Some Stones Unturned

Knitting, Biking and Some Sober Second Thoughts

In which I try to avoid being the last person on the planet to read The Hunger Games

This post contains spoilers for the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy.

I have been hearing about The Hunger Games for quite some time, but when I saw the movie trailer1, I mentioned how good it looked to a good friend and that I had bought the book on sale over Christmas and not cracked it open yet. She pretty much said “Read it. Read it now,” which is not something she does too often. So I pushed it to the top of the list, in spite of the fact that I have just finished the also-dystopian Wool 4 (which I’ll probably discuss after I’ve read the last one) and have been watching a bit of darker sci-fi TV stuff. Why I think this will help with the winter blahs I don’t know.

I really enjoyed it, found it a real page-turner (finished in about a day). I will probably wait a little while before picking up the remaining books in the series, both to try and read something a little lighter and for reasons I’ll talk about later. For those of you who have checked out the last post-apocalyptic novel post, you might be interested to know that there is no knitting in this novel. There is, however, one attempted drowning of a cat that, yes, is meant to tell us about the desperate world in which these people exist and the calculating  and compassionate natures of two different characters (previously, on cats and dystopias. I’ve seriously got to start cataloguing these). There are a few other subjects dealt with in slightly more detail, however.

Summary

The book takes place in Panem, formerly North America, and we’re told that droughts and fires led to a war for the little food and land that remained. This ended when the Capitol took charge and split everyone else up into 13 districts. Peace lasted a while, but at one point there was an uprising. The Capitol quashed it and destroyed one of the districts, leaving 12. These days trade and communication between districts remain tightly controlled by the Capitol and many of the outer districts, including District 12, where the main character Katniss lives, appear to be very neglected. So when Katniss’s father died and her mother fell into a depression, Katniss learned to hunt and gather from the forest to keep her family, including her younger sister Prim, from starving. She uses what she learned from her father before he died and works with a local boy in a similar situation, Gale.

The Hunger Games are a yearly event designed by the Capitol as a sort of punishment and reminder of the uprising and what it was like to fight for food (although the Capitol seems to try to convey the idea that it is an honour to be chosen to represent your district, which you would think would conflict with the punishment idea). One boy and one girl from each district are sent as tributes to compete in a televised battle to the death in an arena (death being either due to inability to survive in whatever ecosystem is in the arena that year or at the hands of another contestant). Every child between 12 and 18 is entered in the lottery to be a tribute and entries are cumulative.You can also have additional entries if you need to sign up for food rations for yourself or family members, so the poor are more likely to be chosen. At the start of the story, Prim’s name is drawn as tribute and Katniss volunteers to take her place, so she and the male tribute, Peeta, go to the Capitol for the competition.

Dystopias and the Media

It’s funny, because even though they’re rattling on about the Games, it’s all about where they were or what they were doing or how they felt then a specific event occurred.  “I was still in bed!” “I had just had my eyebrows dyed!” “I swear I nearly fainted!” Everything is about them, not the dying boys and girls in the arena.

We don’t wallow around in the Games this way in District 12. We grit our teeth and watch because we must and try to get back to business as soon as possible when they’re over.

Probably the most fascinating part of the book is the role the media plays in the Games, the way the audience sees them and also how media-conscious the tributes, particularly Katniss, are. You might think that a book about children being sent to kill each other would come off as unbelievable or pointless (since I assume we can all agree that this seems like a Bad Thing), but the way the characters in the book treat it makes it work, or it did for me anyway. District 12, on the neglected outer reaches where talk about the Capitol’s control isn’t as limited because the Peacekeepers are a bit more lax out there, dreads the Games and hates the Capitol for them, although they aren’t really prepared to do much about it. But there is definite resentment brewing there, seen when a government official asks for a round of applause for Katniss for volunteering to keep her sister from “[stealing] all the glory” and the citizens of District 12 stay silent.

But in the Capitol, where the Games take place but which has no tributes of its own, the Games are an event, with costumes and parades and huge amounts of food. People are excited about them and you sort of find yourself believing that maybe fights to the death for entertainment could be viewed as normal, if you had grown up with them, if it was supposed to be a reminder of a brutal war, if people told you it was a special thing that signified an important historical event.

