Surviving the “Wasteland”– Depression and Endurance in the Hunger Games

**Spoiler warning for discussion of events taking place in the Hunger Games trilogy and parts of Harry Potter. Consider yourself duly warned. **

I recently finished the third book in the Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay.  I put it off for quite some time anticipating the darkness of the material.  I have never shied away from a well written drama but there are times when I have enough angst in my life that I don’t need to invite imaginary angst in as well. After seeing HG in movies, however, I knew I had to finish their story no matter how much it hurt.

So I did.  It was hard at times, the war so vivid and the pain of the characters so…recognizable. I’m sure I will sound like every other fangirl on the internet when I say that I empathized with Katniss’ mental challenges and identified with her on a potentially unnerving level.  Despite all the disaster, I found myself in a state of deep satisfaction.

Please. Stay.

Collins never shies from the fact that her heroine (and her faithful hero) are severely damaged at the end of the series but emphasizes that they’re also fighters and work to reclaim and retain their essence.  She hints that truthfully, Peeta may never be the same again after his hijacking, but as the story progresses, the reader – along with Katniss – begins to find him again.  Prim even tells us that he was still in there; that Katniss shouldn’t give up on him.  That WE should not give up on him.  One gets the feeling that no matter how broken, at his core he was intact, as demonstrated by his breaking of the conditioning to warn Katniss and District 13 of the impending danger, at the risk of great personal harm and further torture. Therein lies our truly happy ending.  One of the happiest and most fulfilling endings I’ve read in years.  Yes, Dear Reader. That includes Harry Potter. Go on; I’ll wait for the teeth gnashing to subside.

At the risk of offending the entire Harry Potter fandom, of which I consider myself a part, when I reached the end of Mockingjay, I felt more deeply and truly satisfied than when I finished the final chapter of Deathly Hallows.  I was surprised at these feelings, since the HG saga doesn’t end with marshmallow kittens pooping rainbows and all being well, so to speak and I’ll fully admit to a preference for happier endings. Not to say that I didn’t love the quiet peace and stability finally achieved by my beloved Trio but I recall feeling a bit skeptical of the picture perfection they all had achieved nearing middle age, all individuals happily married with kids, nothing out-of-place, all cleanly tied up and sorted without any deviation.  With Mockingjay’s epilogue, I found myself in a quiet ecstasy reading a more realistic portrayal of what a 17-year old might experience if she’d been forced into war games against her peers, manipulated as a pawn for both Good and Evil, her friends and family threatened, herself wounded and starved at a developmental age, her home nuked into nonexistence, her friend and almost lover taken prisoner, tortured, brainwashed, and used as a means to break her, her deepest friendship disintegrating thanks to war, and lastly, her sister being turned into a human torch right in front of her eyes, possibly thanks to a weapon created by the aforementioned best friend.  Life has turned Katniss into the walking wounded – a patchwork quilt of suffering, strength, and endurance.

Yet Harry too has suffered heavy trial and loss of life, bearing witness to the death of both family members and friends since infancy.  Even so, JKR tells the reader that for the last 20 or so years he had felt no residual pain from his scar, strongly implying that he emerged from the Second Wizarding War whole in spirit and in body and nothing painful remained from those tumultuous times faced during his most formative years.  I’m not sure this assertion does the true courage of the character any great justice. One can win and still be damaged; however, I would rather see our heroes acknowledging the pain and facing it head on rather than glossing it over or pretending that it didn’t exist.  I’m not saying Harry does this, but we never see him with any aftereffects from his battles with the Death Eaters and Voldemort.  No issues with trust, despite the fact that his parents were betrayed to their deaths by one of their best friends or his own persecution and neglect at the hands of his foster family.  No issues with relationships despite the fact that anyone close to him was a constant target of the Dark Army and many died thanks to their association with him.  No lasting issues with anger or depression despite the loss and torture of many people close to him and his own loss of childhood and subsequent “death”.  Absolutely nothing to show that he was affected deeply or permanently on an emotional scale aside from a few moments of rage and hormonal anguish in the later books.  Yes, perhaps he was just that strong and resilient, but it’s unrealistic to say the least considering what he went through as a teenager.

By contrast, at the end of Mockingjay, Katniss reflects upon moments where she wakes up screaming from muttation and death-filled nightmares and Peeta suffers the occasional flashback to his hijacking and torture.  Even so, they have grown together and helped each other through the storms of life. She’s even given him children despite her never wanting them, because she loved him enough to put his needs before her fears.  As cold and calculating or callous as she seems earlier in the series, she grows into someone who can care for another in a romantic sense and love without letting her guilt get the better of her.  She loves Peeta and views him as her perfect complement – the calm peace and quiet beauty to her raging fire, her caustic fight, her defiance, cynicism, and suspicion. His light to her darkness.  He looks at her and sees her light and helps her be whole. You get the sense that, in spite of, or perhaps because of the suffering they experienced that they have “grown back together” and will endure because of it.  Their scars have become proud flesh and they will continue on stronger than before. They embrace a new “normal” and accept that while things may never be the same, it doesn’t mean that life ends or is any less fulfilling.  I came to the short epilogue and felt so satisfied at their final end that I can only describe it as a deep sustaining joy that their suffering served as a catalyst for their lasting unity.

The other part of my joy came in the recognition of Katniss’ state of mind.  In my darkest hours I have known the fears she’s known.  I have felt the days where I could take no pleasure in wonderful things and happy times because I so feared their transience. The crippling anxiety over love and being torn over what I need and what I want. I do not suffer from deep depression or PTSD as she does but I have dwelt a time in darkness and know its depths well.  Collins paints her despair in the starkest of lights and I recognize it.  It’s strangely comforting to see it so bald and real before you, unflinching as it reveals her “wasteland” of emotions and her acknowledgement that within her lies such a wasteland. It also shows us that it is not a hopeless experience; happiness could be deep and real and lasting even when faced with depression and deep mental scarring.  This may be the most valuable contribution the Hunger Games series can make – that PTSD and depression can be managed and lived with and life can go on and still be full and rewarding.  That survival and endurance are traits to be coveted and admired more than magical powers and a storybook happy ending. Happiness and pain can coexist in one body and mind and love and happiness can thrive in spite of hardship and war and endless suffering.  That is the real human triumph.

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