Tag Archives: Hunger Games Trilogy

Catching Fire: This Again, From a New Point of View

Cover of Catching Fire

Title: Catching Fire

Author: Suzanne Collins

Publication Date: 2009

LC Call Number: PZ7.C683

I was a little concerned about reading Catching Fire because I’d heard it wasn’t as good as The Hunger Games.  This is true—but then, The Hunger Games was really good. Catching Fire is definitely another page turner, and it made me want to read Mockingjay right away—but I’ll wait, nevertheless. I don’t know how much I really have to say about this book, but here are some things I noticed…

Oh, and this post is full of spoilery spoilers. Beware.

The scope of Catching Fire is a little broader than the scope of The Hunger Games, which was really about Katniss and the injustice of the world in which she lives—and how she could see through it.  Catching Fire is more about figuring out what the rules really are, how much freedom one has within them and where they can be bent or pushed.  In pursuit of this goal, the novel finds itself interested not only in Katniss but in other characters as well.  In The Hunger Games, other people were seen mostly in terms of their effect on Katniss; Catching Fire makes more of an attempt to understand who they are and why they do what they do.  This may be partly because Katniss has matured a little; it also seems to be because Collins is setting up some things that will happen in Mockingjay. The most interesting character development in the book is, surprisingly, Haymitch’s.

In the first book, Haymitch is, to Katniss, part of the Games.  She’s very upset that he is the only person she can turn to for help, and she is disgusted by both his alcoholism and his cynicism.  Throughout the first book, though, she learns that she can communicate with him on a strategic level and, in a way, they understand each other. It’s not that we like him, since he is essentially pushing her into a nonconsensual relationship with Peeta, but we see how he is useful.  Now that she is a survivor of the Games, he’s a little more humanized in her eyes, and, ultimately, in ours too. He laughs at the idea of an uprising, not because he is naturally cynical, but because he has spent his entire life being beaten down by the Capitol. It’s almost as if he has seen something like this before. In any case, we feel much more sympathy for him as we begin to see what the aftermath of the Games is like and the way that it leads to a life of being tightly controlled and constantly retraumatized.  The Games aren’t over when they’re over, and although we kind of knew this, Catching Fire really drives it home.

It’s hard to imagine Katniss having any interest in Haymitch’s experience in the arena in the first book—but in the second book, she does, and so do we.    I said above that this book is really about finding out where the boundaries of freedom are in this world and how they can be pushed, and it was only as I typed that that I realized that Haymitch does this very literally when he seeks out the bounds of the arena and ultimately uses them to his advantage.  The new arena also literalizes this; it’s all about finding that invisible wall and making sure that you don’t run into it and get killed. Getting near it is dangerous, since they don’t know exactly where it is, but also important, because the available area is quite small, and because they need to be near it in the puzzle-solving moment at the end.  So it’s not that different from giving speeches in District Eleven, where Katniss needs to express her gratitude and condolences to Rue’s and Thresh’s family and friends, but also needs to avoid activating the wrath of the state.  She runs into the wall in this case. She’s still learning, but it tells us that she’s willing, at least sometimes, not to err on the side of caution.  She’s still a rebel. Naturally, the Capitol is also playing this game—trying to figure out how far they can push people before they have a problem—but their motivations are a little less clear.

In any case, Katniss’s commitment to behaving like decent human being as much as possible within the constraints imposed upon her isn’t consistent throughout the book.  Her behavior in District Eleven is in contrast to what she tells President Snow when he turns up at her house.  It’s not surprising that she would make different choices at different times, of course, but in general she seems to be a little more willing to rebel on someone else’s behalf than her own. I’m not sure what this means exactly.  If it’s intended to make her more sympathetic to the reader, then I have a problem with it, because it plays up some cultural ideas about self-sacrificing women that are dangerous in any case but especially in a context like the one Collins has set up here.  I don’t think that’s it, though, if only because there is a moment in which Katniss questions her own motivations and tries to figure out what she thinks of herself because of them.  I think, more than that, it’s about how necessary solidarity is.  Katniss certainly can’t bear the entire weight of the revolution on her shoulders, but in the prisoner’s dilemma of life, she can be the loyal partner.  This was true in the first book with the berries; this book doesn’t have such a clear parallel but it does show how the Capitol wants to divide and conquer, how eager it is to set up distinctions among people in order to prevent them from cooperating with each other.

