Book Title: Mockingjay
Author: Suzanne Collins
Style: Chapter Book
Target Audience: Young Adult
Genres: Fiction, Dystopian
Page Count: 390
Format: Trade Paperback (library copy)
Reading time: 4 hours
Date Finished: 1/10/17
My impressions: I’m on the fence about Mockingjay. On the one hand, I thought it was a decent conclusion to the Hunger Games trilogy, resolving a lot of things in surprising ways and introducing some really great ideas that took the series into some really dark places. On the other hand, if this were a standalone novel, I doubt it would have garnered much attention, because it’s kind of a mess; it lacks the tight, focused plotting of the first book and the measured expansion of the second book. It feels very much like Suzanne Collins wrote in a lot of ideas she was toying with and didn’t have time to revise the book, resulting in a much looser narrative that isn’t entirely satisfying at the end.
My chief complaint is that the great characters are largely wasted; the first half of the book is too focused on sitting around and waiting for things to happen, and the second half moves into extended action sequences where the characters just fall out of the narrative whenever it’s convenient. The first book had tremendous characters, and even those who only showed up in a few scenes made a memorable impact. The second book introduced a strong set of victors from past Hunger Games as well as , and while they weren’t as well-developed, they were still interesting and memorable. In Mockingjay, the most memorable new character is President Coin from District 13, but she’s also barely in the story, and only really there to serve as a quasi-antagonist to Katniss (as well as a plot device towards the end).
My other complaint is that so much of the story feels like it’s introducing elements to shock and horrify, but they’re never really resolved. On the surface, I really liked the dark details introduced because they made this novel feel less like a YA title and more mature in scope and meaning. But whereas the shocking and horrific elements of the first two books had purposes because they were presented in the context of the Games or the disparities between the Districts and the Capitol, the elements here feel like ideas that Collins wanted to be present in the story, but hadn’t fully worked in. For example, early on, there’s a revelation that the handsome tribute Finnick was essentially made into a male escort under President Snow’s regime, and he used that status to gather secrets on those all over the Capitol, including an important secret about President Snow’s proclivity for poison. This detail helps to explain an important character trait about Snow, but it’s ultimately unimportant, because it doesn’t change anything. Katniss starts referring to him as a poisoner after that, but we already didn’t like or trust Snow; we already assume that when he gives gifts, they’re a dangerous puzzle to solve and not a mere gesture of goodwill. So the detail doesn’t move the story along, nor does it inform the scant interactions between the two characters. There are numerous points like that which could have advanced the story more capably, but which ultimately feel anticlimactic, including a harrowing scene towards the end where a shocking massacre occurs, but where the characters’ pain is not felt because the story suddenly moves into its twist ending.
Were there things that I liked? Absolutely. I feel like the skeleton of a great story was present and that many of the details Collins introduced were excellent. Setting the story in District 13, setting up Katniss as a pawn rather than a player, using the revolution as an analogue for another Hunger Games and having Peeta finally see through Katniss were all great ideas. I loved the moral choice where Gale and Katniss argue about committing genocide in District 2, and I loved many of the smaller details about the toll of war and revolution that were clearly intended to keep the reader from romanticizing the “good guys” and losing their sympathy for Katniss. I just felt the story didn’t execute those elements as well as it could have.
Sometimes, it’s a good exercise for me to rewrite a story I found lacking and to look for my own interpretation of how events could have gone down. Here’s a broad outline of what I feel would have been a more effective Mockingjay.
Please be warned, this rewrite may spoil some elements of the novel.
SEAN’S IMAGINARY REWRITE OF MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins:
ACT 1: District 13
Katniss and Gale are in District 8, shooting propo footage for District 13. Katniss is wearing her Mockingjay costume. Gale is Katinss’s bodyguard, and she brings the reader quickly up to speed on what’s been going on (much the same as it is in the book). Katniss is struggling because she can’t handle the fake lines Plutarch has insisted on. The District 13 people keep coaching her on the radio, but Haymitch is getting agitated. He gets on a private channel and tells her to be herself. She doesn’t know how to do that, and is frustrated. But suddenly, an attack breaks out, and Gale (at the urging of District 13) tries to pull her out of the from the firefight as hovercars swoop in. Katniss fruitlessly tries to take them down with her explosive-tipped arrows and Gale tells her they move too quickly to shoot down that way. The two are forced to take cover, and they see Peacekeepers storming the area. Their only way out is through stealth, but Katniss has an idea and uses her arrows to create a distraction. She sneaks Gale and the camera crew through the square while the Peacekeepers are occupied, but they discover (to their horror) that the citizens are being beaten and killed as they’re blamed for the disturbance. Gale reminds her that her actions carry weight now; it’s not about her own survival, but everyone’s. They escape and she’s haunted by the sights of the massacre, and gives a fiery, impassioned speech which the cameras record.
