Suzanne Collins: Writing “War Stories”?

Earlier this month, Rick Margolis of School Library Journal sat down with Suzanne Collins to talk about the upcoming finale to her Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay (The Last Battle: With ‘Mockingjay’ on its way, Suzanne Collins weighs in on Katniss and the Capitol). I thought there were four points, at least, worth exploring here in our countdown to Mockingjay’s 24 August publication date: her assertion that the books are “absolutely, first and foremost, war stories,” her hope that the books would bring us closer to a time when there would be no wars, her Katniss and Spartacus comments, and her thoughts about the symbolism of the Mockingjay.

(1) Writing war stories: I confess this rather took me by surprise. I am not a combat veteran, though I did six years in the Marine Corps years ago, and I wonder if it is just that “time in harness” or my lacking actual experience in a live war time theatre that leaves me scratching my head when the author asserts that these books are “absolutely, first and foremost, war stories.”

I mean, really… Theseus and Katniss’ stories are not the sort of thing her father was telling her about, I’m sure, when they were surveying the parade grounds at West Point. These are adventures with people, very young people, trying to kill each other while others watch. We’re a long, long way from ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘Sands of Iwo Jima,’ no? I hope very much that someone can explain to me what she meant by “war stories” that jibes with her previous comments about the myths and her growing up in a military family that took the idea of war seriously, even studiously.

(2) An End to War: After telling us that her dad engaged her and her siblings with discussions of the philosophical elements in the decision to go to war, its sometimes being necessary, for example, she closes with what seemed almost a pacifist’s plea:

What do you hope young readers take away from your books?

One of the reasons it’s important for me to write about war is I really think that the concept of war, the specifics of war, the nature of war, the ethical ambiguities of war are introduced too late to children. I think they can hear them, understand them, know about them, at a much younger age without being scared to death by the stories. It’s not comfortable for us to talk about, so we generally don’t talk about these issues with our kids. But I feel that if the whole concept of war were introduced to kids at an earlier age, we would have better dialogues going on about it, and we would have a fuller understanding.

Can those dialogues help put an end to war?

Eventually, you hope. Obviously, we’re not in a position at the moment for the eradication of war to seem like anything but a far-off dream. But at one time, the eradication of slave markets in the United States seemed very far off. I mean, people have to begin somewhere. We can change. We can evolve as a species. It’s not simple, and it’s a very long and drawn-out process, but you can hope.

The analogy of writing stories in which war is portrayed unsympathetically works, I guess, with her Wilberforce analogy for the eradication of the slave trade, but we have a problem. The books do not show war in an unsympathetic light, do they? You have to be a pretty cold fish and appeaser not to want the Districts to rise up against the Capitol; Katniss as Mockingjay is the symbol of the rebellion and the coming war with whom readers identify.

So was she being polite to the interviewer, who gave her a question assuming a pacifist’s answer (“Can these dialogues put an end to war?”)? She says “Let’s hope!” when her stories say, “Actually, you jerk, I’m trying to share with young people the hard truth that wars are often unavoidable and necessary; there are goods worth dying for and evils we are obliged to resist at the risk of our lives.”

It’s an interesting question because the evil regime she has set up in the Capitol is a picture of the US as the world sees us rather than of a more readily despised stand-in for, say, Big Brother totalitarianism or Theo-fascism. It’s a story only a military brat could write, i.e., someone who grew up in the Districts we occupy around the world, like Germany and Okinawa.

(3) Katniss and Spartacus: Hold on to your hats, here, folks. It seems the author is suggesting that a la MuggleNet’s book on Harry Potter — Harry Potter Should Have Died — that Katniss will be dying at the end of Mockingjay:

But once the “Hunger Games” story takes off, I actually would say that the historical figure of Spartacus really becomes more of a model for the arc of the three books, for Katniss. We don’t know a lot of details about his life, but there was this guy named Spartacus who was a gladiator who broke out of the arena and led a rebellion against an oppressive government that led to what is called the Third Servile War. He caused the Romans quite a bit of trouble. And, ultimately, he died.

This makes her comment about being frustrated in not feeling comfortable outside first person narration have a little heavier meaning than a winsome humility. It is very hard to finish a story well when your narrator dies, unless, of course, we’re going to have a “beyond the veil” epilogue. I understand that the Spartacus analogy doesn’t have to end in death — and YA titles tend to avoid that route unlike the adult dystopian genre — but this was some pretty heavy hinting of more than just “Katniss is the Spartacus-like Mockingjay leader of the slave-District rebellion against the Capitol.”