It’s also interesting that not all of Katniss’s problems derive from the malice of the Capitol. Her anger at the very end of the book, when she discovers that the revolution has been going on without her and she’s been made an unwitting symbol of it, is very important.  Control isn’t only the privilege of despotic governments; it’s also present among the people who should be her friends.  Their motives aren’t that dissimilar, either.  They want a good show, just as the Capitol does, though for different reasons. It’s not just at the end that Katniss’s friends seem to have turned against her, though. Peeta really began creeping me out in this book.  He keeps making these comments that might be appropriate if he and Katniss were actually in a romantic relationship, but are kind of gross given that she’s already told him that she doesn’t really want that with him, or at least, not at this time—and it’s even worse under extreme circumstances where they are thrown together in a hostile environment and also likely to die.  Surely this is stressful enough already?

A couple words about the plot—I was really skeptical about the decision to put Katniss and Peeta back in the arena again. Haven’t we done this already? It turned out that there were pretty important differences between the way the arena worked in the first book and the way it worked in this one, in terms of both plot and characterization. It’s very different with the new cast of characters (and Mags, my god).  Still, I thought this would be very repetitious unless it was somehow interrupted—and it was, so I guess I have the choice between thinking that it was predictable and just saying I called it. Either way, I guess I’m surprised Collins didn’t think of a new horrible thing to have happen.

So that’s where I am with this.  I’m excited about reading Mockingjay and will when I get a chance. I’m pretty concerned about Cinna.

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The Hunger Games: Politics and the Extreme

Cover of The Hunger Games

Title: The Hunger Games

Author: Suzanne Collins

Publication Date: 2008

Call Number: PZ7.C6837

So I was waiting for my ILL request for Gender Trouble to come through, and I’d already finished the Third World Women  anthology, and of course I can’t just be between books, and so.. I had the opportunity to read this fantastic YA book.  I really love YA literature, far more than my blog so far would indicate, but I hadn’t seen anything like this before. I remember the dueling editorials about “dark YA” a few months ago, and I can’t remember whether The Hunger Games was discussed in that conversation, but let me tell you, if this is dark YA, sign me up, I’d like to read more.

Mild Spoilers Ahead – beware. I don’t spoil the ending or anything here, but I do give some details that only become clear over the course of the book.

The very premise is totally devastating: in the future, the former U.S. has been reduced to twelve districts run from a central Capitol with apparently unlimited political and economic power.  Every year, this Capitol forces each district to send one boy and one girl to compete in a giant, weeks-long melee (aka the Hunger Games) until only one of the original twenty-four is still alive. Further details about how this is managed, how the competitors are chosen and the cultural meaning of the Hunger Games only make things seem even worse.

There’s a lot to praise about this book—the quality of the writing is very high, and Katniss is a great character—but this isn’t a book review, so I’ll refrain (but seriously, read it, it’s excellent).  I’d heard a little about the premise and I expected the book to be good, but what did surprise me at least a little was how political it was.  There’s a strong awareness throughout the book that both the Hunger Games themselves and all the other circumstances of life in Panem are determined by political realities that come from far beyond Katniss’s sphere.

