The Girl who was on Fire


The Hunger Games movie is well under way, and my dismay has been growing with each casting announcement from the production. While I’m eager for a Hunger Games fix, I’m not so sure the film will live up to my expectations.

I received an electronic ARC of the book, The Girl Who Was on Fire a few months back, and I’ve been reading bits and pieces of it a few times each week.

The Girl who was on Fire
(not to be confused with Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire) is an (unauthorized) anthology of essays by various authors, sharing their  thoughts on the Hunger Games Trilogy. Editor Leah Wilson reveals in her introduction that the book gathers the series most provoking ideas and provides “an extended meditation on the series and its world, on Katniss and our response to her, on love and family and sacrifice and survival.”

Sarah Rees Brennan, author of the Demon’s Lexicon trilogy, explores the popularity of Hunger Games, and why it draws in readers of all ages and genres.

Brennan goes over how Hunger Games examines reality versus illusion, media’s fascination with manufactured reality, and humanity’s enduring fascination with violence; the romance that intensifies the life and death situation of the book and yet provides relief for the reader; and reality vs. illusion as the motif for the book, from the romance to the rebellion and even the society.

Finally, Brennan concludes that Collins provides us the answer to the overlap between reality and illusion: illusion can become reality.

One of my favorites in the lineup is “Team Katniss,” by YA author Jennifer Lynne Barnes (author of Tattoo, Fate, the Squad Series and Raised by Wolves), which proposes an alternative to team Peeta and team Gale: team Katniss — which has been my team all along.

I love the character analysis on Katniss (especially the comparison of Katniss to Buttercup!), and the point Barnes raises on love triangles in YA novels:

These days, it seems like you can’t throw a fish in a bookstore without hitting a high-stakes love triangle—not that I recommend the throwing of fish in bookstores, mind you (it annoys the booksellers—not to mention the fish), but it certainly seems like more and more YA heroines are being faced with a problem of abundance when it comes to the opposite sex.

While I am a total sucker for romance (not to mention quite fond of a variety of fictional boys myself), I still can’t help but wonder if, as readers, we’re becoming so used to romantic conflict taking center stage that we focus in on that aspect of fiction even when there are much larger issues at play.

No book has ever made me ponder this question as much as Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy—in part because it seems like everyone I know has very strong feelings about which boy is the best fit for Katniss, but also because the books themselves contain a commentary on the way audiences latch onto romance, even (and maybe especially) when lives are at stake.

Mary Borsellino, author of the Wolf House series, discusses love as a political act in “Your Heart is a Weapon the size of your Fist.” This essay explores how the series pits the power of love versus the power of hate, and how love is “strong enough to survive the horrors placed before it” — because “love, like fire, is catching.” That may sound trite, but I thought the author makes a good case for love, drawing parallelisms from Orwell’s 1984 (Winston and Julia) and V for Vendetta (which incidentally I’m in the middle of! Borsellino quotes Valerie), and citing examples not only in the case of Katniss, but also for Katniss’ mother, Finnick, Johanna, Boggs, even President Snow and Alma Coin.

Elizabeth M. Rees, author of The Wedding (ooh, based on Jan Van Eyck — very interesting!), tackles reality vs. unreality in “Smoke and Mirrors,” taking the reader through the layers of deception laid out over the series, and what Katniss has to go through in the quest for the truth.

“Someone to Watch Over me” by Lili Wilkinson, author of Scatterheart, Angel Fish, and Pink, tackles the concept of power and the balancing act among the “Watched,” the “Watchers,” and the “Engineers,” illustrating how swinging the power towards any of these three groups can mean a change of epic proportions.

“Reality Hunger” by Ned Vizzini (author of Be More Chill, It’s Kindof a Funny Story, and Teen Angst? Naaah…) discusses authenticity, heroism and media in Hunger Games. Vizzini relates his own experience with the media, and proceeds to trace the evolution of the hero from unreal warrior to everyman (slash woman). He also positions Katniss as a reality show hero, comparing her to both Richard Hatch of Survivor and Kelly Clarkson of AI, and proposing that Katniss fits the idea of the American Dream. I was really interested in this because I work with media on a daily basis, and I do enjoy watching certain reality shows. But not being American, I felt this essay was too boxed in the context of America, when reality shows and the concept of ordinary people in extraordinary situations are actually quite universal.

Carrie Ryan (author of The Forest of Hands and Teeth, perhaps the most recognizable name in this anthology), reinforces in “The Myth of Real in Reality TV” how Suzanne Collins “takes our obsession with reality tv and extends it to the most horrifying ends: a society that views kids and killing kids as entertainment,” and zeroes in on the common methods of manufacturing reality employed on the shows, and relates them to the context of Hunger Games, and concludes with a strong statement on reality tv — that “as long as we continue to watch them, advertisers will continue to sponsor them, and they’ll keep being produced.” I thought this was very well written, and one of the most critical essays in the book.

“Not So Weird Science: Why Tracker Jackers and Other Mutts Might Be Coming Soon to a Lab Near You” by Cara Lockwood (creator of the Bard Academy series) explores the scientific applications in Hunger Games and parallelisms in real life scientific developments, technology and the danger it poses to both Panem and the real world, and the responsibility that comes with it.

The essay focuses highly on genetic engineering, and actually reminds me of an essay I wrote for my philo class in college, which basically covers the same subject. And I share her main point about drawing the line somewhere for science.

