WARNING: This post contains spoilers about The Hunger Games and the Star Wars trilogies.
I arrived a bit late to The Hunger Games party - I just finished the trilogy last night. I read the initial book, The Hunger Games, a few months ago prior to seeing the film. It was as good as all my Twitter buddies were saying it was, so I went ahead and ordered the final two books from the library. After a month or so of patiently waiting, the books fortuitously arrived together (let me tell you, THAT doesn't happen often!) and I buckled down and started reading.
In just the first few pages of Mockingjay, the final book in the series, I had a sudden realization. I was reading a take on the Star Wars story, which of course is itself a spin on the "hero overthrows a tyrant" story. However, there is a key twist: while Star Wars is an optimistic look at good versus evil, The Hunger Games is a far more complex, and ultimately cynical, assessment of society.
Although I don't necessarily agree with Mike Ryan's matching up of characters in Star Wars and The Hunger Games (although I do admit to a moment of glee when the rebel strategist in Mockingjay presents a 3D, holographic map of the Capitol), I do agree with this statement: "The Hunger Games doesn't have the wide-eyed optimism of Star Wars, that's for sure." This is exactly what I quickly realized Mockingjay, as Katniss finds herself immersed in a rebel world that is, in its own way, just as controlling as that of the Capitol.
At first it appears that the leaders of District 13 have taken such direct control of their citizens with good intention: they must ration food in order to keep everyone alive, no one is wanting for their basic needs and the society seems well ordered and effective. But as Katniss chafes against the constraint, the reader also gets an eerie sense that something isn't right. The torture and mistreatment of Katniss' styling team from the Games is our first confirmation that District 13 is in no way, shape or form a utopia. As the book continues, the evidence continues to pile up, culminating in the rebel leaders' decision to bomb innocent children as well as their own medics (killing Katniss' sister in the process) in order to secure President Snow and the Capitol and quickly end the war. The reader is almost not surprised when President Coin, the victorious rebel leader, suggests implementing a Hunger Games competition involving the children of the Capitol, as a way to appease the suffering of the rebel community. The cycle begins anew.
In the Star Wars films there is absolutely no question of the rebels' morality. They are fighting for good, they fight nobly and with honour, and their leaders, including Princess Leia, are trustworthy. The character who faces the most indecision about joining the rebel army is Han Solo. But his is a journey of self-discovery where he learns the value of personal sacrifice to a cause greater than yourself. It is a different thing entirely from not believing in the cause or disillusionment in the rebels themselves.
Another major difference between these two trilogies is in their endings. Star Wars gives us an incredibly hopeful, uplifting, and inspiring ending. The rebels have destroyed the Death Star, defeated the Emperor and redeemed Darth Vader. Return of the Jedi ends with a giant party and the reappearance of two of the films' most beloved characters: Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda. The fact that they return as spirit-like entities is evidence of hope even beyond death.
The ending of Mockingjay is something else entirely and almost feels unsatisfactory by comparison. There is no big party, no reunion of old friends, no true happily ever after. Even the resolution of the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale seems arbitrary and somewhat false. Yes, she moves away from Gale because she cannot reconcile the ethics of his actions, but at the same time, she and Peeta don't seem to fit quite right together either. They are both damaged goods, so to speak, and it is clear from the somber tone of the epilogue that, although they love each other, they are probably too damaged to truly embrace their future. The best hope we have in the epilogue is that of the children.
I believe this change in focus, from seeing good versus evil as a simple call to action to seeing it as a more complex ethical dilemma, is a natural transition given the state of our world today. It has become painfully clear to most of us that there are no easy answers in life, no simple solutions to ethical minefields. Attempting to do right in the world can (and often does) quickly go wrong, especially when it involves violence. We live in a world of drones, suicide bombers, and a seeming abandonment of wartime "honour" (think Guantanamo). While Star Wars simply challenges its viewers to join the fight against evil, The Hunger Games asks readers to question their own ethics and forces us to ask ourselves difficult questions. Most specifically, does the end justify the means?
Katniss herself, as the heroine of the story, does not escape reproach. In fact, she has a fairly constant internal dialogue questioning her actions and condemning herself for the deaths she feels she has caused. And there is no easy answer here either. Yes, it is true that her kills can be grouped under the guise of self defence during wartime, but at there is something unsettling about it all the same. As readers and viewers, we tend to be more comfortable with a more sanitized version of war - war that does not include less-than-honourable fighting tactics and the killing of civilians. One of the most difficult actions for me to reconcile was Katniss voting for the Hunger Games but then reversing her decision and assassinating President Coin. Our ability to cheer on our heroine for making the right choice and rejecting the need for revenge is tempered, in my opinion, by her final act of violence.
Plutarch's statements at the end of the book sum up this sense of uncertainty: "Now we're in that sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated. But collective thinking is usually short-lived. We're fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction. Although who knows? Maybe this will be it, Katniss...Maybe we are witnessing the evolution of the human race. Think about that." There is hope that the human race may be moving in a more peaceful direction, but it is a tentative hope at best.
To be clear, this cynicism in no way makes me dislike The Hunger Games. Instead, I think it makes the story far more complex and forces the reader to think critically about themselves, society, and the world itself. This is a good thing. I'm glad that The Hunger Games is considered young adult fiction, as it is doubly important that these ethical debates are had by young people.
And on that note, I don't dislike Star Wars for its (somewhat) naive optimism either. Both are needed, I think, in today's world. We need the call to do good that Star Wars gives us, but tempered by the realization of ethical complexity offered by The Hunger Games. Both have value - especially to youth. As seen in Mockingjay's epilogue, they are our hope and our future, and we need them to be both inspired and clear-eyed.