Monday, March 26, 2012

The Mockingjay Debate

For months now, the eager public has been dissecting every bit of Hunger Games news available. Cast bios, merchandise faux pas (a cookbook? really?), marketing, awe at the cult following, and more! Then the movie was actually released and the web was flooded with more opinions. But the movie is out now, so surely the topics have been exhausted, right? Wrong.

I'm in several different YA groups on Goodreads (friend me!), and believe me, when topic turns to the Hunger Games series, it's not just the first book being dissected. Instead of jumping to Catching Fire (for the uninitiated, that's book #2), most of the heated discussions are centered around the third and final book, Mockingjay. More specifically, we argue about the ending.

This is the time where I place the jump break. That's your warning to walk away, because from here on out, it's spoilers galore.

Nine times out of ten, a fan coming fresh off Mockingjay is a wreck.

"I can't believe she did this to me!" the fan will wail, as if Collins' choices in the book were a cunningly designed personal affront. "Book one was so good! And two! Both so good! But then Peeta, and he's crazy [distressed fans often speak in half-thoughts], and Prim and BOOM!" Here, the fan may start to cry. "And then END!" Prim is quickly forgotten as the fan starts to get mad. Really mad. "What the [bleep] kind of ending is that?! She's a mess! Everyone leaves, and WHERE IS MY HAPPY ENDING?!?!" 

As someone who's had a long while to separate myself from the book, I understand. Believe me, I do. I mentioned going through the stages of grief in this post, and it's completely true. I was so angry when I finished that I yelled at my sister for not warning me, swore I would never read "those awful books" ever again, and told myself that I would not listen to any movie news EVER. 

But, in the end, I had to finally admit the truth - Suzanne Collins did what she had to do. 

In a "normal" story, what might have happened? Katniss would have glided elegantly into Peeta's cell, and one look at her would have completely reversed all effects of the Capitol's brainwashing. When the parachutes fell (if that were even allowed in a "normal" book), Katniss would have been able to save the children and Prim with some dashing, heroic, self-sacrificing action that would have left her scarred in some painful but socially acceptable way (i.e., epic-looking but placed on her back, arm, or chest so she would still look pretty). 

Either Seneca Crane, Coin, and the other leaders would have turned into peace-loving hippies, determined not to make the same mistake as the Capitol, or Coin would have been the one bad apple. If Coin had been the one bad apple (with a few, weaselly supporters), then Katniss and Peeta would have joined together to make a rousing speech that would have enflamed all of Panem once more to lock away Coin forever, thereby ensuring peace for all eternity. Katniss, her mother, Prim, and Peeta would have established a new center of government in District Twelve with the help of Gale, who by this point would be tapped to be Peeta's best man at the wedding. And everyone would live happily ever after.

But this isn't a "normal" story, folks. This is a story where kids kill other kids for food and for glory. Where dead people's eyes are plucked out and put into the faces of ravenous muttations. Where fear, brainwashing, manipulation, and sadism are common. Where people are routinely maimed and put into service as nameless Avoxes. And where all of the above are seen as harmless entertainment by a gaudy, ostentatious population whose greatest worry is whether pink is this season's new teal.

The world in HG is broken. There are real, immediate prices to be paid. 

We're promised a book where kids must die, and they really do die. No copouts. We're not given a charismatic, everybody-loves-me heroine who can fix everything with a snap of her fingers and a bit of luck. There are no fairy godmothers, no genies, no astounding coincidences. Collins works hard to keep the world of Panem and its inner workings realistic and plausible, because it is that very realism and plausibility that make the stories both horrifying and fascinating. 

Even in the slightly neater revolutions that have taken place in history, a victory does not equal immediate peace. Look at the gorefest that was the French Revolution, the anarchy that was the fall of Tsarist Russia, even the squabbling mess that was our own American Revolution (a fact that our history classes often gloss over). There are feuds and concessions and bad blood. The districts of Panem have nearly a century of history and bad blood to deal with, and we expected Katniss and Peeta to say a few pretty words, shoot a figurehead baddie, and fix everything magically?

Tying up everything would have been a cop-out. Collins did what made sense. More than that, she did what was right by her characters. Gale and Mrs. Everdeen grew in their own ways during the series, so they had to be sent off. Sweet Cinna and innocent Prim were martyrs for the cause. Peeta and Katniss retreated to the relative safety and serenity of their old home, District Twelve, where they could plant flowers and raise children in peace. To erase their pain, their mental distress, their memories of what they had lived through, would be a disservice to them.

In my despair, I remembered a bittersweet speech from another favorite book. As Frodo Baggins, savior of his world, prepared to depart to his own peace, he tried to explain to Sam what had happened.

"I am wounded," he answered, "wounded; it will never really heal." (p.1002)
And later,
"I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them." (p.1006)
Peeta and Katniss will carry their wounds, both physical and mental, to the end of their lives. They will never really heal. Peeta will be quiet and somber and walk with a limp. Katniss will scream out from nightmares and watch her burnt skin peel off in flakes every time she undresses.

The world may be lost to them in many ways, but they have saved it for others. For the children. For their daughter and son, Prim's niece and nephew. For Finnick and Annie's little boy. For the fleet-footed workers in District Eleven who will sing home their fellows and never have to fear the sting of the foreman's whip. For the innocents in the Capitol, blameless of the sins of their parents, who will now be safe from Coin's Games.

Suzanne Collins may rob us of an idyllic happy ending, but she gives us an unflinching look at what we must never become. She gives us an uncompromised ending for the millions of teens who refused to be treated like children and fell in love with a series that looked upon them as adults. And most importantly, she gives us a future ripe with hope.

Now it's your turn. Do you agree? Disagree? Why?

I selected this post to be featured on Book Review Blogs. Please visit the site and vote for my blog!