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Pune/ India, Irvine/ CA, now Boulder/ CO
Welcome to my blog! I'm Hrishi from Pune, India. I am an earth system scientist currently working as a postdoctoral research associate at Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research at CU-Boulder. These blogs are mostly about my travels, landscape photography, scientific computing, book and film reviews, fitness, cooking, and science communication. Feel free to navigate based on the labels below. My website: hrishikeshac.wix.com/hchandan

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Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Hunger Games trilogy


Note: Spoilers ahead! Please do not read this unless you have read all three novels in The Hunger Games trilogy. It won’t make much sense otherwise (assuming that whatever I write makes some sense at all!)

I recently read The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. These are science fiction books concerning Panem, a country which stands on what was once North America. Panem has a Capitol and 13 districts which are Capitol’s main source of natural resources. There was once a rebellion amongst the Districts against the Capitol. The Capitol not only smashed it, but obliterated the 13th District to set an example for the other districts. Since then, it has also started the Hunger Games, games in which a boy and a girl (between age 12 and 18), called as tributes, are selected from every district and made to fight each other to death in a scary arena. The show is telecasted to the entire Panem, leaving the citizens to no options but to watch their district’s tributes getting slaughtered.
 
The story revolves around Katniss, a girl from District 12, who volunteers for her sister Prim to go as Tribute. It tells us how she not only survives the games, but defies the Capitol in every action possible. It also involves a love triangle between her, her fellow tribute Peeta and her best friend Gale. The story follows her being a victor (along with Peeta) all the way to become the face of a rebellion against the Capitol.

The concept of hunger games is not new. Though it is not directly comparable with the gladiators, it is similar in concept. People made to fight each other to death, for the entertainment of the public. I have seen something similar in films such as The Condemned, The Death Race, the latest Predator (starring Adrian Brody), and from the Zodiac Killer’s inspiration behind the name Zodiac. In the Condemned and the Death Race, these games were live to watch for public over the internet. We are also not new to stories about dictatorial establishments trying to suppress uprisings. In the fictional world, there are so many of them. These stories typically begin with bad times. The protagonist comes from the poor/ powerless and then goes on to win against the mighty establishment.  Star Wars, The Matrix, The Dunes, His Dark Materials to name a few.

The first thing about the novel that I noticed was the first person narration. While I initially found it uncomfortable to read, it soon grew on me. First person narration seems perfect for this series, as we have direct access to Katniss’ thoughts and her feelings. However, first person narration has several drawbacks. First one being that we readers know only what Katniss knows or sees. We get to learn about other things only when someone tells them to her. We are left just as much in the dark as she is. This inhibits the suspense caused when the readers know more than the characters. I kind of like this suspense. I have thoroughly enjoyed films like The Rope, Gajini, Star Wars sequels Episodes I, II and III, which create this kind of suspense. Even in Harry Potter for that matter, we knowing Snape taking the unbreakable vow while Harry is so much in the dark about this also create a similar feeling. Another fact is that, we know that Katniss won’t die till the end of the third book, unless someone takes over the narration!

While the first two books are very personal about Katniss, they are like any other science fiction and fantasy book you read, and there is nothing ambiguous about them. There is a clear cut distinction between good and evil. Victory and loss. There is heroism, patriotism (towards one’s district), love and sacrifice. There is treachery as well, but there is undying friendship and loyalty too. Indeed most of the Science Fiction and Fantasy (SF and F) books that I have read have these elements.

It is the third book, Mockingjay, which is very disturbing to read and which I am going to discuss at length. It is highly political as well as personal. I must admit that the third book left me emotionally scarred, just like Amber Spyglass of His Dark Materials did (though I believe the book ends positively as Will and Lyra find a purpose in their lives, even though they are worlds apart.) There is a hint as to how things will turn when District 12 is obliterated in the end of Catching Fire. In the third, slowly, one step at a time, Katniss begins to change. The war becomes more political. Boundaries between good and evil begin to disappear. Gale too begins to change. The rebellion, it turns out, does not fulfill the cause Katniss is fighting for. She is made a mere pawn. A prop. Still, things look pretty okay till the time when Katniss goes to the Capitol. Just within a span of a few pages, Collins manages to kill several important characters. They die left, right and centre. Most painful to digest is the death of Finnick. Here is this guy who has saved Katniss’s and Peeta’s life on multiple occasions, has suffered the kind of pain which only Katniss is capable of empathizing. It is shocking to read him die. And what kill him? A few fowl, half human-half reptilian creatures. This is not how one would expect Finnick to die, if one comes to terms that he has to die in the first place. Finnick deserved so much more than to become food to those creatures. He didn’t even die fighting (in a way). And even after he is dead, one hardly mourns. Of course, Katniss does not have enough time for mourning, and yes, she does see images of his life flash in front of her eyes, and yes, he does feature in her and Peeta’s book along with his son (which is perhaps the real display of hope in the novel). But that is not a fitting enough eulogy to Finnick.