Back at District 13, Katniss finds herself in conflict with President Coin, who demands to know why she can’t follow orders. Plutarch and Haymitch defend Katniss, showing off the incredible footage the camera crew got of the massacre and Katniss and Gale behaving bravely. They say it can be reformatted into an appropriate propo, editing out all of the negative content and reframing Katniss as a hero who fought the Peacekeepers after the massacre started. Coin glowers, but is happy with the finished product, which reframes Katniss’s speech to make it sound like she was the hero, not the cause of the massacre. Katniss is horrified, but it’s explained to her that this is the role she agreed to play as the Mockingjay – to be a symbol of hope. This isn’t about fighting the Capitol with truth; it’s about inspiring the Districts to revolt. Katniss sulks, and goes out to hunt – a special privilege she’s been given. Gale goes with her and tries to convince her she did the right thing, but she insists on silence.
When Katniss returns, she’s surprised to find that everyone’s walking on eggshells. She finds out President Snow has issued a broadcast with Peeta where he is telling the Capitol that the Mockingjay clearly caused the massacre and that she is a liar. Peeta is very sympathetic as he offers the insight that Katniss was captured during the Quell games and has been brainwashed. He implores her to stop, to urge her captors to honor the cease-fire and wishes for her safe return to him. Snow assures him on camera that the Capitol is doing everything it can to rescue her so that they can finally be married. He announces a wedding gift to them both – that they will be able to move to the Capitol and live in luxury as a result of twice being victors in the Hunger Games. Katniss is furious, interpreting the whole thing as a trap. She vows to retrieve Peeta, and begins preparing to infiltrate the Capitol and rescue him.
Gale explains to her that this isn’t possible; he shows her a map of the Capitol and explains that the rebels can’t get to it without crossing through several districts still under Capitol control. He tells her the plan has been to first flip the districts and then storm the Capitol through multiple approaches to increase the chances of success. He also reminds her that she can’t just walk into the place on her own; she’s the most famous face in all of Panem. Haymitch interrupts and tells them that there is an opportunity; Plutarch still has many spies on the inside, and might be able to arrange for Peeta’s escape, and Gale and Katniss could be hidden out at the edges of District 2 (which is closest to the Capitol) to smuggle him out once the spies got him through the service tunnels used by the Avoxes. The danger would be that the grounds around the Capitol are protected by muttations trained to turn on anyone from the Districts. Gale and Katniss would have to move carefully and work hard to survive, and they would have to use their forestry skills to avoid detection.
Katniss agrees to this; to her, it’s just like the Hunger Games. Once again, she’s trying to save Peeta’s life.
ACT 2: Peeta’s Rescue
Katniss and Gale sneak through District 2, very nearly getting caught by Peacekeepers before they venture into the protective woods. At first, the place seems calm and serene, but it quickly becomes a hellish nightmare at night as the most vile muttations stalk them. They survive for several days, but eventually, find themselves trapped and unable to kill enough to stave off certain death. Fortunately, they’re rescued by Finnick and a team made up of others from District 13, sent in to provide them with support and keep the Mockingjay alive. Their numbers are enough now that the muttations aren’t such a threat, and the new group is well-supplied. The team progresses to the outskirts of the Capitol, where they find and manage to rescue Peeta, but a firefight with the Peacekeepers breaks out, and they very narrowly escape as a stealthy experimental hovercar Plutarch has sent in manages to overwhelm the Peacekeepers and allow for their quick escape into the night.
Peeta is half-dead and nearly incoherent. As Katniss tries to examine him for first aid, he reaches up and strangles her, and the look she sees in his eyes reminds her of the Games. She is so surprised she doesn’t do anything, and Gale and the others separate them. Peeta is restrained, but spits out some hateful words towards her about allowing herself to be used as the Mockingjay to bring all this destruction. He is aware of the death of his family in District 12 and blames the rebels for the action. Katniss is horrified and assumes he’s been corrupted by President Snow to believe lies. He’s clearly been drugged and they can only presume he’s been brainwashed.