(4) On the Mockingjay symbolism: I think one or two All-Pros have noted that this was a nice confirmation of what we have discussed here before and accepted as something of a ‘given’ in thinking about Katniss’ role in the finale (see Elizabeth’s second Birds-in-Hunger-Games post, for example, or survey the several articles). Still, it was something to see the author be so open about her intended meaning.

Ms. Collins is quite a bit different in this regard than either Ms. Rowling or Mrs. Meyer, both of whom, albeit in different fashions, do not discuss anything much below the surface narrative. Mrs. Meyer denies there is anything beneath the surface, I think, because so much of the meaning is acutely personal and upsetting; Ms. Rowling joins ranks with the tradition in not “going there” lest she narrow the conversation down to her conscious intentions. Ms. Collins, perhaps because not that many people are discussing her books, at least compared with the Twilight and Hogwarts sagas, is very up-front that her books are carrying allegorical freight, even didactic messages.

I’m not if that’s a good thing or a bad thing in the long run — but it sure is refreshing!

Your comments and corrections, as always, are coveted. Please refer to the numbers one to four above so we can follow what you’re responding to — and, yes, there will be a separate post on the “blood-on-the-breath” issue!

Comments

  1. 1) I agree that the first two books are not in the nature of war stories. However, I suspect that the third will be very much a story about the war of the rebellion. I think the first two books were a lead up to the war.

    2) I agree on your comments about The Hunger Games helping to end war. I would add that I think it takes quite a bit of naiveté to think that human nature will change enough to eliminate war. I don’t see Ms. Collins as being naive enough to really believe such a change will happen.

    3) I don’t see her comment as really suggesting that Katniss will die at the end. I do think that the similarity between The Hunger Games and the story of Sparticus are very similar. However, Sparticus did not have a District 13 with nuclear weapons to help his rebellion either. I expect that Katniss and the rebellion with both be successful in the end.

  2. Arabella Figg says:

    2) She’s making a very strong case in the books that there are times when war is not only just, it is necessary. The ending of Catching Fire, with the firebombing destruction of District 13 is geared to make the reader eager for retribution on a dissipated and cruel Capitol, with even Capitol citizens and leaders ready for the fray.

    But I understood her to say that we shield children too much from understanding war, which is a disservice to them because they’re unprepared to carefully examine their own times and how to negotiate them. I think her slavery comparison is simply to say that hope is a good thing, that we should always want to end war and work toward that goal, though it’s unlikely.

    3) She says that Spartacus was a model for the story arc, and I’m good with that. I don’t think she’d give away something so key.

  3. Collins, I think, makes a fairly level-headed response to the question. She doesn’t even say war definitely will be eradicated, but, “Let’s hope that the day will come when it will.” She’s not portrayed an “unsympathetic” view of war, meaning she believes it must happen at times. But surely we also understand when it must happen, it happens because people have done evil and forced the hand of those who must fight.

    So the anti-war “hope” expressed by Collins, I think, is no contradiction with her giving us a heroine, Katniss, who will go to war when she must, but rather a pointer to the purpose of showing us the Capitol so clearly. The portrayal of the Capitol is a picture of what millions of kids are being raised to be today: fashionistas and celebrity-worshipers. And it’s that dehumanization that causes many to never consider the horrors of war and mindlessly follow a totalitarian government. It’s Capitol people who prop up evil regimes.

  4. korg20000bc says:

    I feel that Collins was meaning warTIME stories. They have a similar feeling, to me, as French Resistance stories. Small acts of resistance against an aggressive and punitive occupier. Kind of like The Shire under Sharkey. Katniss and family are like the Cottons, District 13 like the Hobbits returning to the Shire.

  5. Sorry in advance for a long comment. I was hoping this article would generate some discussion.

    1. I wondered after reading the Gregor books and the Hunger Games if Collins wasn’t, at least on some level, writing out her own experience growing up in a military family through her books. Maybe she has a few things in common with her protagonists – fairly young kids whose dads are gone because of war. (Assuming that Katniss’ dad was killed in an “accident” meant to take out rebels.) Gregor’s dad disappears and the neighbors decide he’s run off from his family, probably after another woman. But his dad is actually a POW in the underland – a place they know nothing about – not some bum.
    It makes me wonder what kinds of things Collins might have heard people say about US soldiers like her dad fighting in Vietnam. It certainly wasn’t a popular war, if there is such a thing.
    Hunger Games, and especially Catching Fire, didn’t really strike me as war stories, but I wonder if that was what her experience with war was like at that age. Readers are somewhat shielded from the gore of it, but not the consequences. Her Gregor books don’t make much sense as anything but war stories, and it is the war that gets all the resolution in the final book, not the characters who are left. I will be pretty disappointed if Mockingjay ends similarly.
    Then there are other things that are kind of odd, like her dad being “career” military (which I get is the common phrase for that), and Collins naming the most brutal tributes careers. Or Katniss struggling with how to justify having to kill other people, which is something I’m sure kids with military parents have to wrestle with, too. I don’t know what I would think if I knew my parents had needed to kill other people, even if they were the “bad guys.”
    If she is writing some of her own conflicted experience of growing up in a military family all while dealing with the normal challenges that come at that stage of life, I can see why she would say they were war stories, while they might seem more like “finding yourself” stories to other people.

