In Defense of the Hunger Games – Part 2

This post contains spoilers and is written assuming you have read The Hunger Games trilogy.

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I have heard a number of complaints that the second and third books are “just the stupid love triangle stuff.” I think my rebuttal of this charge can basically be summed up by this quote from Mockingjay:

“It’s Katniss’ problem. Who to choose.” Gale yawns. “We should get some sleep.”
“Yeah.” I hear Peeta’s handcuffs slide down the support as he settles in. “I wonder how she’ll make up her mind.”
“Oh, that I do know.” I can just catch Gale’s last words through the layer of fur. “Katniss will pick whoever she thinks she can’t survive without.” . . .
It’s a horrible thing for Gale to say, for Peeta not to refute. Especially when every emotion I have has been taken and exploited by the Capitol or the rebels. At the moment, the choice would be simple. I can survive just fine without them.”

Katniss’ motive from the very beginning is survival. She is a woman thrown into a war she did not ask for, a role she did not anticipate as the face of the rebellion. She has been exploited, treated as subhuman so many times that she has lost the ability to feel anything. Not only has she lost the ability to feel, she simply does not have time to worry about romantic entanglements.

Unlike Bella in Twilight who falls apart the instant Edward leaves her side, Katniss does not need either Peeta or Gale to hold her together. She struggles to take control of her own life as much as she is able beneath the iron fist of the Capitol and the rebels, and to protect those she loves. Rather than playing the damsel in distress, Katniss does everything she can to protect Peeta, and he comforts her when she experiences nightmares—the only realm where Katniss cannot take care of herself. They complement each other, and neither is weaker than the other.

What some readers don’t understand, I think, is that Catching Fire and Mockingjay offer a complex and compelling portrayal of a girl suffering from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’ve heard a number of readers complain that Katniss just mopes around for the entire third book, and while her mental stability is severely compromised, it is insensitive to call it moping. She is sixteen-years-old and has killed other human beings. She has been placed under emotional, mental, and psychological stress by simply existing in a society where children fighting to the death is condoned as entertainment. The psychological repercussions of knowing that everyone around you will be dead within the week, and many by your own hand, are inescapable.

I really appreciate Collins’ attention to consequences. Our culture often downplays the effects of violence on the human psyche, with characters in action flicks continuing on with life after an incredibly violent experience without any psychological backlash. We are expected to be like the superheroes of comic books, able to save the day and to return to normalcy as if nothing disturbed our peaceful lives, and when we aren’t, we, like many readers want to say to Katniss, are told to “get over it.”

Katniss is not a superhero, but a very human, very young girl who is plagued by nightmares, physical pain, and a severe reaction to seemingly innocent objects. She reacts so severely to the smell of roses because of her associations with President Snow and the horror of seeing her bombed out home in District 12. She has permanent hearing damage from the first Hunger Games, where Peeta also lost a leg.

Just look at Holocaust survivors, Vietnam veterans, etc. My grandmother was a kid in Germany during World War II, and the sound of tornado sirens make her nervous to this day. I have a friend whose home burned down eight years ago and he still suffers from PTSD so many years later. Katniss, who experiences physical and psychological horror along the lines of a Holocaust survivor and a war veteran, holds up surprisingly well considering her circumstances. In my opinion, she has every right to be a mess in the third book. We, as a culture so inundated with violence in movies, have lost our ability to feel horror at the things that should shock us.

One of the most moving lines for me in the series comes in the epilogue of Mockingjay as Katniss discusses the legacy of the next generation: “My children, who don’t know they play on a graveyard.”

After having lived for four months in Berlin, Germany, this line resonated very deeply with me. I have seen with my own eyes a city completely leveled, its people murdered, raped, starved, and slaughtered, but reborn. District 12’s fate eerily mirrors the fate of World War II Berlin. Like District 12, there are sites of mass graves marked only with a lone wooden cross.

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A single wooden cross marks this mass WWII grave in Berlin, Germany. The remnants of the Berlin Wall stand behind it.

The epilogue of Mockingjay captures the tragic necessity to go on living for the generation who experienced the war. It seems so strange that human beings can live through so much suffering, but people do it, and have been doing it for generations. Katniss’ children play on a graveyard, just as I did in Berlin. There is a supreme importance in remembering the horror, but there must come a time when the next generation is able to rise from the ashes and start a new history blooming with life.

I think, for me, this was the reason the ending was so satisfying, wiping away some of the less well-done elements of the trilogy. Katniss did not simply go back to life as before, unscathed and triumphant. The books are full of a very human gray area, where there is a blurred line between good and evil. My Hungarian grandfather who lived through the brutalities of WWII, Nazi occupation, and then Russian occupation of his homeland told me that it is war that is the true evil, not the differing sides. Collins’ shows what human beings are capable of, both in good and in evil. Katniss—the supposed heroine/good guy—votes to host another Hunger Games with the children of the Capitol. I know I, as a reader, was just as furious with her as Peeta was. But in Katniss’ mind, the Capitol deserves to pay. Katniss is human, not some great, selfless heroine.

And this is why the slow, subtle way she and Peeta begin to heal together was so beautiful to me. She needs someone to dull her hatred, not kindle it, and both she and Peeta need someone who understands, someone with whom they can endure the pain of healing and emerge, scarred but alive:

“Peeta and I grow back together. There are still moments when he clutches the back of a chair and hangs on until the flashbacks are over. I wake screaming from nightmares of mutts and lost children. But his arms are there to comfort me. And eventually his lips. On the night I feel that thing again, the hunger that overtook me on the beach, I know this would have happened anyway. That what I need to survive is not Gale’s fire, kindled with rage and hatred. I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That is can be good again. And only Peeta can give me that.”

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2 thoughts on “In Defense of the Hunger Games – Part 2

  1. Hey Rachel! So I know that you wrote this ages ago, but I just read it now and I felt the need to comment.

    First off, I totally agree with you that Katniss’ reaction to the violence in Panem is refreshingly realistic, and important to the overall theme of the story. Katniss is a hero, but is not invincible, and if we try to act as though we are invincible, we will break and die. The healing between her and Peeta IS beautiful and made the novels worthwhile. I loved the books, and read each of them in a sitting.

    But, the story disappoints me on two fronts. First, the unrealistic setting completely breaks my suspension of disbelief. The division of labor between the districts is silly, the abundance of game immediately outside a starving village is ludicrous, and the system for choosing hunger games tributes is beyond stupid. That’s all in the first chapter of the first book, and the story only gets sillier from there. If the author wants me to be horrified by this dystopic culture, she must first convince me that it exists. I realize that the story is about Katniss rather than the country she lives in, but would it kill the author to spend 20 minutes of research before designing the setting?

    In some books, the entire cast miraculously survives all of their ordeals, against all sense and realism. Hunger Games, however, klls off characters purely to elicit an emotional response. Throughout the entirety of Mockingjay, I felt like the author was beating me over the head, shouting “you WILL feel sad! I’ll keep killing characters until you cry!” Katniss’ reactions to these contrived, hyper-dramatic scenarios is indeed realistic, insofar as she recognizes that her life is insanely, impossibly sad, and that none of the suffering has any meaning or purpose.

    • I would agree with a lot of that, particularly in the deaths of Prim and Finnick. Yet, at the same time, it also portrays the senselessness of war and death. Prim’s death in particularly almost completely destroys the point of all three books, but I think it also underlines the horror and chaos that comes with this kind of situation.

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