As mentioned, I have been watching some Twilight Zone-style sci-fi and one thing that really strikes me about recent shows as well as the Hunger Games is the more participatory aspect of today’s media. If you look at something like 1984, where there are cameras in your house and Big Brother is being projected on screens around the city, you get the sense that it is sort of passive. TV is something they brainwash you with and you become a kind of unthinking drone who parrots the party line.

With reality TV shows, Youtube, Twitter, etc. we can’t pretend anymore that it is run by some shadowy organization doing bad things to us that we have no say in. These are media designed to give us what we want. They have like buttons so we can communicate exactly this. And so if they are showing horrible things, we have no one to blame but ourselves2.

Sometimes I think the message can get muddled in these sorts of stories and they come off seeming like they’re trying to say “This technology can be used for evil and so we should get rid of the technology.” When done slightly better, you get something like “Wow, we sure are diving into this new technology fast and maybe we aren’t considering all the side effects and should slow down until we can handle it responsibly.” But when I enjoy it most is when you get the sneaking suspicion that, given the same situation, we would be only moments from doing the things these people in the story are doing. And the problem is not the technology. It is us. The technology only serves to highlight how we have gone wrong inside.

I would put The Hunger Games in this last category. At first, when the broadcast of the tribute selection is described in District 12, the show appears to be a Big Brother sort of situation (the novel, not the reality show). Just as Katniss said, people view the games negatively and fear being chosen, knowing it is a punishment and likely death for whoever is chosen. But when we reach the Capitol, we see that the Games are not just meant to be watched by the audience; they are participatory. Not in the sense that any of these audience members have to fight to the death, of course, but in that they are invested in the “characters” of the children and there are various ways to influence the outcome of the Games. There is betting. There is sponsoring of contestants to send them gifts to help them survive during the games. And all kinds of jobs in the Capitol-stylists, escorts, prep teams, security, food services-revolve around doing things for the tributes before the Games start. A lot of these people are on stage, as though they’re stars. And when the Games are over, the arenas become a tourist destination where you can visit the sites of each of the deaths and even reenact them.

Along with that, people in the Capitol can’t stop talking about the Games while they’re on: not the fact that children are being trained to kill each other, but where they were when kills happened. It’s just entertainment to them. This sounds like it would be a really heavy-handed  message, I know, but I actually didn’t find these characters coming off as villainous as you might expect. It’s always been like this there, so everyone just accepts it, which is what allows it to work at the level where you think maybe in some future world of extreme food shortage and wealth disparity, where you have no communication outside your district, we would actually become like this.

Adopting a Persona

“All right, I’ll keep smiling pleasantly and you talk.”  -Peeta to Katniss, trying to act friendly over lunch, to put on a show for the other competitors and the Gamemakers.

So you may be thinking that there are all kinds of YA books out there about being on your own and developing skills to survive in a strange world (Crabbe, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle), but what is strange about The Hunger Games is that Katniss already knows all the survival skills when the book opens. She knows how to hunt and how to get by on very little food. What she doesn’t seem to know much about is reading other people and trying to please them.

She is oblivious to Peeta’s feelings for her and she says that her mother is scared about some of the anti-Capitol things that came out of her mouth when she was younger. She didn’t need to worry about pleasing people then; she was focused on not starving. Once the training and the Games start, however, Katniss immediately recognizes that survival now depends on winning people over. She keeps her face free of emotion during the tribute selection in case sponsors or other contestants are watching and her first instinct is that Peeta’s crying is due to some sort of strategy rather than, you know, leaving his family for significantly increased risk of death. What Katniss needs to learn to survive isn’t how to be tough or to hunt or to get by on her own; she needs media savvy. And Katniss becomes very good at playing to the cameras (perhaps even a little too good too quickly to be believable). To survive, she needs to develop a persona that will play well on TV.

This begins during the week or so of training before the Games, for all the contestants. They all have stylists, boys and girls, and they all are groomed:

“I know I should be embarrassed, but 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.

“The three step back and admire their work.  ‘Excellent!  You almost look like a human being now!’ says Flavius, and they all laugh.” -The style prep team, which includes a woman with “aqua hair and gold tattoos above her eyebrows”, a man with orange hair and purple lipstick and a woman whose skin is died pea green, remove all of Katniss’s body hair, turning her into something they consider to be more human, so she is “prepared” to go off and kill other children.

