Catching Fire / Mockingjay

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The Hunger Games saga doesn’t have a happy ending. That’s not to say it’s unremittingly grim – and, don’t worry, I won’t spoil it – but this is no fairytale.

Sure, the Hunger Games trilogy started predictably enough – “Battle Royale With Cheese”, the joke that never stops being funny – there the similarity ends. It’s being hyped as this year’s Twilight, but despite featuring a clumsily tacked-on love triangle with two cardboard-cutout boys, it couldn’t be more dissimilar. It might be marketed by a children’s publisher, but it makes Harry Potter‘s darker moments look like Dr Seuss: I’ll see your neglected orphan and raise you torture, mutilation, human trafficking and all-out war. Not the glossy TV kind of war, either, but the kind where people lose eyeballs. And tongues. It almost makes the new Evil Dead look nice. 

What’s the polar opposite of Twilight‘s limp protagonist? I’d have thought The Vampire Diaries‘ warm, feisty Elena, but it turns out it’s Katniss Everdeen. She’s so complex she’s barely even likeable, and spends much of the saga steeped in self-loathing – much of it justified, since she’s basically Stephen King’s Gunslinger but with one tiny iota of conscience. Still, as she frequently muses, you don’t survive the Hunger Games by being nice.

We return after the first novel to District 12, where Katniss learns that – in view of her earlier antics – she’s marked for death unless she plays a complicated and very dangerous political game. There the labyrinthine plot takes tumble after twist, taking in a whole new arena of deadly traps and the constant new guessing game of who-to-trust. We all knew from the first page that she’d win the game and then take down the system, but the biggest surprise is that – for all Catching Fire‘s similarity to Equilibrium – it doesn’t happen neatly in a blaze of beautifully-choreographed bullets.

Yes, this is “teen fiction”, and its world close to fantasy, but it’s probably the most realistic portrayal of war and revolution that I’ve read. Nothing is neat, quickly resolved or easily answered. Aside from the scene where Katniss shoots a defenseless woman to stop her alerting the guards, that is. As a war-is-hell catalogue of horrors, trilogy-closer Mockingjay has more in common with Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, except that it is better written. Yup, if The Hunger Games was almost shockingly bad, Mockingjay is its antithesis – a reversal of the shoddy deterioration of His Dark Materials. There’s something immensely satisfying about really horrible, depressing teen fiction: I guess it just reminds me of the gruesomely wonderful Nicholas Fisk books I enjoyed as a child.

So in these books that describe what really would happen if teenagers were forced to fight to the death, we then get what really would happen if they survived and decided to fight back against their evil oppressive government. Because, let’s face it, they’ve been battle-hardened and trained in combat: the government’s just bred themselves the perfect soldiers. So obviously they’re immediately declared leaders of the rebellion because- … no, this is the real-world take … they’re treated like stroppy teenagers with an adult-sized grudge.

As far as epic sagas go, The Hunger Games makes a fine companion to The Dark Tower as an epic tale of human will against insurmountable odds, except that Suzanne Collins knows how to end a story. It’s certainly as evocative and heartbreaking, and as addictive to read.

Catching Fire and Mockingjay are excellent stories, thrillingly told. They cast off the Greek-myth origins of The Hunger Games and take us on an altogether more recogniseable journey. It might leave you feeling weak and numb at the end, but it’s the essential stuff of storytelling and it’s difficult to imagine who this wouldn’t please.

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