Thin Line Between Empathy and Melodrama

I’ve had this post on the back burner for a while now, and I’m writing it now because last night my mom, a few girlfriends, and me went to see Mockingjay Part Two. I  read through the Hunger Games series three months ago, and Katniss did what I had thought near impossible since Twilight: she reinstated my faith in first person. It caused me to remember that one of my all-time favourite books, Jane Eyre, is also written in first person, which made me ask myself, ‘How do you write an emotionally charged scene that moves your readers, without falling into melodrama?’

Off the bat, the first thing that comes to my mind is character consistency, which is also the source of my issues with first person. If you’re writing straight from a character’s perspective it has to be believable, which requires a certain amount of inconsistency because no one is fully consistent. And yet, because you’re still writing a story – something that can be revised and edited, unlike a real-life train of thought – there is an expectation that the thoughts flowing from your character will craft an individual in the minds of the readers that can stand up to scrutiny. If they can’t, you come off as a second-rate writer.

The second thing I could suggest – albeit tentatively, because I’m sure there are imaginations vastly more creative than me who could pull it off – is that a first person narrative should not feature a character who is continually given over to melodrama, aka, Bella Swan. Stephenie Meyer’s main flaw is that Bella is not a consistent character, even with the slight inconsistency allowed for first person. The most glaring example is when Bella’s mom says to her, ‘You’ve never been a teenager, sweetheart. You know what’s best for you,’ as though we’re supposed to suddenly believe that Bella is the epitome of maturity. However, Bella is a very accurate picture of the typical mind of an American teenage girl, and the problem is that being an average teenage girl tends to be melodramatic in almost every aspect of life, and if you want to write a story from this perspective … well, let’s just say you better show a significant change in the character by the end if you want intelligent critics to be able to stomach your narrative, and Twilight does not deliver.

I only mention the comparison again because The Hunger Games was published around the same time as Twilight, both feature female characters in a first person narrative, as well as love triangles of varying intensities. Katniss was a breath of fresh air for me because her character was so thoroughly consistent throughout the novels, and I believe the main reason for this was Katniss’ own straightforwardness. She is a true product of District 12: she lives by what was necessary, with no room for dreams, indulgent romantic fantasies, or idyllic happy endings. She carries this attitude through the Games, and towards Peeta and Gale, which is why readers are so torn between who she should choose – Katniss herself doesn’t know until the end, so her turmoil is evident to the reader as well. Katniss doesn’t romanticize or fixate on her lovers because there are more important things in life. She’s fighting a freaking war, people! She’s losing her friends, fearing for her family, and (spoiler alert to those who haven’t seen the movie), ultimately watches her sister die in an explosion. Who she’s going to ‘end up with,’ while naturally enthralling for us (if we’re being honest) should not be the focus of the story if we’re going to truly feel Katniss’ pain. Yes, Team Gale is allowed to lament their loss, but Katniss herself doesn’t give it much thought because she so overcome with sorrow after Prim’s death. Even when she ‘picks’ Peeta (I say that if Peeta died, she wouldn’t have been with Gale anyways because she never really saw him as a lover) she doesn’t go all poetic about how blind she was or how amazingly perfect he is (which he’s not). She simply accepts it – slowly, gradually accepts it – which is the only believable way two war-torn individuals could have a lasting relationship. But the romantic in me is still satisfied (and bravo to Collins for this) because the most important part of any story is the ending, and the last line in the main narrative is Katniss admitting to Peeta that her love for him is real.

The Hunger Games epilogue is almost more poignant than Harry Potter (and those of you who know what a rabid Harry and Ginny shipper I am can appreciate the significance). The romantic conclusion gets a feature, but the intensity and sobriety of the story would have lost its punch if the final words fell into the ‘happily even after’ category. And yet I think it’s important to see Katniss with a family and still living life not despite, but amidst her scars. When I first read the epilogue I was a little disappointed because part of me wanted the sweet, perfect, fairy tale ending to have the last say, but Collins gives you a conclusion that is a tad unsettling because it references the Hunger Games again. Upon reflection, her choice was the best, because real survivors of war – especially ones like Katniss – don’t suddenly get some optimistic, sunlit, dewey-eyed personality transplant. You don’t just forget everything that’s happened because oh, she’s with the right guy! And that’s what the epilogue delivers. Katniss’ kids aren’t named, and she says she only had them because Peeta wanted them so much. She’s contented, but not rosy, and even makes mention that Peeta still has occasional fits of PTSD where he has to grab the back of a chair to remind himself what’s real and what’s not.

Now for the reason I’m writing this post-Mockingjay movie. (Again, spoiler alerts.) I was mostly satisfied with the film – Finnick’s death is excellently done and thoroughly heroic, Haymitch and Katniss’ relationship is better in the movie than in the books, and President Coin proves so tyrannical by the end that one of our friends, who hadn’t read the books, said aloud, ‘Katniss should shoot her instead!’ – but then there was the epilogue. I had been kind of dreading this part – sort of like my fear that they would make Ginny the last thing Harry sees before he dies in the Deathly Hallows movie, which is incredibly powerful in the book, but Daniel Radcliffe and Bonnie Wright have no romantic chemistry so it would have been atrociously cheesy, and thankfully it wasn’t done. Movie-goers tend to crave fairytale endings more often than readers, and unfortunately, the Mockingjay epilogue kinda ruined what was otherwise a very loyal retelling. Katniss is sitting under a tree, wearing a yellow flowery dress of all things, holding a baby with an abnormally large head (my mom said one of the crew probably wanted their kid featured), her face fixed in an idyllic smile that makes her look like a Stepford wife. She’s watching Peeta in a meadow playing with a toddler, and for the record, that part was perfect: it totally captured Peeta’s character and joy, and the toddler’s acting was fabulous. But Katniss’ ending was so not her that it was unsettling for the wrong reasons.

My mom and I drove home our astute friend who wanted Katniss to shoot Coin, and all three of us were dissatisfied with the epilogue, so I shared what I would have done, had I been the director, and I had enough conviction about my perspective that I was moved to write this post. First, I would start with Katniss sitting under the tree in partial shadow, wearing shades of grey clothing that are not ultra feminine, and not smiling, but looking ponderous as she wrote in one of the notebooks that Haymitch, her and Peeta filled up with memories of people they’d lost. This is a truly beautiful part of the book series, and I was sad they didn’t include it in the films. It allows the characters to process the deaths, to purge their anguish, while also commemorating their loved ones and ensuring that future generations wouldn’t forget. Katniss could have spoken in a voiceover as she wrote (I know that can be cheesy, but what the movie did was way worse), then Peeta looks up and smiles at her. She returns the smile, but not too wide to break her ponderous mood. Then the voiceover says, ‘There are far more dangerous games that can be played,’ and roll credits.

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