The entire mission of assassination seemed a little childish to me. Especially the way it ended- with the Girl on fire actually catching fire. With the death of Katniss’s sole cause for competing in the games, for fighting the war: Primrose. Indeed, there are some characters which cannot die. Prim is one such character. She is the only person Katniss (and thereby, the readers) knows for sure that she loves. She is the sole purpose of Katniss’s actions. At first I thought it as a flaw from Collin’s part. Then I realized that she planned to kill Prim right from the day of reaping. She made us love Prim, only to slaughter her in the end, just to show how devastating war can be. That is the biggest shock Katniss can ever get. All her struggle was to keep her alive. That cause, that purpose, is lost. Suddenly the war is totally worthless. This is what Collins wants to show: war is equally devastating for winners as it is for losers. Just that the winners survive, which again, doesn’t seem like a better option, as we see Katniss’s suicidal attempts. Ultimately, it is shown that the Capitol was not all that bad after all. All the attempts of President Snow to unruffle, unhinge Katniss seem so feeble when compared to the tragedy the war brings to her. Katniss loses everything which she once held as dear: her house, her mother, her sister, her best friend and hunting partner and of course her mental peace and is left alive to suffer it all. How can such a person be termed as a winner? This is where the novel differs from the usual science fiction and fantasy books.  This indeed leaves me wondering that how are young adults, the alleged target readers, supposed to take it, digest it? A fragile mind, as one would commonly encounter among these readers, may not rise above the depression that the Novel throws it in. while it can be said that the third novel is an anti-war novel, the first two justify the need for the war, thus, making it even more confusing, leading to the ultimate conclusion: that war is a need, that it is bad, that it is actually totally worthless to the people to whom it actually mattered (who only realize it when most of the war is over), that there are no victors, only survivors (many of who wish they were better off dead),  and that we are all doomed. There is no hope. Katniss’s personality just doesn’t allow her to be seen as a simple, peaceful, loving mother, Haymitch raising Geese is also unthinkable. Clearly, the part of their personality which was so vibrant which, in a way, defined their existence is dead. They are defeated people, resigned from life (Haymitch was already there, when his family was slaughtered after the 50th anniversary games.) Of course, this is what happens to most of the war heroes with conscience. Even though Plutarch says that the (temporary) peace is worth fighting/ dying for, it is obvious that Katniss doesn’t share his views (if her losses were solely due to the Capitol, then she might have), thus making the situation completely hopeless.

While I didn’t like the depressing, anti-war feel of the third novel, I give respect to the author’s purpose. She knew what she wanted to be done, and she did it to perfection. However, there are several things which I think Collins should have changed/ elaborated upon: like Finnick’s death, as I mentioned earlier. Another is the way President Snow dies. After all his cruel machinations, how does President Snow eventually die? By chocking in his own blood due to laughing! As far as I am concerned, it is his victory! It feels as if it is a slap on Katniss’s and the rebellion’s face. Of course, Katniss did the right thing by killing Coin. But I think she should have first killed Snow as per schedule, and then immediately killed Coin. She shouldn’t have given him the satisfaction of watching Coin die, the rebellion leader killed by the very face of the rebellion. Even after a lot of reasoning, I couldn’t come up with any possible reason as to why Collins made him die the way he did.
It seems weird that there are absolutely no details of the post war Panem, except a few random lines and the fact that there are no more hunger games.  But then, elaborating on the post-war Panem would mean revisiting the good effects of the war, which Collins surely doesn’t want to, after all the anti-war depression she throws the reader in. Also, Panem was never really described in detail. We learnt about it only as and when Katniss had anything to do with it (partially due to first person narration). Hence, it makes sense that there is no elaboration on the post-war Panem as Katniss has nothing to do with it anymore.

Then there is that love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale. Katniss never explicitly chose one over the other. She herself is shown to be confused as to which one of them she truly loves. Given her nature, she doesn’t over think it. Throughout the plot, Collins builds up for a climax between the three only to deflate it completely in the end. What an anti-climax! After the discussion between Gale and Peeta, both concluding that she will choose the one without whom she can’t live; it is annoying to see that she doesn’t get to make the decision at all. Gale makes it for her. She never realizes that it is Peeta, and not Gale (at least not before Gale deserts her.) In fact, she yearns for Gale while she sits in the woods. This whole thing sounds ironic to me because Katniss’s realization of true love could have been beautifully described in the first person narration as we have direct access to her thoughts. The fact that she yearns for Gale at the woods, only to console herself that he might have found someone else shows Gale in a very poor light. Gale might have his own reasons for doing so (feeling guilty for Prim is one, but Katniss doesn’t seem to hold it against him in the woods.) It would have been a tough decision for him too. After all, she was his only friend, and the one he truly loved, he really cared about. Surely, Collins should have shown his side of the story. May be through a letter from Gale, or a message through Haymitch. If not this, at least a simple acknowledgement by Katniss of the fact that Gale would have his reasons for moving away. Instead, we read Katniss saying he might be busy kissing other pair of lips! She realizes, right in the last page, that she does not need his fire filled with anger and hatred but rather Peeta’s dandelion. It seems like a way to console herself about Gale’s absence, similar to crying sour grapes. I think that is an insult to his love for her. That is very shallow from Katniss’s part (or is it from Collins’?) While it is very much like Katniss to think so initially, it is also like her to take it back after reasoning it out. She is shown to make no such attempt. It seems as if Gale doesn’t seem to care what happens to Katniss. We all know this won’t be true, even if Gale and Katniss have drifted apart due to their increasing differences due to war. Drifted apart slowly. I believe this is the worst thing that can happen to a friendship, in fact any close relationship. Katniss’s and Gale’s friendship was too close for this. Either it had to break like a stick, or one had to die or both had to understand and mutually decide to stay apart, EXPLICITLY.

