Pretty much everybody loves The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins' masterful dystopian novel. But the two novels that follow are divisive: Some people love Catching Fire, others love Mockingjay. Very few people seem to love both. And for me, personally, Mockingjay is the superior novel. Here's why.
Top image: Seia5018/Deviant Art
Spoilers for both books below...
So for people who've read neither book — in which case, stop reading this and go read them now — here's roughly what they're about.
In Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta adjust to being the victors of the Hunger Games, but they've become a symbol of rebellion and are thus forced to take part in a second Hunger Games against all the previous victors.
In Mockingjay, Katniss becomes the figurehead of an actual rebellion against the Capitol, but Peeta's not quite himself, and she starts to suspect that the rebels aren't entirely nice people.
And for some reason, the second and third books of the trilogy seem to appeal to very different audiences.
Catching Fire people vs. Mockingjay People
There really are two types of people: Catching Fire people, and Mockingjay people. It's like cats versus dogs, or pie versus cake.
I think to some extent which sequel you prefer depends on what you want from sequels, and from stories generally. Do you prefer a sequel that raises the stakes (and increases the scope) of the original story? Or do you want a totally different story that flies off in crazy new directions?
Catching Fire gives you a marvelous sense of opening outwards from the small, enclosed world we saw in Hunger Games. We become aware of a larger political context that people are putting onto Katniss' choice at the end of the first book, when she almost ate poison berries to save Peeta's life. And by the end of the book, a rebellion is in full tilt and the dystopian land of Panem is in chaos.
Meanwhile, Mockingjay feels less like a companion piece to the original book, and more like a war epic. We see the revolution unfold, and we see the cost of being involved with violence and political uprising. It's the most brutal and bloody of the three books, and also the one that treats some of the supporting characters the worst. Mockingjay provides little comfort to people who've grown to love these characters.
So here are some reasons why, for my money, Mockingjay is the stronger book:
Sequel-itis is a major ailment in the entertainment industry generally. It's not just a question of cranking out endless sequels to things that were successful, but rather of giving people "more of the same, only bigger." You see this in movies all the time, where the second or third movie is basically a copy of the first, only with more villains or bigger explosions. But you see it in books and other media, too.
And Catching Fire has a major case of sequel-itis. Did you like Katniss' dress in the first book? Her dress in the second book is even cooler! Were you excited by the love triangle in the first book? It's even more angular and pointy this time around. And most of all, the overall arc of Catching Fire is basically a repeat of the first book, with Katniss once again going to an arena to fight a bunch of psycho killers — except with a twist ending.
Catching Fire feels too much like a do-over of Hunger Games, while Mockingjay is something weird and fresh.
Katniss in the driver seat
Another problem with Catching Fire is that Katniss is a pawn — she even comments on this fact a few times, and the book ends with Haymitch telling her that nobody will ever let her make the plans. The twist ending of Catching Fire depends on Katniss being manipulated by Haymitch and others, and basically just being a cog in their machine.
In fact, a lot of the crucial events of Catching Fire take place outside of Katniss' first-person narration, so we only hear about them third-hand. That's not just Haymitch's scheme, but also the beginnings of the rebellion itself — Katniss doesn't get to witness any of the things that really matter in that book.
In Mockingjay, meanwhile, Katniss starts out as a pawn but slowly learns how to use her power as an important figurehead for the rebellion. She starts figuring out how to play politics with Coin, the leader of the uprising, and also goes from being a fake-fighter to becoming a real leader of the attack on the Capitol. Her arc in Mockingjay puts her back at the center of the story, after being marginalized in Catching Fire.
And vitally, the resolution to the story in Mockingjay depends on Katniss making a choice and deciding the future of everyone — fulfilling her role as the series' protagonist.
A series that gets murkier as it goes along
Is Catching Fire this series' Empire Strikes Back? Meaning: the middle chapter of a trilogy in which the hero's evolution goes to a dark place, and the hero endures some vital losses? Maybe.
Catching Fire is definitely the volume in which the series starts to get darker and more perverse — I just re-read the ending, and I'd forgotten how many gut-punches Katniss takes in the final few pages of the book. But that analogy would require Mockingjay to be the Return of the Jedi of the Hunger Games series, and nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, Catching Fire serves up lots of cuteness and lightness, with lovable new additions like Beetee and Mags. There's also the sexy, fascinating Finnick Odair. Meanwhile, Mockingjay picks up the baton, and just gets darker and darker. Katniss has to struggle with the losses she endures at the end of Catching Fire, but she also has a bunch of new loss to grapple with. And if Catching Fire sees her struggling with the weight of being a political symbol, then Mockingjay sees that burden get much heavier, even as Katniss' hands are coated with blood.
