You should probably know that Stephen King is a blurb-er for the series. When The Hunger Games was released, he provided a dust jacket blurb: "...a violent, jarring, speed-rap of a novel..." Violent is a gross understatement. The creativity exhibited in the methods by which children are killed is breathtaking. The suspense is like nothing I've read since the school shooter sequence in Empire Falls. The second in the trilogy took a step back and threatened to make the series a standard "hero starts revolution/things get better" series. My trepidation going into Mockingjay was that Suzanne Collins, the author, would succumb to the temptation to write a YA (young adult) novel that followed the typical YA trajectory: hero/heroine, conflict, self-awareness, overcoming, conflict, peaceful/cheery resolution.
***Spoiler Alert*** This is not your typical YA fiction. Collins goes for the throat, killing off major characters, not in Harry Potter fashion, but really killing off major characters, because, well, violence is stupid and destructive, and occasionally (frequently) the undeserving die, and in doing so, she occasionally manages to preach a bit much. However, the bleak, unflinching look at violence and revolution is refreshing. Americans are addicted to the "myth of redemptive violence," and many an author has fed the blood lust for stories about young people who took upon themselves the grammar of violence and the ethos of revolutionary, always with redemptive results. Kill enough motherfuckers, and the world is a better place, it seems.
This was Clint Eastwood's entire corpus in the 1960s and 1970s. Sergio Leone, who directed his spaghetti western films, defined the "cowboy indulges redemptive violence" theme, seemingly with zero irony. Fast-forward to the early and mid-70s, and Eastwood is doing Dirty Harry, High Plains Drifter, and one of the greatest Westerns of all time, The Outlaw Josey Wales. The trend of "kill enough motherfuckers" continues 'til the mid-80s when Eastwood makes Heartbreak Ridge, a film about a soldier who reads women's magazines so as to understand women. After that, there is a period of cynicism, wherein Eastwood looks unflinchingly at the demons cops carry with them, including S&M and bondage, until we get to the Rubicon of his career in 1992 with Unforgiven.
The film is the beginning of a series of films that includes Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and Gran Torino, in which Eastwood attempts to repudiate his entire earlier corpus. The later films are an unequivocal rejection of the myth of redemptive violence, culminating in the messianic imagery of Gran Torino in which he takes the violence upon himself to purge the innocent of suffering and injustice.
Collins takes the same tack in the final book in The Hunger Games trilogy. Everything in me wanted things to turn out all right, but that is not how violence works. Once the ball is in motion, the consequences are unpredictable. There is no sense in pretending the just are spared suffering in the context of revolution. Collins, fulfilling my most unimaginable hope, has Katniss, the heroine, kill off the one person I thought should be killed off, because I, like Katniss, distrust people who desire authority. It's brilliant, beautiful, bleak, and wholly (holy) unexpected. Being honest to her theme, Collins is courageous enough not to allow the death of the one I loathe to be redemptive. Katniss is not purged of demons. She lives with the consequences of her violence and the violence against her loved ones every day. She settles for a life that is as good as it can be, given the circumstances. At no point does Collins allow us to believe revolutionaries are less prone to the lust for power than their adversaries. At no point does she allow us to believe that violence solves things. At no point does she allow us to believe we would not make selfish, destructive decisions given the right (wrong) set of circumstances. She is bold and unflinching, and it does not go down well.
It is painful to read, bleak like Cormac McCarthy, but it is honest, because where McCarthy and Eastwood are two sides of the coin of despair/hope, Collins is realistically cynical. Eastwood imagines a man who will die for "the other;" although, even in the Bible, that man is a god. McCarthy imagines a world dominated by Nietzschean supermen, but he is foolish enough not to follow the possible consequences through to their horrific possible conclusions. Collins is courageous enough to imagine a world where the supermen are evil douchebags who victimize children for the sake of a Machiavellian ethos, and where the messiahs are narcissists who save people for the sake of converting them to a cause that fulfills the narcissist's agenda. In true Coen-esque form, "the dude" gets fucked over and over. And when he tries to be good, he gets fucked again, because life is suffering and there is no noble path to overcome it. Live with it. Do the best you can. Cherish the love you have. Kill if you have to, knowing it will work sadness and despair in you. Good, honest lessons. This book is for kids? I can think of two dozen adults who need to read it.