Friends, readers, countrymen, I’ve got a pressing question: what do you make of Katniss Everdeen? I’m halfway through Catching Fire, the second book in the Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular Hunger Games trilogy, and I’m finding myself perplexed.
Collins is a fairly pedestrian prose stylist (she really needs to find a way to tell more than she shows, particularly when it comes to political awareness and emotions), but she’s set up some interesting constructions. Katniss, who comes from an astonishingly poor region in a post-apocalyptic America, has her first experience of female grooming and dress when she’s picked to fight to the death in the annual reality show spectacle, the Hunger Games. She bonds with her style team in a way that’s particularly female, but in a reversal of class differences, looks down on them in a fairly abrasive way as self-absorbed and substanceless. I can see why she’s bothered by them—disdaining modern-day vomitoriums makes sense, particularly for someone who grew up in a state of extreme hunger and scarcity. But at the same time, Katniss’s style team is part of her protective crew, the people who made and kept her an icon before she even knew she had that potential.
Similarly, I think there’s a problem in the way Collins has Katniss approach romance. First off, she doth protest far too much that she’ll never get married, which is understandable if you don’t want to send your children off to slaughter. Second, I sense some Bella Swan-like Mary Sueing amidst all the protestation that Katniss doesn’t know that she’s really pretty, and it’s so weird to her that both of these guys should be so interested in her. There is something admirable about Katniss using her sexuality and the public interest in her relationship with Peeta, a boy from her region who is sent to the Hunger Games with her, to stay alive, but she’s strangely distanced from her own desire. Collins always stops short of Katniss actually feeling anything sexual for either of the boys in her life—all of their kisses are heightened by political feeling, or the need for survival, but Collins leaves Katniss empowered to manipulate people’s emotions but not to know what she wants either emotionally or sexually. I’m not sure that’s such a fab message for teenage girls.
Then, there’s the question of Katniss as political symbol. She actually reminds me of Dany in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice books, someone who vacillates back and forth between being an active presence in her own story and someone who is a reactive symbol. Katniss seems slower to me than perhaps she ought to be to put together the pieces of what’s happening around her. I understand there’s a fine balances to be struck—making her omniscient would be another kind of Mary Sueism, and a potentially narratively destructive one. But if you look at someone like Jonas in The Giver, who is 12 when he starts learning the actual shape of his community, Katniss seems somewhat naive. Jonas is given more information than Katniss is, I guess, but he also puts together the implications of things more quickly.
Maybe I should refrain from speculation until I’ve finished the books, and tell me if that’s the case. But Katniss feels a bit muddy to me. The Hunger Games themselves are a great invention. But I’m not sure if the books themselves are worth the hype.