I have a new article up at Sound on Sight, on Actor Allusions in films (casting gags, mainly). And now, on to The Hunger Games...
I was loaned these books by Old Housemate(theRomeone) who is forever trying to get me to read really good books and I am always resisting, as I often find it hard to find the time to read fiction. She has excellent taste, though, so I persisted with these even though I was unimpressed by the first few pages – thrown into a really depressing fantasy (actually it’s science fiction, but it often feels like fantasy) universe where the narrator seemed to be telling me stuff rather than showing me, in the often-pretentious present tense (more on that below) and which sorely needed to find the funny. The books never did quite find the funny, though a few attempts were made later on, but as soon as the main plot kicked in somewhere within the first fifty or so pages, I was hooked. (Cleolinda found some vaguely funny bits, and if you need a reminder of the plot, Mark Reads… can lighten up some of the grimness as well as providing a handy summary). If you enjoy SFF books at all, go away immediately and read all three books, because they are very, very good and seriously compulsive (I have not been this obsessed with staying up late to read a book in a good while). And because there are lots of major spoilers – and I mean MAJOR, I’m about to spoil the climax of the entire trilogy – in this write-up.
All done? Good. Did you enjoy them?
I loved these books, especially the first two. I could predict almost every major plot development over both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, but that’s a good thing, because the structure of the Hunger Games is such that there are only a limited number of ways it can end, and I thought Collins went for absolutely the best conclusion in both cases (i.e. she concluded them the way I would have done). I was really disappointed about two thirds of the way into The Hunger Games, when it looked like Peeta and Katniss were just going to be allowed to win together, and immensely relieved when the rules were changed again and we got the face-off that the set-up practically promised us. I was surprised and disappointed that we didn’t see more of the Victory Tour in Catching Fire, as I’d been looking forward to seeing more of all the Districts, but going back into the arena was another of my predictions, and I’ve had a fondness for the scenario where one of our heroes gets captured ever since I first read the words ‘Frodo was alive, but taken by the Enemy’ at the very end of The Two Towers.
Mockingjay was much harder to predict and for me, without the structure of the Games, it was a little less successful. It was a bit more wandering in its plot and I was denied the climactic scenes I was anticipating – Peeta was rescued without Katniss even being present, which was a big disappointment, and while the climax of both the previous two books was directly related to Peeta and Katniss’ relationship, the finale of the third was thematically broader, which for me, ruined the expected dramatic climax of their romance (which was left to be finished off in the last paragraph of the last page – not nearly enough space for a relationship that’s driven much of the plot of all three novels). I’m really not sure how I feel about killing off Prim either. Since the entire plot was started by Katniss’ determination to save her, her death at the end gave the finale a sense of crushing futility and instead of finishing the book with the sort of warm smile you get from a successful action/romance (like the first two), you finish the third feeling like Marvin the Paranoid Android, wondering what the point of Life is. This may appeal to some readers, of course, but I’m soppier than that (I wouldn’t have given Mockingjay such a high death count either – Finnick, at least, I expected to survive, and Cinna, one of my favourite characters, was this series’ Uncle Gaius – I kept expecting him to turn up again and he never did).
I think my favourite thing about these books was that it was the nice guy who was clearly destined to end up with the heroine (it’s presented as a love triangle, but really, it was never going to be Gale). Weirdly for someone who’s quite into vampire novels at the moment, and with the notable exceptions of certain blond vampires, I actually like nice guys and don’t find brooding, sulkiness, ‘darkness’ or the threat of domestic violence remotely appealing in a love interest. I’m also related to artists and enjoy art myself, so while cake-decorating may seem kind of a lame special skill, I liked it, and it reminded me of the beautiful use of shop-window decoration in Pleasantville, one of my favourite films.
The whole set-up is basically Big Brother meets a Roman gladiatorial arena. The Games lean more towards the Big Brother side of things, as so much of how they play out is determined by editing and the distance of the television viewer from what’s happening in front of them. Roman viewers, much closer to the violence occurring before them, could decide whether someone who was down should live or die, whereas breaking the rules of television shows, although it happens and the conclusion to Book One is based on that, is rarer. It is also worth noting that not too many societies force children to fight each other to the death for the entertainment of adults. The sacrifice of children is something you see in myth (being fed to the Minotaur, for example) and in modern speculative fiction (Torchwood’s Children of Earth, which I hated with a fiery passion) but is extremely rare in real life, for obvious reasons (child soldiers are very real but are another thing all together). Still, this is SF, so it works very well on a metaphorical level.
Jennifer Lawrence, who has been cast as Katniss in the movie version. Some people have complained because she's blond. Personally, I'm a great believer in the efficacy of hair dye, though her skin being too pale might be more of a problem.
The names in these books are all over the place, from the fairly normal (Primrose, Madge) to the weirdly spelled (Peeta) to the somewhat odd (Finnick, Haymitch) to the deliberately strange (Glimmer, specifically called attention to as a weird name). Some have suggested Peeta is a joke, as in pitta bread, because he's a baker's son - maybe it's because of my British accent, maybe it's the Classical allusion, maybe both, but I read it as a weirdly spelled form of 'Peter', the rock. The majority of characters from the Capitol (named after both the Roman and American institutions, presumably) have Roman names. For the most part, their precise names – Octavia, Venia, Flavius and so on - seem to have little significance beyond the fact that they’re Roman. Even Cato seems to have little in common with his namesake, while Brutus is not named for the Roman connotations of king-killing (appropriate as that might be) but for the modern connotations of brute force and strength.