Katniss struggles at first, relying on a stylist’s outfit made of fire in the opening parade to help her stand out to the audience and arguing with her mentor, Haymitch, about how exactly she should try to present herself during the interview, but in general it all goes splendidly. Sometimes this is by luck, as when she arrives at the private demonstration where she is supposed to show off her skills to the Gamemakers. She finds that as the last of 24 contestants, they’re not paying much attention to her and she fires an arrow into the apple in the mouth of the boar on the buffet table where most of the officials have congregated and then she storms out. She assumes that she’ll be horribly punished, but as it turns out the Gamemakers love it and give her the highest score. Presumably they think this feisty persona will play well on TV, emphasizing that even when you try to lash out at these people controlling you, you are playing right into their hands because what’s more entertaining than a good outburst?

“Guess they liked your temper,”  Haymitch says.  “They’ve got a show to put on.  They need some players with some heat.”

By the time she gets to the arena, though, Katniss seems to be constantly aware of the fact that she is being filmed. She thinks to herself about who the camera will be on, how long it has been since the last fight and whether the Gamemakers might alter the terrain to start driving people together soon in case viewers get bored. In spite of her earlier inability to read people in her daily life, she tries to predict the audience’s emotional response to her actions in the arena and does quite well. She’s grown up her whole life watching the Hunger Games, so perhaps it’s not surprising that she knows what people want to see. But the other contestants have also grown up with them and only a few seem to be as media-savvy as she is or recognize its importance to their survival. They all know they’re putting on a show, but Katniss seems to have a particular knack for it, rarely forgetting that she is on TV, that she is performing.

Adopting a Persona and Being a Girl

If only I was his size, I could get away with sullen and hostile and it would be just fine!

The novel appears to be set in a world where there is some attempt at gender equality. It is never suggested that the female tributes don’t have as a good a chance of winning as the male tributes, although the fact that they deliberately choose a boy and girl from each district may say something. And throughout the Games, the ratio stays pretty much 1:1 until near the end. Back in District 12, Katniss hunted with her male friend Gale and it’s never suggested that he considers her a liability. People trade with Katniss and although she was afraid to enter the marker at first without her father, this seems to be more because she was young than because she was female. Even in the Capitol, the practices of body alteration amongst the people there seem common amongst both men and women. Both male and female tributes have stylists and are expected to look good and when Katniss describes tributes in previous years having been presented naked or in skimpy outfits, it doesn’t seem to be exclusively girls that she’s thinking of. Both sexes are exploited now. And yet there seem to be areas where the language still implies girls have to work harder to be taken seriously.

Peeta and Katniss’s mentor Haymitch has Katniss try on all sorts of different personae: fierce, witty, funny, sexy, mysterious, cocky, gushing and excited about the Capitol, etc. Katniss asks what personality Peeta is going to adopt and Haymitch tells her “likeable”, which is essentially his normal self-deprecating manner. He tells Katniss that she can’t use her normal personality because her normal personality is too “sullen and hostile”.

And it’s not just Katniss. The girl from district 1 is the sexy one. The girl from District 11 is the timid sprite-like one who’s tough to catch.  District 2 is presumably supposed to be fierce (although given later plot points, I think I would go with the more gender-neutral “tough”). The closest to sort of being herself appears to be district 5, who is clever and sly, able to hide well and steal food from people. In the interviews before the games, she had projected a certain air of mystery and Katniss seems convinced from the start that this girl is clever and takes her even more seriously as she sees more of her actions in the Game.

Compare to the boys whose personalities we see: districts 1 and 2 are what’s known as a “Career” tribute and while 2 is portrayed as tough and strong and possibly a little berserk, we see very little of 1’s personality. District 3 comes from an industrial area and he uses his knowledge to make explosives and bargain his way into the “Career” group, but we don’t learn much about his personality. District 11 keeps to himself and appears mysterious, giving simple “yes” and “no” answers, which stands out because it was what Katniss wanted to do, but Haymitch told her she couldn’t.

Dudes are accepted as potential winners by default and don’t have to win the audience with charm unless they appear small and weak. Women have to adopt a persona and their options seem to be shallower: fierce, sexy, etc. (Can boys even be “fierce”?  I suppose if they’re small enough, but in general I don’t think it would be looked upon as a compliment the way it supposedly is for girls?) And the boys personalities don’t seem to need to affect so much charm.

