On How “The Hunger Games” Subverts Expectations, Is Also Brilliant, Yet Is Kind Of A Disappointing Piece Of Literature

We’ve been duped, friends.

Let me explain. I got into The Hunger Games in sort of a weird way – I saw the movie before reading any of the books (for perfectly good reasons at the time, but I am still shamed), and I didn’t, in fact, even touch the books until long after everyone else was already obsessed. Basically, the upshot of this is that I had plenty of time to establish some preconceived biases, and the consensus about this series seems to be that the first book was awesome, and the second two kind of disappointing.

While I was reading these books, I fell into what I now realize was the trap of agreeing with this perception. The first book had purpose, action, while the second two were just so frustratingly…confused. I got sick of Katniss’ passivity, her lack of agency; I wanted her to take control, kick some ass, take some names. I didn’t want my protagonist drugged up and out of the loop for three quarters of the last book.

Because, see, what I was expecting – what I suspect many people were expecting – was a Campbellian hero’s journey, in which our plucky heroine heeds the call, gains her magic leader powers, defeats the bad guys, and lives happily ever after. And, to be fair, there are elements of this archetype in the trilogy, particularly in the first book. Except that then Collins took a hard left into realism, and The Hunger Games became a very different creature.

What Collins does, in essence, is deconstruct the hero’s journey. She takes all the ideals associated with it – bravery, militarism, sacrifice – and points out that, actually, it’s all kind of stupid. The Games themselves make a mockery of the archetype, manufacturing the Campbellian hero in the most perverse way possible. There’s the call, the road of trials, the supernatural aid, belly of the whale, master of two worlds – it’s all there, and yet there’s nothing glorious about it. “The call” is a lottery of scared children. The “supernatural aid” comes in the form of silver parachutes, but there’s nothing mystical about it – the practical restriction of this aid to the wealthy makes it emblematic of capitalism taken to its gross excesses. It’s easy to see the road and the whale in the series of battles in the arena, but where Campbell idealized these as working towards some greater good, whether in the hero’s personal development or for the civilization in general, there is no real point to these fights. And while we’re led to believe, at first, that victors become masters of two worlds (the Capitol and their home district), it’s later revealed that this is all a show, that the government now has these individuals under even tighter control.

Because Collins isn’t interested in writing another Luke Skywalker. What she’s doing is – well, there are a lot of things she’s doing, but to start out with, she’s developing a commentary on war, on the flaws innate to all authority, on the importance of personal autonomy and the limits therein. Of course Katniss doesn’t control the revolution; she’s too busy having to deal with loneliness and depression and disillusionment and PTSD from supporting her family for years, fighting extreme poverty and, oh yeah, getting thrown into an arena to kill other children two years in a row. Collins isn’t trying to give us a hero; she’s trying to give us a nuanced sociopolitical commentary, and the hero thing just kind of got thrown in the mix.

And what happened was, we were expecting Star Wars, and Collins threw us tomato in the mirror totalitarianism. So, to my complaints about how passive Katniss was – well, that was kind of the point. She wasn’t supposed to accept the mantle and lead the revolution, because the whole message was that all wars are terrible, and violence never has just cause, and it doesn’t matter what government you’re fighting for, because they’re all probably going to let you down, anyway. I mean, we all knew that this was a crappy world from the premise of the series, but Collins is digging the dystopia even deeper by suggesting that there’s really no way to fight it, that you can have your brief moments of glory but power always wins.

Which leads me to my biggest problem with the series. Not, actually, that it’s depressing as all hell, because I’m actually fine with that (we’ve already discussed my aversion to joy). No, my issue with The Hunger Games is that, while the themes are, of course, fascinating, the execution just left me kind of cold. Because, while Collins was ruthlessly dismantling any hope or positivity in this world, she also left us without anything to root for. Katniss is a good person, but all I really get from her is a sense of futility. Peeta was cool, until they systematically obliterated his spirit. Even at the end of the series, when everything has ostensibly been fixed, there’s still doubt that the root causes have been addressed, an impression that humans are still bastards and that life is still pretty terrible. As J.K. Rowling discovered, after torturing your characters for an entire series, you can’t expect one “Twenty Years Later” epilogue to make your readers forget all the horrible stuff you revealed about human nature. By deconstructing the archetype of inspiration, Collins left her readers with nothing to hold on to. So, while I can appreciate the trilogy intellectually, I had a difficult time connecting emotionally.

I think it’s a bit strange that people got so obsessed over the love triangle, because it seems mostly irrelevant to me. I suppose it provides that humanity I was complaining the series lacks, but it’s just so – conventional I sort of wish Collins had left it out. It’s distracting, really – there are all of these wonderfully complex themes and issues and then all of a sudden TEAM GALE/TEAM PEETA (ugh, I cannot believe I just typed that. It won’t happen again, I promise). Because other than that mess, this is a series that completely screws with the audience, that sets you up for one kind of book and then pulls back to tell you what a bastard you are for liking that kind of book. I love a good follow-through, when fiction goes to the logical conclusion of its premise. From that perspective, Catching Fire and Mockingjay weren’t disappointing; they were the only possible way for the series to end.

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2 responses to “On How “The Hunger Games” Subverts Expectations, Is Also Brilliant, Yet Is Kind Of A Disappointing Piece Of Literature

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