Back at District 13, the medical team determines Peeta’s been injected with tracker jacker venom to distort his memories. He becomes very agitated and resists sedatives, and suddenly begins shouting that District 13 is going to be destroyed tonight in a sneak attack. He doesn’t seem to be threatening; he seems to be warning them. The sedatives take effect and he collapses. The District 13 people seem unconvinced, but Katniss believes Peeta and urges them to get people below ground. President Coin reluctantly orders a Level-5 drill, and it winds up saving lives; just moments later, bunker bombs are dropped on District 13. Once the dust has settled, a parachute is seen gliding down with a bundle of roses. Only Katniss understands the meaning – that Snow is toying with them. She saw a similar bundle in District 12 when she examined the ruins of her village, telling her for certain that Snow was responsible for the destruction.
ACT 3: The Escape
The post-bombing settles into a long conflict. Snow seems to know a lot more about how the rebels operate, and while he can’t defeat them, he can certainly keep them at bay. Katniss settles back into her role as the Mockingjay as Peeta recovers. She’s constantly being sent out to the districts to film propos, Gale at her side. Peeta alternates between being friendly and hateful. They construct a plan to have his childhood friend Delly spend time with him. She helps him work through his confusion, but he cannot get over his hatred of Katniss… or of Gale, whom he hates because he appears to be Katniss’s romantic interest now. (In truth, while Gale would welcome that, Katniss has no time for it. She’s told him, “after this is all over, then we’ll see.”)
Still, Katniss is drawn to Peeta, and they have many tense conversations. He insists to her that she is on the wrong side, that she has been pushed into another Hunger Games without realizing it, that she’s part of a Career team that’s murdering innocent, helpless people to weaken Snow. She points out that she’s personally seen the devastation of the Peacekeepers and what Snow has done. She tells Peeta about the flowers she found in District 12 and the massacre she witnessed in District 8. He tells her she’s being used, and that she should be more careful about whom she trusts and whom she believes. He points out that flowers can be used to mourn as well, and perhaps she misunderstood Snow’s message – that he might have been telling her that he was sorry for her losses. She is confused, having trouble reconciling this double-meaning.
She’s also getting tired of playing Mockingjay. When she’s out in the districts filming propos, people rush to her and treat her like a hero, but she’s doing nothing for them. She’s kept away from the places where she feels needed and isn’t able to participate in the fighting because she’s not trained. She’s told she can’t be a Soldier because she won’t follow orders. When she tries to break away like she did in District 8, she’s protected more carefully. Any opportunity to be filmed fighting is fake; any interactions she has on camera seem scripted. She feels used, and longs to escape.
Gale tells her that he, too, has reservations; things have reached a stalemate, and the Capitol is holding on to some of its control despite losing many Districts. He feels like their smartest move would be to infiltrate the Capitol and assassinate Snow. They know the way in now, and he’s confident they can use the Avox tunnels to get access to Snow’s mansion. He asks Katniss to see what Peeta knows about the tunnels. Peeta is now living in his own unit, no longer under high supervision. Under some subterfuge, Peeta is able to be coaxed to give some details, and it’s clear he’s reliving some of the escape as he relays it. Gale feels like if Peeta were taken back to the place, he’d be able to guide them. They take advantage of a planned drill to escape, and the three of them make their way to District 2. Haymitch catches them, but lets them go; Katniss takes the opportunity to resign as the Mockingjay.
During their travels, they see new propos being played that use old footage of Katniss (as if she’s still active as the Mockingjay) as well as new footage from Finnick, who’s clearly being groomed to take her place. Finnick’s much better on camera and warns he’s in possession of secrets and he’ll be releasing them regularly if Snow does not agree to withdraw from conflicts. Finnick begins releasing devastating secrets about those in the Capitol, finally explaining how he came to get them and then releasing the secret that Snow is a poisoner who carries flowers to cover up the scent of his own bleeding lips, wracked from too much self-ingested poison. Katniss looks over at Peeta and thinks about the poison pill every District 13 Soldier is equipped with, and the insight strikes her – perhaps Peeta was a poison pill as well, intended to poison and manipulate her.
