Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is all the rage today; had I known what a phenomenon it would become, I’m sure I would have read the books and prepared a review to coincide with the release of the films. Alas, it is too late for that. But with every twelve-year old I know either reading the books or begging to, and with many of the women I know also reading and enjoying them (along with more than a few men), I began to wonder, what is it that makes this story sell millions of books and 155 million dollars in movie tickets on opening weekend alone? So I read the The Hunger Games (the first book in the series, at least) and watched the movie. And I think I get it. Some of it, anyway.
Now I’ll admit from the outset that I didn’t enjoy the book as much as many others have. Aileen says I’m just a book snob. I’d tend to disagree, but I suppose I shouldn’t just discount what she says. However, even though I wasn’t as taken with the books as many others, I do think I see what the fuss is about and why they have such great appeal.
But first, here in a hundred words or less, is a summary of the book: The United States has been very nearly destroyed and in the aftermath of the apocalypse the Capital holds all the power, utterly dominating the remainder of the country which has been divided into 12 districts. As a form of punishment and control, once per year each district has to send one teenaged boy and one teenaged girl to participate in The Hunger Games, a winner takes all fight to the death. Katniss Everdeen, the hero of the story, is one of those who must battle for her life.
Now here are some of the themes that I believe have contributed to the book’s popularity. If you’ve read the story, I’d love to hear if you think I’m right or if I’m completely missing the point.
Good and Evil. The story clearly delineates between good and evil. There is no confusion about what is right and what is wrong, no difficult or confusing shades of gray. Collins makes it easy on the reader by making the participants in the games either all-good or all-evil. There is one character who may be a little less evil than the rest, but he dies at the hand of one of the bad guys; none of the good guys has to face an agonizing decision about whether or not to take his life. Katniss is good, Peeta is good, Rue is good, every other participant who is developed as a character is evil. We all love a story of good versus evil and this one follows a tried-and-true pattern.
I think there is more here, though, than mere good versus evil. I think there is a kind of evil here that does battle with the moral relativism in our culture. There is no doubt that these games are purely evil, that it is wrong to pit a child against another child in a battle to the death. Children who read the books are seeing pure evil doing battle with pure good and enjoying that contrast. It is so clear, so unconfusing, so real. he few, the rich, the residents of the Capital—their children are in no danger, so for them these bloody games are mere entertainment. And not just that, they are the highlight of the year, a holiday. The injustice in it all is so clear, so apparent, so in contrast with the spirit of our age. It is rare that we are allowed to feel evil as evil; in this story we are free to rage against it.
The Underdog. While the story is one of good battling evil, it so happens that the evil are also the rich and powerful while the good are the poor and weak. Katniss is from the districts and not only that, but from one of the farthest and poorest district. She and her people are being oppressed by the rulers in the Capital. This provides the framework for a classic underdog story. Don’t we all love a story of a David versus a Goliath? The reader gets to see Katniss in the David role, battling the giant on behalf of the little people. Little wonder that the nation finds solidarity there, that they rally around her. “David has slain his tens of thousands…” Collins has tapped into a deep desire within each one of us. Good versus evil and the beauty of willing substitution live deep within us.
Katniss. The leader of the rebellion is an unlikely and unexpected hero, one who has been thrust into the role though she, of all people, seems unsuited to it. Katniss Everdeen is a strong lead character, an intriguing combination of confidence and naiveté but with barely a shred of the feminist in her. She reminds me of Mattie Ross of True Grit (one of my all-time favorite lead characters), though without Mattie’s penetrating observations about the world. But she is much the same in that she doesn’t understand her own magnetism and gets by in the world by the charm she doesn’t know she has. Somehow she is taken by surprise when she learns that people genuinely love her. Some have compared her to Ree in Winter’s Bone (perhaps not coincidentally, played by the same actress in the film adaptation) and that too is a fair comparison. In Katniss, Collins has created a great lead character who manages to carry the story even in its weaker or more cliched moments. She is a girl that other girls and women can identify with and she is a girl that boys find themselves drawn to. I’m sure there are more than a few boys out there dreaming of protecting a Katniss some day…
Dutiful Love. Katniss is a character who is motivated by love and, perhaps even more clearly, duty. There is a classic star-crossed lovers plot in the book, but I think that may come secondary to the love displayed as duty. Katniss loves and protects her little sister and feels a strong sense of duty toward her. It will not give away much of the plot to state that Katniss is only in the games because she offers herself as a substitute for her sister. She puts her own life on the line to protect her little sister. In a world of cliched, weak love, and in a world where some female characters are so weak (I’m looking at you, Bella), Katniss is strong in all the right ways. She is strong enough to stand up for what is right, strong enough to succeed, but sensible enough to know when she needs help (even from a boy). Her duty compels her to do the most difficult thing. This is love that draws us and appeals to us in a way romantic love may not.
I suppose what I am seeing is that Collins has crafted a story that appeals to some of our deepest longings. The story could have failed in making Katniss a feminist or in making her too weak; it could have failed in attempting to make a statement about moral relativism. But somehow Collins has avoided those extremes and has created a world and a set of characters who have rich and broad appeal.