In the end, Haymitch gives up on Katniss and it is her stylist who gives her some advice to try to calm her nerves. Just be herself, he says, as if she were talking to a friend back home. So she goes out and tries to answer the questions honestly, not really trying to “be” anything. And she does well enough. With the host’s help, people laugh along with her, but later Haymitch tells her that, while she did better than he expected, she didn’t stand out. What made her stand out was when Peeta told the audience he loved her, that he’d loved her forever and all the boys back home wanted her. There. Now she was an object of desire. Now she was worth paying attention to.

Still later, once the game is on, we learn it is even worse than this. Several of the girls consider her flighty because when she was asked about her dress, made out of beautiful jewels, she said she loved it. She wanted to compliment her stylist, whom she likes and knows is responsible for her earlier success, so she (honestly) says she loves it and twirls around while giggling. It is one question out of many in the interview, amongst ones about why she volunteered and sacrificed herself for her sister, what happened in the training session that got her the highest score out of all the tributes. Yet what people want to hear about, what her competitors remember her for, is a giggly twirl in a dress and a boy saying he loved her. After that, she doesn’t need to adopt any persona of her own.

I’m torn now between thinking I’ve been used and thinking I’ve been given an edge…I survived my interview, but what was I really? A silly girl spinning in a sparkling dress. Giggling.

The mixed message: be strong and intimidate competitors, but be pretty so someone will sponsor you and be likeable so the audience will watch and the Capitol won’t have to drive you into dangerous situations. Don’t bother being yourself or someone your family would be proud of or even recognize, though. That’s a waste of time. That’s not going to win anyone over. That’s not going to help you survive.

All this is only emphasized at the end of the story when the Games are over and Katniss’s stylist dresses her in a yellow knee-length dress with her hair down in order to make her look younger and more innocent. As Haymitch later explains to her, her actions on the field have incited some murmurs (some of her later actions in the Game were subversions of the Capitol’s control, which you would think they might have been better at predicting given that arrow through the pig’s mouth apple thing) and the Capitol isn’t happy about it and THE ONLY WAY to stay safe is to pretend her actions are due to her being so head-over-heels in love with Peeta that she didn’t know what she was doing. The best way to stay safe in the world of The Hunger Games, as a girl, this world that appeared so gender neutral earlier, is to pretend you did everything for a boy, did it because you loved him so much that you couldn’t even think.

It’s disturbing. And it’s meant to be disturbing. It is a book about children being forced to hunt each other for other people’s entertainment and as a reminder of a past failed revolution that led to poverty and starvation in the outer districts, and yet here is this completely creepy moment of a different sort. For the purpose of having to kill a bunch of people, finding out that being yourself is not a successful strategy is probably comforting. But the Hunger Games are not won by killing people, or at least not solely by that; a much bigger part is winning an audience. Why can’t Katniss be herself to win an audience (and, to be pithy/dramatic about it, if you win by abandoning yourself and becoming what these people want, have you really won)? Why does a love story work as an excuse? And, most confusingly, why do I want the love story to work in spite of the fact I can see it’s forced and wrong?

We Want a Love Story

One more time? For the audience?

You think you can see where the love aspect of the story is going from early on. Katniss has trust issues to start with, having lost her father and her mother checking out. Then she is thrown into these messed up Games with Peeta. It is a life-threatening situation where you want to talk with someone and Peeta is a pretty open guy, but Katniss knows she has to kill him to win the game so can’t get too close to him. When he declares he loves her, she can’t trust that it’s not a game strategy3. And on top of all that, she feels she owes him for smuggling some bread out of his family’s bakery for her when she was starving to death as a kid. Also, she thinks about hunting back home and how much easier it is for two people. It seems pretty clear that these two are going to team up in the arena and Katniss is going to have to make some kind of decision about (a) how much she trusts him and (b) whether she can kill him after they work together4. As a reader, it just seems inevitable and you almost want it, except that this isn’t quite how it all plays out. Amongst other things, the reaction, in the book, of the Hunger Games audience to the couple casts uncomfortable shadows on our own expectations.