They reach District 2 and find that the loyalists have holed up inside the old mountain mines, where they’re well-fortified and able to stave off the rebels. They soon find their way in to the Capitol has been cut off by a large force of Peackeepers. They clamber up into the mountains and discover a pass where they can cut off all traffic going in or out of District 2 to the Capitol by causing an avalanche. Unfortunately, it will result in the genocide of the loyalists in the mountains. Gale wants to do it, and Katniss passionately argues against him, saying it’s not what they’re here for. Gale argues they’ll save lives in the long run; Katniss argues it’s genocide. At this point, they realize Peeta has vanished, and Gale fears he’s gone off to warn District 2 and betray them both. Katniss pursues them both and narrowly rescues Peeta from Gale’s wrath. She and Peeta escape on to a train bound into the Capitol, leaving Gale behind. Peeta explains his action was the only way – that Gale would have convinced her to do it otherwise. He knew she would try to save him. But he questions – did she save him because she cares about him, or because he’s a more useful tool than Gale? Suddenly, it’s laid bare that he understands how Katniss has been using and playing him, and the scales have fallen from his eyes. Katniss is surprised, and the two ride in silence into the Capitol.
ACT 4: The Assassination
Katniss and Peeta sneak through the Capitol, and are surprised what they see. Everywhere, it’s supposed to be “business as usual,” but people are cloistered in their homes, scared, quietly starving. Where the Districts have had people angrily marching in the streets and fighting, here, everyone lives in constant fear of their neighbors. It isn’t hard to sneak through the ghostly streets; people won’t even look them in the eyes. Peacekeepers are on patrol, but they are looking for armed rebels, and Katniss and Peeta quickly learn to blend in by procuring some Capitol clothing they liberate from an abandoned home.
They make their way towards Snow’s mansion, looking for a way in. Snow has very cleverly offered to host school and clinics for the Capitol’s children in his mansion, ensuring a constant stream of innocent civilians who can be used to shield him from bombings or attacks. Katniss and Peeta quickly realize there’s no way in that will allow them to get close to Snow without having people everywhere, and they can see he’s well-insulated from attack. They discuss a plan to draw him out, and Peeta tells Katniss that Snow often sits in his office, monitoring the TV and radio communications going on. She finds a way to patch in to his radio through her headpiece and uses it to threaten Snow, trying to instill some fear into him.
She’s surprised when he hijacks her headpiece and begins talking to her directly. He reminds her that they’ve promised to be truthful with each other, and asks the same of her, indicating that he has no intention of trying to get her to reveal her position. He explains that he’s captured all sorts of rebel communication equipment and has been listening in through a tool he calls the “jabberjay.” He tells her the name came to him when a flock of jabberjays from the woods first informed him about their presence in the woods during the rescue meeting for Peeta, whom he had prepped and released for her to find. He felt it was a perfect, poetic way to take down the Mockingjay, and he was right – Finnick’s secrets haven’t ruined Snow’s hold, and it’s becoming clear that the Mockingjay isn’t operating anymore in the field. People are beginning to believe she was killed, a rumor Snow has planted and has been slowly building upon.
The two can talk, but he can’t find her through the jabberjay; all he can do is assure her that sooner or later, their cat and mouse game will end and his forces will track her down, because she’s running out of places to hide and will soon give herself away. Snow explains his perspective to her during this time, explaining his twisted values and ideals. Katniss accuses him of using children to protect himself, and he says quite flatly that this was the smartest possible move, but that they are in no danger; much like District 13, he understands that without children, there is no future, and his values lead him to protect them. There is no place safer in the Capitol than his mansion, and keeping them together will ensure the fewest possible casualties.
Snow has some idea of where she is, but doesn’t know exactly, and he tells her he finds these sorts of stalemates tedious and wants to move things closer to an endgame; he thinks he can persuade her to his side if she’ll meet with him. If she’s not persuaded, he’ll surrender. She’s wary of a trap, and refuses; he sighs and asks her what would next happen in the Hunger Games. She tells him they would draw everyone together with a trap; he laughs and comments she’s exactly right. She hears a whisper in the distance of something saying “Katnissss,” and looks out into the street. It’s now being patrolled by Peacekeepers holding leashes of lizardlike muttations that have a vaguely human appearance. One looks straight in her direction, and she gets chills; she and Peeta determine it’s time to leave as they hear a knocking at the door and see another Peacekeeper outside. They’re clearly going door to door, searching.
The two run through the streets of the Capitol, now being pursued by the fast lizard mutts. There are far too many to fight; they have to find a way to escape. They flee to the woods, out of the city, and destroy a bridge to hinder the creatures’ pursuit. But now they’re unable to go after Snow; they’re stuck in the dangerous wilderness, left to survive.
