After the end of the Harry Potter films (not to mention the books), I had several recommendations to read The Hunger Games trilogy. While it certainly seemed more interesting and fulfilling than the Twilight series, I did not get around to reading it until I started to see the promotional material in a bookstore for the first Hunger Games film. These tie-in books with glossy colour pages of photos, charts, simplified character lists, etc. immediately drew me into the world of Panem and the horrifying gladiatorial combat that was the Hunger Games.
Even more horrifying was reading the trilogy (over the course of three days) to discover startling similarities between the relationship between the Capitol and the Districts and the wealthier countries of our world as compared to those whose populations are almost permanently sick and starving. The Katniss Everdeen of the early chapters of the first book is eerily familiar and could believably be alive today in many countries. More chillingly, the Hunger Games seem to me to be entirely plausible. Yes, we might be horrified at the actual killing of children, but we are perfectly all right with the concept. All producers would have to do would be to reassure us that no children were actually harmed – and make sure that said children had no one to miss them. There are lots of street children throughout the world, after all. In a world where food shortages are a growing problem, the Games seem all the more familiar. What frightens me the most is that it would not take a dictatorship to create such horrors.
Having devoured the books, I was thrilled with the first film. It remains one of the most faithful adaptations of a novel to screen that I have seen. So faithful, in fact, that the audience members who had read the book knew exactly when to go to the bathroom before the action became too intense to miss! Some of the details of the book were altered or compressed to better represent the story in film, but these were few. Chiefly, the first-person narration and perspective was dropped in favour of expanding our understanding of Panem, its citizens, and President Snow. Yet this was done without taking the spotlight off of Katniss. She remains the story’s anchor throughout all of the films, even if we are no longer privy to her inner thoughts.
The Hunger Games is above all a survival story. The romance feels unnatural – because it is, not being really being there initially. Katniss and Peeta barely know each other. They have a history mostly consisting of a childhood crush (on Peeta’s part) and being grateful at having been given a loaf of bread in a time of need (on Katniss’s part). As for Gale, while he had romantic feelings for Katniss, it seems clear throughout the book that these were not reciprocated. The film unfortunately leaves Katniss’s feelings ambiguous because we lose her inner monologue. Jennifer Lawrence does a brilliant job at conveying the character and I never get the feeling that she is attracted to Gale except as a friend/big brother-substitute – but I had read the book. What is clear in the books (and not made quite as obvious in the film) is that Katniss is much too concerned with survival to focus on romance. She has to be coached in her role for the Games. It is a refreshing change to have the heroine of a story aimed at young adults who is not obsessed with romance and sex, but who is fully committed to her family and her own future. Katniss is portrayed as a character for young girls to look up to, and I most definitely agree.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire also stayed fairly true to the book. We were treated to the aftermath of Katniss and Peeta winning the previous Games and witness how their actions have permanently affected the stability of Panem. More importantly, we get to see how they are coping psychologically with the trauma that they have witnessed (and participated in) and with being puppets for the state, rather than being allowed to relax and return home to their old lives. We are also introduced to many new characters as Katniss’s hitherto cozy and self-contained world expanded. This film is a transition from the morbid adventure romp of the first film and the outright war stories that are the Mockingjay films. While it is clear that Panem is on the brink of war and smaller rebellions have already broken out, we are soon lured back into the familiar world of the Games. Similar scenes to the first film are echoed with foreboding. We were casual and intrigued spectators last time. In this second film, we became disgusted at the spectacle.
Catching Fire is a child’s game grown up. The contestants are all adults, many of them with varying degrees of madness. Scratch that – all of them with varying degrees of madness. Instead of wide-eyed children, the former Victors know all of the drills. The inner workings of the Games become more visible. Various contestants ally together and attempt to take on the Gamemakers and even the government itself. We really do not want to be watching the Games anymore, but we want to see the rebellion succeed.
Succeed they do, leaving us with the set-up to Mockingjay Parts 1 & 2. Now the Games are gone. It is a real war now. The adults have taken over and Katniss finds herself defining her own role in the fight. She was still a scared teenager before. Now she is a woman who insists on having her own terms met, even at the expense of the rebellion. She is relatively broken, but she does her best to build herself up again. This story is a wonderful illustration of young adulthood, albeit in extreme circumstances. In the first book, Katniss is considered a child – an innocent victim. She is considered a fairy-tale princess in the second book, growing up immediately but also coddled and protected. Between the middle of Catching Fire and the middle of Mockingjay, Katniss sheds her innocence and rebels against the image that has been created for her. This is why she is increasingly seen as dangerous. President Snow and the designer Cinna are shown to have realised this early on, even as she was still seen as the innocent girl. It takes Katniss a long time to realise this about herself. She just wanted to save her sister, and then save Peeta. She never really wanted to defeat President Snow until he orders the destruction of District 12, leaving her little choice but to work to get her home back.
