One Down, Three to Go – The Hunger Games

Peeta Mellark

Image via Wikipedia

I just tore through The Hunger Games. Even though I knew what would happen, I still had a hard time putting it down.

Now that I’m finished, though, I have a bad taste in my mouth. Our heroine, Katniss, has left me perplexed.  Of course I was rooting for her, but do I like her?  Is she a good person?  I mean, I know she’s a 16 year old who’s lived an incredibly hard life and is used to looking out for herself, because that’s the only way she can keep her family going. But sometimes she seems like kind of a bitch – and an unlikeable one at that.  (Of course, the most terrifying prospect is that I am unable to identify with her because I am literally twice her age.  EEEEEEEK!!)

As I read, I had a number of (not necessarily consistent) thoughts and theories about the stories and Collins’ message.  I love the Kindle because I can highlight passages as I go along, and add little notes throughout the text to remind me of items that caught my attention.  (Because I read very (too) fast, I often lose the details of a story shortly after finishing it.  This works out for me in a fashion, because I can always come back to the well of my favorite books and find something new.)

So, a few thoughts:

Katniss as accidental rebel and unwitting symbol of rebellion.  Katniss is a ‘rebel’, just by virtue of her refusal to lay down and starve to death.  But her ‘rebellion’ is driven by necessity, not some overriding ethos.  She’s rebellious when she volunteers to take Prim’s place at the Reaping, but that act springs from the same instinct that leads her to hunt – her sister is the center of her world, and Katniss will do anything to keep her safe:

Family devotion only goes so far for most people on reaping day. What I did was the radical thing.

Collins, Suzanne (2009). The Hunger Games (p. 26). Scholastic Paperbacks. Kindle Edition.

Katniss isn’t particularly well suited for the role of actual rebel (although she makes a good enough symbol in the later books) because she’s unable to grasp the big picture – or is she?  Sometimes, she’s able to pick right up on Haymitch’s manipulations and, in the game,  is often able to figure out what he wants from her.  But she fails to grasp what Peeta instinctively understands, that the games neither begin nor end in the arena.

Haymitch as mastermind.  On this second reading,  I realize that Haymitch is manipulating Katniss and Peeta, and the public perception of the two of them, from the moment they are presented to the TV cameras in their flaming chariot. Does Katniss play along so well because she’s a survivor and she understands that you do what you have to, or is she truly a master manipulator as well?  It is not until they are almost back at District 12 that Peeta learns Katniss’ behavior was part of a survival strategy – even though her behavior may also have some true underlying feeling, Peeta is devastated, and it’s heartbreaking:

“… So, Haymitch has been coaching me through the last few days. So I didn’t make it worse,” I say.

“Coaching you? But not me,” says Peeta.

“He knew you were smart enough to get it right,” I say. “

I didn’t know there was anything to get right,” says Peeta. “So, what you’re saying is, these last few days and then I guess…back in the arena…that was just some strategy you two worked out.” …  He drops my hand and I take a step, as if to catch my balance. “It was all for the Games,” Peeta says. “How you acted.”

(p. 372).

Is Katniss a manipulating bitch or a clueless kid?  Or both? I alternately felt for Katniss and was annoyed with her – as I said above, she had a hard upbringing, and became the literal breadwinner for her mother and sister at the age of eleven.  Her day to day existence is one of life and death. She’s a hard person by necessity – it’s clear to the reader early on, as she describes her relationship with Prim’s cat, Buttercup: “Entrails. No hissing. This is the closest we will ever come to love.” (p. 4).

Life in District 12, and indeed most of the Districts, must be a nightmare.  The reality of Panem is, for the majority of its inhabitants, pure, unrelieved misery.

Panem, the country that rose up out of the ashes of a place that was once called North America. … disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much of the land, the brutal war for what little sustenance remained. The result was Panem, a shining Capitol ringed by thirteen districts, which brought peace and prosperity to its citizens. Then came the Dark Days, the uprising of the districts against the Capitol. Twelve were defeated, the thirteenth obliterated. The Treaty of Treason gave us the new laws to guarantee peace and, as our yearly reminder that the Dark Days must never be repeated, it gave us the Hunger Games.

(p. 18).

Which brings me to,

Panem/the Capitol/the Hunger Games as a catalyst for transforming mere people into animals.  The night before they enter the arena, Peeta tells Katniss that his greatest fear, above and beyond dying, is that the games will turn him into “some kind of monster that I’m not.” (p. 141).   His fear manifests horribly in the Muttations introduced into the final battle at the Cornucopia – these wolf-creatures born of the fallen tributes.  Of all the horrifying moments in The Hunger Games, this one stuck with me.  The Hunger Games are Reality TV taken to the extreme – it’s Survivor, but for real.  The Games’ participants are not ‘real people’ to those in the Capitol who watch avidly and bet on the deaths of children.  Likewise, the inhabitants of the Capitol are so alien from anything Katniss knows that she finds it difficult to identify them as people: “they’re so unlike people that I’m no more self-conscious than if a trio of oddly colored birds were pecking around my feet.”  (p. 62).

I often say, jokingly (usually when Mr is watching some awful reality TV show) that reality TV is a sign of the apocalypse.  Maybe I’m right?

Peeta as hero.  I’ve come away thinking that Peeta is the real protagonist of the story, and Katniss just doesn’t realize it. He’s been planning all along to keep Katniss alive, thereby keeping himself alive (so his intentions are not entirely altruistic).  He genuinely cares for her, and is willing to sacrifice himself for her, repeatedly.  Without Katniss, Peeta never would have survived the games, but the reverse is also true.  He’s the Sam to her Frodo.

I’m gearing myself up to dive into Catching Fire.  I know what’s coming, and I’m steeling myself for more death – and, if I recall correctly, more than a little ‘teenager in love’ melodrama.  See you soon…

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