    2. I took that part to mean that she hoped some day there might not be a need even for necessary or justifiable wars. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the theme that even necessary war is hell, because it was loud and clear in her other series. If the Games are a sort of pointless miniwar, she shows the effects on the victor veterans pretty clearly in CF. I don’t think her warrior characters will fare much better in Mockingjay, even though the war is necessary. (Of course, I thought the same thing about Harry Potter, that after all his character went through, there was no way to really write in a happy ending for him. I was happy to be wrong!)
    So why target US teens with the story? Because they’re the Capitol, or living in it, and are just as ignorant of the personal effects of war. Schools are lucky to get to the beginnings of the Cold War in US History, and kids are left with what to learn about sticky topics like Vietnam or Korea? Forrest Gump? Even Ken Burns or Tom Brokaw have covered war with a gentler hand. At least, my grandma doesn’t talk about WWII like they did.

    3. I’m with Arabella on this one… I don’t think Collins would give away such a huge spoiler. I’m hoping Katniss will die in the sense that the scared all the time, afraid of ever having a family or being in love version of Katniss will die, and that she’ll be “reborn” with a little more security or safety in her life. Maybe that’s too optimistic?

    4. How did they miss you for the 13 District Blog Tour? 🙂 Although somehow I can’t see Hogwarts Professor giving away glow in the dark Mockingjay stickers.

  6. 1) One of my most burning questions about this series is:

    Where is the REST of the world?

    Given Collins’ well-traveled past (particularly as a youngster) and her penchant for subtle statements on pervasive cultural realities (e.g., the power of the media to shape reality), is it possible that her failure to comment on the rest of the planet is much more than mere happenstance? By focusing all our attention on Panem (an unknown portion of North America which many readers assume to be only the USA), is she purposely drawing attention to our inherently flawed and largely insular view of the world?

    Might there be much larger forces at play here?

    What if, for example, Panem was *not* the only land mass remaining. What if other survivors, perhaps MANY survivors, remain on other continents? What if other parts of the planet were largely unaffected by “disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much of the land, the brutal war for what little sustenance remained” (p. 18, THG)?

    What if the aforementioned disasters were merely a STORY told by the Capitol powers-that-be to pacify their enslaved masses. Such a narrative would ensure that district citizens believe Panem IS the world (not merely a part of it), that there is no hope for rescue, and that there is therefore no point in attempt to make contact with others (including any who might still be in D13 as well as those outside Panem entirely).

    If there are other pockets (or even substantial numbers) of human beings on planet Earth beyond the Capitol and its 12 Districts, why have they failed to intervene? Could some larger force be controlling both the Capitol *and* those on other continents? Is it possible that this alleged “larger force” is the REAL ENEMY imposing its will on the Capitol?. Might Snow’s comment regarding the fragility of the “system” point to such a possibility? Could communication with those outside Panem present some sort of danger?

    If the “larger force” (just reaching here, but hey – it’s all speculation until the 24th) were some sort of alien entity, for example, perhaps they control the actions of the Capitol and in return, allow (most) of the District citizenry to live. It could be some crazy genetic engineering scheme whereby they (the larger force) use the HG to identify (control? eliminate? covertly reproduce in test labs?) the most resilient of the race?

    THG as “first and foremost a war story” would make sense if there were indeed some sort of ongoing meta-war with this larger force, as the first two books offer little beyond the Hunger Games themselves (which claim – what – 23 lives per year?) that speak directly to the horrific consequences of war.

    2) It seems likely that Collins’ response to the interviewer’s leading question about the possibility of dialogue putting an eventual end to war little more a head nod. Is it desirable? Sure. Is it possible? Maybe. Is it likely? No, not really. To deny that dialogue could be beneficial isn’t a workable response nor is a sweeping generalization that it will indeed one day lead to the eradication of war. It seems doubtful that Collins’ believes her series will save mankind by eradicating war. It seems more likely that her intent is to provide a vehicle that stimulates honest discussion with youngsters earlier and in more depth than is typical for our culture. Perhaps mirroring her own experience with early exposure to the complexities and realities of war.

