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Why Mockingjay, the messiest and most ambitious Hunger Games book, needed to get out of Katniss Everdeen's head

Suzanne Collins had better characters to tell this story.

Katniss Everdeen: In Way Over Her Head (Part 2).
Katniss Everdeen: In Way Over Her Head (Part 2).

Mockingjay is the most ambitious and frustrating book in Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy of novels. Its two predecessors, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, feature far more straightforward structures: Katniss in her home district, Katniss participating in the Games that pit her against dozens of desperate people fighting for their lives, Katniss narrowing her eyes at the greater horrors of the Capitol’s totalitarian reign.

Those first two books feel as if they were written on a steady incline, building up to Mockingjay’s explosive war between the oppressive Capitol and its angry, starving citizens — which is why it’s such a disappointment that Mockingjay reads like a (very promising) rough draft.

Mockingjay is brimming with fascinating ideas and uncomfortable truths, but it ultimately collapses at the finish, with palpable exhaustion.

And that's a shame, because when the book delves into the traumas and wrenching costs of war, it can be truly awesome. Collins’s willingness to muddy the moral waters and kill characters as randomly as combat does is jarring and stunning, even in the aftermath of The Hunger Games and Catching Fire’s graphic brutality. Mockingjay is dark, searing, and appropriately tragic — but in order to work on all the levels Collins wanted it to, the book needed to get the hell out of Katniss Everdeen’s head.

Katniss Everdeen's perspective is too limited for Mockingjay's sweeping scope

"Okay, seriously, what's going on?" —Katniss Everdeen, always.

Collins wrote the Hunger Games series in the first person, as seen through the eyes of reluctant revolutionary Katniss Everdeen (played by an iron-jawed Jennifer Lawrence in the movies). The choice makes sense in the first two books, which track Katniss’s bloody fight for her life in The Hunger Games and, after she emerges victorious, her fraught role in the spotlight in Catching Fire. The books are about the birth of a movement, as accidentally sparked by this one incredibly strong, conflicted girl.

Mockingjay, however, shifts to all-out war, with all the frustrating politics and unimaginable pain that comes with it. When the book opens, Katniss is suffering from post-traumatic stress that often leaves her shaking in hallways or panting in the middle of the night, terrified and angry. The Capitol has captured and is torturing Peeta, Katniss's loyal hometown companion in the Games, her onscreen fiancé, and the most prominent secondary character of the series.

Put simply, the incredible scope of Mockingjay required more dynamic characters to speak through than Katniss and Peeta — and Collins had two such characters at her disposal in Johanna Mason and Finnick Odair.

Johanna and Finnick have lived with the cost of war far longer than Katniss and Peeta

Finnick (Sam "Potato" Claflin) tries to charm the competition.

Katniss first meets Finnick and Johanna in Catching Fire, when the Capitol sends victors back into the Hunger Games arena for what is basically Hunger Games: All Stars. Finnick is a handsome, endlessly charismatic champion from District 4 (at least in the book — casting the well-meaning but flat Sam Claflin did Finnick no favors in the movies). His charm is so effortless, so smooth, that Katniss is suspicious of him until they become allies.

Johanna, meanwhile, is a snarly victor from District 9, whose every spit barb drips with hatred for the Capitol. (She is played in the movies by Jena Malone, who wonderfully commits to Johanna's acidic bite, even though she gets very little screen time.)

While Finnick and Johanna won their respective Games within the decade prior to Katniss's triumph, they've both lived through several lifetimes of pain, thanks to the Capitol’s cycle of punishment — it's never-ending, even for victors.

When Mockingjay opens, Johanna and Finnick have become separated in exactly the same manner as Katniss and Peeta. The Capitol kidnapped Johanna along with Peeta, while the rebels grabbed Finnick and Katniss. Peeta and Katniss's "on again, off again, on again because the Capitol says so" relationship is decidedly more fraught than the platonic one between Johanna and Finnick, who found each other after the Games and became fiercely loyal friends.

The first half of the book, which provides the source material for Lionsgate's first Mockingjay movie, follows Katniss and the other rebels in the bowels of District 13. One of the only people she feels comfortable with is Finnick, who's sick with worry over Johanna as well as another of the Capitol's hostages: wan victor Annie Cressida, his fiancée.

However, since we’re stuck in Katniss’s perspective, we spend much of Mockingjay’s first half mired in her trauma, lingering around the edges as commanders and diplomats barter and strategize. It's a shame, because Finnick is far more involved in the rebel operations, or at least more in the know regarding what they're up to. As Katniss struggles to figure out the basics of the movement, Finnick is consulting with its leaders on vital strategy and reconnaissance. Halfway through the book, it's Finnick who reveals that victors remain in danger long past their wins in the arena — which finally topples the crucial domino that makes Capitol residents question their actions.

As the rebels keep hacking into the Capitol's broadcast system, Finnick steps up to put a handsome face to an ugly truth. His attack ad (or "propo," in Hunger Games speak) begins with him talking straight into the camera. "President Snow used to … sell me … my body, that is," Finnick says. "If a victor is considered desirable, the president gives them as a reward or allows people to buy them for an exorbitant amount of money. If you refuse, he kills someone you love. So you do it." Later, we discover that Johanna did refuse — and her entire family paid the price.