Katniss’s sense of where the camera is and what people want includes knowing that people want a love story. When the Gamemakers announce that there can now be two winners if they’re from the same district, Katniss sets off to find Peeta. Not because she loves him, but because two lives are obviously better than one and she knows she couldn’t go home and face district 12 by herself when there could have been two of them. She goes to find Peeta because she doesn’t want him to die, which is not nearly the same thing as being in love with him, and yet because there are so many stories about dying for love being a really romantic thing, it is easy for the show editors to portray Katniss’s actions as romantic.

Then when Katniss finds Peeta injured and knows she needs help, she kisses him and Haymitch gets enough audience donations to afford a bowl of broth. Katniss interprets this as a sign: one kiss = one bowl of broth. When they need food later, Katniss instigates an intimate conversation. It’s not that she’s heartless and these are strictly business transactions. She seems to like Peeta all right and is confused about her own feelings and thinks it’s possible that Peeta is playing the audience as well.

But it is our certainty about Peeta’s feelings and Katniss’s mixed feelings that make us (or me, anyway) start pulling for her to come around and for the relationship to work out. Peeta’s a nice guy and in books nice people should get happy endings and love is a happy ending. Isn’t Katniss just confused because she’s never been in love before? And of course the boy whose name was drawn out of the lottery bowl to join her in the Games is her soulmate because that just makes sense. What’s that? Katniss is thinking about that boy Gale back home whom she has hunted with and trusted and shared secrets with for years? Well, yeah, I guess he’s okay, but first kiss, true love, life-or-death situation, etc.

And in this way I’m no different than the audience of the Games. I haven’t given Katniss much of a chance to step back and decide what she wants. Twenty-two children are dead and I’m most worried that Katniss might hurt Peeta’s feelings. I suppose that if you consider that there’s not much you can do for the dead once they’re gone, that makes sense, but it’s not like their deaths were accidental or impossible to prevent. They were part of a televised event and the entire country was more invested in that love story than any of those deaths. They watched and donated things to them because they wanted that love story so much. That was the narrative that the pre-interviews and the people running the show set up. So, then exactly how much is Katniss obligated to really try to make this thing work? Will the audience feel like she “owes them” that effort?

I almost want to leave it at this and not read the next book (and I don’t think I will just yet). Leave it at Peeta holding out his hand and hollowly asking “One more time? For the audience?” Leave all the questions officially unanswered and ponder them for a bit. If Katniss doesn’t love Peeta, will he understand her behaviour during the Games? Can either of them return to anything resembling their old lives? And of course, the obvious, will the audience get over it? Would “one more time” really be enough for the audience or will they forever insist on updates on this couple the way reality TV shows have reunion and all-star episodes? I wonder, the way everything’s set up, about a sequel where Katniss admits she doesn’t love Peeta and people turn on her, just for that, and it is a story of how people felt justified in doing such a thing to someone they recently considered a hero over something that is, after all, not a crime.  Sometimes people don’t love you back.  They shouldn’t be forced to try. What Katniss seems to want most is to go back to her old life with Gale, but even if she didn’t have to live in the Victor’s Village and get a bunch of food as a winner (and get targeted by the Capitol for being subversive), you know she couldn’t have that.

The Chosen One/Reluctant Hero

May the odds be ever in your favour.

I am a big fan of the Overthinking It podcast and one thing they discuss is the idea of the Chosen One or the reluctant hero in stories, particularly American stories (see this podcast starting ~42:30).  The idea is that a lot of American stories involve the idea of fate and characters being destined to do things. Of course, America also has the American dream and the idea that if you work hard enough you can do anything, so you may see the hero undergo a certain amount of training, but it often occurs in a time-shortened montage, with maybe a few failures early on, but a rapid progression into awesomeness, where the hero achieves the same level of skill as people who have worked their whole lives at this thing5. The uber-example of this that they cite in the podcast is The Matrix, where Neo is “The One” for reasons that are never really explained in the story except that he is prophesied to be The One, and he takes the pill and is unplugged from the Matrix, where he is briefly disoriented, but quickly becomes as good at things as people who have been living outside the Matrix for much long, until he can eventually read the code. And training in The Matrix requires no work at all; a program is actually downloaded (or uploaded?) right into his brain, giving him access to all kinds of skills.