Months later, Katniss and Peeta are still there, surviving, but just barely. Winter is in full force, and it’s harder to hunt and stay warm. They’ve learned to raid the ruins of District 2 for food and gear, to camp out in caves and stay away from mutts and patrols. They’re surviving, but only just. They rarely speak. They hear rumors that Snow has broadcast that they were killed escaping the Capitol.
One day, they’re awakened by the sounds of war, and are startled to see the Capitol on fire. Over the next few days, they see the rebels transporting prisoners out of town and realize the battle is over. They back into the Capitol and discovered it has fallen. Snow has been captured and is being taken to District 13 for a tribunal. The cost of capturing him was high, however, and he shielded himself with children to prevent capture, ultimately unleashing a bomb in the room where they were situated while rescuers poured in and he tried to make a feeble escape. It is the final indictment, it seems, on Snow. Katniss and Peeta are captured, and because they are so well known and seen by so many, their presence becomes a beacon of hope. President Coin reluctantly invites them to the tribunal and execution of Snow along with the other tributes, and she proposes a plan: the surviving children of the Capitol will be reaped and forced to play in a new Hunger Games to make them understand the pain they’ve inflicted elsewhere. She gives the tributes a symbolic vote. They all vote for it, save Katniss and Peeta.
Katniss hears Snow snort, and he commands her attention for a moment. She whispers to him that he shouldn’t care, given that he murdered children to cover his own escape. He whispers back that he had already surrendered and the children were murdered anyway, with the incident recut to fill the propo reel and make him look guilty. They were promised food and aid, and given explosives instead. Katniss doesn’t believe him, but he comments that Coin played the game expertly, and he lost. Katniss should know, he says, what it’s like to be the victor at the expense of others; she’s the same as them.
Katniss puts two and two together and realizes Coin is just another Snow. Coin surprises her by giving her, as the resurrected Mockingjay, the chance to murder Snow, and Katniss realizes that Coin is the sort who never bloodies her own hands, but who instead uses others to commit her atrocities. She shoots Coin instead. As she turns towards a shocked crowd, Snow laughs, thinking he has somehow won. He is killed by Gale, who is in the crowd. Gale trains his bow on Katniss, declaring her a traitor. Peeta defuses the situation with his words, smartly backing up Katniss’s actions and explaining their mutual realization that Coin was no different. He and Katniss voluntarily exile themselves to the ruins of District 12, and a handful of people eventually follow, living in the hollow victor’s village with them, cut off from the new Panem that will form. Katniss gradually realizes her love for Peeta, and their relationship finally blossoms.
The Epilogue is much the same, but there is an additional scene. Gale comes back to visit, wearing the clothing of District 2, where he now is an overseer. We learn that things have not changed so much; the residents of the Capitol were best-suited to government and management jobs, and have filled them. The residents of the districts were best-suited to their trades, and have fallen back into them. There are no more Hunger Games, and the president has been replaced by an elected council to form a true Republic. But people fall back into their old ways, and the toll of all of this means that the society has huge holes within it, and far less trust. Gale longs for the times where he could hunt, and is envious of Katniss that she can do so in her exile.
Katniss shares the insight that Gale follows the path of her father (the dutiful miner who dreams of being a revolutionary), and that her sister followed the path of her mother. But Katniss doesn’t follow either path; she’s a destroyer who survives by taking lives to save them, but Peeta is a creator, a builder, an artist who makes the world better by preserving and enhancing them. And this is the spirit she wants her own children to have, the two who will grow up without the shadow of a Hunger Games on their shoulders. She has to accept that her way only leads to more destruction. Gale doesn’t claim to understand; he still savors the hunt, the feeling of power, and he departs to resume his life in the new Panem.
Though that was cathartic, it was also a good exercise for helping me make better sense of the characters and to put a stronger finger on why I felt the novel itself didn’t work so well. There just wasn’t a solid theme that I could identify with; the characters felt like finger puppets serving a scattershot plot compared to their more three-dimensional portrayals in other books, and the action (which included some rather strange stuff, like the pods scattered around the Capitol) felt like it was often included to appease an audience (or an eventual producer), not to develop the story.
My revision at least helps Katniss to have more insight about who she is and what she’s trying to accomplish. It builds Snow and Coin into stronger villains, and it continues to treat Gale as a surrogate for her father and a relationship with him as a path she turns away from.
I’m not sure I’d every read the printed edition of Mockingjay again. But I’d at least be thoughtful about the version I plotted.