In Catching Fire, Katniss wonders if she saved Peeta for selfish or noble reasons — but in Mockingjay she has to wonder if she's part of mass slaughter in the service of a noble or venal cause. Everything gets murkier and darker, and more heartbreaking, in Mockingjay. There are no Ewoks here.
The theme of propaganda and fake emotions
Hunger Games is a fantastic book because it takes the tired themes of celebrity and "reality TV," and turns them into an exploration of how you can use fake emotions (like Katniss' pretend-love for Peeta) as a weapon. Katniss manipulates the people watching her on television, to get more supplies so she can survive in the arena.
Catching Fire takes Katniss' celebrity status, and converts it into political symbolism. In the second book, Suzanne Collins has to sell us on the notion that Katniss isn't just a reality TV star, she's suddenly a huge political figure who's a hero to millions just because she tried to eat some poison berries. It's a little hard to swallow (no pun intended), and learning that Katniss is now a symbol of resistance involves a lot of telling, rather than showing. It's never entirely satisfying, to hear this from random characters, and you just sort of have to buy into it.
Meanwhile, Mockingjay deals with Katniss being a political figurehead first-hand, and we already talked about how she takes a position of leadership and starts fighting for real.
And meanwhile, the theme of fake versus real emotions gets a brand new, heartbreaking spin, when Peeta has been "hijacked" — and he and Katniss have to play "Real or Not Real," a weird game where they sort through his memories to figure out which are true, and which are false. All of the themes in the series, about distinguishing between fake and real passion, and about seeing past propaganda to the truth, come to a head in the battle for Peeta's shattered psyche.
Peeta's brainwashing brings all of the first book's themes of social control, and mind control in general, full circle.
Catching Fire takes the theme of celebrity and political power to a higher level than the first book — in a way that feels slightly clunky — but Mockingjay successfully lifts it to a much more sophisticated, and intense, place.
Violence and loss
And finally, there's just the fact that Mockingjay is the most violent of the Hunger Games books, and the one which deals the most with the consequences and morality of violence. In the first two books, for the most part, Katniss is killing to survive and escape the arena — but in the third book, she's killing for the revolution, and taking part in mass slaughter.
There's one intense scene where she talks to Gale and Beetee about a new kind of trap they've developed — a bomb goes off and injures one of the enemy soldiers. And then, when other soldiers rush to their injured comrade, a bigger bomb goes off and kills all of them. When she asks about the morality of this, they say the Capitol took the gloves off first.
This book just gets darker and more twisted as it goes on, until the final assault on the Capitol has a horrifying death toll. Collins throws some of your favorite characters under the bus, which is one reason why people object to Mockingjay — but that's crucial to making this feel more like a war story.
And this book really does deal with the morality of war, wrapping in the notion that Katniss was always being used as a tool of murder by others. There's this great scene where an enemy soldier has his gun to Katniss' head, halfway through Mockingjay:
I'm nearing the young man, reaching down to help him, when he drags himself up to his knees and trains his gun on my head.
I instinctively back up a few steps, raise my bow over my head to show my intention was harmless. Now that he has both hands on his gun, I notice the ragged hole in his cheek where something—falling stone maybe—punctured the flesh. He smells of burning things, hair and meat and fuel. His eyes are crazed with pain and fear.
"Freeze," Haymitch's voice whispers in my ear. I follow his order, realizing that this is what all of District 2, all of Panem maybe, must be seeing at the moment. The Mockingjay at the mercy of a man with nothing to lose.
His garbled speech is barely comprehensible. "Give me one reason I shouldn't shoot you."
The rest of the world recedes. There's only me looking into the wretched eyes of the man from the Nut who asks for one reason. Surely I should be able to come up with thousands. But the words that make it to my lips are "I can't."
Logically, the next thing that should happen is the man pulling the trigger. But he's perplexed, trying to make sense of my words. I experience my own confusion as I realize what I've said is entirely true, and the noble impulse that carried me across the square is replaced by despair. "I can't. That's the problem, isn't it?" I lower my bow. "We blew up your mine. You burned my district to the ground. We've got every reason to kill each other. So do it. Make the Capitol happy. I'm done killing their slaves for them." I drop my bow on the ground and give it a nudge with my boot. It slides across the stone and comes to rest at his knees.
"I'm not their slave," the man mutters.
"I am," I say. "That's why I killed Cato…and he killed Thresh…and he killed Clove…and she tried to kill me. It just goes around and around, and who wins? Not us. Not the districts. Always the Capitol. But I'm tired of being a piece in their Games."
And that's really why I love Mockingjay, out of the two sequels. It's the one where Katniss really confronts the heart of darkness — and the one where she starts making choices and stops being a pawn.