To the Victor Go the Spoils
THE DEFENDANT: Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins
THE VERDICT: The Hunger Games Trilogy was the third most frequently challenged book of 2011, according to the ALA. It is unclear if Catching Fire has been banned or challenged on its own or just with the series as a whole.
THE CHARGES: The series has been widely banned or challenged for “anti-ethnic”, “anti-family”, “occult/satanic” content, as well as “insensitivity”, “offensive language”, and “violence” (see above link). Many of these issues were previously discussed in my review of the first book and the charges specifically targeted at The Hunger Games could all likely be said of Catching Fire as well.
THE REVIEW: Catching Fire is the second installment in The Hunger Games Trilogy, a dystopian YA novel set in a post-apocalyptic North America where the wealthy, technologically advanced Capitol exploits the rest of the North American population, kept in Districts, much the way an Age of Exploration world power exploits its colonies. The Hunger Games refers to the annual televised child gladiator competition put in place after a failed revolution against the Capitol as a reminder of the Districts’ defeat and a deterrent from revolting again (think the arrangement with the Sarmatian knights in the Clive Owen King Arthur meets Survivor meets The Lottery).
When we last left our Appalachian heroine, she and fellow District 12 (12? Twelve? Pick one, Collins.) Tribute, Peeta, had managed to both survive the Hunger Games, an unprecedented and politically inconvenient turn of events that got the man who allowed it to happen killed. Katniss has now finds herself the unwitting symbol of a newly simmering revolution, the pawn of the Capitol as they attempt to quell the growing unrest, and a player in performance within performance. Katniss and Peeta’s attempts to keep up the charade of their romance and please the Capitol (who threatened to kill Katniss’s family and “cousin” Gale) fail and their victory tour only worsens Panem’s deteriorating political situation.
In a last-ditch effort to undermine Katniss as a symbol, the 75th Hunger Games mixes things up by reaping its Tributes from the existing pool of Victors. Thus, Peeta and Katniss are thrust back into the arena to once again fight for their lives against previous winners who range from sociopathic strongmen to withered addicts to the mentally unstable and infirm (cue the PTSD, trauma, and addiction commentary).
This series is derivative. No question. It has been accused of copying everything from Battle Royale to The Lottery to The Most Dangerous Game to Lord of the Flies to an episode of Doctor Who about the future of reality television. And probably did.
However, as stated in my review of the first book, derivative does not inherently mean bad. Shakespeare is derivative. Lord of the Rings is derivative. Sherlock Holmes is derivative. Every hero story ever told is derivative if you studied Joseph Campbell or Otto Rank. However, one must bring something new to the table and add something to the existing ideas borrowed from elsewhere.
The first book failed to do this. However, though the flaws of the books become more apparent here, this second book is where The Hunger Games Trilogy really gets interesting, separating itself from the pack of teen dystopian lit flooding the shelves. It’s also every bit as addictive a page-turner as the first book and with more of a pay off.
To start, the whole book centers around performance. Katniss is performing for the Districts and the Revolution, performing for the Sponsors, performing for the Capitol and President Snow, pretending to love Peeta, pretending to not love Peeta, performing for the other Tributes, performing for her family, staying strong for her team of stylists, etc, etc, etc.
Everything the Capitol does is for show, be it the Games, the Quell, the faux-wedding, intimidating Katniss, or the 75-year-old film of District 13 that keeps up appearances and hides what the real case may be. It doesn’t matter one bit to the Revolution or President Snow who Katniss really is. What matters is how she is portrayed. She is The Girl Who Was On Fire, the Mockingjay, a symbol of the Revolution more than an actual person (see Batman Begins or Zorro for related speeches).
When the Capitol decides to punish her, she goes from playing meek and unassuming Katniss to appease them to playing defiant symbol to embolden the Revolution. Both are acts. Beneath the layers of performance and trauma and damaged humanity, I’m not even sure Katniss knows who Katniss is (or who/what Katniss wants).