This again, makes me think of another thing: that Katniss does not make enough effort to get Gale back into her life. Earlier, both Gale and Katniss are shown to be very similar. Not the very emotional types. Killers. When he says “how different can it be, really?” She agrees, if one forgets the fact that they are humans and not animals who they kill. Then as the plot progresses, she changes drastically. Again, not her fault. She realizes the futility of the situation. Even that of the rebellion. The fact that this is not the thing she signed up to fight for. She realizes that she’s been made a puppet, a pawn by the rebellion leaders and the fact that they are not much different than the capitol. She also debates the issue with Gale at District 2, over bringing down the mountain by an avalanche. Gale takes his earlier stance while she debates that it is unfair. It is obvious that Gale is getting blinded by the rebellion, due to his perennial anger and frustration at the Capitol. If left unchecked, he might as well be (or aid) the monster he seeks to destroy ala transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. As his only friend, it was her duty to stick with him, to convince him, bring him back to her, and not give up on him. That’s exactly what she doesn’t do. In fact she gets upset at him. Now, this is completely opposite to what she does for Peeta. In spite of the fact that he is trying to kill her, she tries to bring him back to his normal self. She doesn’t give up on him. Even if one argues that she doesn’t love Gale, one cannot argue about the fact that she cares for him. The very way she did for Peeta. While one can argue that this is a testimony that she loves Peeta and not Gale, I beg to differ. I believe it was not her love for Peeta that she tried to save him from Mutt Peeta. It was not as if she wanted to marry him and have babies with him that she tried to bring him back. It was her discussion with Haymitch and her realization of the fact that Peeta deserved this. Now this argument should have been true for Gale as well. After all, he was her best friend. Of course, Peeta’s anger wasn’t natural, but Gale’s was. And yes, Katniss, being like Gale, would have found it difficult to bring him back without herself getting angry at him. She is never shown to have much patience with people. This was way more challenging than bringing Peeta to normal because, with Gale, Katniss would have to heal herself as well as Gale. Katniss falls short of this. Again, being a first person narrative, should we blame Katniss for all this? I believe these are the chinks in Collin’s armor. Another thing worth mentioning is the absence of Gale’s memories into the book she and Peeta prepare. Is it Katniss or Collins who left him out of the book? May be Katniss did add him, but Collins failed to mention it to us readers. May be she thinks we can safely take it for granted. But is it possible that Collins, via Katniss, purposefully didn’t mention it? It would mean that he didn’t mean anything to Katniss post war. Or that his thoughts were too painful for her. May be. But it seems totally unfair to Gale, if he doesn’t feature prominently in that book. And can anyone believe, even for a second, that Katniss won’t think of Gale every time she goes in the woods for hunting!

While concluding my write up, I wonder whether the trilogy is something that I would want to read again. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the first two parts. Collins is exceptional.  The entire action in the arena is extremely well written. On the emotional side, the bread incidence shows what Collins is capable of writing. The intensity of emotions that the simple, straight forward description is capable of evoking is unbelievable. I think this small incidence itself makes up a very compelling short story. Indeed, the first two parts are going to remain among my favorites for a long time. However, at this point of time, I can say that I will never read the third part again. Ever. There is a reason I read SF and F books. Among other things, I like to read about a better world, about a better future (not that they don’t exist in our ‘real’ world. However, I have seen reasonable amount of sorrow in real life, thankfully, most of them my own, that I don’t want to feel it through books as well.) Some may call it escapism. I call it hope. Collins offers none of it.

I find all my grudges concentrated only on the third book. However, I can’t really separate it from the other two. After all, Collins tells us only one story, spread across three books. And in a way, the third book defines the reason of the first two books, the soul of the story Collins wants to tell us. But while I acknowledge all this, I personally prefer to stick to the bright side of life, and hence like the first two parts only. Again, call me an escapist for all that I care. And I am sure I am not alone. After all, how many people liked the third Matrix film, which I believe defines the very purpose of the trilogy?  Even that film gave us hope in the end. Again, Collins gives us none of it.

To sum up, I would, as a reader, like to quote the same line about the things happening in the Hunger Games dystopia (as depicted in the third part), what Katniss feels about her world in the end:

“It benefits no one (readers) to live in a world where these things happen”.