The Hunger Games is a dystopian series set in the distant future Appalachia. The world – as much as we know of it – has destroyed itself and been reborn as Panem. In the centre is the Capital, where people live in luxury and entertain themselves with fashion and the drama of the Hunger Games. Around it are twelve districts, each focusing on a single industry so that all dependent on each other for the basic necessities of life. Once, 75 years before the series begins, the districts rebelled in what has come to be known as the Dark Days. There were thirteen districts then, but the Capital destroyed one in the battle. To ensure that the districts would never again seek to rebel, the Capital instituted the Hunger Games – a gladiatorial event in which two children, a boy and a girl, from each district is selected by lottery and entered into the arena, there to fight to the death until only one child is left.
The odds were in Katniss Everdeen’s favour and she was not called to be a tribute for the Capital’s Hunger Games, but her little sister was not so lucky. When Katniss volunteers herself to take her sister’s place, her personal refusal to accept the Capital’s rules lay the groundwork for a return of the Dark Days and the possible extinction of what’s left of human society.
Are you on Team Peeta or Team Gale?
The Hunger Games series followed many conventions that could have reduced it to a superficial, silly novel – the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale perfectly illustrates my point. It would have been all too easy for the Hunger Games to become about Katniss’s “boy troubles,” to make her struggle be about the men in her life. The narrative does flirt with this at a few points, but it does so in a psychologically real way that preserves Katniss’s identity as an individual in her own right, rather than as an object for the competition between two males. As Shoshana Kessock points out, the only real team in the Hunger Games is Team Katniss.
Living vs Surviving
Katniss’s reaction to her dystopian government grows and changes in interesting ways. In the beginning, she is resigned to her fate, content merely with survival. She dismisses the interests of both boys in her love triangle because she cannot envision a future with either, a future which may include having children, in a society that would allow have something like the Hunger Games. It’s Peeta who offers her an alternative to simple survival – living – which, paradoxically, may mean martyrdom. His refusal to sacrifice who he is as a person to play by the Capital’s rules is a lesson to Katniss that simply surviving isn’t enough. She comes back to this lesson again and again through the series, each time understanding a little more about what Peeta meant.
Coming back to the romance tropes, it was so refreshing to see Katniss and Peeta help each other grow as individuals rather than simply learning to don a new identity at the expense of the self. Bella Swan, of Twilight fame is a perfect example of the latter. She sheds her self to take up the identity of her paramour (in this case, his identity as a vampire). In the Hunger Games, on the other hand, Peeta serves as a lesson, but it changes Katniss in a way that is unique to herself. She doesn’t become a copy of Peeta, but rather a person who has been shaped by her relationship with him.
In the first book of the series, the sides are fairly clear: the Capital is bad, the Districts are victims. But by the second book, Katniss is unable to reconcile her hatred for the Capital with her love for the Capital people in her life, such as her design team, Cinna, or even Effie. By the third book, the moral line that divides the sides becomes even more complicated as we meet the people of District 13 and fine them to be something less than the rescuers they have presented themselves to be. As with so many of our real world revolutions, when the rebels win the war, they adopt all the habits they had so recently fought against. There’s a lesson there for readers about trying to fit groups into a “good guy vs bad guy” narrative, and about thinking too uncritically about one’s in-group.
Much of the series revolves around Katniss’s image. Throughout the series, characters are always dressing Katniss, using her appearance to tell a narrative that promotes their own agenda. I kept thinking of our fashions and the way that clothes often display the maker’s branding in a highly visible spot, using their customers as walking billboards. Through it all, Katniss struggles to keep hold of who she is as a person, an individual separate from the image is made to project.
There’s also a lesson here about the importance of image, and how powerful our appearances can be.
This series is absolutely fantastic. At only three books, there’s really no reason not to go out and read it. It’s very well written and excellently plotted. If you haven’t already, give it a try!
Edit: And hey, if you think that the Hunger Games (the actual games, not the books) were awesome, you can now experience them first hand (sort of)! Presenting “literary tourism.”