My science-minded friends can probably debate this to death, but I agree when Lockwood says, “Science is only a tool; it’s how you use it that matters… but even with the best of intentions, you can’t always control how it’s used or what the consequences are.” Science makes the world a better place, but there’s also a tradeoff, when complications develop along the way and lead to devastating consequences (*cough, cough* little duckling!).

On an endnote, she positions Hunger Games as a cautionary tale at “playing God” and how we can avoid Panem’s fate by using science responsibly.

Terri Clark (author of Sleepless) writes the fascinating “Crime of Fashion,” which obviously focuses on the fashion commentary in the series and the fabulous Cinna, and how they not only make Katniss look good, but actually save her life and ignite a rebellion.

I enjoyed the discussion of Katniss’ (unintentional) fashion statement, and how Clark profiles Cinna (making me madder about the Lenny Kravitz Cinna. Hrmf!) and theorizes on his reasons for sending out Katniss in her garb. It reminds me of the theory that Aaron voiced out in the book discussion we had at the Mockingjay launch — that Cinna actually started the rebellion, and

Clark throws in a quote from Cinna:

“Don’t worry,” Cinna tells Kat in Catching Fire, fully knowing what he has done and what it will cost him. “I always channel my emotions into my work. That way I don’t hurt anyone but myself.”

(and I must say, I still feel sad about Cinna until now).

“Bent, Shattered, and Mended” by Blythe Woolston (author of The Freak Observer) discusses post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), how it is inevitable for the victors, and how the survivors can take the path to healing. It’s highly interesting, reading like a clinical diagnosis of the characters based on the symptoms of PTSD.

“The Politics of Mockingjay” by Dani Littman (YA author/ newspaper columnist) draws a parallelism between the war in Panem and war in real life, and gives another look at the characters of President Snow, Alma Coin, Peeta, Gale, and Katniss, and concludes (about Mockingjay):

“Not only does it raise the difficult, eternal questions of war and humanity, grief and revenge, but one hopes it will encourage all of us to become more politically aware and active, and not to ever allow ourselves to risk the erosion of our democracy and civil liberties for panem et circenses.”

“The Inevitable Decline of Decadence” by Adrienne Kress (author of Alex and the Ironic Gentleman and Timothy and the Dragon’s Gate) proposes that “Panem is a perfect example of a society that lives to excess, as well as the perfect example of excess’ inevitable result,” and draws a parallel between Panem and the Roman Empire. Kress attributes the fall to two reasons, one, when society cannot support the decadence of its citizens, and two, when the masses come together in a revolution.

Finally, “Community in the Face of Tyranny: How a Boy with a Loaf of Bread and a Girl with a Bow Toppled an Entire Nation” by Bree Despain (author of the Dark Devine series) talks about Katniss’ ability to stir community spirit , which was instrumental to her survival as well as the rebellion (and then a bit about Peeta, mostly as a prop for Katniss).

It zeroes in on the concept of community:

“The Hunger Games trilogy—what starts out as a tome depicting an example of ultimate totalitarian control—soon unravels into a possible morality tale for anyone with tyrannical aspirations, in which the concept of community is offered as the answer to overthrowing an oppressive regime… Overlooking the smallest act of community can light the spark that sets an entire neighborhood, or even nation, ablaze with feelings of brotherhood, sharing, and concern for the greater good… Even the weak, the broken, and the seemingly incapable pose a serious risk to a leader who rules out of fear.”

All in all, I thought the book was a great idea — I like the thought that the authors put into their essays. I thought, among the various discussions I’ve had of the book, I’d covered all topics in HG, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that the essays cover new ground. The authors also took time to mull over their hypotheses, and provide substantive evidence toward the conclusion. Definitely a thought-provoking read for HG fans, and an excellent way to revisit the series.


The Girl who was on Fire, ebook review copy courtesy of BenBella Books

4/5 stars

book #66 for 2011

10 thoughts on “The Girl who was on Fire”

  1. Hi Bloo! How do you feel about Jennifer Lawrence being cast as Katniss? A friend (also a huge Hunger Games fan) and I were apprehensive at first, but she said something in an Entertainment Weekly interview that makes us think that she actually really gets Katniss. She said that she’s most excited to shoot this scene:

    “The first time that Katniss has to go into the cylinder and she goes up into the arena and looks around and sees it for the first time…Knowing that when that trumpet blows she could die. The thing that’s great about her is she’s not a murderer. She’s a hunter, but she’s not a killer. I told Gary, ‘I totally understand if you don’t hire me, but please remember that after Katniss shoots a bow and kills someone her face cannot be badass. It has to be broken.’ She has to be heartbroken because she just took another person’s life. It’s so tempting, especially with a cool, big budget franchise movie, but we have to remember that she’s a 16-year-old girl who’s being forced to do this. These kids are only killing each other because if they don’t, they’ll die. It’s needless, pointless, unjustified violence. So there’s nothing cool about her. It’s not like she looks around the arena and goes ‘Yeah, I got this, I’m going to do this.’ I think she looks around terrified and thinks, ‘Well there are all the million different ways that I can die.”

    Don’t give up hope. We might be pleasantly surprised :)

    1. For me, it’s not about who’s in the film. I’m just not a big fan of watching movie adaptations of my favorite books.

  2. Wow. This book is really thorough. I never even thought about how pivotal the fashion (Cinna) was to the rebellion. Neither did I give much thought about the tracker jackers and mutts. I’m glad there’s a book like this to extend my enjoyment of The Hunger Games. I wonder if they have a book similar to this but pertaining to The Harry Potter series? :)

    1. Not from this publisher, but there are tons of books like this on the subject of Harry Potter. I’ve got a handful of them in my collection!

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