The choice of Katniss as a narrator does a lot to give the reader this perspective.  She’s from  District Twelve, and wealth and security seem to gravitate somehow toward the lowest numbered districts—that is to say, District Twelve is the most impoverished and the least important, a coal mining community where people barely survive. Within that district, she is from the Seam, which is a slum.  She spends most of her time trying to get food for herself and her family.  So on the one hand, I really like Collins’s choice to make the central character of her book someone from there very bottom of the social ladder rather than have someone halfway up or near the top looking down and noticing how terrible everything is.  And on the other hand, Katniss’s experience allows her to be both cynical and perceptive as regards the social order under which she lives. She understands that she is living under an oppressive structure, because from her point of view, it’s rather obvious (after all, she does not have the luxury of seeing the Hunger Games as an entertainment event, as some in the Capitol presumably do), and she knows that it’s really a structural issue and not determined by the people who carry it out.  She knows that the Hunger Games are an intimidation tactic and that this is why everyone is forced to watch them on TV.  And she understands the economic factors behind the Hunger Games—she explains matter-of-factly the mechanism by which it is assured that the poor are much more likely to be selected to participate than the rich.

So while the book never makes itself into a polemic, it very definitely includes an analysis of the nature of political power and its relation to spectacle. The Hunger Games do a lot for the Capitol. As Katniss notes, they reinforce the power of the Capitol by flaunting the ability of the powerful to control the lives of those in the districts (and of course, the chances of victory are very different from one district to another, which also helps the Capitol to remind everyone of the hierarchy among the districts).  They also allow the Capitol to flaunt its wealth with parades and everything, to keep everyone entertained and duly impressed. And, no doubt, they bring money into the Capitol as well.  At the same time, by directing the attention of the audience toward the actions of the participants in the arena, where this audience may identify with certain tributes over others, or hold their breath in suspense or shake their heads in pity, the Capitol has skillfully deflected attention from the horrifying power that put them there in the first place. The most privileged in the audience, whether they are directly involved with the Games or not, are of course complicit in the deaths of children, whether it is by sending gifts into the arena or only by cheering at the parade.

There are even some moments that make clear the relationship between culture and economics; Katniss comments more than once on “the Capitol accent” and how ridiculous it sounds. Since there is no attempt to represent this accent in the text, the reader cannot judge for him-or-herself whether the accent sounds silly or not, leaving us to reflect on the close associations of accents with social class.  It sounds affected to her because it is the accent of people who can participate in respectable culture more easily than she can, and who have never had to experience struggles like hers.  It’s not the way words are pronounced that makes the accent sound silly, it’s the cultural distance between her and its speakers.

The strength of this political critique makes one wonder, as a reader, whether there is any analogy in our world for the Hunger Games.  Sporting events? Reality TV? Media coverage of war and other violent political events?  In each case, we’re tempted to point out the things that we think make it different.  Yes, athletes in sporting events are often seriously injured, but they’re adults and they agreed to participate of their own volition, and besides, they’re very seldom killed! Reality TV is only a social and emotional battle, not a physical one! Wars aren’t intentionally arranged to be televised by our government for the purpose of entertainment! All of which are important points, but I think what really matters is that by making these arguments, by being forced to bring up these differences, we need to think about where these ethical boundaries are or should be, and what makes it okay or not okay. So the Hunger Games, in which the participants are randomly selected children who are forced to kill each other, are a very extreme example, inviting us to think about how far over the line they are and where the line really is.

In view of this, what you really want as a reader is not to see Katniss win, but to see her bring down the whole thing.  But it’s very clear from the outset that she can’t. Katniss is a very capable person but she is forced to operate under the circumstances that are dictated to her—in fact, the same is true of all the characters that we meet. She is not exactly in a position to stand up and tell everyone that this is wrong; in fact, we see her choosing her words very carefully to minimize the danger to herself.  As a reader, I found myself (appropriately and intentionally, I think) frustrated that this cannot be changed and impressed by the choice to let us live with that frustration.  Although this is the first book of a trilogy, it’s a self-contained story about Katniss’s experience with the Games, so we end the book still worried about this milieu.

In any case, I’m very much looking forward to reading Catching Fire.  I have a guess as to who the Avox is, so when I get a chance to read it, we’ll see if I’m right.


Filed under Literary thoughts