War’s not cool. It’s not sexy. Anyone who’s taken GCSE English WW2 Literature knows that.
The baddies are not the Germans. The poor old Germans had a pretty awful time of it too. Dresden, meet Coventry. No! The baddies are those pen-wielding fiends who wrote doggerel supportive of the war. Jessie Pope and her kin – “go off to war / it’s what men are for!” and soforth. Whether you read Owen, Sassoon, Graves, or even that hun Remarque, the message was clear. War bad.
Revolution, however – that’s a different story. Revolution is on t shirts and is the name of a chain of vodka bars. It’s sexy. Idealistic in a weathered, experienced, underdog way. Look at the heroes – Che with a charismatic hairdo. The glorious Russian Revolution. The Arab Spring. Fighting for the better, for glory, against the regime.
It’s a bit shocking to stop for a second and realise this cultural delight in revolution – which is invariably bloody and shattering to the lives of the revolutionaries just as it is to the establishment. On reflection, you realise it’s a part the zeitgeist that you don’t even question. I didn’t even realise it until I came to the final book of the Hunger Games trilogy to find what’s surely the bleakest and most realistic – yes, I said realistic – account of revolution and its effects to be featured in a “young adult” novel. With war, you take for granted miserable aftermath. But when a revolution has succeeded, and the victors are in power, isn’t the story rose-tinted and sunny?
Collins shows us no. Your family have still died, you’ve still undergone hideous, self-changing hardships and seen things you’ll never forget – and, just when you thought it was all in some way for a reason, there are no guarantees that the new system will live up to your hopes. Earlier in the Hunger Games trilogy, you think that Collins has a standard political agenda against repression and dictatorship, but the third book reveals a much more nuanced and, frankly, depressing approach without any trumpet-sounding “message” at all.
Particularly given the intended audience, once it’s clear a revolution is on the cards you’re pretty sure what will happen: they will win. Some will die, but not most of the key ones you’ve come to love, excepting probably one big loss to be mourned. A main character will be injured, leaving doubt as to their recovery. But then they’ll wake to a better world. Cut forward 15 years to when they have children, and occasionally look wistfully out and consider the ones they’ve lost, probably while looking into a sunset. The end of Harry Potter, in other words.
While a couple of these come into play, [SPOILER], some others are shockingly overturned. Almost everyone dies. The ones you suspected, and the ones you really didn’t. The remaining few are deeply, irreparably scarred by these losses. Revolution permanently alters some people, revealing violence in them that would have remained unknown in normal circumstances. Perhaps most shockingly, after all of this, the new holder of power is quickly revealed to be as dark and twisted as the old. Yes, in Mockingjay this double twist is quickly rectified, but this realisation that there are no guarantees in who are the good guys we can trust, is profoundly dystopian. In this book, Collins doesn’t preach for a better, less authoritarian system – she preaches disbelief in the system at all. But, bleakly, there isn’t a stronger alternative. What hope there is can be found in the strength of individuals.
Maybe it’s too much Che Guevara iconography, but I found it surprisingly unsettling to read a book where the result of revolution is such a compromised life going forwards.
Mockingjay teaches a profoundly grown up lesson. It’s not the one you expect, and it makes for a conflicted response to Jessie Pope’s most famous verse:
Who’s for the game, the biggest that’s played,
The red crashing game of a fight?
Who’ll grip and tackle the job unafraid?
And who thinks he’d rather sit tight?