If it were up to me, I would try to forget the Hunger Games entirely. Never speak of them. Pretend they were nothing but a bad dream. But the Victory Tour makes that impossible. Strategically placed almost midway between the annual Games, it is the Capitol's way of keeping the horror fresh and immediate. Not only are we in the districts forced to remember the iron grip of the Capitol's power each year, we are forced to celebrate it. And this year, I am one of the stars of the show. I will have to travel from district to district, to stand before the cheering crowds who secretly loathe me, to look down into the faces of the families whose children I have killed.
Around this time last year, blogging about Suzanne Collins's YA phenomenon The Hunger Games, I noted that it was "not, by any objective standards, a particularly well-written novel [...] But goodness me it's compulsive reading." Spoilers: I'm going to say much the same about volumes two and three in the trilogy - Catching Fire (2009) and Mockingjay (2010) - which I read last November and this March, respectively. (NB While I don't intend to discuss the plots in much detail, there will be spoilers for both books throughout, so don't read if you don't want to know key events.)
After Katniss' triumph over both her opponents and the Hunger Games system in book one, Catching Fire and Mockingjay examine the way her act of defiance sends ripples through the oppressed districts of Panem, shaking the eeeevil dystopia to its core. There is some thoughtful stuff here, although as in the first book it's often better in concept than in execution. Collins builds on the most interesting thread of The Hunger Games - the effect of the Games being televised on the way they're played, and in particular Katniss' smart, resourceful manipulation of her all-too-public image and narrative in order to save her and Peeta's lives - by focusing on how Katniss' image becomes both strength and liability once she emerges from the arena.
Over and over again, the books come back to the questions of who gets to control Katniss' story, and what the nature of that story is. In one of the trilogy's least plausible scenes, evil overlord President Snow comes to visit Katniss at home to explain why he's Very Displeased with her:
"After that, there was nothing to do but let you play out your little scenario. And you were pretty good, too, with the love-crazed schoolgirl bit. The people in the Capitol were quite convinced. Unfortunately, not everyone in the districts fell for your act," he says. [...] "This, of course, you don't know. You have no access to information about the mood in other districts. In several of them, however, people viewed your little trick with the berries as an act of defiance, not an act of love. And if a girl from District Twelve of all places can defy the Capitol and walk away unharmed, what is to stop them from doing the same?" he says. "What is to prevent, say, an uprising?"
Yes, he visits her to tell her this - as opposed to, say, calling her, or having her brought to him at the Capitol, seat of his power, all the better to intimidate her with - because this is Young Adult fiction, the world revolves around our plucky young heroine, and a dictator has nothing better to do with his time than pay a housecall to a minor rebel whose importance his apparently trying to play down. And because Collins continually feels the need to anticipate her readers' objections, and answer them as clumsily and directly as possible, he also explains why she's still alive:
"I believe you. It doesn't matter. Your stylist turned out to be prophetic in his wardrobe choice. Katniss Everdeen, the girl who was on fire, you have provided a spark that, left unattended, may grow to an inferno that destroys Panem," he says.
"Why don't you just kill me now?" I blurt out.
"Publicly?" he asks. "That would only add fuel to the flames."
"Arrange an accident, then," I say.
"Who would buy it?" he asks. "Not you, if you were watching."
Unfortunately, this sort of laboured infodump only points up the shaky logic of Collins' world: would it matter if some people didn't believe it was an accident? And why can't the forces of the Capitol just disappear Katniss with one of their magic teleporting hovercrafts, as we saw them do to runaways and trouble-makers in the first book? Picking at the trailing threads just makes the whole thing unravel; better, surely, to let readers happily suspend disbelief, and not bring the matter up at all. (Or else do some more coherent world-building.)
Implausible underpinning or not, the central consequence is an intelligent and compelling one: Katniss' life is no longer just her own. She's a celebrity, whose moments of privacy are rare, and snatched, and precious - and soon interrupted. Even swimming in the lake beyond the District 12 fence where she used to go with her father, a place so private she never took her lifelong friend Gale there, she's not entirely alone ("Even underwater I can hear the sounds of commotion. Honking car horns, shouts of greeting, doors banging shut. It can only mean my entourage has arrived"). It is now her job to be dressed, and redressed, for the cameras: her every expression scrutinised, the details of her 'love' life poured over.
In remaking herself for the arena - the girl who was on fire, the girl prepared to die to save the boy she pretended, for the cameras, to love - Katniss became a symbol of everything that was wrong and inhuman about the Games and the oppressive system of which they're a key part. She was supposed to symbolise abnegation - the way the regime has such a complete hold over its subjects' lives that it can force their children to fight each other to the death once a year - but instead the tradition of the Victory Tour through the districts has become a vector of danger. Her scheduled public appearances are routine, but potentially subversive because she has Peeta by her side: two victors, where there should only ever be one. Snow warns her that she must maintain the narrative she created for herself; as long as she and Peeta present themselves as helplessly in love, her rebellion was romantic, not political.
