Warning: This Article Contains Minor Spoilers for “The Hunger Games” books.
With Hunger Games fever reaching a frantic state (the movie is coming out on the 23rd), it’s been very interesting to watch the uninitiated on Facebook struggle with the phenomena. My Facebook newsfeed is full of people reading the books for the first time, borrowing them from teenage daughters, and getting lost in the first book for days. All of this epitomized in my friend Sarah’s FB status: “what’s the big deal with the Hunger Games?”
While I answered her question quickly, I’ve been chewing over the series for the past week. Having relistened to the audiobooks, watching the previews and clips, and reliving every moment of my first experience (last year) I find the question easier to answer then when I first read them. As a writer, I tried to puzzle out why the Hunger Games works. Why it’s so popular. Why I feel it should replace Twilight and Harry Potter on every kids shelf. And I’ve come to some conclusions.
For those who still haven’t caught Hunger Games fever, the triology tells the story of 16 year old Katniss Everdeen, a fabulous hunter, who lives in the dystopian future of what is the remains of the United States (now called Panem). Because of the fallout 75 years ago, when mankind nearly destroyed itself, the dictators in The Capitol keep their grip on the citizens of Panem by organizing a giant gladiatorial/ reality TV show style event every year called “The Hunger Games.” Each district sends two tributes (a boy and a girl) between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in a fight to the death. 24 kids go in, only one comes out alive. When Katniss’ little sister, Prim, is selected, she volunteers to take her place.
The books are told in first person, narrated by the protagonist. Katniss is not a bubbly teenager though, having had to keep her family alive from a very early age (after her father dies). She’s gruff with everyone but her sister and her best friend, Gale. Even before she enters the arena for the games every day is about survival. This is why her character works. She’s a multifaceted, intriguing character. In some respects, she’s grown-up and self-reliant, in others she is decidedly still a teenage girl. Again and again she shows the reader the conflict of her lot in life, wanting to be brave, but feeling scared; knowing how to live with being hungry; but wanting the delicacies the Capitol has to offer; feeling responsible for those around her; but wanting someone to take care of her.
Katinss, is an extremely strong female character. She can take care of herself and those around her. She’s a bit snippy at times, but doesn’t come across as bitchy. While she accepts her physical limitations in the games, she uses her skill with a bow and her cleverness to outwit her opponents. That said, she can still admit when others are smarter or more clever than she is. Her mistrust of others is her only flaw, but it’s easy to understand given all she’s gone through in life. Without this mistrust, her character probably would not have the same hero’s journey she has throughout the trilogy.
What I love about Katniss is she’s not the only strong female character in the book. There’s Rue, the young tribute from District 11, who despite her size, scores one of the highest scores in the evaluation period before the game. There’s Foxface (Katniss couldn’t remember her name, and it’s never given in the book) whose cleverness gets her into the final 8. Even the ridiculous, pink-haired Effie Trinket has strong moments. The men are great too. From Gale and Peeta (Katniss’ main love interests) to Haymitch (Katniss’ mentor) and Cinna (Katniss stylist). All of them are given an emotional journey and character development that takes them far beyond their first portrayal.
It seems odd, but the Hunger Games theme is really based on food. Katniss’ life revolves around obtaining food and then clashes with the rich Capitol’s life of overindulgence then, it’s to the games where hunger is really part of the experience. In the books you can taste the food through the words alone and many of the most memorable moments center around food. Even those who haven’t struggled with being hungry can relate to the centric nature food has in our lives and understand the ability it has to give comfort, warmth, security that is key to the books.
From Robin Hood to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington there’s something inspiring in a story where a character awakens to the political opression around him or her and stands up to it. In the trilogy, Katniss is a reluctant hero. I shouldn’t say reluctant, she doesn’t even think of herself as a hero. Her sole purpose at the beginning is to save her sister, but as her journey progresses she realizes more and more the role she can play in making a change. Her life goes from self-focused to seeing the world around her as it is. She knows her life is hard, but slowly begins to grasp how much harder it is for others in Panem. Her quiet rebellion starts off small, but quickly grows as the series progresses.
The Serialization Feeling
I think one of the reasons The Hunger Games has been so popular is the way the book is written. It’s full of brutal action, crazy characters, an almost Wizard of Oz type world transformation, and the ticking time clock of a suspense thriller. That said, Suzanne Collins also brings into each novel the serialization feeling (i.e. the cliffhanger effect). Pretty much every chapter ends with some kind of heart-leaping announcement, event, or character introduction. It taunts you to turn the page, keep going, find out what happens next. I attribute this to Collins previous work in television, which relies heavily on the pre-commercial break cliffhanger, but even if it’s not, it’s addictive.
So why love the Hunger Games? Because it’s awesome. Read them for yourself and see if you aren’t hooked. Is it the 23rd yet?