HORROR OF THE CHILD PROTAGONIST: THREE MEDITATIONS ON THE HUNGER GAMES

I.

The first time I read Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, I was twelve years old. My best friend had been practically begging me for months to catch up to her so she could talk to me about it, but at the time I was devoting all my reading energy towards the Redwall series and didn’t have room for much else besides Jacques’ rich mythology of sword-carrying, abbey-dwelling woodland creatures. Eventually, though, I caved, and was immediately entranced by Collins’ sharp, engaging voice and the nuance of her characters. I knew from the first read that this was a trilogy that was going to stick with me.

Of course, being twelve, I didn’t approach this first encounter with The Hunger Games from an allegorical perspective. It felt mostly, if not entirely, removed from my own experiences. My personal analysis of the books was less focused on the larger societal implications of the text and more so on how I would have survived the Games. What district would I have hailed from (one quiz told me 4, which was fishing. Another told me 8—textiles), what alliances would I have made (none—we’d all have to kill each other in the end, wouldn’t we?), how would I have found shelter and food in the arena as I waited for the other major players to pick each other off one by one? I became interested in foraging and how to fashion sticks and rocks into weapons; I did somewhat extensive research on which native berries were poisonous and I crushed them up to dip the ends of concrete-sharpened branches in. Katniss was something of a role model to me in my adolescent years.

For my thirteenth birthday party, I invited a bunch of friends over for a mock Hunger Games tournament. We crowded around a cornucopia of foam swords and Nerf guns in the backyard, and when the whistle blew we gleefully sliced at each other, each desperate for the winning spot. I remember we had minigames where fallen tributes played the part of tracker jackers (and later, muttations). It was a great day.

II.

I reread the series for the first time at fifteen years old. It was November—the second installment of Mockingjay was about to be released in theaters, and I wanted to go in with a fresh knowledge of the books so that I could judge whether or not the movie did the original material justice. Being closer in age to Katniss now (she was just one year older than me in the first book this time around), this is when I started to understand the horrifying nature of the premise a little more intimately. There’s a unique and awful realization you have when you are first confronted by the age of your protagonist—when you first realize your hero is a child. I had had this realization before, in reading one of Suzanne Collins’ lesser-known series a few years prior: Gregor the Overlander, whose great warrior is eleven years old. 

The first time I read The Hunger Games, though, I was convinced that Katniss was a grown-up. Surely sixteen is old enough, by that point you can drive and maybe even have a bank account. It wasn’t until the second encounter that I noticed a new discomfort in myself. I no longer wanted to be Katniss, I wanted to get her out of there. I still wasn’t focused on the societal allegory of the trilogy, but I was certainly more aware of the fact that these were children being pitted against one another for the entertainment of the Capitol. I realized that no amount of foraging or weapon-fashioning knowledge would change the fact that the existence of these games necessitated the deaths of twenty-three other kids. They were never the enemy. It’s interesting, to me, looking back at a lot of the science fiction I read growing up—because these books are written for young people, many of them breeze over the inherent horror of the child protagonist. The Hunger Games is one of the few series I can think of that addresses the trauma of that role.

I felt a little stupid—why was I so distracted before by the Games and the other tributes themselves? Clearly the antagonist, even of the first book, wasn’t Cato, Glimmer, or Foxface—it was the people and systems which had put these kids in this situation in the first place. N K Jemisin described her experience with writing The Fifth Season as tackling the idea of “macro-scale” oppression rather than individual acts of discrimination (Alter), and that idea resonates within the world of The Hunger Games as well. The Mockingjay revolution, whose politics had somewhat bored me in my initial read, made much more sense now. Not long before this, my family had taken a trip to Angola to see the “prison rodeo,” thinking that it was a fun and culturally enriching event meant to support inmates—as well as being the “wildest show in the South.” We were interested in the craft fair, which advertised products made by the prisoners, but when we arrived, we found that any bartering was conducted with two layers of barbed-wire fence between us and the inmates. This wasn’t even the worst of it—once inside the stadium, we realized that the event was a brutal, gladiator-style competition wherein prisoners were put in very real, physical danger for the entertainment of a crowd. We left, disgusted by the spectacle. Thinking back on the rodeo with the context of Collins’ work, I felt extremely disturbed by the fact that something that had seemed so distant in the books was happening to prisoners in my home state on a regular basis. 

