’t cover your ears and run away just yet! I know there’s been an overload of hype about it lately, and you may be sick of hearing about it, but I’ve got stuff eating away at my recovering brain that I have to get out. Plus, my Mom specifically asked for a post on it after she finished a whirlwind reading of the trilogy, and, well, you just can’t say no to Mom.
(Note: I’m inserting this here to avoid breaking Rule Of Life #15 (Don’t spoil the plot): there are LOTS of SPOILERS in this post, so if you haven’t read all three books, don’t read this. If you read this anyway, it’s your fault, not mine, so don’t come after me for not breaking ROL#15. End Note.)
I first read THG almost a year and a half ago, just before the final book of the trilogy, Mockingjay, was published. I read it on Christmas Day in 5 hours, and when I put it down I felt like my world had shifted off its axis. Not enough to completely throw me, but enough that I couldn’t just move on without dealing with it first. I did not like the book. It was dark, violent, cleverly seditious, and downright ugly, unlike anything I’d read before. I was deeply unsettled. Why? After all, it’s not real. Panem is a fictional land, Katniss doesn’t exist, and the Capitol is not an actual threat. What, then, unsettled me? It didn’t take me long to figure out: THG is a book about what our world could be.
Suzanne Collins, the trilogy’s author, said she got the idea for the series while switching stations between a reality TV show about young adults and a news station covering the invasion of Iraq. The two contexts merged into a story about teens fighting gladiator-style in a government controlled arena on a TV show broadcast to the entire nation. Social commentary, anybody? At its core, THG is a cautionary tale against what the media’s obsession with reality TV and the culture’s obsession with violence could turn in to. Granted, the result is extreme. I’d like to think our culture wouldn’t advocate televised murders as entertainment…oh, wait. Ever heard of CSI? Psych? Dexter? NCIS? I have. In fact, I’m a huge fan of the last one, and I know huge fans of the others. These shows, and other crime dramas, vividly portray humans killing humans and we soak it up eagerly. The only difference between those shows and Panem’s Games is that our shows are fictional.
Fortunately, not everyone in Panem loves the Games. Most of the 12 districts that are forced to provide the kids for the spectacle despise the annual slaughter. Districts 1 and 2 and the Capitol, however, adore the Games. The tributes from 1 and 2 go so far as to volunteer to fight in order to have the glory that comes with victory. Of course, that’s not the only reason tributes volunteer. Katniss sacrifices herself to save her 12-year-old sister, Prim, from having to fight. It’s the first spark of defiance against the Games and the first attempt in the series at redemption.
Panem is a world in desperate need of redemption. Their culture is twisted, their government is tyrannical, and their only solutions are violent ones. Katniss herself is not the ideal heroine: she’s sarcastic, mean, desperate, and distrustful. As a character, Katniss has few redeeming qualities beyond her devotion to her sister. She is as desperate for a savior as Panem is, and this desperation is, under the many thematic layers, the real theme of the story. The whole series is about a search for a savior.
None of the consistent characters (that is, the characters who live through all three books) on the “good-guy” side is truly good. Haymitch is an alcoholic, Gale is angry, and Peeta is deceptive. Yet these characters and others are experimental saviors throughout the series: Haymitch “saves” Katniss from her sullen self as she preps for the 74th Games. The popular love triangle between Gale, Peeta, and Katniss attempts to rescue both Katniss and the story by, as Haymitch convinces Seneca Crane in the movie, giving the audience “young love” to root for. By the end of the series, the rebellious District 13 is portrayed as not just the potential savior of Panem by fighting for freedom, but also of Katniss by making her the Mockingjay. Anybody else seeing a trend? Haymich, Peeta, Gale, 13…all of them and the themes they portray are focused on turning Katniss into the perfect savior. Yup. That sarcastic, mean, desperate, distrustful girl from above? She’s supposed to be the ultimate savior.
Why her? Why not another, more moral character, like Cinna, Finnick, Boggs, or Prim? Well, besides the fact that all those truly good guys end up dead, the answer is simple: Collins didn’t want any of them to be the savior. If she had, she would have made one of them the main character. Instead, Collins attempted to make a literary miracle happen and redeem three things at once: the main character, the story world, and the book itself. And this could only be accomplished through Katniss.
