So it ended up taking me almost exactly a week to read the entire Hunger Games trilogy; I downloaded the e-books on a Friday night and dove in, and finished the last of the third volume in bed the following Friday, reasonably certain I wouldn’t be able to sleep unless I knew how it all turned out. Spoilers, spoilers, burning bright!
I understand that there’s a certain amount of controversy surrounding the third book, with some people thinking it’s a massive letdown. I disagree, although I admit I am still trying to parse certain aspects of the ending, which I’ll get to below. I think a lot of the disappointment people might have felt lies in the fact that the third installment, by necessity, is pretty different (structurally and thematically) from the other two, and people just hate change. But those differences in part three are essential and inevitable. I’m pretty sure the story ends the only way that it could.
Basically, The Hunger Games (the first book) is about the Hunger Games (the fictional gladiatorial contest) and how Katniss progresses from “How can I survive these games?” to “How can I survive with my soul intact?” and determines that the answer is “By completely subverting the Games.” Then Catching Fire is at first about Katniss trying to answer “How can I survive the wrath of the regime after subverting their precious Games?” and the answer at first seems to be that she can’t. Katniss ends up back in the Hunger Games, despite the fact that such a turn of events violates the underlying premise of the previous book: win and live out the rest of your days in dystopian state-sponsored luxury, or lose and die. The second book ends up being about the Hunger Games (the contest) again, as the regime announces an all-star version of the event in a barely-disguised attempt to eliminate the girl who dared to beat the game the year before. Which puts Katniss in the same position as before, but now the only possible answer to her predicament is “By overthrowing the regime” and the book ends with the first blows of the revolution.
So of course Mockingjay then has to be about the revolution. All three books are violent and hinge on kill-or-be-killed situations, but the first two are about a gladiatorial deathmatch and the third is about war. The carnage may have many similarities, especially as Collins describes all of the automated defenses of the Capitol as being eerily similar to the hazards in the arena of the Hunger Games, but the end results are very different. Within the Hunger Games there are good kids and bad kids, and both times through Katniss essentially bides her time while the bad kids kill the other good kids, clearing the way for all of Katniss’s kills to be inherently righteous (aside from the inherent atrocity the Games represent in the first place) until, finally, she wins. But as the old saying goes, “Nobody wins a war. Somebody loses.” In war there are inevitably innocents among the casualties, and Mockingjay is no exception.
Katniss also really sees her agency vastly reduced in the third book, and that’s not really Collins’s fault (again, how else could the whole story possibly end but in war, and what would Katniss do in a war other than become a small part of the revolutionary machine?) but I can understand how it would be a turn-off to people who enjoyed two novels about a plucky individualist of a girl who survived harrowing experiences on her own. In Mockingjay, Katniss spends a lot of time recuperating from injuries, confined to a hospital bed on three separate occasions, and when she’s up and about she’s following other people’s orders more often than not. It’s a decently realistic depiction of the dangers of life in wartime, I suppose. You could argue whether or not it’s better to make a story realistic or make it gripping, but we’ve got the story we’ve got.
There’s another old saying about how it’s almost impossible to make an effective anti-war movie, because up on screen war looks really awesome. The Hunger Games trilogy is undeniably cinematic (and undoubtedly will spawn an entire film franchise committing the entire saga to digital video) but Mockingjay still comes across as pretty solidly anti-war. Where the first book, especially, subverted the trappings of femininity like fashion and celebrity and crushing on boys, the final installment seems hellbent on subverting sci-fi war stories. Although the rebels end up defeating the regime, I don’t recall any moments of battlefield victory in the entire book. In fact the happiest moment is a wedding at the rebel base, although weddings in these kinds of stories usually portend that one or both members of the happy couple will end up dead (something I would have been happy to see Collins subvert, but I suppose she really couldn’t). Most of the combat-oriented parts of the book are unrelentingly grim and bleak.
And then there’s the forging of the peace, and this is the part I’m still struggling with. The regime’s evil mastermind President Snow is captured at the end of the war, and Katniss has been promised the opportunity to be his executioner. Before that can happen, the rebel leader installed as new President, Coin, brings a problem to Katniss and the other six Hunger Games All-Stars survivors. Some of the rebels, Coin claims, won’t be happy with one old man being executed, and the idea has been proposed to have another Hunger Games, using children of the Capitol, to balance the scales. (The Capitol “haves” were always exempt from the Hunger Games in the past, with the tributes collected from the surrounding Districts of “have-nots”.) The all-stars get to decide the matter, yes or no, by majority vote. The vote stands at 3 to 2 against with Katniss and her mentor Haymitch left to vote. They both vote to have the Hunger Games again and the matter is settled 4 to 3. Then Katniss takes her trusty bow and arrow out in front of a huge crowd to shoot Snow, takes aim, and shoots Coin instead. Coin dies instantly, a riot breaks out, and Snow dies in the riot. There ends up not being any more Hunger Games after all, I guess because Coin was the one who wanted them all along and now she’s dead?
It’s the vote part that really sticks in my craw. Katniss disliked the Hunger Games before she entered them, hated them while she was in them, hated them after the first time through, and could not possibly have hated them more after the second time. Yet she votes in favor of putting Capitol children through the same torture. I don’t know if this is meant to show how broken and messed up Katniss is after the horrors of two Games and a war? Or if it was all a test – like she voted yes just to see what Coin would do if the idea was approved, and when Coin says “splendid” then Katniss knows it’s meet the new boss, same as the old boss, Coin is too bloodthirsty to rule Panem and decides right then to shoot Coin the next (and probably only) chance she gets? It just doesn’t sit right in my mind.
But honestly? Part of me thinks that maybe in my breathless late-night rush to finish the trilogy I may have read it too fast and missed a crucial tell along the way. Since this is the Year of the Re-Read, I may very well go back and re-read Mockingjay again to get a better handle on it, and so I’m still sort of reserving final judgment on it. Whether or not I ever sort out Katniss’s motivations, though, I still stand by my initial enthusiastic assessments. It’s a hell of a series.