Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Hunger Games series

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

I admit I came very late to The Hunger Games. I saw the movie and was a little disturbed by it. Because of that and not wanting to do what everyone else did, I didn’t get around to reading the books until last month. I wanted something that could keep my attention on a long plane ride from California. So, I finished The Hunger Games, and immediately began reading Catching Fire. I finished that book on December 30 and watched the movie on December 31. I immediately began Mockingjay and read about 2/3 of it before watching Mockingjay, Part 1 on January 1. I finished the book in the morning on January 2, and a couple of hours later, watched Mockingjay, Part 2 in the theater.

If for some reason you haven’t read the books or watched the movies, spoilers are ahead, but I won’t take up space summarizing the plots. I’ll mostly talk about the characters. I’ve been thinking about or writing this post for a week. Only this morning did I begin thinking about the importance of knots in the story, so writing about that will have to wait for another time. I’m not suggesting that these books are at the same level as say, The Grapes of Wrath, but I do think there is a lot more going on here than a dystopian novel with a high body count and a love triangle. These books are well worth reading and rereading.

I liked the books better than the movies, but I still enjoyed the movies. So much of the story has to be cut out of the films. Because of that, sometimes it felt like plot points and characters suddenly appeared as if they’d just fallen from the sky on a silver parachute. It sometimes seemed that a person who hadn’t read the books would be confused, or at least wonder how Katniss never ran out of arrows.

Suzanne Collins is exploring the effect of violence on young people. This is done by following Katniss and her evolving relationships with her classmate Peeta, and Katniss’s childhood friend Gale as they struggle for survival. Katniss has been hunting with her friend Gale since she was 12 years old. He’s her best friend. She can talk to him, and out in the woods, he can express his anger at their oppressors in the Capitol. Katniss just wants to survive and take care of her mom and sister, Prim. Katniss has never spoken with Peeta, and before they’re reaped and suddenly depend on one another for survival, their one interaction came when he gave Katniss a burned loaf of bread so her family wouldn’t starve.

Katniss has much in common with her two friends. She has a will to fight and a lot of anger like her friend Gale. She wants to protect the weak and suffering, as Peeta does. As Katniss and Peeta fight for their lives in the arena, we see to what lengths Peeta will go to save Katniss, whom he’s loved since he was five years old. Meanwhile, Katniss doesn’t really know Peeta, and she thinks that when it comes down to it, he’ll kill her to survive.

The previous victors have responded to the violence and death of the arena in different ways. Some appear to be handling it better than others. Some turn to alcohol and drugs, others end up having their bodies sold and must put a happy face on it with all their new-found fame and wealth. The story is of Katniss’s journey through the hell of the arena and being a pawn in the game being played on both sides of the revolution. Her conflicted feelings about Gale and Peeta mirror the choices she’ll make in deciding what kind of person she’ll be if she survives all of this.

My favorite character is Peeta. Peeta is good. He is compassionate. He’s willing to sacrifice himself for others (Katniss, rebels) or a greater cause (his team’s mission, the revolution). He wants to remain who he is and not be changed by the violent situation he’s been thrown into and can’t control. After the games, Peeta finds out that Katniss doesn't really love him; she only wanted to survive. He is angry, and he pouts for a few months. Then he decides, whatever his motivations are, that they should be friends. That is an unselfish love. During his private training session before the Quarter Quell, Peeta defies the Capitol by painting a picture of Rue lying under the flowers Katniss used to bury her. This served as a reminder to the game makers not only of the loss of life in the arena, but also of their own lost humanity when they send children to die. Near the end of the series, when the remaining victors are asked to decide whether to send Capitol children into the hunger games, Peeta vehemently says no. When the revolution is over and he can finally go home, the first thing he does is plant evening primrose for Katniss, in honor of her sister.

Before they go in the arena for the first time, Katniss and Peeta have the following exchange. Peeta recognizes that his chances of survival are not good, and of course, later we find out that he’s decided to help Katniss.