Though my understanding of the books was significantly stronger this time around, I was still dissatisfied with the ending—I didn’t fully understand why Katniss killed Coin, the leader of the Rebellion, instead of the evil President Snow. Sure, Coin wasn’t likable, and her plan to have Capitol citizens compete in their own Hunger Games was extreme. But to have her executed at Katniss’ hands instead of Snow lacked catharsis to me at the time, and hadn’t she earned her spot as the new leader of Panem? Didn’t the Capitol residents deserve to understand the pain they had so thoroughly enjoyed for the past 75 years?

III.

Which brings us to the third and most recent time I have read the books. It was last year, during the first lockdown period—sometime in late April, maybe. I was revisiting a lot of my old favorite pieces of media, watching shows I had almost forgotten existed, staying up until sunrise reading like I hadn’t since my childhood. I believe it was the announcement of A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes that prompted me to revisit this series in particular. My knowledge of U.S. politics, particularly revolutionary & radical movements, is much more extensive now than it was six years ago and my love for literary analysis also grew significantly during that time. I was more aware at this point, as well, of the ways in which the context of age had shaped my previous readings and the meanings I was able to derive from the text both then and now. So when I picked up Collins’ books once more, I was stunned by the amount of stark commentary which I had overlooked the first few times I read the work.

For one thing, the Rebellion was not the heroic endeavor I remembered. Sure, in comparison to the tyrannical rule of Snow and the Capitol, anything seemed like an improvement, but Coin’s eerie similarity to Snow and the looming threat of history repeating itself is a deeply sinister idea. If a flawed system is not dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up, replacing the person at the top does nothing to better society on a fundamental level. This could easily be an allegory for the American two-party system and how many of its systemic problems in terms of wealth inequality, racism, and access to necessities such as healthcare persist no matter whose candidate sits in the White House.

Another topic that I have yet to address here is Collins’ nuanced take on the morality of war, and the portrayal of certain characters—Peeta and Gale specifically—as archetypes, figureheads of two ethical paths: revenge and pacifism. Suzanne Collins actually addresses this in an interview for the New York Times, saying the characters were presented “less as two points on a love triangle, more as two perspectives in the just-war debate […] Katniss isn’t just deciding on a partner; she’s figuring out her worldview” (Levithan). Gale believes in the Rebellion, and is willing to sacrifice everything to take down the Capitol, to the point where he becomes almost unrecognizable as a hero. His actions during the revolution grow more and more intense, culminating in the bombing of civilians from both sides in the final conflict—including, of course, Katniss’ own sister. One might argue that there was no other way, but surely this act and his lack of remorse is unforgivable.

Peeta, on the other hand, represents unrelenting pacifism and compassion. His entire character is founded on these ideals, and he holds them throughout the series—regardless of the situation. Whether it’s fighting for another person (a concept that was previously unheard of) during the 74th Hunger Games, or giving food to a hungry stranger, or being vocally against the violence perpetuated by the Rebellion even after the torture he faced at the hands of their oppressors, he is unwaveringly good.

In the end, no matter how much the “love triangle” element of the series was focused on by the media and audiences reacting to this trilogy, I strongly maintain that The Hunger Games was never intended as a love story. A lot of the books that followed in its footsteps (as it was the first “big” dystopian series of the early 2010s and set the tone for future ones) lack the cutting political allegory which Collins explores so heavily in favor of focusing on a love triangle, or romance in general.

IV.

