We’ve got a first today: a guest blog from my good pal, the uber-talented and smart Nancy Werlin. Nancy is a National Book Award Finalist and Edgar Award Winner and the New York Times bestselling author of IMPOSSIBLE, which none other than Gregory Maguire (Mr. WICKED himself) hailed as, “A haunting, thrilling romantic puzzle.” And her new book, EXTRAORDINARY, will be out Sept. 7th. (Can’t wait!) I have been lucky enough to count Nancy as both mentor and friend over the years. She’s sewn with the thread of awesome and adorned with the doo-dads of utter fabulousness. Really. No lyin’.
Anyway, Nancy, like the rest of the reading world, has been counting down to Suzanne Collins’ MOCKINGJAY. (Is anything else happening next week? No, I don’t think so.) I love what Nancy has to say here about love and choice and the way she weaves all of these elements together. ***Warning: Slightly spoilery about THE HUNGER GAMES and VERY spoilery about CASABLANCA. A little spoilery about Thomas Hardy, too, but if you’ve read any Thomas Hardy, you know it’s not going to end well. Okay. Warning over.***
I’m turning it over to Nancy. As for me, I’m off for a mini-vacation with the family. I’ll be offline until the 28th. That is, if I survive the water park.
The Hunger Games, Casablanca, and the Madding Crowd
By Nancy Werlin
Less than a week remains before the release of the third Hunger Games book, Mockingjay. I’ve got my pre-order in, and am only worried about whether to get a second copy, since my husband Jim read the first book on Monday (he couldn’t stop and staggered to bed after 2 a.m.). Buy two copies, or fight over one? Maybe a fight would be in the best spirit of the book. But it would be a frivolous fight, and there’s ultimately nothing frivolous about the fighting in Hunger Games.
This is the central point of author Malinda Lo’s recent blog post (“Why I’m Team Katniss” – link below). Suzanne Collins’s books are about human rights and the abuse of political power, about the necessity of rebellion against injustice, and about the making of a hero (by classical definition, Katniss is a hero rather than a heroine). The books are not really about love.
“I do think the romance is integral to the book, but NOT in the way that many readers are reading it. It’s NOT the central conflict; it’s a subplot that affects the main plot. To centralize it, and to debate whom Katniss should choose as if that’s the thing she’s most interested in … I don’t relate to that.” – Malinda Lo
Assuming, by the way, that Katniss gets a choice. Choices in love are for characters living a relatively calm life, and Suzanne Collins is not a writer to shy away from the implications of the political firestorm she’s put before us. District 12 has been destroyed, and with it, we must assume, Katniss’s mother and her beloved sister Prim. Why would Peeta and Gale be safe? Their safety doesn’t make sense in the world of Panem.
Here comes another quote. This one from the movie Casablanca, set during World War II. Rick says to Ilsa, as they part forever: “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Who can doubt that Katniss would agree?
As a “little person,” I can’t help relating to the love story and giving it an outsize and illogical importance. I have a personal twist on this, which relates to a comment Suzanne Collins made in an interview in Entertainment Weekly (link below). She tells us that Katniss is named for a character in Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, Bathsheba Everdene. While the two characters are very different, Suzanne Collins says that Katniss and Bathsheba both “have trouble knowing their own hearts.”
I noticed Katniss Everdeen’s last name immediately on reading The Hunger Games, because Far From the Madding Crowd is a book that I have read and reread. As a teenager, I encountered the following passage:
“Bathsheba loved Troy in the way that only self-reliant women love when they abandon their self-reliance. When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away. One source of her inadequacy is the novelty of the occasion. She has never had practice in making the best of such a condition. Weakness is doubly weak by being new.” –Thomas Hardy
At sixteen, I understood this quote. I agreed with it. I was sure that I, like Bathsheba, was a strong and self-reliant woman. I would not make her mistake. Forewarned by literature, I would watch out for this pitfall. I underlined the passage, twice. Then I highlighted it. I went on to quote it in a high school senior-year English paper. And I never, ever forgot it.
