Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Oh, Mockingjay, I’m just not sure what to do with you.
I suppose that at this point the trilogy has taken on a certain trajectory. Katniss rebelled against the Capitol, inadvertently started an uprising, and now finds herself the face of that revolution regardless of her desires in the matter. It seems inevitable that the third and final book will feature the climax of this uprising, an assault on the Capitol, and one last confrontation with the apparently serpentine President Snow. This is my way of saying that Mockingjay’s predictability was itself predictable and not inherently a bad thing. Unfortunately, Suzanne Collins did nothing to allay my problems with the world and characters she has constructed.
In my review of Catching Fire I lamented Katniss’ loss of agency. This remains a problem in Mockingjay, where Collins explicitly portrays it as part of the conflict Katniss faces: District 13’s leaders want her to be their “Mockingjay”, a face of the revolution for propaganda and inspiration. Collins lays on thickly the parallels between the Mockingjay role and Katniss’ time as a tribute and victor for the Capitol, including an outfit designed by Cinna and her old prep team back for one last bow. She has almost no say in where she goes or what she does, and she is not so much a frontline warrior as a glamour soldier for the cause.
So the question then becomes: does Katniss somehow regain her agency by the end of the book? Does she retake her independence and begin once again making decisions for herself? Arguably she does, but it’s a long time in coming and not very satisfying when it happens. The problem with Mockingjay and, alas, by extension the entire series, is that it confirms the suspicion lurking in my mind since the middle of Catching Fire: Katniss is just a spectator. She was in the right place at the right time to spark a revolution, and now she is going along for the ride.
Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with this. Indeed, perhaps on some level this is how many revolutions work: few symbols intend to be symbols or set out to inspire rebellion. Yet it’s disheartening, especially after the first book’s emphasis on Katniss’ self-determination, to see that she has been reduced to nothing more than an observer. True, without her presence as a symbol the Capitol would likely have crushed the rebellion with extreme prejudice. But that’s all she is, at every turn. Even toward the climax of the novel, when she finally makes it to the Capitol and goes off to murder President Snow, Katniss is just an observer to the final act that ends the rebellion. She wakes up a few days later and gets filled in by another character. (Fade to black: rebellion over.)
This is a dramatic and very strange arc for Katniss’ character. One would expect it to work in reverse: a character with very little volition or agency slowly begins to gain a sense of self and self-determination, culminating in a final act of rebellion or sacrifice that makes the difference. Here, we begin in The Hunger Games with Katniss urging Peeta to commit suicide with her in order to cheat the Capitol of its victor. In Catching Fire she resolves to save Peeta once again but ends up being rescued by District 13 in the eleventh hour. Now, in Mockingjay, she sort of floats around aimlessly for the majority of the novel. Towards the end we get flashes of the former, fiery Katniss, only for any hopes of significant contributions to get dashed by the events I mention above.
Except, of course, it’s not that simple. It never is, is it? Katniss does commit one act so shocking it requires a trial, an act that alters the future of Panem forever—hopefully in a positive way. Try as I might, I cannot pigeonhole Mockingjay or Katniss into a neat little box of disappointment. There are glimmers of hope that are enough to keep me ambivalent about how this trilogy ultimately concludes.
The ending also portrays Katniss as suffering through a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. I don’t want to mislabel anything here—but I think Collins does a good job demonstrating the toll that Katniss’ twisted life has had on her psychology. Although I continue to long for a more explicit discussion of this whole killing thing—because, let’s face it, Collins makes every other message in these books explicit and obvious—I have to admit that the Katniss of Mockingjay is no longer the uncertain child we met at the beginning of The Hunger Games. She is damaged goods now. Worse still, she survives the rebellion. Many characters mention throughout the book, in one of several clumsy incidences of foreshadowing, that no one knows what to do with Katniss.
Collins plays up the “what happens to the warrior after she wins the war” theme very neatly. It’s so easy for a series like this to conclude immediately after the rebellion ends and offer no hints as to the future. Collins instead goes more the Harry Potter route, with an all-too-brief epilogue. But this is enough to let us see the permanent scars to Katniss’ psyche. It’s rather like the exchange between Mal and the Operative in Serenity: the Operative is working to create a better world, a world with no place for men like the two of them. Katniss created a world that no longer needs her, but by dint of all that she has experienced, it’s not the world she needs.
This series has catapulted to absurd heights of popularity. I don’t think it deserves to endure as a literary masterpiece (then again, I don’t make those decisions). Yet I won’t heap upon it unearned condemnation simply because of the hype that follows in its wake. The Hunger Games was a pretty good novel. In many ways, the latter two books are disappointing, especially by comparison. Their stories are still relatively complex, but their characters’ motivations are less fully explored.
In discussing this review and my reaction to the series with a friend, I came to one additional revelation. For all my griping, it seems obvious that these books are far superior to Twilight, and even if one doesn’t always appreciate the story or think highly of the plot and character development, the following is true: these books make readers, particularly teens, think. Katniss doesn’t always have agency, but she has issues beyond wondering whether to date a vampire or a werewolf. She’s trapped in a post-apocalyptic totalitarian police state that forces children to fight to the death! That’s something to talk about. We can have discussions about The Hunger Games beyond “Team Edward or Team Alice?” (Hint: answer is “Team Alice”). That potential for meaningful conversation is valuable.
In the end, though, I think it all comes down to Katniss Everdeen. She is the heart and soul of these books: their narrator, their protagonist, their girl on fire. The books live or die on Katniss’ ability to hold the reader’s interest, to be someone with whom the readers can empathize. We don’t always have to like her, but we have to understand her. In my opinion, the last two books in the series begin to waver in their connection with Katniss. In so doing, they lose what made The Hunger Games so special, fading back into the general noise of all those other books that want to be like them.