Through the malevolent mouth of Screwtape, C.S. Lewis writes,
The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring twopence what other people say about it, by that very fact forearmed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the ‘best’ people, the ‘right’ food, the ‘important’ books.
I try keep this in mind as it seems fitting for cool people, who, you know, are like into literature, to scoff at Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy. I cannot say exactly why, but I really loved these books. I can only compare it to the love of the Star Wars trilogy (episodes 4, 5, and 6) I experienced when I was an adolescent. And yet here I am, no longer an adolescent but a somewhat cranky adult, rediscovering the same sort of fascination and wonder for a fanciful story with simple characters that I could not help but love.
At first I thought they were a nice distraction from the reading I was assigned for graduate school, a way to escape the drudgery of summarizing peer-reviewed articles I could barely understand. Or so I thought. The simple sentences, limited vocabulary, and short chapters made for some easy reading at the end of a long day that usually was extended longer by my inability to put the books down.
If that were all I could say about these books, then good storytelling in a season of boring reading would be the reason I liked them so much. But that is not the reason. The reason I liked them so much is because the story deftly weaves the larger themes of injustice, revenge, and love together to create an insuperable conflict between self-sacrifice and self-preservation in the main characters. Ultimately, this tension forms them, for better or worse, into the kinds of people they become. Each of them suffers the injustice of becoming ‘a piece in the games,’ and they all respond in ways that are both heroic and tragic.
From the beginning, the main character Katniss Everdeen, is portrayed as a self-sacrificial provider who learns to hunt and trade so her family can survive. She bravely puts herself at risk (hunting and trading are illegal) and ends up ‘volunteering as tribute’ for her sister who is improbably drafted to participate in the Capitol’s sinister Hunger Games (24 ‘tributes’ who are locked in an arena to fight to the death). Yet as the story unfolds, she comes to realize it is impossible to protect those she loves and thereby becomes motivated to take revenge on her oppressors. She bottoms out near the end of the last book when she casts her vote for the continuance of the Games to punish the citizens of the Capitol; it is their children who should be sacrificed to pay for the life of her sister whom Katniss ultimately failed to protect. But, as she comes to understand, the the death of her sister is due to the awful truth that she herself was nothing more than ‘a piece’ in the games of others, and that she likewise treated others as pieces in her own games.
Gale Hawthorne, Katniss’ best friend and part-time love interest, is not unlike Katniss herself: a self-sacrificing protector and provider. However, his powerlessness in the face of oppression directs his moral compass to a place where the ends justify the means no matter how brutal. His revenge is not directed towards any one person; rather, he is consumed with an absolutism that seeks retribution en masse: “If I could hit a button and kill every living soul working for the Capitol, I would do it. Without hesitation,” he says. While Katniss relates with Gale more so than Peeta, she is shocked and somewhat hypocritically judges him for having such a low view of human life. Even so, it is one of his traps that ends up taking the life of her sister, and Katniss would rather die alone than continue their ill-defined friendship.
Peeta Mellark, in my opinion, is the hero of the story, though not a perfect one (sure enough, he succumbs to killing two other tributes in the arena). Nonetheless, he is the most aware of the injustice of the Games, and his words articulate the conflict the characters face succinctly:
“No, when the time comes, I’m sure I’ll kill just like everybody else. I can’t go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.”
His way, of course, is to protect Katniss at all costs and give her the chance to carry on with life even if it means her ending up with someone else. It’s true that the story is propped up by the love-triangle between Gale, Katniss, and Peeta, which leads some readers to expect a longer treatment of the love story that ends rather abruptly with these few sentences:
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 it can be good again. And only Peeta can give me that. So after, when he whispers, “You love me. Real or not real?” I tell him, “Real.”
After reading the books through once, I re-read them again to see if there clues that indicate how Katniss always knew “this would have happened anyway.” There aren’t many, but near the end of the third book we get our big hint when Gale says, “Katniss will pick whoever she thinks she can’t survive without.” She survived fine without Gale in the arena twice and barely functioned without Peeta in District 13. She tried to let him go but could not. Each of them tell the other to stay with them (in key moments of vulnerability) and each reply with the word “Always.” While the two are temporarily at odds after he is tortured, Peeta’s love for Katniss overcomes the psychological trauma the Capitol inflicted on him, which had programmed him to fear and loath her. In the end, we have a love story that is more than a sappy I-can’t-live-without-you-romance. It’s a story about how someone’s benevolence lifts another out of an unendurable life of vengeful hatred.
I think that’s the reason I enjoyed the Hunger Games series so much. In some odd way it communicates that love is stronger than death. The themes about war, poverty, the cycle of violence, and the insidiousness of ‘reality television’ were peripheral to my eye. True enough, there is plenty to pick on if one has an eye for the virtues of a great literary composition. But if one reads it in the way I’ve described, one might find more to appreciate than meets the eye.