I seem to be about 10 steps behind the zeitgeist, coming to the Larsson trilogy and now Suzanne Collins’ young adult dystopian novels later than most. I stumbled onto The Hunger Games, the first in the series, just as Mockingjay, the final installment, was making its debut, and I’m now almost through the second book, Catching Fire. But what a wild ride. Not since the Harry Potter series and Carl Hiassen’s eco-mystery-satires have I been so gripped by stories written for young people.

The Hunger Games trilogy stars its narrator, Katniss, the sixteen-year-old girl who is thrust into heroism by offering herself as a substitute for her 12-year-old sister, Prim, in the brutal reaping that populates the barbaric Hunger Games of the dystopian nation of Panem. The country is divided into twelve districts, each of which bears responsibility for a certain sector of production: agriculture, industrial, mining, etc. The Capitol controls these districts, employing Peacekeepers to keep the population in line, while its own residents revel outlandishly in their safety and privilege.

People in the districts constantly face starvation and physical deprivation, as their food is strictly rationed and their subsistence-level existences require scraping out the most meager of livings. In the Capitol, residents cavort freely and excessively, painting their skin in vibrant colors, wearing outlandish wigs and adornments and outfits of luxurious and loud materials, and bingeing and purging so that they can consume huge feasts of rich food. The division between the haves and have-nots couldn’t be more sharply drawn.

Katniss’s father was a miner who died with other men in an explosion in her own District 12, leaving her to care for her severely depressed and withdrawn mother and Prim. The scrappy Katniss uses what her father taught her about hunting—illegally, outside the electrified fence that surrounds the district—to feed her family and to supply squirrel, rabbit, and wild turkey meat to the Hob, the center of the black market exchange where Katniss trades her game for other necessities.

Katniss hunts with her friend Gale, a taciturn but determined young man who dreams of escape, and whose beautifully set snares entrap as much food as Katniss can fell with the bow and arrow she wields like an Olympic archer. They risk death to provide for their families, since hunting outside the boundaries of their district is forbidden. But the Peacekeepers of District 12 are lax, participating in its underground trade and turning a blind eye to their community’s illegal activities. In other districts, such violations are punished with death.

The Capitol’s cruelest mode of control is the annual Hunger Games, staged to remind citizens of the costs of rebelling against the government’s control. Every year, two “tributes” from each of the nation’s twelve districts are brought to a pre-constructed arena where they battle to the death until only one of them remains alive and is declared the victor.

The tributes are young people from each district, one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen, who are selected in the “reaping,” an annual, public lottery in which the unlucky kids’ names are read aloud. Twenty-four young people travel to the Capitol, where they prepare to compete.

When Katniss’s sweet sister Prim is selected in the reaping that begins The Hunger Games, Katniss immediately, frantically offers herself as Prim’s substitute, an allowed but almost unheard of gesture of nobility and selflessness. Implicitly sacrificing her life for her sister’s, Katniss is whisked off into a world driven by the Capitol’s illusion-making machinery, which orchestrates every bit of the pre-Games festivity and eventually, the Games themselves.
Peeta, the son of District 12’s baker, is selected as its male tribute, Katniss’s partner but ultimately just another of her enemies in the Hunger Games.

The two are shepherded through their preparatory sessions by the drunken Haymitch, the only former tribute from their district to have won the Games, and by Effie Trinket, the affected martinet assigned by the Capitol, who makes sure they adhere to their schedule. Effie sees Katniss and Peeta mostly as her meal ticket, as she stands to benefit professionally should one of them win the Games.

The four travel by train through Panem to the Capitol, where their scarred and worn bodies are buffed and polished for presentation to the cameras that track their training and their performance in the Games. Their abilities are assessed as their bodies are strengthened, and they’re taught additional skills that will at least make them viable competitors, if not victors.

Katniss and Peeta are fattened up like calves on their way to the slaughter. The meals they’re served on the train and in the training center are so rich they can barely keep them down. The ministrations of their “teams”—make-up artists, costume designers, performance consultants, along with Haymitch and Effie—are calculated to make them as appealing as possible to the viewers who watch their interviews and see every moment of their progress toward the competition. Eventually, every moment of the Games themselves is televised live.

By presenting the Hunger Games as the Capitol’s cruel entertainment for Panem’s citizens, Collins skillfully critiques the contemporary media industry for how it constructs a reality that serves the powerful and manipulates the masses through carefully controlled scripts and images.

The tributes’ appeal, after all, is part of what will keep them alive. As the Games progress, viewers who can raise the necessary funds are able to send support to contestants, which enhances their chances of surviving and even winning the cruel struggle. A contestant with no appeal to spectators risks being left on his or her own during the Games, while one for whom the audience cheers could potentially receive additional food, medicine, or weapons that will increase his or her chances of staying alive.

