Novel * Suzanne Collins * More Dystopian Murder-Sports * 2009
Trilogies are hard. Hell, writing one book is hard. The odds of even a great writer writing three excellent books in a row are super slim. There’s just so many ways for them to go off the rails. Usually, it’s the third book that fails to live up to expectations, like we saw with the Divergent books. Taking that case as an example, the world simply got too big and spun out of the writer’s control and the narrative lost cohesiveness. On the other hand, successful trilogies are usually a single, cohesive story with logical breaks between volumes. The Lord of the Rings would be an instance of this. This is not to say that trilogies cannot be comprised of episodes. The original Star Wars films worked like this. Yes, it’s technically one big story, but each film was broken down to its own specific arc. In that case the second movie, The Empire Strikes Back, is the strongest of the three. That’s where most of the character development happens and by the end things look bleak. Also, no muppets. Meanwhile, Suzanne Collins started her trilogy off with a strong start. If memory serves, she also finishes well. The problem child here is Catching Fire, a soft middle volume which usually feels unnecessary and, at worst, obnoxious.
I bring up all these comparisons, because I think this is the only example I can think of where the second book is the weakest entry. Generally, the second volume is where you flesh out the world and the characters, eventually pointing them in the direction of the finale while leaving the narrative in a state of ultimate uncertainty. Catching Fire does some of this, but mostly it just feels like an author having a great idea for a beginning and an ending and then realizing there was a whole middle bit to consider. Look, it’s fine. This is all fine. At no point during this novel did I wish I was reading something else. It’s well-written and crisp, and there is some degree of character building here. There are direct consequences to the outcome of the first book, and the state of the world is clearly heading for a major change.
At the end of The Hunger Games, Kaniss pulled a desperation move in order to save both herself and her maybe-probably-whatever boyfriend Peeta from having to try and murder each other. She essentially threatened to pull a Romeo and Juliet on live television, depriving the Capitol from having a winner to its big, repressive, spectacle of a show. That’s all well and good for Katniss and Peeta, who get to not die, but it spells trouble for everyone else. If there’s one thing the Capitol cannot tolerate it’s any kind of dissent or defiance. When she flipped the script of her Games, Katniss did both, which is a thing any good totalitarian state will stamp out immediately. The problem is, the Capitol is bound by its own conventions. Since it set up the framework of the Hunger Games in order to suppress the Districts, it is obligated to work within them, at risk of undermining their own authority.
Early in the story Katniss gets a surprise visit from President Snow, the dictator figure of Panem. He’s real gross, and is suitably creepy and disturbing. He rolls in, lays out a bunch of threats, and bounces. Katniss is on the tightest of leashes going forward. Not only is her life in peril, but the lives of everyone she loves as well. The rising tension between the Districts and the Capitol is growing, and there are clues and hints that a greater rebellion is brewing. Katniss, however, is stuck playing her role. Because she is such a visible celebrity, Snow can’t just off her. To do so recklessly would be to undermine his own authority within the Capitol and light the fuse on any number of District uprisings. For her part, Katniss is trapped in District 12 with next to no information about the wider world. Her family is essentially being held hostage by the Capitol and it’s all very frustrating.
All that said, the first half of the book is very well done. The frustrated, claustrophobic scenes within District 12 do the job of creating an unbearable tension and describing life under a properly repressed society. After Katniss’ little trick with the berries, Snow cracked down on the District, replacing the weak, local Peacekeepers with some real dickweed Stormtrooper types. Of course, this creates something of a problem for Collins. She knows where all this is going to end up (I think we all know where this is going), but getting the narrative to that place is tricky considering the state of the world after the rebellious end to the previous games. Clearly the Districts are ready to kick up some real shit. Clearly they look to Katniss as a symbol, the Mockingjay. Whether Katniss realizes this or not is entirely another matter.
The solution for extracting Katniss from the prison of District 12 – the means for liberating the symbol of freedom and rebellion – is to move her to the Capitol. The only way to do that is for the Capitol to bring her. Of course, they can do anything they want. This is an authoritarian society, after all. Still, they are bound by the structure they’ve created. To undermine themselves is to undermine their authority, and with things getting all wiggy around the edges, it’s a bad time to do that. So, Snow contrives to reconvene the Hunger Games using the winners from previous games. This goes over poorly, and seems like a bad gambit from the beginning, because it only serves to undermine the system. You know, that thing we just highlighted as being super important. Nobody is happy with the situation. The Capitol idiots are pissed because Katniss and Peeta are media darlings and nobody wants them to die horribly. The Districts are pissed because this is a transparent move by Snow to murder their symbol. It’s a no-win situation, but the move is at least justified because Snow doesn’t seem to have a more elegant solution.
As a reader, though, going back into the arena kind of sucks. Like, we did this already. We get it. The Murdersport thing doesn’t really have much of an allure after the first time, you know? I understand that round two here is completely justified by the plot, and is reacted to properly by the characters. It all fits. For all that, it’s still not satisfying. By the time Katniss ends up back in the arena, we mostly just want to see her in the wider world busting up shit. Everything she must do as a part of the Games to survive comes off as mostly irrelevant to the wider situation. It also doesn’t help that as the book moves along, Katniss becomes more insufferable by the page.
Look, she’s a teen. I get it. She’s never really had time for boy-thoughts before, and of course her dumb hormones are going to be all over the place, what with the constant threat of death and all. But maaaan, this ‘which boy will she choose’ thing is heavy-handed and obnoxious. Especially because the choice is obvious to everyone because Gale is a complete toolbox. Chalk that up to Katniss not being very smart, I guess. She’s another in the long line of dim-witted heroes who lead with their heart and not their brains. I actually don’t mind this trope that much, but when you’re in the dummy’s brain the entire book, it can get a little tiresome. To be fair, her handlers do a terrible job of keeping her informed. This seems like a super-dangerous way to go about things, if we’re being honest.
Katniss is volatile and not that bright. She’s an action-first kind of girl, and will act according to immediate need. She has a good heart, but is willing and able to commit spontaneous acts of violence if she believes she is doing the right thing. Haymitch and company know all of this, and yet refuse to clue her in to their plans. The flaw here is, their plans depend on Katniss not taking matters into her own hands and not fucking things up because she doesn’t understand subtext and subtlety. The ending falls apart a little for me here, simply because Collins has done such a good job building her character, the failure of other characters to not understand Katniss is troubling. Also, it’s a fucked up thing to do. Katniss is not the kind of person who enjoys being used.
Eventually, Catching Fire gets us to where we need go. There are some entertaining scenes and despite the long, meandering, teen-love-triangle scenes some decent character building. Personally, I would have excised two-thirds of the novel and just had two books. This is a market of trilogies, however, so that’s not realistic. We have what we have, and what we have is fine.