It's a gut-wrenching revelation for both characters, and a game changer in terms of shifting public opinion. But Collins has so much plot to get through that Finnick's story is then relegated to Katniss summing it up from the sidelines:

Finnick begins to weave a tapestry so rich in detail that you can’t doubt its authenticity. Tales of strange sexual appetites, betrayals of the heart, bottomless greed, and bloody power plays. Drunken secrets whispered over damp pillowcases in the dead of night. Finnick was someone bought and sold. A district slave. A handsome one, certainly, but in reality, harmless. Who would he tell? And who would believe him if he did? But some secrets are too delicious not to share.

Finnick's firsthand account of the Capitol's slimy underbelly, his reserve of secrets "too delicious not to share," is exactly the kind of personal perspective Mockingjay needs in order to focus its brutal, disparate themes. As Katniss herself puts it: "We have a job to do, and I sense that Finnick’s role will be far more effective than mine."

Finnick's hope and Johanna's fury are the conflicting forces driving Mockingjay

Johanna (Malone), demonstrating A+ side eye.

Spoilers for Mockingjay follow.

Part of what makes Mockingjay so interesting as the ending to a trilogy is that it muddies the moral waters to the point where Katniss is constantly questioning whom she can trust. The rebels are torn apart by opposing viewpoints, by disputes between those who want to honor a more upstanding code than the Capitol and those who would go to any lengths to destroy the Capitol. Finnick's steady hope for a better future versus Johanna's all-encompassing rage in calling for the Capitol's destruction represent the two sides of the same rebel coin at Mockingjay's core.

Despite the fact that Katniss becomes the literal symbol of the rebellion, she's left out of almost every major decision and struggles throughout the series to catch up on the years she missed. Finnick and Johanna's histories are just more intrinsic to the rebellion at hand.

Finnick and Johanna are both magnetic people, in their own specific ways. Finnick is a leading man in the traditional sense — beautiful, earnest, determined. His constant push toward progress and toward action is the kind of forward motion Mockingjay would benefit from.

Yes, using Finnick's perspective would probably mean adjusting one of the series' most shocking moments. Namely: Finnick's awful death during the rebel siege, which leaves him flailing in the depths of a sewer as the Capitol's horrifying mutations ("mutts") tear him to pieces.

Then again, maybe not! I am, after all, advocating for shifting points of view within the same book. Finnick could still die — and I'd argue that his death is of the series' most necessary ones, brutal though it is.

But the loss of this universally beloved Panem hero could even be more devastating and affecting if we were able to spend some time in his head before he sacrificed himself to save his loved ones. Even in death, Finnick remains the most hopeful figure in the entire trilogy. He never once stops believing that the Capitol's oppressive reign will end — and that hope trickles down to the thousands of citizens who look to him for inspiration.

In contrast, Johanna is an unpredictable mess. She's all rage and frustration, revenge fantasies and wicked smirks, whether she's competing in the Games, starving behind Capitol bars, or languishing in District 13's hospital ward. She and Katniss form an unlikely friendship based on grudging mutual respect and the knowledge that neither would ever bullshit the other, because who has time for bullshit when you're fighting an all-powerful megalomaniac?

While Johanna was a fierce competitor in the Games (her weapon of choice is an ax), her role in Mockingjay is an even more extreme version of Katniss's. By the time the rebels rescue her from the Capitol, she is an "emaciated young woman with a shaved head ... her flesh shows bruises and oozing scabs." As she recovers in the hospital ward with Katniss, Johanna gets more dependent on "morphling" (The Hunger Games' version of morphine), sinks into resentment, and, finally, pushes herself to train for war.

But she doesn't make it. Her trauma from the torture she suffered in the Capitol is too much for her to overcome, leading her to fail a key stress test and be kept out of the action for the entire siege. It's a huge disappointment, for both Johanna and the audience. Johanna is a welcome jolt of spiky energy in an overwhelmingly gray book, and her presence is sorely missed in the final act. But even if Collins needed to keep her on the sidelines, looking at the war through Johanna's gallows humor would be a far more illuminating lens than Katniss's dulled confusion.

Katniss might be the Mockingjay, but she still can't sell this war

The Hunger Games and Catching Fire gained momentum by exploring Katniss's reluctance to get involved in the rebellion, and her struggle to reconcile her hesitation with her enormous new role as its symbol. Where those first two books are stronger for showing us just how dangerously Katniss has been teetering on the edge, Mockingjay throws itself into the roiling mess of war — which immediately overshadows Katniss's internal conflict, even as we're stuck inside her head.

Watching Katniss and Peeta crumple under the incredible pressures of war, especially since they've been our eyes and ears throughout the series, is wrenching. But even the weight of their trauma gets lost in Mockingjay's endless schemes, strategies, and devastating battles. Both Collins and Lionsgate could've told a more focused story about war, with all the complications and politics that come with it, if they'd leaned harder on characters like Finnick and Johanna, who could've given that story the impact it deserved.