Funnily enough, it is in these last films that the love triangle really takes off. I still do not buy it. Katniss shows little interest in Gale except as a friend. It is with Peeta whom she feels the most connected. Getting him to safety is her main priority throughout the films. Gale cannot understand her, nor her motivations. He lost her the moment that she volunteered in the first film. Barring Peeta, Katniss is devoted to her sister (and her mother, to a lesser extent) and shows more romantic attraction to Finnick Odair* than Gale. Had she never volunteered for the Games, she and Gale might have developed a romantic relationship later. Had Gale not implicated himself in the plot that resulted in Prim’s death, and had Peeta not survived, he and Katniss might have had a lustful fling, but neither would have had a deeper connection than simple biology. Katniss Everdeen started off having to define her role as a lovesick sweetheart, but that was not at all who she was. That was a fake teenage girl role. By the end of the story, Katniss is her own person, and who she ultimately ends up with is incidental to her role, albeit very important to her, of course.
The books and the films both developed fanbases who were eager to see Katniss end up with either Peeta or Gale, much like the Team Edward and Team Jacob cults around Twilight, but neither the books nor the films had much of a triangle to begin with. The films pretty much had to manufacture some romantic tension using creative editing of trailers and some longing looks. It was obvious that Gale was long out of the picture – he harboured romantic interest for Katniss, but she did not do so for him. After their experience in the Games, Katniss and Peeta had an understanding of each other that no one else could have stepped into. I found that the promotional aspects of the films – as well as lots of fans and critics who had never read the books – tried too hard to focus on the so-called love triangle. There really was none, except in Gale’s head, and perhaps at some point, Peeta’s. Seeing the two men discuss Katniss in the final film was sentimentally sweet but also laughable. Did either of them think that Katniss would not make up her own mind? Or that she might decide instead to forgo romance altogether?
As for the war plot in Mockingjay itself, I thought it was well-executed and the story suitably dark for a series that started off with the killing of children. It rarely veered into campiness, and when it did, it only magnified the horror. While many elements of the war were fantastical and futuristic, it maintained its realism in how it played out and in its aftermath. Just because the war ends does not mean that the world will get better immediately.
Just as Katniss matures over the series, this is one of the first young adult series that young people may read that shows realistically how governments change. Nothing is done overnight, and old habits die hard. Leaders use many ends to justify the means by which they achieve them. The media is used as a manipulation tool by all sides. Replacing one regime with another will not necessarily make the world better. Finally, it is essential to learn that one may earn one’s happy ending, but that does not mean that one will get it. Katniss is still broken after many years. She may have survived, but she is traumatized.** This is more obvious in the book that in the film, but Jennifer Lawrence manages to convey her character’s trauma as well as she can. Besides, younger audience members still have to learn for themselves through experience that happy endings do not happen immediately.
In conclusion, I truly enjoyed The Hunger Games and am glad that the films remained so faithful to the original books. It is certainly not whimsical and is somewhat too realistic sometimes, but that is what it is meant to do. The film series also proved that they could successfully market an action-adventure story with a female lead. While Katniss had lots of supporting men, she was the star. She also had a lot of female company, and most of her motivation was for her family and later her country, not for romance. At the same time, it is not a film with an agenda to promote women’s rights. The story is very organically told. It is beautiful and yet awful, entertaining and yet horrifying. It is a perfect transition story from adolescence to adulthood. As an adult, I watch and thank God that my fight has not been so literal or traumatizing.
I do wish I could have been better at archery though.
*Incidentally, I thought the character of Finnick was portrayed perfectly. No, he did not get enough screentime for my liking, but he was in the story exactly when needed. He also got his Poseidon-inspired heroic death, much to my relief. Finnick was broken like Peeta and Katniss, but being older, he had figured out how to use his brokenness to his advantage and how to cope with his trauma. He was more militaristic, even moreso than Gale, but he was also devoted to his family – in this case Annie, who was all he had left. He was also more friendly, like Peeta. Before his demise, he had moved into a big brother role to Peeta and Katniss, and likely would have continued to do so. Ultimately, he is more the hero than Gale, so he rightly should have been the third face of the trio. Likewise, Annie is an intriguing character who does not get enough attention – though that is primarily because Katniss was not concerned with her. If Suzanne Collins ever wants to write another book in the series, a book starring Finnick and Annie would be most welcome!