The personal is political, of course, and it's not clear to me that it matters whether the vaguely understood 'public' realise Katniss was making it up or not: the point is that she defied the Games, and got away with it. Still, she is now a symbol of resistance, whether she wants to be or not:
What happens next is not an accident. It is too well executed to be spontaneous, because it happens in complete unison. Every person in the crowd presses the three middle fingers of their left hand against their lips and extends them to me. It's our sign from District 12, the last good-bye I gave Rue in the arena.
If I hadn't spoken to President Snow, this gesture might move me to tears. But with his recent orders to calm the districts fresh in my ears, it fills me with dread. What will he think of this very public salute to the girl who defied the Capitol?
The full impact of what I've done hits me. It was not intentional - I only meant to express my thanks - but I have elicited something dangerous. An act of dissent from the people of District 11.
For this act of dissent, the gathering is brutally quelled. Katniss and Peeta try to up the ante of their story in various ways - including a public marriage proposal (Katniss' idea), and pretending they're expecting a child together (Peeta's) - but to no avail. Although things remain calm in the Capitol ("There is no danger of an uprising here among the privileged, among those whose names are never placed in the reaping balls, whose children never die for the supposed crimes committed generations ago"), the people of the poorer districts begin to suffer for their investment in, and inspiration by, the symbol that is Katniss.
Katniss is in some ways liberated by the realisation that she cannot win if she plays by Snow's rules ("if desperate times call for desperate measures, then I am free to act as desperately as I wish"), and vows to take a more active stand, in a wonderful moment that I can't wait to see Jennifer Lawrence perform. "I'm not going anywhere," she declares, having just dived in to save Gale from further punishment at the hands (whip) of the Capitol's police force; "I'm going to stay right here and cause all kinds of trouble." Reader, I cheered. (Inside.) It's a shame much of the rest of Catching Fire is essentially a less-good rerun of the first book, with Katniss back in the arena facing many of the same story beats again.
Even as Snow and the regime attempt to use Katniss and her romantic narrative as a circus to distract Panem (I see what you did there, Collins), other forces want to co-opt her more rebellious implications for their own ends. Suspicion grows during Catching Fire, and then takes centre-stage in Mockingjay, that the apparent good guys might not be much better than the regime they plan to overthrow, in terms of their attitude to collateral damage - and that they're every bit as willing to manipulate and hurt Katniss if it serves their cause. Said good guys are centred mostly on the mysterious District 13, long thought bombed into oblivion by the Capitol, but in fact struggling on in vengeful, repressively militaristic secret:
Now the citizens live almost exclusively underground. You can go outside for exercise and sunlight but only at very specific times in your schedule. You can’t miss your schedule. Every morning, you’re supposed to stick your right arm in this contraption in the wall. It tattoos the smooth inside of your forearm with your schedule for the day in a sickly purple ink. 7:00—Breakfast. 7:30—Kitchen Duties. 8:30—Education Center, Room 17. And so on. The ink is indelible until 22:00—Bathing. That’s when whatever keeps it water resistant breaks down and the whole schedule rinses away. The lights-out at 22:30 signals that everyone not on the night shift should be in bed.
Once again, the picture of dystopia is comically exaggerated - the magic ink of repression is a particularly funny touch - and once again, Collins' point is better made through the relationship of D13's authorities to Katniss. Reeling from the crackdown that greeted her further defiance in her second appearance at the Games - District 12 was razed to the ground - Katniss reluctantly agrees to be the resistance's Mockingjay, the figurehead of the next phase of their struggle, as a way to appease her guilt over the deaths she feels responsible for. While Gale is sucked into designing bombs for the rebels, causing Katniss some disquiet ("'So, it'd be easy for you? Using that on people?' [...] I don’t know what to tell him about the aftermath of killing a person. About how they never leave you"), Katniss herself spends more time getting made over for the cameras - this time, as a star of short propaganda films.
Collins does a good job with this process, both because she writes some stirring lines for Katniss - whose doubts are worn down as her anger at the regime's violence increases - and because her writing is at its best when it reads more like a film script than a novel, stripped of the rather clunky first-person editorialising, showing rather than telling. Here, for example, are Katniss and Gale being filmed wandering among the ruins of their former home, District 12:
My fingers encircle a blackberry and pluck it from its stem. I roll it gently between my thumb and forefinger. Suddenly, I turn to him and toss it in his direction. "And may the odds—" I say. I throw it high so he has plenty of time to decide whether to knock it aside or accept it.