Think about it: Katniss starts out as a bit of a failure when it comes to main characters. Collins did this on purpose so she could redeem Katniss and make a point: if this girl can find love and success in the midst of something so dark and terrible, so can we (loving Peeta/Gale in the arena/District 12). By making that point, Collins could make another: if we can find love and success in a dark place, then we can help the world conquer all darkness(the rebellion against the Capitol). Put all that together, and despite all the blood and gore and violence and hate of THG, the series becomes a story of redemption. Bibbity boppity boo! Happy ending.
Only, it doesn’t exactly work out like that. Yeah, Katniss and Peeta marry and live happily ever after, and Katniss never has to see Gale again, and the Capitol falls, and the Games end, and everything seems to end wonderfully, it doesn’t. I’ve talked with a lot of THG fans, and not a single one was satisfied with the ending. Not one. Something was missing to wrap the story up completely, to give that ultimate sense of denouement to the story. Denouement is French, loosely translated as, “untied knot.” (Thanks, Dictionary.com.) In literature, it’s used to describe the sense of completion in a story, the feeling of, “Ah, it’s over, and all the loose ends are wrapped up nicely.” Plot-wise, Collins wrapped up her ends. There wasn’t anything unresolved to leave the reader pondering. Theme-wise, however, she wrapped up all but the most important one: her savior. Here’s where THG’s shocking reality is a problem. Because the books feel so real, and our current world feels so close to the world of Panem, we need a savior that is equally as real as the world to redeem it. However, in the real world, nobody is perfect enough to be a real savior. We can put people on pedestals as high as we want, but none of them can truly correct the sin of the world because they are sinful themselves. That’s why there is Christ. In THG, real world problems need a real world savior, and Katniss, no matter what she does, no matter what happens to her, no matter how her story ends, is no Christ.
“Of course not!” the fans say. “She’s imperfect so we can relate to her, it wouldn’t be the same if she was perfect, there’d be no story…” and so on and so forth. My answer is Yes! That’s the point. And that’s the same problem with all literary saviors who are not based on Christ’s example: they just can’t do it. The problems are too big for them to handle, and so at the end, the reader is left wanting. Collins failed to do what writers have been trying to do forever and that few have accomplished: create the perfect savior. It’s just not possible. Humans are sinful, and so we can’t come up with a human savior who can actually pull it off. Some authors, most of them Christian, have written characters who end up being pretty good saviors by following the age-old model of unconditional love and ultimate self-sacrifice that Collins ignored, likely for the sake of avoiding cliche. Unfortunately, because Katniss is seemingly incapable of unconditional love (see Gale/Peeta love triangle and you’ll get my point), and never once considers ultimate self-sacrifice (sacrifice without any benefit for yourself…the nightlock berries don’t count, since they were for revenge, not sacrifice), she does not fill the role of savior. The odds are not in her favor, and the audience is unsatisfied.
So, all told, I’m not a fan of how THG ends, but I am a fan of THG. Haymitch is my favorite character, I want to make Hob stew someday, I own a Mockingjay necklace, when I braid my hair I act like I’m Katniss, and I wish I could grow a beard just so I could shave it like Seneca Crane. At Easter brunch, my parents took advantage of my obsession, knowing I would react enthusiastically: Mom: “Hey Jess, did you see that pig with the apple in its mouth?” Dad: “Oh yeah, the one with the arrow through it?” Me: “WHERE????” You can imagine their hilarity. Anyway, I love THG mostly because of how I see it affecting my generation. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything on the Teen Lit shelves in Barnes & Noble that wasn’t fluff about romance, boys, drama, and “finding yourself.” Teens can breeze through those books without a second thought, and are worse for wear by the end. THG is impossible to read without a second thought. Teens read it, and immediately ask themselves, “What would I do? How would I react?” They have to take into account the sin in the world and in themselves to answer that question in any way, and that alone is enough redemption for me. Books should make you think, ask questions, doubt yourself, doubt the world. Books should be a journey, not a joyride. Books should not be just an escape, but also an investigation, a process of digging and learning. Books are doing this for teens for the first time in a long time. Thanks to Collins and Katniss, the odds are finally back in our favor.