Often the Chosen One will also be a reluctant hero, where they are approached by a mentor and told of their Chosen One status and asked to enter a new world, but they demure. This helps (a) to explain why they had this secret talent they never knew about since it isn’t something they had ever wanted to try before and (b) to make any sort of violence or possibly unpalatable part of the story the hero must participate in more acceptable. The hero will shoulder the responsibility and do this unsavoury thing because it is what needs to be done and they are the One chosen to do it.

Katniss is not strictly “chosen” by fate; she volunteers when her sister is chosen. But this is a pretty limited definition of choice (let your inexperienced young sister go or go yourself) and I would certainly place her in the “reluctant” category. Compare Katniss to the “Career” tributes who have been well-fed and trained much of their lives for this competition and are from districts where tributes often volunteer instead of being selected by lottery. This sort of lifelong preparation is villified in the book. Not only are the characters from these districts portrayed negatively by Katniss’s point of view, but she explains that feeding up tributes and training them for the Games is actually illegal, implying that the system itself views long preparations for the Games as unfair and wrong, although the authorities don’t seem to crack down on it particularly well. So the book explicitly puts out there that a reluctant hero is better. Given that the end task is pretty unsavoury, that’s understandable, but since the only way to win is to do these unsavoury things, does it not make sense to be able to do them efficiently and to the best of your ability rather than hoping “the odds [will] be ever in your favour?”

So, yes, obviously this is a Chosen One story. Literally the situation is designed for a bunch of people selected by fate (and a few villainous “Careers”) to compete in the event the story centers around. And there is the training montage before the games start. But actually this montage reveals that, if anything, Katniss’s life has been good training for the Games, even if unintentionally. Her skill with a bow and hunting will feed her and also be a way of killing other tributes. Peeta’s baker background decorating cakes helps him understand camouflage (how much do I love that cake decorating became a plot point?  So much!) and hauling bags of flour around has made him pretty strong. Both Katniss’s and (another tribute) Rue’s understanding of what it means to be hungry help them through tough times whereas Katniss knows that destroying the food supply the Careers hold will be a huge blow because they’ve never been really hungry6.

So the way a lot of their life skills come into play in the game seem somewhat justified and not just “hidden innate talent of the Chosen One developed during brief training”, but there are still some things that stretch believability and play into the Chosen One myth, mainly when Katniss teams up with Rue, a small young contestant who reminds her of Prim. They trust each other and when Rue is killed, Katniss avenges Rue, sings to her as she dies and then covers her body in flowers before it is taken away. Katniss then receives a gift of bread from district 11 and we’re told that this is “a first”. It just seems unlikely that never before has there been a tribute likeable enough for a different district to support them, especially after their own tribute was killed. I appreciate that it’s a brutal situation and you have to be guarded, but contestants coming to trust each other and being moved by one another’s deaths is that rare? We even see it later amongst two of the Career tributes with the toughest personae. In all the years of the Games, 24 children a year, no other tribute has mourned the passing of an ally in a way that moved a neighbouring district to support them?

Similarly, we’re told that the “star-crossed lovers” story aspect is a first, but it just seems like with a bunch of teenagers running around on a field, even in such a high-stakes situation, perhaps especially in such a high-stakes emotional situation, that there would have been enough hormones for it to happen before. At least for there to have been enough for the video editors to cut it so it looked like there was a tragic love story.

But whatever talents Katniss has that may seem unearned, one thing you do believe is her ability to suck up whatever she issues she has with the Capitol to win. She is a survivor, as Peeta’s mother says, even if that survival would destroy all aspects of her personality. And this is what Peeta tempers in her (emphasized in the movie trailer where Peeta says the line about wanting to show the Capitol they don’t own him and Katniss saying she doesn’t have that luxury). At the end, when they announce the reversal of the “two winners” rule, trying to force Katniss and Peeta to fight, Peeta picks up his knife and Katniss’s instinct is that they’re finishing things and she nocks an arrow. Peeta, on the other hand, was unhesitatingly throwing his knife into the water. He has already decided that the Capitol can’t make him do that. And the same way Peeta would likely not have survived without Katniss’s survival instincts, she would not have finished the game on terms she could deal with without Peeta’s conviction. Her need to survive would have gotten her through the Games as the winner, but she would not be herself upon returning home because she would have seen the Capitol’s power, seen what it had made her do.