Gale’s eyes train on me, not the berry, but at the last moment, he opens his mouth and catches it. He chews, swallows, and there’s a long pause before he says "—be ever in your favor." But he does say it.
Cressida has us sit in the nook in the rocks, where it’s impossible not to be touching, and coaxes us into talking about hunting. What drove us out into the woods, how we met, favorite moments. We thaw, begin to laugh a little, as we relate mishaps with bees and wild dogs and skunks. When the conversation turns to how it felt to translate our skill with weapons to the bombing in 8, I stop talking. Gale just says, “Long overdue."
By the time we reach the town square, afternoon's sinking into evening. I take Cressida to the rubble of the bakery and ask her to film something. The only emotion I can muster is exhaustion. "Peeta, this is your home. None of your family has been heard of since the bombing. Twelve is gone. And you’re calling for a cease-fire?" I look across the emptiness. "There’s no one left to hear you."
Ah, yes. Peeta. In the confusion at the end of the second Games, in Catching Fire, Peeta is captured by Snow's regime, which parades him on TV pleading with Katniss to surrender before more people get hurt, and in a particularly vicious twist brainwashes him to think that Katniss is not really herself, but an evil muttation Katniss instead, then lets him get rescued by the rebels so he can hate Katniss at close proximity. Cue much angst from Katniss, who's been having intermittent, confused moments of kissage with Gale. Yes, the love triangle of book one is back in two and three in spades. I couldn't really care less, to be honest; I was more intrigued by their relationship when it was walking the difficult line between being fake-smiles-for-the-cameras and the intense fellow feeling of two people who've shared the shattering experience of the Games (we even get a "I love you"/"I know", with Katniss in the Han Solo role!), and when, in book two, Katniss was thinkingly strategically about why it would be better if Peeta survived the second Games and she didn't:
I will be more valuable dead. They can turn me into some kind of martyr for the cause and paint my face on banners, and it will do more to rally people than anything I could do if I was living. But Peeta would be more valuable alive, and tragic, because he will be able to turn his pain into words that will transform people.
Still, there are a few quite sweet scenes between Katniss and Peeta as she tries to help him remember what's real and what isn't. The fractures in her relationship with Gale, meanwhile, are much more interesting when they're about Gale and Katniss as people, rather than whether she kinda likes Peeta too; and in the nature of the growing conflict between them lies the big thematic concern of the third book. In short, Gale embraces District 13's violent methods of resistance - something foreshadowed in book one, where he talked frequently of the need to fight - while Katniss is more and more repelled by them ("Back in the old days [...] Gale said things like this and worse. But then they were just words. Here, put into practice, they become deeds that can never be reversed").
The actual event that drives them apart - and, ultimately, Katniss to Peeta - is painfully contrived, but the resolution itself makes sense. Katniss is fearless and capable and will do what is necessary: in book three, I particularly liked the way her first thought on seeing Capitol planes bombing a hospital is not to run, but to find a good vantage point from which she can return fire, and in book two there's no doubt that she enjoys some aspects of the attention and cachet related to being a Hunger Games victor. As she and Peeta are paraded before the Capitol crowds during the preparations for her second Games, she catches sight of them in the video screens, and reflects that, "we are not just beautiful, we are dark and powerful. [...] We are unforgiving. And I love it. Getting to be myself at last."
Nonetheless, she is scarred by her involvement in violence, plagued by guilt and a level of post-traumatic stress. "No wonder I won the Games," she thinks at one point, berating herself; "No decent person ever does." Katniss fights because she believes to not fight is to allow violence to be done to her and those she loves ("Prim ... Rue ... aren't they the very reason I have to try to fight? Because what has been done to them is so wrong, so beyond justification, so evil that there is no choice?"). But at length - and having been sidelined for much of the final battle, in a rather disappointing authorial cop-out - she decides that combatting violence with violence isn't actually a constructive way out:
"We blew up your mine. You burned my district to the ground. We’ve got every reason to kill each other. So do it. Make the Capitol happy. I’m done killing their slaves for them." I drop my bow on the ground and give it a nudge with my boot. It slides across the stone and comes to rest at his knees.
"I’m not their slave," the man mutters.
"I am," I say. "That’s why I killed Cato… and he killed Thresh… and he killed Clove… and she tried to kill me. It just goes around and around, and who wins? Not us. Not the districts. Always the Capitol. But I’m tired of being a piece in their Games."
The deck is stacked in favour of her reaching this decision, with a number of rather clumsy plot lurches, and Katniss is able to implement her own solution and make everything better with remarkable ease because, well, she's the heroine of a fun but not very good YA trilogy. But I read the books compulsively, even so, and I look forward to watching the films.
(And not just because Jennifer Lawrence is awesome.)