Originally published on Big Tall Words, January 5, 2015
*Spoiler warning for The Hunger Games trilogy*
Oh, the tears.
There are probably reasons why these novels and films hit me so hard. I just finished a class about happiness (or the lack thereof) in Romantic literature led by a professor who feels so acutely that many members in the class tear up at his words. (No, really. The man has some kind of aura around him. I thought it was just me, but he has this effect on many.) Trauma, sadness, pain, and depression figured largely in the class; we read a lot of psychoanalysis and novels about characters who waste away and/or commit suicide. Needless to say, the class was not all that uplifting at times, and it has certainly had an effect on my own state of mind.
I tried to remember this while sobbing my way through the novels. I tried to remind myself that I was reading too much into the novels by thinking of them as stories about recovering from trauma. I tried to remind myself that there was going to be a happy ending because there often is in post-apocalyptic fiction, especially young adult post-apocalyptic fiction. When all this failed, I tried to tell myself: GAWD IT’S JUST A BOOK GET A GRIP! (It didn’t work.)
The thing is, I don’t think I am reading too much into the novels to say that they are about recovering from trauma. Katniss’s world is a damaging place where the odds are never “in your favour”, where bad things happen to good people, where death is often hasty and meaningless. Though she survives this world, she cannot (and does not) emerge unscathed.
At the beginning of The Hunger Games, Katniss’s father has died, and the burden of ensuring her family doesn’t starve to death has fallen on her shoulders. She has grown up too fast, learned too quickly that death is inevitable, that the price of survival is almost never too high. Take Buttercup, for instance. On the very first page of the first novel, Katniss tells us matter-of-factly: “He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed” (3). How many 16-year-olds would be so cavalier about the need to drown a kitten — the very picture of innocence — because they understand that the resources of the household cannot stretch to accommodate it? This is a young woman hardened too soon by too much trauma.
Prim, of course, can afford to be innocent. She can beg and cry to keep the kitten because she doesn’t know its true cost. And Katniss works very hard to let Prim keep the cat, though she has no love for the creature herself. In fact, Katniss’s description of her own relationship with the cat sounds to me like she is incapable of the innocence that loving it would demand: “Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me. Entrails. No hissing. This is closest we will come to love” (4). Prim is about the only person she trusts enough to love; she feels shame that Peeta’s act of kindness gave her hope when she was younger, and anger at her mother’s grief.
These early passages make it clear to me that Katniss has dealt with trauma long before she steps into the arena for the Hunger Games. Afterwards, of course, she is a shell of who she was, and terrified to trust another enough for love to develop. In Catching Fire, when Gale confesses his love for her, she replies, “I can’t think about anyone that way now. All I can think about, every day, every waking minute since they drew Prim’s name at the reaping is how afraid I am. And there doesn’t seem to be room for anything else. If we could get somewhere safe, maybe I could be different. I don’t know” (97). Here we have Katniss confronting the unknowability of the future; the uncertainty as to whether she will ever be able to move past the trauma (the loss, the hardship, the adversity) that has plagued her.
In Mockingjay, the final novel, Katniss’s grief comes to a head. Like Haymitch, she becomes addicted to a painkiller; like Annie, she acts like a lunatic, screaming and throwing fits and blacking out. This part of the novel made me wish for an exterior narrator. But the fragmented present tense captured something of the raw emotion Katniss deals with after everything she’s been through. Her home has been destroyed; she is constantly a pawn in a larger game, the rules and players of which she may never fully grasp; her closest companion has grown into a ruthless military tactician; the cause she tries to support resembles l’Ancien Regime more and more each day; her mother shuts her out again; and worst of all, Prim is killed, possibly in one of Gale’s engineered bombings. Of course she murders Coin. Of course she becomes a morphine addict. Of course she shuts everyone out. Who wouldn’t?
What I love about the series and its final installment is what some readers really hate about it. It goes to dark places. Katniss suffers. Good people die for no reason. Some readers (particularly Goodreads reviewers) claim that certain characters “deserved better” or that the final novel’s epilogue feels tacked on. Some (again, Goodreads reviewers) protest that Katniss isn’t strong anymore, she isn’t in control in the final novel, she’s messed up and no one wants to read about that. Movie Bob from The Escapist said something similar in his review of the latest film, stating sarcastically that everyone wanted to see the characters “moping around” for two hours.
The Hunger Games is based on a philosophical problem as old as humanity itself: why do bad things happen to good people? The simple answer is because we are not in control. We live in an absurd world where chaos reigns. Katniss is never “in control” at any point in the series. Even when she’s kicking ass, she’s doing it because she is a cog in a larger machine. Anyone who thinks that she was strong early in the series and weak later must have fallen for her propos because she was never as strong as she seemed; she only had people watching her for signs of weakness. Katniss is a hunter. She knows that weakness means death, and strength means survival. So she performs for the cameras. But, more than any of the other novels and films, Mockingjay shows us Katniss away from the cameras. And yes, she cries. Yes, she faints and vomits and hides and blacks out and panics. She suffers. Mockingjay shows us that no one can live in the world without suffering, though some may be better at putting up a brave face.