When they have to sit through the video highlights of the Games at the end, Katniss thinks back on past winners and how they were either pounding their chests (false bravado or people who really do believe the games are for glory of the Capitol and thus already were conforming when they showed up) or stunned (people who might have had doubts about the Capitol, but understand now that it has schooled them). Only with Peeta could the two of them have survived the Games and yet not felt like they were owned by the Capitol every step of the way. Of course, the fact that Katniss then had to lie about a love she didn’t feel may be a bit of a betrayal of herself, but considering the relationships of 16-year-olds fall apart all the time for much smaller reasons and the alternative was death, it’s hard not to feel a net gain here.

Miscellaneous

  • I love that people took the jabberjays the Capitol created to gather intelligence during the war and used them to send false stories back to the Capitol. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard stories about the Allies sending fake messages in codes they knew had been broken to create confusion (and probably the other way around too). I would read a whole book about this.
  • Considering that the book is told in the first person and a great deal of it takes place inside the arena, we actually get a decent amount on the secondary characters who are not tributes. Effie isn’t just a mindless government stooge. She gets to have good points, a determination to do the best for her tributes, even if it may be motivated by self-interest.
  • Haymitch’s development, from a comical (?) drunk, to an annoying drunk, to agreeing to help and be kind of sober, to giving great advice and training, to having such a strong connection to Katniss that she can read messages from him in the timing of the gifts he sends, to Katniss coming to empathize with him by thinking about what it must be like to continually train two kids a year, over and over, from a District with few resources and to watch them die again and again and again.
  • Also some pretty good stuff with Peeta’s mother. You think she’s just an angry woman who hits her son. Then you come to understand that she probably resents Katniss because she knows about her husband’s history with Katniss’s mother. And when you hear Peeta say that his own mother thought Katniss had the best chance of surviving and bringing victory to District 12, you come to think that maybe she also remembers that day Katniss dug through the trash and how Katniss had grown stronger from then on (but also that she really is a jerk to her son).
  • What is the deal with Cinna? He appears to have signed on to style people in the Games just to undermine the Capitol. He knows how to work the system. So does Haymitch and maybe even Effie, but they have been around a while and have their own motives.  What are Cinna’s?
  • Also Katniss’s attitude toward children is interesting.  She’s somewhat nurturing (in spite of her protests that that is mainly her mother and sister’s role). She says she never had time for boys because she was too busy surviving. But mostly she just refuses to bring a child into a world where they have to undergo the reaping every year.
  1. Is it sad that a movie trailer convinced me to read the book? Yes. Probably. But if everyone could make multi-million dollar movies of their book and then cut a trailer from it and send it to me so I can try to determine if I want to read it or not, it would really help me out. Return to post
  2. This is not an exclusively new phenomenon. It just seems like there are more interactive media and entertainments that people can participate in. But I recall, for example, an old episode of The Twilight Zone with William Shatner (not the one with the monster on the plane wing; the other, better one, called Nick of Time) where he becomes obsessed with feeding a fortune-telling machine coins, convinced it can tell him everything about his life. Eventually his wife convinces him that he is the one in control of his own life and he’s able to let it go and they leave together, uncertain of their future. Return to post
  3. I actually thought the whole book was going to be about whether Peeta could be trusted. I believed his feelings were genuine except for the moment when he took Katniss to the roof so they could talk about the Avox. I really thought it could be a bit of an act at that point, something he could use against her and we would doubt his motives throughout the book, but it only lasted a few pages. In spite of the first person narrative and Katniss’s doubts, this is the only moment in the book where I questioned if Peeta’s feelings were genuine.
    In some secret place, I wonder what the book would have been like if Peeta really had been faking and was simply really convincing. All Katniss’s fears would have been justified. She would have tried to convince herself that of course he had been lying and she always knew that because she knows everything and she was not taken in and never cared about him, but deep down she would have known that she was taken in and she shouldn’t trust anyone again. At this point you could go the obvious direction of the conflict this leads to between her and Gale. She stops trusting him based on the actions of a completely different boy, which is unfair, but also kind of understandable given how wrong her instincts were before. But what also might be interesting is to see Katniss withdraw, similar to the way her mother did. Not completely, she would still hunt and provide food, but no other contributions to the family. And then having to see Katniss’s mother realize what she’d put the family through and her and Prim trying to bring Katniss, or some version of her, back. I know it’s not necessarily the happy ending you want in YA, but it is a dystopia. And for a dystopia where 22 children died for the sake of entertainment and government control, you might expect a bit more emotional fallout than you actually end up getting in the book. Second books of trilogies tend to be about everything going wrong, so perhaps some of this happens. I don’t know.
    So, anyway, once it becomes clear to the readers that we can trust Peeta, then I thought it was going to be a book about how Katniss comes to trust Peeta in a game where her life depends on trusting no one, but the announcement by the Gamemakers partway through actually removes this question, which is good because I don’t think that would have been as interesting a book as the one we get, which seems to be more about pretending to be something you’re not, facades of love and a bit of a teardown of the “true love at 16, soulmates 4eva” trope. Return to post
  4. This idea is actually set up a few times and never followed through on, at least not in this book. Katniss befriends Rue, who reminds her of her sister, and they work together and Katniss wonders how she will eventually kill her. But Rue is killed by another competitor when the two split up and Katniss kills him as revenge, which seems a bit hypocritical when you consider that lots of probably-good kids have died that didn’t happen to remind Katniss of her sister and that Katniss would have had to kill Rue eventually if this other boy didn’t. Then Thresh, the boy from Rue’s district, lets Katniss go once because she helped Rue and Katniss worries about how she will kill him when the time comes, but another boy kills him first. And finally, there is Peeta, who she doesn’t have to kill either. I would have thought there might be a bit more grappling with some of these choices, but only the last one really ends up being a choice of some kind. Maybe the point is that even if you feel you can’t kill people you’ve befriended or think you owe, it doesn’t matter because someone else will get them eventually. And the people you’ve killed were likely friends of someone else. Return to post
  5. On the podcast, Fenzel also goes on to extend the idea of determinism in plot and Chosen Ones to romance stories, to say that they are often presented as a main female character who has within her the capacity to love, but who has never truly loved because she hasn’t met the right person or been in the right circumstances. She might have had a few relationships, but nothing serious. When the right one does come along, she’ll just know and there’ll be no need to work at it. This version of the Chosen One story could also be analyzed in The Hunger Games, but I’m not sure it’s possible to comment on this until all that has played out, as I assume it will in the later novels. Also, I’m not sure at this point that there’s much to add to what’s said in the podcast, which covers the romance tropes well. Return to post
  6. I thought this would end up being more of a thing considering the role of hunger in shaping Katniss’s life and the way the novel sets up the divide between have and have-not districts and the fact that Rue basically dies for the plan to destroy the food, but they don’t actually go into the Careers being particularly affected by the food loss except that Cato gets really angry and then they all have to head off into the woods rather than hanging out by the lake. Sort of anti-climactic. Return to post
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4 thoughts on “In which I try to avoid being the last person on the planet to read The Hunger Games

