Aug 27, 2010
My long-winded thoughts on reading “Mockingjay”
I have been a big fan of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy, and I eagerly dove into the third book of the series, Mockingjay, on Tuesday when it came out. I finished it by Wednesday! And then proceeded to read a lot of commentary about the book online, interested to see what others thought about it.
Warning: This entire post is full of spoilers!
It seems that reactions to Mockingjay fall into two camps:
- The book was a powerful, devastating critique of the consequences of war. It was brutal, difficult, violent, and realistic.
- It was not the book I wanted to read.
I fall into the first camp, but I’ve been particularly interested in those who fall into the second camp. I think that reaction #2 has arisen directly from the fact that The Hunger Games has been such a phenomenon, and that it has fans1. Fans who are invested in the characters and want to see those characters have particular resolutions to their story arcs.
This is something that happens to every media property that develops a fan base. From The X-Files to Buffy to Star Wars to the Harry Potter books and Twilight, etc., etc. Developing a fan base is a fabulous thing, but it also results in a lot of expectations.
The Peril of Expectations
When I was in grad school, I interviewed the producers of The X-Files as part of my research on television production. I was struck by how their relationship to X-Files fans was fraught with so many mixed emotions. They knew that fans helped to support the series; they were grateful for that support. And yet, the fans’ investment in the series led to a lot of bitterness on the part of the producers when the fans criticized the show. Nobody is tougher on a TV show (or book) than a fan of that TV show.
In addition, the fans’ love (and hate) for the show placed quite a heavy burden, I think, on producers and writers. They didn’t want to disappoint fans. But focusing too much on giving fans what they want can stifle a writer’s creativity.
I went into reading Mockingjay with a lot of excitement, but I really tried to have very few expectations. It was hard!2 But during the course of the first two books, I decided that I trust Suzanne Collins as a writer to tell the story that she wants to tell, in the best way she can. This meant that I was willing to go on the journey that she sent me on.
Parts of that journey were very hard to get through. Not because the book didn’t do what I wanted, but because what it did was make me feel a lot of uncomfortable things. Anxiety, disgust, shock, sadness, disbelief, anger, wonder. I think this takes some formidable storytelling skill.
I think it’s perfectly legitimate for readers to have reactions that include “I wish this had happened” or “I wish this had not happened.” But keep in mind that as soon as you start talking about hypotheticals and wish fulfillment, you leave the actual book behind3.
A lot of the “I wish” reviews seem to center on the romance between Katniss and her two potential lovers, Gale and Peeta. I think that makes a lot of sense, because in my opinion, the romance was always secondary to the plot. There was a lot of room for readers to invent, for themselves, the reasons that Katniss loved one or the other. Thus, they went into Mockingjay invested in a narrative that they created themselves, rather than the one that Collins, the author, was most invested in.
I don’t know for certain what Collins’s intentions were. I felt that she was more invested in the war-is-hell story line than the romance one, because she spent far more words on war-is-hell than on romance. In Mockingjay, you see the full flowering of this theme. There is more romance, too, but ultimately, it never becomes the primary focus. I don’t think it was ever meant to be the primary focus. I think all that Team Peeta/Team Gale stuff, originated by well-meaning fans and stoked by media coverage of the series, resulted in misleading expectations.
Where’s the Hero?
Other reactions to the book have revealed that some readers are disappointed that Katniss did not become a heroic leader by the end. To some degree, I understand this disappointment, because I love a heroic girl in a leadership role. But thinking back on the books, I don’t think Katniss ever wanted to be a leader. Gale, yes. Peeta, maybe. But I think the only thing Katniss ever wanted was to keep her family safe.
The fact that she was used as a pawn almost until the end was incredibly thought-provoking to me. Katniss does have agency, but a lot of times, her agency results from her learning how to manipulate the media to her advantage. The problem is, she can only do that temporarily, before the producers once again wrest control of the story line back from her.
Most of the time, Katniss is manipulated by the producers of the media, as well as public reaction to her iconic image (yes, her fans). Her story, and the trilogy as a whole, can be read as a critique of the role of the media in shaping images and perceptions of war and violence. The media and the state are complicit here. They work together to create a world in which violence is expected and accepted. Katniss is the tragic result of the military-entertainment complex4.
If Katniss had emerged from her experiences as a triumphant, emotionally stable hero, the novels’ critique of war and the media would be blunted. I think she had to be a tragic figure.
But the end of Mockingjay does give us some hope. I did not find hope in a happily-ever-after finale, but in the fact that Katniss survives what the media-entertainment complex did to her, and she lives the rest of her life out of their reach. Her life becomes too normal to record on camera.
Whose Story Is It, Anyway?
Obviously, the books worked for me. They can’t work for everyone. I think it’s important, though, to try to meet a book on its own ground, bare of expectations. It can be really hard if it’s the final book in a series, and you-the-reader have built up all sorts of connections with the characters. I just feel that sometimes, readers-slash-fans might forget that the work they’re reading was not necessarily written to satisfy their own wishes. It was more likely written to tell a story that was important to the author.
This reminds me of the end of Battlestar Galactica, the reimagined Sci Fi series, a couple of years ago. (OK, and even the end of Lost, more recently.) A lot of fans reacted with disappointment and even outrage to the end of BSG — as if the producers had purposely gone out of their way to piss them off. This is a reaction I have never really understood.
Sure, it’s natural to dislike an ending or want something different, but as a reader/viewer, we must accept the fact that we’re not the creators of the story. We’re here to experience a story as told by someone else. And I think that as fans of a series, we actually owe it to the series creators to be open to experiencing their ending of the tale. To not let our wishes and expectations blind us to what the author has actually written5.
Once the story is finished, we can look back over the entire arc and see how the creators put that story together. Does the end feel true to the beginning? How were elements of the climax suggested earlier on? For me, Battlestar Galactica‘s ending made sense, and I thought it worked. (The ending of Lost, however, left too many loose ends for me.)
Maybe I’m interested in these things because I’m a writer, and even when I’m reading as a fan, I’m also reading as a writer. I want to see how other people do it. For me Mockingjay worked because Collins’s conclusion did tie in to the beginning. I think that her project, in this story, was clear and gripping. And the fact that some people didn’t like the ending also attests to her skill in characterization: She created characters we were invested in.
I know I’ll be thinking about this series, and its many layers of meaning, for a long time to come.
Edited to add: When I first posted this, I left comments open, but I soon got several negative comments about Suzanne Collins! Clearly opinions are heated about this book. But I don’t allow trash-talking of living authors — even best-selling ones — on my website. The problem is, one person’s “trash talking” is another’s “criticism.” And moderating those comments is too stressful for me on a Friday night after a long week of writing! So I’ve closed comments and deleted all of the ones that were already posted, even the positive ones. (Thanks for your comments!) If you’d like to discuss the book, there are several great discussions going on here, here, and here. I’ve even joined some of them. Or, you can email me privately at mlo at malindalo dot com if you have feedback on this post. Thanks, everyone.
- I’m one of them. [↩]
- Because I’m a fan! [↩]
- I think this is where fan-created productions, like fanfic or fan videos, often begin. This is where fans tell the story they want to read/see. [↩]
- In the real world, the U.S. military and Hollywood have certainly worked very closely together. This is a real thing here, and it’s located in Southern California. [↩]
- Though this can be easier said than done. [↩]