Monday, July 02, 2012

Better living through The Hunger Games

I finally finished Mockingjay last week, wrapping up the Hunger Games trilogy. If you haven’t read the series yet, it’s as good as they say.

I have a couple of observations. First, it’s sad that some of the conversation around the series has gone off into Team Gale and Team Peeta territory. I’m tempted to also call it ridiculous, but honestly, I understand the temptation. Katniss spends a lot of time trying to untangle her feelings about these two guys and there’s no harm in hoping she’ll pick one over the other. In fact, I identified with Peeta early on and rooted for him.

But the books are about so much more than romance and it’s a crime to choose Team Favorite-Boy when the series is so obviously asking you to be on Team Katniss. Which lad she picks isn’t about who can make her eternally happy – an emotional state that’s never held up as a legitimate option in the first place – but about how Katniss sees herself. Gale knows her better than anyone else and she trusts him completely, but he’s so angry (justifiably so) at the state of the world. Choosing him represents taking comfort in the way she already sees the world.

Her other option is Peeta, a boy she doesn’t know except that he was once very kind to her. Peeta’s response to the world isn’t to rail against it, but to find peace within himself. Choosing him represents a huge leap into a scary and unfamiliar, but ultimately healthier world view. Yet another reason I wanted her to choose him. The better reason actually. I won’t give away what choice she makes (or even if she chooses either of them), but I will say that what she does felt entirely right for her when I read it. The series is nothing if not honest to its characters.

The books do have some issues though. Mockingjay has some exciting set pieces, but it also drags in several places. My biggest problem with the series though applies to all three books, even the consistently thrilling Hunger Games and Catching Fire. The trouble is that Katniss is kind of stupid.

By which I mean that it takes her a long time to figure out things that were pretty obvious to me, especially when it comes to trusting people who are trying to help her. And though it’s a problem because I’m yelling at the book, Suzanne Collins turns it into strength in a couple of ways. First, it’s entirely within Katniss’ character not to trust people. It's not really stupidity at all, but a strong survival instinct. She has no real reason to trust anyone except for Gale and her sister. I had to keep reminding myself of that, but my forgetting it doesn’t make it less true or less important an aspect of who she is and how she thinks.

Second, Collins kept fooling me too. She kept building my confidence (“Oh, that person’s totally on Katniss’ side. Why can’t she see that?”) and then breaking it down by throwing in something completely unexpected (“That person’s trying to kill Katniss? Where did that come from?”). Though I felt like I was mentally ahead of Katniss about 90% of the time, I was probably only right about what was going on about 50%. It’s that uncertainty that makes the series so captivating. I love not knowing what’s about to happen.

I’m a slow reader, so while I was working my way through Catching Fire (before I gave up and bought it on Audible to listen to in the car), a friend of mine read the entire series through about three or four times. I didn’t question her about it, but I wondered to myself what the attraction was. As I was reading, the series felt so much like it was about what was going to happen. Can Katniss change her world? Can she ever find peace? If so, how? With Gale? With Peeta? With neither? Once I reached the end, I expected to be done. Why would I want to re-read it when I already have my answers and can no longer enjoy being surprised?

But it was about two-thirds of the way through Mockingjay that I started feeling the desire to re-read the whole series again. Not for the mysteries, but just for the comfort of being in Katniss’ head in this fantastical, but completely real world that Collins created. It’s not a comforting world, but there are moments of comfort within it that – in contrast to the rest of what’s going on – brought me tangible serenity. It’s not that I’m learning by Katniss’ example (“If she can find a moment of comfort in her world, then I should be able to find some in mine.”); it’s that Collins is able to make me feel Katniss’ despair about the world, and then make me feel peace within that despair. That’s masterful. It creates a feeling and an experience that readers can take with them into their own lives. And who wouldn’t want to re-experience that a few times?

There’s a lot going on in the Hunger Games trilogy: commentary about war, about reality TV, about our attitudes towards those less fortunate than we are. Those are all important things for readers to think about and struggle with. But what the series is about to me is finding peace in the midst of suffering. Discovering joy within hopelessness. That’s something that everyone can use.

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