The Hunger Games.
I know I’m several years late to the game (pun intended) but a few weeks ago, I finished all the books and two of movies from The Hunger Games series. I had been peripherally involved in the fanfare of the series when the movies first started coming out through a few good friends but it took finding used copies of the books to really spark my interest in the girl on fire (pun yet again intended).
For those who don’t know, the series takes place in a dystopian future in which North America is now separated into thirteen districts and ruled by a Capitol. A savage rebellion and war between the Capitol and districts tore apart the country, now known at Panem, 74 years earlier and as a reminder for the surviving districts’ failure (as the thirteenth had been destroyed), The Hunger Games were born. The games take place once a year and each district is required to pick one girl and one boy between the ages of 12 and 18 to literally fight to the death. The 24 tributes, as they’re referred to, are sent to an arena in which only one can leave and thus, becoming a tribute is almost certainly a death sentence.
But when Katniss Everdeen volunteers in place of her younger sister, everything changes. She manages to unwittingly play the Capitol at their own game by getting her and the other tribute from her district to both be declared victors and accidentally starts a revolution in the process. The books and subsequent movies follow from the start of Katniss being chosen for the games to the war and rebellion against the Capitol to the eventual win and rebuilding of the country.
I honestly really liked the books, although the first person style threw me a little at first. But Suzanne Collins manages to balance the first person narrative with explaining the world that the books take place in. The pace of the books also threw me a little because having watched some of the movies first, I half expected the books to be a bit faster. But the slower pace actually works for the books and allows for the story to move forward in not only the action scenes but in the conversations and relationships between people as well.
I also really love being able to take this series and apply many of the messages and themes to real life. While we don’t actually have entire arenas built for the sole purpose of having children kill each other, there are other things about the series that say a lot about the world we do currently live in. The relationship between race and class seems evident, especially through the descriptions of Katniss’s sister and mother. The conversation on masculinity, femininity, and gender expectations are easily analyzed through the main love triangle. Plus, there’s the connection between the fictional hunger games and the very real Olympics – something that Olympic competitor Samantha Retrosi wrote about a couple years ago.
While I do love a lot about the series, there are some things I don’t. One of the biggest is the ending, in large part because it seemed rushed. There was all of this action going on, with Katniss right in the middle and then, it was just all over in a couple paragraphs. Within a few pages, we go from action packed scenes with rebels taking the capitol to having the entire ending explained to Katniss (and thus, us). That trend of Katniss getting hurt and losing consciousness happens repeatedly throughout the series and by the end of it all, I was really just annoyed.
Plus, we’re rushed through the rebuilding of the country and are left with Katniss and Peeta’s children running through a meadow. It is, for the most part, a happy ending that ties up the loose ends. But it’s not a particularly satisfying one in my opinion. Jordan Calhoun’s review of the last book and related movies is particularly accurate to how I felt, especially this:
What’s so frustrating is that I actually LIKED it up to the point Katniss finally made it to the mansion. 200 pages were spent following the slow progression through the city to get to the mansion. I thought, “Oh shit, this is about to get REAL.” And then a few paragraphs later Katniss wakes up FROM PASSING OUT FOR THE THOUSANDTH TIME AND HAS THE ENDING EXPLAINED TO HER. No closure with Gale, no surprising Snow in his mansion, no final climactic confrontation, no cameo from THREE characters presumed but never shown to be dead. dal;kjgd;lakgjedsa;kljgd;akls JUST THINKING ABOUT IT MAKES ME WANT TO GO BRUCE BANNER AND RIP THIS BOOK APART.
Katniss lived through hell in the games and fighting in the revolution, only to have almost no closure once it was all finished. Many of the most important people in her life end up dead or working in another district – she even spent the first couple days after everything pretty much by herself. All the adults in her life knew how much trauma she had been through (several had even been the perpetrators) and not one of them worried about her mental health?
Katniss was clearly struggling with PTSD and a variety of other things yet people thought it would be a good idea to let her be back in district 12 pretty much by herself for a few days? I get that everyone has a country to rebuild from a rather chaotic revolution and she did kill Coin but it just really shows how much of a pawn Katniss was to some people.
As far as the movies go, I was interested to see how the first person narrative would transfer over to the movies but having the commentators of the games explain a bit of what’s going on really helped with that. Plus, I also really loved showing the behind the scenes of the game with the people controlling the arena because it allowed for the audience to see the calculating nature of the Capitol no matter if they read the books before seeing the movies.
There’s a lot to love about the movies: the costumes, the casting of some of the characters (i.e. Amandla Stenberg as Rue, Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch), lines and entire scenes pulled straight from the books. The details that went into the costumes, makeup, set, and wigs were unbelievably amazing. In my opinion, the people behind Effie’s entire look should win all the awards.
There is a lot to critique about the movies though. One of the biggest things is the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Katniss is repeatedly described in the books as having olive skin and dark hair yet the casting call for the character directly called for white actresses. Her description from the books could easily been read as white but at the same time, could just as easily been read as biracial. When the news was first released that Jennifer Lawrence was taking the role back in 2011, Deb Jannerson wrote about the whitening of the main character, saying that:
Katniss’ ethnic background is never spelled out in familiar terms in the story, which makes sense, given that it takes place in either an alternate universe or a distant-future Earth in which former countries’ names have become obsolete. Still, she is indicated to be of mixed ancestry, and her dark, olive-colored skin is mentioned repeatedly. In fact, she describes not resembling her mother and sister, who have pale skin and hair and thus could pass for members of a higher class. If this sounds like commentary on the way society treats people of color, it is, as much as the war-ravaged Panem run by the despotic “Capital” speaks to modern politics. With Lawrence stepping into Katniss’ boots, though, Collins’ address of racial dynamics is likely to be lost.
With Hollywood’s sore lack of diversity and representation, having a woman of color play the main character in a major series would have been a step in the right direction. But judging by the way people reacted to who had been cast as Rue, Thresh, Cinna, and others, I doubt that there would have been an overwhelming amount of support, especially from white fans, for a woman of color to be Katniss. These movies, including the casting and fan reactions, seem to only add to the idea of whiteness being the default.
The Hunger Games, while not perfect, offer up a story of revolution, oppression, and all the chaos in between. There are characters who are flawed and complex, ones who do the wrong things for the right reasons and others who do wrong things for selfish reasons. Through Katniss, we experience the same horrific and violent tradition twice and a messy revolution in a way that only a survivor could manage.