SPOILER ALERT for Mockingjay (The Hunger Games) and Return of the King (The Lord of the Rings).
After finishing the Hunger Games trilogy, I was torn between:
- Wanting to learn the author’s techniques so I could make my readers feel as strongly for my characters as I did for the Hunger Games characters
- Never wanting to put anyone through what I went through reading Hunger Games
I’m not a depressed person, nor particularly moody. A poorly-ended book will leave me angry and disappointed, but not devastated. Mockingjay, however, left me in a turmoil of tears late into the night and gave me a sick feeling every time I thought about it afterwards – which was often, since I finished it mere weeks before the first movie came out, and there were reminders everywhere, from a stray Catching Fire book jacket in a coworker’s car to Hunger Games recipes on the Yahoo! homepage.
As I lay awake that first night, trying to pinpoint what bothered me so much, I realized it all boiled down to one scene. One word, really.
First, the writing is brilliant (aside from heavy exposition in book two). The author asks moral questions without ever preaching. The prose is so clean, you forget you’re reading—you just get sucked straight into Katniss’s head. And Katniss is a complex character, flawed in ways I can relate to, yet heroic in ways I hope to be. I was afraid when she was afraid, I fell in love when she fell in love, and I grieved when she lost everything she cared about. As the story progressed, and more of my favorite people were murdered, I felt more and more beaten down, just as I saw Katniss beaten down. But one thing carried me through, which began in the very first chapter: I could always depend on Katniss to defend the weak.
Despite all her flaws, when she saw an innocent person threatened, Katniss was filled with righteous anger, and fought for them even against her better judgment. That’s what made her the Mockingjay.
The author brought Katniss down to her lowest point, which so many writers are squeamish of doing, but which is necessary for a great story. You must bring your hero to the edge of death; physically, emotionally or both. In that moment, your hero must make the ultimate decision. The exact decision varies with every story, but at its core it is always the same: right or wrong.
At this point, no one would blame him for making the wrong decision. But if he makes the right decision, even if the villain kills him afterwards, even if the whole world gets blown up or he doesn’t get the girl after all or whatever, your hero has won. Because no matter what the villain can do, he cannot break your hero’s spirit.
So I can forgive Ms. Collins for killing several of my favorite characters—even Prim, though that felt enough like the betrayal of the story. I can forgive her for estranging Katniss from her mother and best friend. I even think Katniss ended up with the right guy.
But I can’t forgive Ms. Collins for one thing. When the surviving tributes voted on whether or not to hold one last Hunger Games to punish the innocent children of the guilty Capitol officials, Katniss said Yes. For Primrose.
In that moment, Katniss died.
At her lowest point, she made the wrong decision—something I can’t blame her for in the least, but something that makes Katniss’s battle for innocence and goodness and decency all for nothing. The rebels may have defeated the Capitol, but Katniss, the person we were really rooting for, lost. Not just people she cared about, but her very self. The villains succeeded. They destroyed her.
We’re left feeling betrayed—and worse: hopeless.
As I drafted this post, I stopped to wonder why Lord of the Rings didn’t devastate me like Hunger Games did. After all, we fight through three books just to see Frodo decide to keep the ring at the end. But then I realized: Frodo isn’t Katniss. Frodo is hijacked Peeta. Samwise is Katniss. It was his friendship that carried us through the story, not Frodo’s strength. So when Frodo broke, we were sad. But Sam was still true, so there was victory. Imagine if instead, Frodo had destroyed the ring, but Sam had turned on him at the last moment. Not even the victory over Sauron would have redeemed that wrong.
So when you have brought your hero to his knees and he is about to make his choice, stop and think. What is this story’s Samwise? What promise do you need to keep to your readers?
And Ms. Collins, if by some slim chance you are reading this, I beg you: get them to change just one word in the Mockingjay screenplay.
Let Katniss say No. For Primrose.