Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Two years, almost to the day, have elapsed since I read the first book in this series. Since then it has gone from trendy young adult sensation to international book series phenomenon. My second student-teaching practicum is in a Grade 7/8 environment, where it seems like every student is reading one of these three books. I even got to accompany my Grade 7 and 8 classes to watch the movie when it came out in theatres. (The movie is nowhere near as good as the book, in my opinion. It has a certain stylistic appeal but beyond that seems to emphasize all the wrong things.) With the popularity of this series so evident in my current situation, I decided it was high time to read Catching Fire. Also, borrowing it from my associate teacher was much easier than putting my name on the waiting list at the library….
As with anything that gets as big as The Hunger Games has, deep divisions and schools of thoughts have emerged surrounding this book and the messages it might or might not send to youth. My ardour for the first book has probably cooled somewhat since I wrote my review, but I remain of the opinion that it’s a good book for adults as well as adolescents. The argument that it’s “better than Twilight,” while true, strikes me as extremely disappointing: what does it say about the state of YA literature that we have to praise things for being better than Twilight?
So I went into Catching Fire with a two-year gap in my memories only partially restored by the movie’s light dusting of plot. I know many of my friends rank this as their favourite in the trilogy, and I can see why. In my first review, I hoped for “a deeper exploration of the issues inherent to the Hunger Games and the quality of life in Panem" in Catching Fire, and for the most part that wish comes true. (We can quibble about depth later.) We get the satisfaction of seeing the fallout from Katniss and Peeta’s survival, including a lengthy and frank conversation between Katniss and President Snow. And Suzanne Collins makes it clear that Katniss’ disobedience has been the catalyst for something so gigantic it might conceivably lead to another rebellion. So much for retiring peacefully.
Alas, I couldn’t help but see Catching Fire as a faint retread of everything in the first novel. Was anyone really surprised that Katniss once again has to fight in the Hunger Games? It seemed like a foregone conclusion the moment the book began that she would end up in the arena again. Once that gets announced, the majority of the book follows the structure from the first book. Granted, it’s much more satisfying than many aspects of the first book: we learn more about the other tributes, for instance, and the description of the Games themselves seems to focus more on the intricacy of their design and less on Katniss’ own need for survival.
In a way, this makes sense: The Hunger Games was about Katniss’ own personal struggles in a harsh, totalitarian world; Catching Fire is a transition to a story that is wider in scope, involving uprisings of entire Districts. Katniss still has a personal stake in this story, but it is clear now that hers is part of a much larger narrative sparked by her unconventional strategy in the Games. Now she has to deal with the consequences, continue being someone she isn’t and try desperately not to say or do anything that could be perceived as rebellious. In the end, of course, she fails miserably, because she can’t help but be the kind and inspirational symbol the would-be rebels all need. This isn’t her fault.
Collins’ problems with creating a believable post-apocalyptic police state continue in Catching Fire. Panem is a very simplistic attempt at a totalitarian government, with the Capitol emerging as little more than snivelling bad guys in this book. We are supposed to believe, from Snow’s visit, that the Capitol finds themselves in a corner of their own painting: Katniss and Peeta are now high-profile celebrities, so the most expedient route of arranging for an “accident” would instead result in martyrdom. Instead, Snow resorts to intimidation of Katniss and then outright oppression of District 12. Thematically, I suppose it’s an effective way for Collins to demonstrate how people who are oppressed to an intolerable point will eventually erupt in violence … strategically, it’s a bonehead move. The Capitol is not a very well-run police state.
So with their precious little system in peril, the Capitol catapults Katniss, Peeta, and a score of other former victors back into the Hunger Games. Once again, Katniss needs to come up with a plan for both tributes from District 12 to survive. One of the more disappointing aspects of The Hunger Games was its failure to address Katniss’ transformation into a killer. To Collins’ credit, Katniss talks a bit about it in Catching Fire, but it still seems to be an issue on the moral back-burner in this series, which is more interested in making sure that Katniss is uncertain about who she should fall in love with. It’s not a coincidence that the tributes who die in the arena are the ones Collins fails to flesh out in any detail—two of them don’t even have names but are just described as morphling (morphine?) addicts.
Combined with a deus ex machina ending of the first order, we’re left once again in a situation where Katniss doesn’t actually have to make any tough moral choices. Yes, there is death and tragedy and sacrifice. But it’s all happening around Katniss, and while some of it is about Katniss, none of it is really her own doing. Which leads me to ask a question that might be somewhat incendiary: is this really better than Twilight? The main premise of that argument is that Katniss Everdeen has much more agency than Bella Swan, who faints at the merest hint of an action scene. To some extent, this is true in the minutiae of the plot, especially in The Hunger Games: Katniss volunteers to be a tribute; Katniss has a strength of will and character that constantly gets her into trouble. She is most certainly not like Bella Swan. Yet her role in Catching Fire is little more than a first-person vehicle for the reader: she is not involved in most of the decisions that seal her fate or Peeta’s; she is constantly overruled by other people (mostly men) who know better how to play this game. Where did my Katniss from the first book go? Who is this changeling that has taken her place?
I am intentionally writing this review before I read Mockingjay, which I’m about to start. I don’t want my experience of the third book to influence my opinion of the second. I expect that it will tie up loose ends, both when it comes to the nascent rebellion in Panem and Katniss’ love triangle. I will continue to hope for more depth and more detail when it comes to the dilemmas that are a natural consequence of the events Collins includes in these books. Catching Fire disappoints me, because it seems so uneven. The first part of the book reads like a laundry list of all the problems Katniss has caused, both for herself and for the Capitol. Some these are real and terrifying in the way they remove her ability to choose her own path in life. But this serious discussion evaporates to make way for yet another bout in the arena and another unlikely resolution. It’s like there’s two books in here, one that is really good and studious but probably somewhat boring, and one that is exciting and flashy but probably not very substantial. Both of them are vying to come to the fore, but neither quite manages to win the day.
This criticisms are not meant as a condemnation of the series or this book. The Hunger Games was really good, and while Catching Fire comes nowhere close to meeting that level of quality, it still delivers a pleasant echo of that first hit. I just think there’s plenty of room for improvement. Because I’m not content to settle for “better than Twilight” for myself or for my students. I want something that’s just awesome for its own sake.