While The Hunger Games Trilogy’s emphasis on fashion and its love triangle may read as mindless teen romance/chicklit, this is where the performative aspect is at its most intriguing. Katniss is a very practical person with no time for vanity, fashion, or bothering with romantic/sexual relationships.
Yet, as a girl, it is fashion and love which become her political weapons. It was Cinna’s wardrobe choices that gave her a chance in the last Games and Katniss was then styled as girly and innocent to keep her alive. Now Cinna’s talents are put to use for the Revolution, her wedding dress openly defying the Capitol, her entrance at the Games a display of strength and defiance.
It’s not that female characters or readers must have pretty clothes in their books, it’s that, lacking Peeta’s eloquence or the Careers’ connections/resources, Katniss must craft an image that commands attention and use her fake romance, fake pregnancy, or fake fashion choices to effect political change in a way almost reminiscent of The Duchess. In fact, it occurred to me more than once while reading that being a Hunger Games Tribute from District 12 is not wholly dissimilar from being a Miss America pageant contestant from a small state.
I’m not entirely certain the status of women in Panem as we see such a limited cross-section of society, but I would absolutely love someone to take an academic look at gender, the use of costume, and performance in this series. Or gender in dystopian fiction in general.
While we’re on the subject of romance, though, I do have a few qualms. I understand that Katniss is kind of a broken human being with some serious trouble understanding her own feelings (and pretty much everything non-essential to survival), but her lack of understanding basic human emotion and the actions of those around her does get rather annoying. In addition, while much of the romance is for show, the love triangle with Gale and Peeta annoys me to no end.
We do get slightly more characterization for Gale but he still remains a pretty un-fleshed-out Boy Back Home so I don’t care about his feelings or his maybe romance. He’s also kind of a jackass. “Oh, what, you were drafted into a gladiatorial child battle and had to pretend to like this guy to survive and we were never romantically involved before but you haven’t disavowed this other guy and pledged your unwavering love to me, even though you care about me deeply and are avoiding me to keep me and our families alive because you have to marry that guy who was man enough to share his feelings on live television when I can’t even express mine now and all you two have done is kiss? God, Katniss, you’re such a tease.”
Gale’s refusal to take money from Katniss to keep his siblings alive or take the gloves because he wants nothing from the Capitol is the epitome of stupid stubborn ass. He will sell his life and soul to the Capitol for some scraps and kerosene, but won’t take gloves or food from his best friend because Katniss has apparently sold out by not dying and daring to have any feeling towards the only other person who knows what she’s been through? Okay. He does know his work in the mine helps the Capitol way more than taking a pair of gloves someone left, right?
Also, between Gale and Katniss selling their odds in the Reaping for food and the women of District 12 who sleep with the head peacekeeper for food, prostitution and bodily autonomy are really at the forefront, not to mention how much the Capitol alters the Tributes’ bodies willy-nilly and without their permission or knowledge.
Anyway, before they go back in the arena, I wanted Katniss to just say to hell with both of her suitors as they are both immature, possessive asses who don’t care one whit what she wants, feels, or says. Peeta becomes slightly more redeemable in the Games, but his level of devotion feels a bit Gary Stu (and he’s kind of useless). Not saying no one could love Katniss that much, just saying his neutral characterization and level of self-sacrificing love without ever listening to what she actually wants smacks of all too common tropes in YA romance (and romance in general) that are both poorly written and unhealthy.
Katniss’s narration in this book is frustrating, in how long it takes her to figure out the obvious, how much she has to spell things out, and how she seems to interact with the text in a weirdly meta way that distracts from the story (see “Says Haymitch!” p. 384). The Games also have a bit of the moral cowardice seen in the first book (although Collins constantly lampshades that with Katniss’s thoughts of how someone will have to kill her friends eventually and she hopes it’s not her).
However, this second installment distinctly deepens the story and its themes. Once again, Collins’s depiction of desperation and starvation is raw and powerful. The first book’s interesting take on privilege and how the privileged are not so lucky or so evil is also expanded upon between Madge’s family history, Katniss’s stylists, and the citizens of the Capitol turning against the government (although, the audience’s distaste at killing a pregnant woman does seem hypocritical given their delight at children fighting to the death).