  1. Last year I took part in a parent/child book discussion about the Hunger Games. The 13-14 year old kids did not feel the book was futuristic at all. In fact, two of them were positive that the Hunger Games could and would happen today if some bright entertainment folks came up with the idea. This sort of terrified me. And I couldn’t get them to tell me that the level of media/government cooperation they have in the world of The Hunger Games doesn’t exist in our world. They saw this novel as “realistic fiction”. What do you make of that?
    And now I’m reading Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi. I love distopian novels, especially of the YA variety. I’ve been thinking that they are great ways to get the conversation going, and to start kids observing the state of the world so they can Prepare the necessary skills. And knitting should be one of these skills.

  2. That’s so interesting about the kids’ perspective. I try to be open to new things, but that is different than accepting things because you have never known the world to be any different. Every year at work we get a new group of recent graduates in and I feel a little bit more distant from them. What would it be like to grow up always having had the internet? Or I even remember when summer TV was all re-runs and there wasn’t an expectation that new and exciting things had to be made all the time. Seeing The Hunger Games as realistic fiction is pretty terrifying; I hope our expectations about government and media haven’t been lowered that far.
    I love dystopian stuff, but go through streaks where I guess I get too much of it and swear off it for a while. I will have to check out Ship Breaker while I’m still near the peak of this cycle. Good work preparing kids for the world through conversation (and knitting).

  3. Pingback: What I’ve Been Reading Lately « Some Stones Unturned

  4. Pingback: Hello 30. You’re looking just swell. « Some Stones Unturned

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