So why is it that, when Katniss starts to visibly suffer, people accuse her of being weak? Or they accuse the series of losing its appeal because its main character is just “moping around”?
Because Katniss is a woman.
In his review of Mockingjay Part 1, Movie Bob claimed to understand how significant Katniss is as a female protagonist. He claimed that she is an excellent role model for young women (better, he states, than Bella Swan, though that’s saying very, very little). He claimed that he understood why people loved her and loved the books, and loved the series, but he — poor defenceless film critic as he is — just wants to know why they can’t make a better movie, why the final installment had to be divided in two even though it means that the first film is filled with the characters moping around.
I would reply that Movie Bob understands jack about shit when it comes to Katniss as a female protagonist, and he wasn’t watching the film very closely to conclude that it is useless because she was “moping around” the whole time.
In the latest Hunger Games film, President Coin is played by Julianne Moore. I thought this was a bizarre casting choice, since I read Coin as a very hard woman, and Moore is, well, soft. (At least, I always thought so.) The filmmakers added a scene, however, that justifies their decision. In this scene, Katniss breaks away from the crowd, and Coin finds her. The two converse a little, and there is an unprecedented moment of connection between them. Katniss is grieving her losses, and Coin opens up a little about her family being murdered by the Capitol. She concludes by telling Katniss that in difficult times, people like the two of them find something inside that pushes them onward. It is an emotional moment, and both actors give the scene the emotional gravitas that it deserves. I was quite impressed. Here was the film justifying its own focus upon the emotional deterioration of Katniss Everdeen. What I got from the scene was that Coin was telling Katniss, it’s okay to be an emotional wreck; you can be both strong and emotional.
A great woman once said, “My emotions give me power.” This great woman suffered hardship: saddled with responsibility beyond her years, willing to give her life multiple times for the ones she loved, she sacrificed everything for her younger sister, lost a parent before she felt capable of being on her own in the world, became a brick wall that shut out those who loved her, and cried when no one was looking. This great woman also said, “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.”
Too frequently, I think, texts with female protagonists rely on their leads embodying so-called masculine traits to be “strong” (i.e. physical strength/ stamina, leadership, assertiveness, independence/cutting emotional ties, a tactical mind, technical mastery of a skill or weapon, etc.). Katniss fulfills many of these traits; ironically, Movie Bob pointed this out in a different video, claiming that the reason she is strong is because she is hardly perceived as “female.” Though this may be true of the first installment of the series, as it develops, the weight of Katniss’s trauma becomes greater, and she becomes more visibly emotional (which is, of course a stereotypical female trait). Catching Fire and Mockingjay show us a Katniss who is suffering, who is both emotional and strong, perhaps even strong because she is emotional. This is an unusual stance, and I think very highly of The Hunger Games for taking it.
I know why it is unusual for texts to take this stance: to do so risks being associated with essentialist thinking that claims that women are emotional while men are not. Even what I wrote above may approach the essentialism line. But I think it is possible to say that women are emotional because they are socialized to be able to show emotion more than men because they are expected to be weaker, and emotion is a sign of weakness. Therefore, to have a female protagonist who draws strength from perceived signs of weakness is an accomplishment, in my mind.
Yes, Katniss spends some of the movies and books “moping.” But I encourage those who criticize her for it to think of the Careers — the tributes brought up to fight in the Games. They don’t “mope,” but they are also ruthless human beings, capable of murder and torture. Katniss remains human, which is why she gave Rue such a moving send-off and wanted to save the wounded in the burning hospital. As readers and viewers, we should be pleased that Katniss can feel, that she draws strength from those feelings, that she can heal, rather than complain about having to go with her through the slow and painful healing process.
The beauty of Mockingjay is that Katniss does heal. Slowly. Painfully. Imperfectly. Some readers hated the novel’s epilogue, claiming that she settled for a certain way of life, but I loved it. I thought it was a movingly simple coda: the continuation of life in the face of ongoing hardship. In the novel’s conclusion, Katniss becomes the mockingjay: “A mockingjay is a creature the Capitol never intended to exist. They hadn’t counted on the highly controlled jabberjay having the brains to adapt to the wild, to pass on its genetic code, to thrive in a new form. They hadn’t anticipated its will to live” (Catching Fire 92). In the final novel’s epilogue, we see this symbolism embodied (though it’s admittedly on-the-nose). She has adapted to the wild; she has healed, passed on her genetic code, and survived (though I would not say thrived) in a new form. She still has nightmares; Peeta still has flashbacks. They still suffer. But they survive. The world has become a better place, but pain lingers.
Here is a woman who manages to be strong while still in touch with her emotions despite unspeakable hardships. Here is a heroine.
Oh, and P.S. The Hunger Games is NOT about a love triangle. It never was. (Anyone who thinks that the tension of the first two novels was driven by Katniss’s choice of boyfriend needs to go back to the Twilight fandom where they belong. I’m looking at you, Goodreads reviewers.) I have many, many more thoughts on the misreadings of the series, and when I’m not busy writing for my MA, maybe I’ll share them here.