And so Katniss and Peeta are molded into a narrative with clear sex appeal. In their first public appearance, the couple is presented together in a chariot, with their costumes set on fire, a captivating image that becomes Katniss’s motif throughout the pre-Games events. Her master stylist, Cinna, has a talent for how to sell his new client, and his insights and empathy extends into their personal relationship, as he becomes one of the few on her team whom Katniss really trusts.

The melancholy of these relationships is evident from the start, as Katniss and Peeta’s team prepares them to compete, while everyone understands the odds against their winning. The two young people are really being prepared to die.

[Spoiler alert.]

In between bouts of falling down drunkenness, their mentor Haymitch devises a love story for the two District 12 tributes that encourages Panem’s citizens to invest in Katniss and Peeta’s survival. The strategy works, as the romance captures the viewers’ attentions and their emotions. But unbeknownst to Katniss, Peeta truly is in love with her, while she burns something of a flame for Gale, whom she knows is caring for the family she left behind at home. Thrown together in extreme circumstances, though, Katniss and Peeta develop an intimate relationship that Katniss, too, begins to believe is real.

To Collins’ credit, though, The Hunger Games can hardly be called a tween romance novel, even of the Gothic sort that drives the Twilight saga. Although she has feelings for Gale and eventually Peeta, Katniss doesn’t want to marry, because she knows any child she’d bear would become part of the machinery of reaping and tributes and the brutal, gladiatorial Games that organize every citizen’s life and presage their deaths.

The seeds of her resistance to the Capitol’s fascism appear in her refusal to believe in the gendered narrative of giddy romance her handlers insist she perform. In her portrait of Katniss, Collins demonstrates that gender is indeed a performance. The independent, athletic, wily young woman has to be coached in the giggly, submissive, head-over-heels-in-love, clinging femininity that she performs to persuade viewers that she’s in love with Peeta.

The Hunger Games trilogy crosses 1984’s sci-fi dystopia with mythic stories of more typically male heroism. Collins twists the gender expectations, since Katniss is the hero who undergoes a series of trials and obstacles to arrive at her goal. Collins creates an Orwellian world in which invisible cameras are always watching and broadcasting as the Games begin and proceed.

As Katniss and Peeta enter the arena and begin their desperate attempt to survive, the brutality of the Games is sharpened by their knowledge that their every move is scrutinized by the viewing nation. Watching the Games is mandatory, since through this annual rite, the Capitol secures its power over the districts. Even at night, securing herself to branches high in the trees she climbs for safety, Katniss can’t let down her guard.

Collins propels us through the Games at a breathless pace. The narrative, told in Katniss’s voice, is unadorned, grim and determined, as we read about Katniss strategizing first toward her own survival. The Gamekeepers constantly manipulate the rules, sending new trials and tribulations, from fire to water to “muttations,” reengineered mutant beasts determined to savagely kill off the tributes. When they decide that for the first time ever, two tributes from the same district will be allowed to win the Games together, Katniss and Peeta join forces to overcome their enemies.

Throughout the violent proceedings, Katniss’s inventive, clever ideas keep her and Peeta alive. It’s Katniss who keeps Peeta from certain death, after he’s attacked and lies bleeding in the mud by a stream. It’s Katniss who outsmarts the “Career” tributes, those who’ve been bred for these competitions and band together to kill off the others before competing with one another to become the last to survive.

When the evil Gamekeepers decide to change the rules back at the end, insisting that only one tribute be allowed to win, it’s Katniss who offers poisonous berries to Peeta, intent on staging a joint suicide that will secure their mythology as star-crossed lovers and that would leave the Capitol with no winner of the Games at all.

That final act, which keeps Katniss and Peeta alive and heralded as the Games’ dual winners and the heroine and hero of Panem, brands Katniss a rebel, as she’s dared to flout the Capitol’s authority. When the trilogy’s second book, Catching Fire, opens, she pays the price for her daring when she’s visited in her new, luxurious, well-provisioned home—the gift to all winners of the Games—by President Snow, the reptilian leader of Panem, whose breath smells like roses and blood.

Snow tells Katniss that he knows her relationship to Peeta is only a performance and that her rebellious joint suicide attempt must be defanged by her future fidelity to the script of their headlong tumble into love and, he insists, marriage. Katniss pleads that she threatened to eat the poison berries because she was hopelessly in love; Snow knows her plan was a ploy to keep both herself and Peeta alive. Now, he demands reparations, and if he’s not happy, he threatens to kill Gale and Katniss’s mother and Prim.

I’m racing through Catching Fire, propelled by a plot that keeps twisting and turning, and by word of the hopeful rebellions growing in the other districts, for which Katniss reluctantly begins to see she must stand as a symbol throughout the nation. Panem’s citizens, it seems, aren’t quite as convinced as they might be by the Capitol media’s manipulations, and are beginning to see beneath the charades presented to further its own power and ideology.

Katniss is the perfect leader for such a rebellion, a girl heroine for the ages—tough, smart, and cunning, with her emotions roiling but in check, so that she can be responsible to those she loves and insure their common survival.

The Feminist Spectator

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