The Hunger Games binge-read: Revisiting Mockingjay ahead of the prequel
Katniss Everdeen volunteered as tribute and survived a brutal fight to the death in The Hunger Games. She was sent back into the arena and sparked a rebellion in Catching Fire. And now her home, District 12, has been demolished, someone she loves has been taken by the enemy, and war is here in Mockingjay, the best-selling conclusion to Suzanne Collins' book trilogy.
In the weeks leading up the highly anticipated release of the Hunger Games prequel novel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (out May 19), EW has been revisiting the original trilogy in our binge-read series with Collins' longtime publisher and editor David Levithan, revealing new facts and insights about each book a decade after they were first released. After first looking back on The Hunger Games and then moving on to Catching Fire, it's finally time for the epic conclusion: 2010's Mockingjay.
Collins had a plan from the very beginning of how the trilogy would play out, and she never veered from it. According to Levithan, though, she didn't reveal that plan to him or any of his colleagues in advance. "The outline of the series and where she wanted to go did not change," he tells EW. "She very much had a clear sense of where it was going to go from the beginning. While details may have changed and some characters got a little more page time once they started talking, the overall arc of it was always what she had planned."
As with The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, reading the first draft of Mockingjay had Levithan and his colleagues all feeling like fans. "I was glad that I did not know where it was going because when we got Mockingjay, it devastated us," he says. "The idea that her sister, who was the only reason she joined in the first place, still died because of war? I mean, that gutted us. It brought home again what I was saying about Rue in the first book, but to an exponential degree: the futility of war and how there aren't happy endings after a war. There are always sacrifices, and the things you've tried to save the most are often the things that you lose."
He laughs as he admits, "I should have intellectually thought that she might go there. But it wasn't until I read it that it hit me, that's where it went. That was one of the first questions I asked her when we sat down: 'Did you always know that [Prim] was going to die?' And she said, 'Oh yeah, of course, that's the whole point.' That was very firm in her mind, but we in the the editorial side did not know where it was going until we read the third book."
War, what is it good for?
In the decade since Mockingjay’s release, the world has changed drastically. Even in the past few months of 2020, life as we know it has completely shifted. But Levithan says that if Collins wrote the conclusion to the trilogy today, it would be exactly the same as it was back in 2010.
"At the end of the day, war is war," he says. "That's really the lens, and her reference points were as varied as Spartacus and Vietnam. You can find the common themes of everything of every war that happened between those, every war that has happened since or is going on in the world now. Part of the power of her books — and I would include Ballad in this — is she really is talking about these universal timeless themes that are all about how humans treat each other and how humans interact with each other, and the choices they make and the power that they yield or wield against one another."
Levithan adds that Collins never set out to make any statements about the contemporary political landscape. "With the trilogy, she was very clear that it was not a political commentary on the times in which it was written; it was really a commentary on war and what keeps recurring era after era with war," he says. "Approaching it now, she wouldn't have any different lens with which to look at it. I think the way it would be received would be obviously different in the world, but the way she wrote it would not change."
He adds, "I don’t think Suzanne would have written it differently, but I do think that we, sitting in our quarantine, reading these books again, it does give you a different sense of them than perhaps a decade ago."
Welcome to District 13
The long-rumored District 13 was finally revealed as Katniss and the rest of the rebellion relocated to the underground society. But in early drafts, Levithan was left wanting more — as in, more details in the exposition of how the secret District functions separately from Panem.
"All of us, the other editors and I, we were utterly fascinated by District 13 and how it works," he recalls. "There were definitely moments where we were like, 'Can you talk a little bit more about what they've been up to in these past years and about what the power structure is?' There were a few more things added in there."
One of his favorite parts of the third book is District 13's leader, Alma Coin, especially "the fate of Coin and the moment where Coin proposes to bring back the Hunger Games" at the very end.
"It's so funny because I know some people don't actually understand that scene," Levithan says. "They're like, 'Wait, Katniss is evil, she voted for the Hunger Games!' But no, she's actually going along with it to see whether Coin is actually going to do it or not. And then when she realizes Coin is actually going to do it, that leads to what happens with Coin. It's a feint. Some readers were so angry, but you have to look at it in context."
The reason why Levithan points out that moment as one of his favorites (and one of the most crucial of the final book) is because of how Collins played around with a trope to subvert expectations. "That whole scene and the character of Coin, if this were another series the rebel leader would be the hero," he says. "But no, Coin comes in, 'There we go, we know who's going to be in charge next,' and the fact that it's much more complicated and we do see that power corrupts on both sides of the aisle, that was pretty stunning to me. I did not see that coming, but then when it came it made perfect sense."
Peeta vs. Gale: Part 3
Every Hunger Games fan has their opinion on who Katniss should have ended up with: Peeta or Gale. Mockingjay features an epilogue confirming that Katniss and Peeta are not only together, but also that they have children, and Gale is out of her life. Was it because of Gale's involvement in Prim's death? Or was Katniss always going to choose her arena partner? Levithan opinion may surprise you.
"I would have been very fascinated to see her not end up with either — but that's just my anti-romantic bias coming into play," he says. "Because of the way she had drawn Peeta and Gale, I would have been genuinely interested in her ending up with either or neither of them. The moment when Gale is exposed in being part of the plan with the parachutes, reading that for the first time it was like, 'He's really done it now. You're now out of the race not just romantically, but as a friend.'"
Levithan notes he was disappointed with that revelation, but "that's the genius of the book."
"Even when people make the wrong choices, you were sad that they did that," he says. "If it were up to me, I think she'd be perfectly happy on her own. But I'm sure that many of the romantics, including Suzanne Collins, were very happy she ended up with Peeta because he is the right person for her."
Can't please everyone
When Mockingjay was released, Levithan wasn't surprised by the mixed reactions from fans. "The problem with any series by the time you get to book 3 is that the people who really have invested in the series have had a year to think of what they want the ending to be, and very rarely is that the ending that the author chooses," he says. "Hunger Games is far from the only series to fall prey to that. In fact, most series if not all series fall prey to that."
But Levithan adds that Katniss got the happiest ending she could have possibly hoped for, given the circumstances. "The people who really wanted a very happy, sweet ending were upset," he says. "The people who didn't want to see the jump forward in time to see Katniss still adjusting after all the trauma, that's their right to not want to see that, but at the same time I'm personally very glad that it's there. I don't know that people are mad by what's actually there as much as they're mad about the fact that it didn't match what they wanted in their heads."
Any powerful reaction at all just means the story and characters struck a chord with fans, and that's what Levithan hoped for all along. "That's the risk of having a very successful series is that people are going to want their own endings to it," he says. "And that's perfectly fine. It just shows the investment that they have in the characters."
And that's why, 10 years later, Levithan can't wait for fans to get to dive back into the world of The Hunger Games with Ballad.
"There is every reason to be excited to go back to the world of Panem and to go to the 10th Hunger Games in the new book," he says. "It is an interesting lens with which to look at power and the choices people make, to do good or to do evil. If the trilogy started a conversation, the conversation is about to continue. It does deliver, which is miraculous."
He pauses to laugh and adds, "I do wish it was under different circumstances. We’re pushing the dystopia thing a little too hard right now in real life."
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Book)