(You can probably guess my college major. Who says literary analysis isn’t a vital life skill?)
But when I later fell in love for the first time, I chose as badly and with as much willful blindness as Bathsheba Everdene ever did, and with consequences and fallout that would have pleased any Victorian novelist you care to name. (By “bad choice,” I do not refer here to my husband Jim, mentioned above.)
When the world explodes in a firestorm around you, when you are surrounded by injustice and outright evil, like Katniss, does love matter? That is the question. Casablanca tells us no, it does not. My mind believes this. But my heart does not.
When Ilsa leaves Rick for her husband Laszlo—who, by the way, is important to the Resistance of a governmental evil roughly analogous to Collins’s Panem—it works and is satisfying for us because Laszlo is worthy of Ilsa’s love. We have in Casablanca a love triangle like Peeta-Katniss-Gale in The Hunger Games. It’s a triangle in which both men are good choices.
The Casablanca-type triangle is in sharp contrast with the romantic pattern of Madding Crowd. In Madding Crowd, the girl chooses, but both boys do not love her. One has an agenda she knows nothing of, and she is weakened by her inexperience. As readers, we watch her enter a very personal nightmare. But, as a result of time and suffering (for unlike Katniss, Bathsheba has never suffered as the book opens), she grows and changes. Bathsheba recovers from near destruction. Finally mature, she is able to appreciate Gabriel, the good man she overlooked before.
Bathsheba is lucky.
So was I.
Casablanca provides a wonderful escapist love plot pattern, and it’s the same one we see in The Hunger Games. Its structure distracts us and helps us to not be overwhelmed by the forces of evil arrayed against Katniss. We also recognize that despite her sex and her central place in the love triangle, Katniss is not really Ilsa. She is Laszlo, the central figure in the Resistance. She must be saved, even if all else die in the process. (Please, Suzanne. Please.)
And I suggest this: we will be satisfied with either Peeta or Gale (or even, as Malinda Lo suggests, no one) for Katniss. We trust Suzanne Collins to decide for us. And this is why we readers can form “Team Peeta,” “Team Gale,” and even “Team Katniss,” because we know it doesn’t really matter. Love will be true in any case. Love will be honored in The Hunger Games—even if it has to be in death. And we understood this from the moment Katniss stepped forward to take her sister’s place in the games.
Now pretend for a moment that you were an English major like me, and contrast the above with the Madding Crowd scenario. In the Madding Crowd, there is no political battle. There are only “little people” and their hearts, and the evil that is encountered is likewise of the little kind; the human kind; the kind that has the power to ruin but one or two or three lives. And in the end, there may be no love at all.
When I was sixteen and reading Far From the Madding Crowd for the first time and underlining that critical passage, I wanted more than anything to be a novelist one day. I wanted independence, too. I wanted these things more than love. I did not know there would be a twisty path ahead, full of traps, and that the lessons I had to learn about love would be just as important, ultimately, as the ones about independence and being a writer.
And I wonder what my sixteen year old self would think if she could read my new book, Extraordinary. For I have realized this day that I have compulsively written the Madding Crowd-type book, about love and choice. The dark tale of an ordinary girl who makes the wrong choice in love, and the hope that she will see and correct her mistake before it’s too late. The one in which the choice of lover is the biggest and deadliest game of all.
Of course I have. One way or another, we write what we believe, and what we have lived.
See you all on Mockingjay release day.
“Why I’m Team Katniss” by Malina Lo. http://www.malindalo.com/2010/08/why-im-team-katniss/
Suzanne Collins interviewed in Entertainment Weekly: http://mockingjay.net/2010/08/13/entertainment-weekly-suzanne-collins-shares-her-favorite-books/
About Nancy Werlin’s new novel, Extraordinary (out Sept 7): http://nancywerlin.com/extraordinary.htm