And, in full spoiler territory now, that ending. That ending redeems this book of its previous pulled punches. They bomb District 12. Every character not in the Capitol or with Katniss on the plane is dead. Oof. Not to mention between global warming getting New England eaten by rising ocean levels, the nuking of District 13 (maybe?), and the fire bombing of Disctrict 12, the entire East Coast is pretty much gone (except for the secret survivors in District 13). Maybe it’s because I live here, maybe it’s because I wasn’t expecting it, but that was an impressive suckerpunch. And a huge cliffhanger. Aaaaughhh. Must know what happens now…
This book is kind of the Prisoner of Azkaban of the series where we really move from Katniss’s own little sphere of concerns to a much larger stage with higher stakes that is bigger than her or her family or even her District. It also cements this series as one with something interesting to say, not just a jumble of interesting things others have said or that Collins thought would be cool.
THE DEFENSE: As stated above, I covered much of the concerns with this series in my previous review. I have no idea how this book could be anti-family, anti-ethnic, or in any way satanic (I don’t think religion even comes up at all). It’s also hardly insensitive and, while it contains violence, said violence is portrayed as bad. That’s the point. Rather than retread old ground, I thought I might go in a different direction and try to examine what’s really going on here.
The Hunger Games Trilogy has been a commercial success on the page and in the box office and has spawned a memorable heroine. Whether this book will be read in 50 or even 20 years time is unclear (although my high school English teacher has already enshrined it in his curriculum alongside such controversial classics as To Kill A Mockingbird and The Chocolate War), but its themes are timely, both in its politics/economics and its genre, and perhaps that’s the bigger issue.
For much the same reasons as the rise of Zombie movies/lit and prepper-centered entertainment like Doomsday Preppers and Doomsday Castle, dystopian literature is on the rise. In fact, The Hunger Games is about to overtake 1984 as the most widely read dystopian novel on Goodreads. What’s most interesting is the shift in dystopian literature’s target demographic. What was once a male-dominated genre is increasing being written by and for women. See this nifty infographic for more on this.
So, is the issue here dystopias in general or that this is a female-led dystopian novel? If Katniss were a boy would the rather blunted violence even get on anyone’s radar in a media environment saturated with far more violent content? Katniss really doesn’t kill anyone without cause, even in a battle to the death, giving her a lower body count than pretty much any male action hero today (even those with no-kill policies).
Green Arrow killed more people in the first episode of Arrow than Katniss has in two books. Even Arya has killed more, though often indirectly, and she’s a much younger girl. So, is it a teenage girl’s presence in a violent situation that is at issue? Is it teenage girls reading about violence?
Is it that authority figures are undermined (an age-old evil in literature targeted at the young)? The Capitol, the government, President Snow, the peacekeepers, all are morally reprehensible. Other adults/authority figures such as Katniss’s mother, her stylists, or the decentish peacekeepers are still viewed as flawed individuals who may mean well but are not above mistakes or less than ideal motivations. Even Haymitch, who, despite the alcoholism, seems to be one of the more competent adults, is a morally ambiguous character.
Does the cast of teenage characters questioning adults and the status quo make people nervous? Is it that the Revolution is literally class warfare? Is it that this book critiques a consumerist North American superpower with nuclear capability and massive inequality of income, opportunity, education, and resources? Is it just that dystopias by their very nature make us scared, regardless of whether we see ourselves as the Capitol or District 12?
Or is it the same old song of parents/other adults not reading the book and worrying about kids these days with their child death melee, never bothering to learn that the book actually takes a stance against said child death melee and is about more than that?
Whatever the issue is, whether dystopias are just cool or if this is a sign of growing societal anxieties, The Hunger Games Trilogy is certainly worth a look, both as a story and what the popularity and fear of that story says about us.
ASIDE: Does anyone know if Gale had a mother in the first book? I could have sworn he was an orphan, but his mother appears in this book. Did I hallucinate his lack of parents before or did the mother materialize out of nowhere?