“I don’t know how to say it exactly. Only . . . I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?” he asks. I shake my head. How could he die as anyone but himself? “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.”
I bite my lip, feeling inferior. While I’ve been ruminating on the availability of trees, Peeta has been struggling with how to maintain his identity. His purity of self. “Do you mean you won’t kill anyone?” I ask.
“No, when the time comes, I’m sure I’ll kill just like everybody else. I can’t go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to . . . to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their games,” says Peeta.

Katniss thinks about this conversation off and on throughout the story, struggling to understand what Peeta meant.

Gale and Katniss come from similar backgrounds. Both their fathers died in a mine explosion. If they didn’t hunt their families would starve. Gale is justifiably angry at the Capitol. When the opportunity arises for him to fight back, he takes it. But, he’s willing to give up a little of his humanity to do it. When the rebels are trying to capture the “Nut” stronghold, he considers possible innocent casualties just part of the situation. Because of their own suffering, he feels that an eye for an eye is justified. In the end, his relationship with Katniss is destroyed because there is the strong possibility that not only did he not protect Prim, but it was a weapon that he helped design that killed her.

I think there is a parallel between Finnick and Annie’s relationship and Katniss and Peeta’s. When the victors are voting whether to do a hunger games with Capitol children, Annie shows compassion and does not seek revenge when she sides with Peeta by voting no. Finnick is like Katniss in many ways except a lot more mature, experienced and further down the path in which he decides who he is. He and Katniss both have loved ones captured by the Capitol and used as weapons against them. He is angry at the Capitol and will fight for the people he loves and for the revolution. But when Annie is rescued, and he’s found a measure of peace and happiness, he’s still willing to sacrifice himself to win the war and make the world better. He’s my second favorite character.

Cinna is Katniss’s stylist for the games. He is tasked with making her beautiful and memorable. He does so, and more. He treats her with kindness, respect, and is her friend. He treats the childish prep team with compassion and tenderness. He ends up being killed for using his designs to defy the Capitol and support the revolution. He saves Katniss by designing a Mockingjay uniform that is bullet proof. He serves as a touchstone for Katniss throughout the story.

I’m not sure what to say about Haymitch besides the part in the movie was perfectly cast. I’m still thinking about him. He became a victor by outsmarting everyone else. Afterword, everyone he loved was killed. He’s what could have happened to both Finnick and Katniss if they’d lost Annie and Peeta. He had nothing to care about and spent more than 20 years mentoring tributes only to watch them be slaughtered. But when Peeta and Katniss come along, it’s a chance, perhaps, to heal some old wounds. When Katniss is ready to give up on Peeta ever recovering from being brainwashed, it’s Haymitch that reminds her that Peeta would never have given up on her if the situation had been reversed. He often tries to keep Katniss on the right path.

Katniss’s journey, beyond what she has to do to survive the horror of life as a tribute and revolutionary, is to decide what kind of person she will become. This is mirrored in her feelings for both Gale and Peeta. In Gale, she finds all the anger and rage and need to destroy the Capitol that she feels. But there is also the willingness to tolerate collateral damage and to take revenge on anyone who gets in the way. In contrast, while Peeta is willing to fight to survive, he is unwilling to give in and become the monster the Capitol tried to create. Even after torture and brainwashing, he works to find himself again and is unwilling to put other’s lives in danger if it can be avoided. Peeta is compassion, where Gale is anger. Which one is the best way to try and heal wounds that will probably be with you forever? Katniss appears to be heading down the road of rage and vengeance when she votes yes (for Prim) to starting the hunger games again with Capitol children and going to execute President Snow. Before she shoots the arrow, she figures out that she is still a pawn in the game, and she’s about to trade one President Snow for another. She has a nightlock pill with her, recognizing that the choice she is making to assassinate the new president is the end of her own life, but that it’s the right thing to do. Of course, Peeta saves her. In the end, Katniss chooses to love Peeta.

I think, in choosing the person you’ll love, you’re also choosing the kind of person you want to be. Peeta is good, and Katniss would like to be good, too.

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