Hunger Games: No Comic Arena

You probably know the Hunger Games novels. Maybe only by name?

In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV.

Suzanne Collins began her series two years ago with epic-level action and suspense. As I wrote then, “Games is full of promise for sequels that will equal–perhaps even surpass–it in conflict, development and satisfaction.” The YA trilogy’s final installment hit shelves last month, and even before its release, Mockingjay was one of the most talked about books of 2010.

It’s tempting to embrace a story, any story, that pours so much water on the Twilight fire, but don’t leap before you look. Remember that Collins is writing for adolescents, pliable minds, who, more than any other target audience, are actively building the beliefs that will shape their future lives.

Because it presents the child with a portrait of a world he is, in real life, only just coming to know, every book teaches a new way of thinking about that world. The question is not whether a book teaches but what and how and whether its intent is to humanize a child or merely to socialize him.” John Goldthwaite, The Natural History of Make-Believe.

So what does Mockingjay teach?

It’s realistic, in that it doesn’t try to paint rainbows. But the ending lacks any hint of a redemptive future, which is what makes tragic novels truly meaningful and inspiring. Instead, we see a listless fate that just stretches on and on. A husband, sure, a couple of kids, sure, and yet you can almost hear the heroine heave an impassive sigh as she narrates these developments.

Ever-after life is not always happy, not always exciting, very true, but the worldview that shines through hardly humanizes Collins’ readers. Post-war life in Panem is empty, and her main characters seem almost dead inside. Which is absolutely the reverse of, say, the early Christians, who lost everything they loved, were persecuted almost to death, and yet still counted life worth living. “To live is Christ, to die is gain.”

Compared with that mindset, the atmosphere of Mockingjay is nihilistic, a world where there isn’t much point to anything, no reality except love (perhaps). Not quite the kind of satisfaction I anticipated two years ago.

For sure, Collins didn’t take an easy Twilight out, where “everyone gets everything they want, even if their desires necessitate an about-face in characterization or the messy introduction of some back story. Nobody has to renounce anything or suffer more than temporarily—in other words, grandeur is out.” (Publishers Weekly)

There is plenty of suffering and renunciation in Mockingjay. More than enough. However, that last line definitely rings true for both series finales–“grandeur is out.”

As John Goldthwaite would add, “Such a belief [that the world is Sustained in its travels] is the one just warrant for inflicting pain in a children’s book—for only by its felt presence can the pain be borne…. The only lasting justification for make-believe literature is the redemptive grace of agape, through which the world, with all its perils and squalor, may be revealed to children as a comic arena socially and a terra incognita invested with true mystery and true light.”