    3) This one was a shocker for me. I don’t know if it’s reasonable to take her at her literal word on this one or not. She did specifically note that both that Katniss’ character arc mirrors that of Spartacus AND that Spartacus’ eventually paid with his life for his part in the Third Servile War. Perhaps the answer to this is exactly as it seems: Katniss will pay for her part in the rebellion in the same way Spartacus did – with her life. Maybe the larger message is that sometimes major change can only be spurred by major sacrifice.

    4) Katniss as the mockingjay seems almost a matter-of-course. I was puzzled by her statement that people had not generally made that connection (at least that’s the way I interpreted it – I didn’t re-read it since the day it was released). Perhaps readers/fans spoke less overtly of this because it *does* seem so obvious.

  7. Arabella Figg says:

    1) I’ve wondered about this too, STS, and it was heavily on my mind in my third rereading. You make some really interesting speculations. I’ve read too much dystopian fiction to think that Panem is all there is, or that the rest of the world is in as bad, or worse, shape. Panem apparently encompasses what’s left (or what we’re told is left) of North America. But I think there’s may be some narrative misdirection about the planet as a whole. Snow is clearly afaid of something, and I don’t perceive it as fear of losing personal or political power. There’s some kind of delicate balance that, if damaged, has vast consequences both for Panem and possibly beyond Panem.

    3) It’s difficult to do a narrator dying. But if Katniss dies, an epilogue could be narrated by a survivor; it’s not without precedent. Perhaps her “paying with her life” (she’s already lost her life as she knows it) could be that she loses everyone she loves, their deaths (particularly Peeta’s, given his fame and popularity) providing the inspiration for Panem to move beyond its limitations. Katniss has “died to self” in each book, like Harry Potter, and perhaps her “dying to self” (if not literal in Mockingjay), will be more harrowing and meaningful, to build a new Panem.

  8. 1) The question about the rest of the world is interesting. However, I think that if it were important to the story, there would have been at least some mention in the first two books. I think Collins is too good a writer to do otherwise.

  9. Unless it’s an oversight on Collins’ part (and somehow I doubt that), the chocolate cake on p. 44 of THG as well as the hot chocolate served later on suggests trade with countries in the tropics and/or Africa is alive and well.

  10. When I was reading this discussion and musing on the necessity of war, I was drawn back to a quote from Lord of the Rings: “The women of this country learned long ago, those without swords can still die upon them.” – Eowyn.

    War can only be irradicated if aggressors are completely eliminated from the world, and that will never happen. Panem is a nation that is in the midst of 75 years of peace. The message I get from the books is that THIS peace is an illusion. I learned somewhere that there are two types of peace. Negative peace is defined as the absence of war. Positive peace is defined as the presence of justice. Panem is in a state of negative peace: they are not at war with any neighboring states (if any exist), and the districts are not in active rebellion against the Capitol. But this state is a terrible, terrible place for the majority of its residents. A rebellion (war) must be fought to hopefully transition Panem to a state of *positive* peace, a state ruled by justice.

    As for the Spartacus comparison, this stinks of red herring to me. It seems to me that SC is reminding the readers that this is the final act, and Katniss’ survival is not guaranteed. To do so would increase the sense of relief if/when she ultimately survives.

  11. i wish she wwould make another 1 explaning it all

  12. 2) I don’t think Suzanne Collins is giving a soft, appeasing answer to the interviewer. I think she is indeed advocating for an end to war in the The Hunger Games books. However, she is also clearly identifying that injustice exists and people need to oppose it… but that nonviolence is always the ideal. I think her real goal is for us to truly consider the cost of violence as a means to eradicate injustice.

    Consider Haymitch Abernathy. I believe his namesake is Ralph David Abernathy. Dr. Abernathy was best friend to MLK Jr. and a major organizer of nonviolent Civil Rights protest in the 50s and 60s. Haymitch’s major advice to the new tributes is “Stay alive.” and “You’re not going to like what they do to you. But no matter what it is, don’t resist.” You would think a traditional mentor might coach them on who to kill first and useful weaponry, but Haymitch never goes there. His advice is to flee first and find food and water.

    The connection between “The Hanging Tree” and “Strange Fruit” should also bring us to consider the connection to the Civil Rights Movement and various forms of nonviolent protest. Peeta’s suggestion of a cease fire and Katniss’s speech in District 2 are other examples of where SC is trying to lead us.

    Ultimately, though, she is also driving at the idea of revolution. But the revolution she’s suggesting, is first and foremost a spiritual one.

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