(This is part of a series of “book reports” I’m doing – recording my thoughts on the books I’m reading as part of a general desire to read more. This will typically be talking about what I liked or didn’t and why I did or didn’t, generally related to thoughts on story-telling. It won’t be a discussion of deeper themes and meanings. Comments are always open to tell me your take. Click here to see all the books I’ve talked about.)
My word count talking about Catching Fire (the second book of the Hunger Games trilogy) is mercifully going to be much smaller than my review of the Hunger Games itself, but the very synopsis of Catching Fire will spoil things from the first book so if you’re trying to keep yourself pure, check out this YouTube video of Rooster Police. If you’d like, you can go back and read My thoughts on The Hunger Games.
The Breakdown: Catching Fire sees Katniss dealing with her feelings for the two men in her life and her growing hatred of the Capitol whose popular support among its colony/slave states is at an all time low (thanks, unbeknownst to her, to Katniss). Along with earning the ire of Panem’s president, Katniss then finds herself put into the Hunger Games arena a second time with a cadre of other past victors for the Quarter Quell (75th anniversary).
In short, I’m still liking but not loving the series. And from here on in, there’s bound to be spoilers for Catching Fire.
What I do love is the overall story arc. The political intrigue with the backdrop of revolt and conspiracy. Love that. I also really loved the Quarter Quell arena and seeing those games play out. The nature of the arena as a force of conflict that wasn’t random but had to be figured out in order to survive was win. It reminded me of the movie Cube, and how I should write something like it.
What I was less invested in or plain bothered by were some of the same things as The Hunger Games itself.
Find The Moments
First, to a lesser extent, a lack of overall strategy. This feeling is caused by and ties in to what I’ll talk about next, but even just on the surface of it, it might have been nice to have seen more solidarity among the Tribute/Victors. All of them hate the capitol, all of their districts are on the verge of revolt, they’re being put back into the games as (at least in some measure) friends. It wouldn’t have been too far a stretch for them to have made a stand by which they chose not to fight and instead forced the capitol to use the arena against them (which it was already going to). The solidarity may not have lasted as egos and personalities collide but if the group could have stood strong in those first moments instead of embracing “the blood bath” – what a strong moment that could have been. Of course, that would have required the story focus be taken away from Katniss and shared around, which can’t happen because The Hunger Games very completely is Katniss’ story.
Which is where my real annoyance with at least the first two books lies.
Why Isn’t She Driving?
In short, Katniss is hardly ever more than an observer to things going on around her. Three types of things happen in Catching Fire (and The Hunger Games).
- Things happen to Katniss and she reacts. (i.e., her sacrifice for Prim, her protecting Gale, her shooting an arrow at the Game keepers)
- Things happen around Katniss, through no action of her own. (i.e., Cinna’s designing her dresses,
- Katniss takes a proactive role to affect her story and her life.
Number 1 happens a lot, almost always to Katniss’ benefit. Number 2 happens almost all the time. Number 3 barely ever happens. Katniss literally does almost nothing to affect what is supposed to be the story about her. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a hero take action to move the story forward?
Through 90% of the story, Katniss is completely clueless about everything. While I saw almost every beat of the story coming chapters in advance, Katniss doesn’t figure anything out until the last minute. Occasionally her reactions and suspicions make barely any sense.
And here’s the thing. Katniss’ fate to bumble through her own life was sealed when Suzanne Collins created such a strict point of view using first-person present narrative. By requirement, since we literally live in Katniss’ mind, us readers have to know everything she knows and thinks – therefore Katniss can’t think or know anything we the readers aren’t supposed to know before we’re supposed to know.
Since authors build dramatic tension by only revealing limited information about plans and things, would it have been as much fun if we knew the plan for the Quarter Quell all along was to escape the arena? (well maybe it could have, actually) But to keep that a surprise from us, Collins had to make it a surprise to Katniss. So we spend all of Catching Fire watching Katniss be suspicious of everybody and everything and be completely self-centered – because Collins has to almost deliberately keep Katniss –the figurehead for revolution mind you, and easily the willing to be part of it- out of the loop so that she can keep the audience out of the loop.
And what was the best way to keep Katniss out of the loop – that made sense in the story – by making Katniss petulant, moody, and annoying, so that nobody wanted to include her.
What did you think about Catching Fire? How about that arena? Join the discussion in the comments below.
If you’d like, go back and read My Thoughts on The Hunger Games, or read up on My Thoughts on Mockingjay, or read a few thoughts that didn’t make it into those posts.