Some, however, are more significant. The best known Roman Cinna fought with the populist Marius against the dictator Sulla. Titus, the tribute who goes mad, is probably named for Shakespeare’s particularly violent Roman-set play, Titus Andronicus. Castor and Pollux are twins, as in Greek myth but given their Roman names, and Dr Aurelius, the psychiatrist, is probably named after Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor and author of the Stoic-influenced Meditations.
When I first heard the name ‘Plutarch’ and thought he was a bad guy, I was stupidly disappointed, because Plutarch is one of my favourite ancient authors. I was equally absurdly pleased when he almost immediately turned out to be a (relatively) good guy after all (and Katniss is really stupid for not cottoning on to the significance of the mockingjay). Having said that, Plutarch doesn't really have much in common with his namesake, though it is he that quotes Juvenal’s famous pronouncement (in a satire) that all the people need to keep them happy are bread and circuses, panem et circenses. I don’t know whether Collins had come up with this when she named her future America Panem, or if it’s a happy coincidence (I initially thought Panem was just intended to evoke all-encompassing land and sound a bit like PanAm) but she uses it very well.
The one Roman name that is definitely significant is that of President Snow, known only by his surname for much of the trilogy. Mockingjay reveals his first name to be Coriolanus, a legendary figure from Roman history made famous by Plutarch and by Shakespeare’s play. Coriolanus mistreated the poor and betrayed his people, but stopped just short of actually marching on Rome – thoroughly appropriate for Snow, who mistreats the poor of the Districts and uses people horribly, but stops just short of destroying Panem entirely by avoiding a nuclear war.
The book is written in the present tense, as I mentioned above, but where in some cases this can seem pretentious, here, Collins actually makes the vivid present work. This technique was frequently used by ancient epic poets to make their action sequences especially exciting and really put their readers or listeners in the moment. This trilogy is the first time I’ve seen this technique work in a modern novel. Collins includes a number of flashbacks and explanations that are written in the past tense, so the reader does not become totally weary of the present, and this ensures that the action in the present tense scenes (the majority of the books) really does feel more vivid. This is combined with a very clever use of first person narration that allows the reader to understand things the protagonist is too preoccupied, dense or both to notice while allowing them to experience the various fights, escapes and so on with her. (With this in mind, it was perhaps not wise to have several of the major events of Mockingjay occur while the heroine is unconscious...)
I’m doing a lot of work on cultural memory at the moment and I was interested to see that Collins brought up the issue of preserved arenas both at the beginning and the end of the trilogy. Before entering the arena, Katniss remarks that old arenas are tourist attractions where families visit and adds ‘They say the food is excellent’. This was extremely poignant and had the desired effect of making me feel a bit guilty about wandering about Roman arenas in a very good mood, picturing scenes from Gladiator. There is a cross in the Colosseum which is a memorial to the Christians executed there, and as I mentioned in my post on Tunisia, El Jem is apparently a more emotionally affecting experience if you visit on a quiet day, but generally speaking those of us who visit these places have to remind ourselves to consider just how many people died in them. And the food is very good. However, Collins lost me a bit in the epilogue to Mockingjay, when she says that the arenas have been destroyed and replaced by memorials. For the last hundred years, we have remembered, not by pulling things down and replacing them with a monument, but by preserving them. A trip to a concentration camp is enough to almost silence a bus-full of noisy, rowdy sixteen year olds who have discovered that they can buy beer in the Czech Republic, and while preserving every inch of the Western Front would disrupt travel across France, a section at Vimy Ridge has been deliberately maintained so that tourists can experience just how close the opposing armies were. We put up memorials where we cannot preserve the real thing, and we use them particularly in the hometowns of soldiers who died in foreign countries, but where we can preserve the horrors of the past, we do, because the strongest and most evocative way to remember is to go there (the experience of standing in a gas chamber is unforgettable). Preserving, rather than destroying, the evidence of horror is how we remember it.
I actually have photos of various friends pretending to be lions in the cells under the amphitheatre or pretending to be horses in the Circus Maximus, but I didn't think any of them would thank me for publishing those on the Internet, so instead, here's me grinning like a loon in the Place of Horrible Death and Destruction while all the surrounding tourists do the exact same thing.
Although I said that Mockingjay was harder to predict than the others, if you’ve ever read Animal Farm (or, like me, read the last page or two and thought ‘OK, that’s what that’s about’) you’ll have an inkling where the story is going. Several of the themes of the trilogy, including the perils of living in a dictatorship, the brutality of a regime putting down a rebellion and the ability of human beings to be entertained by the suffering of others, are particularly pertinent to ancient Rome as well as to the modern world, which makes the use of Roman motifs especially appropriate, even if the plot weren’t based around the Roman concept of the gladiatorial arena. If only the ending had just a little bit more soppy romance (guess I am a sucker for a romance after all) and a bit less of a feeling of the soul-destroying inevitability of Fate, it would be perfect…