It would have been easy for Suzanne Collins to play into the “strong, infallible woman” trope—to write Katniss as “unburdened by emotional attachments,” tough in an attractive way, capable in a way that serves the masculine characters without overshadowing them (Kareem). But Collins’ protagonist subverts these ideas: she is tough, yes, but the narrative takes care to showcase the fact that this is not her only trait, nor is it one that makes her superior to the women around her. In fact, Katniss has a deep admiration for characters who she sees as warmer and more compassionate than herself: namely Prim (her sister) and Peeta. The series acknowledges the ways in which Katniss’ acerbic, resilient nature are useful in certain situations, but ultimately insists that there is equal strength in compassion. In addition to this, Collins asserts throughout the series that just because Katniss is able to survive the horrible circumstances of the trilogy doesn’t mean she isn’t affected by them. There is only so much a child (or anyone, for that matter) can take, and The Hunger Games does not pull any punches when it comes to letting the reader know about these characters’ lasting traumas. From the epilogue, set over twenty years after the events of Mockingjay:

One day I’ll have to explain about my nightmares. Why they came. Why they won’t ever really go away. I’ll tell them how I survive it. I’ll tell them that on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in things because I’m afraid it could be taken away. That’s when I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do. It’s like a game. Repetitive. Even a little tedious after more than twenty years. But there are much worse games to play. (Collins 390)

Though Suzanne Collins makes the conscious choice to dismantle the idea that traditionally “masculine” personality traits such as toughness are not inherently superior to traits like pacifism and compassion that are often perceived as feminine, it’s worth examining the role that gender and the body play in the Capitol vs. in the less financially privileged districts, and the role of gender performance as a tool of survival in the Games, as well as how these themes correlate to real-world performances and perceptions of femininity, and further how they were received following the trilogy’s release. 

The role of dress/makeup serves not as a tool of femininity within Panem, but as a display of excess wealth. Katniss’ prep team, for example, are decked out in flamboyant colors: Flavius, one of the trio, has orange corkscrew curls and purple lipstick. Katniss thinks, “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” (Collins 58). She finds her stylist, Cinna, to be less off-putting because he is dressed normally and with minimal makeup. This makes sense within the universe Collins has created: Katniss has not been exposed before this to any situation where such outrageous fashion is the standard. This is, once again, not necessarily an example of femininity being presented as inherently bad—the reason she is averse to it is because it is another reminder of the vast wealth and lifestyle disparity between her home district and the Capitol.

However, it is worth noting that once these ideas were brought into the real world, they were immediately processed through the Western meaning-making lens of not wealth, but gender presentation (and ultimately, profit). In preparation for the Catching Fire movie, CoverGirl released a “Capitol Collection” which consisted of beauty products designed to emulate the extravagance of the Capitol’s fashions. Though they came under heavy fire for it—from journalist Heather Long: “Brands trying to capitalize on the Hunger Games’ popularity should have thrown their marketing ideas into the fire. Or better yet, maybe they should actually read the books”—this sort of response to the trilogy could be described as inevitable given our society’s fixation on femininity and fashion as a tool of femininity.

There are also those who argue that Katniss’ ending is somehow a betrayal of feminist ideals. At the series’ closing, we see that she has settled down with Peeta, and that they are raising two children together. Sarah Thaller goes so far as to call it antiquated, stating that it reinforces “the societal need for patriarchal domesticity and to reinforce compulsory heterosexuality and repronormativity.” I remember, initially, having the same issue. Having conversations with the friend who had first encouraged me to read the books, complaining to one another about the fact that Katniss had ended up with anyone at all. At fifteen, my idea of a feminist ending didn’t have room for children, or marriage. However, after considering Peeta and Gale as allegorical figures rather than romantic interests, it feels much more compelling and meaningful to have a character choose a life of peace and rest after the war. 

The symbolic importance of having children in a post-war world is also worth noting here. “It took five, ten, fifteen years” (Collins 389) for Katniss to be comfortable with the idea of raising a family, but she did eventually reach that point. Last year, I attended a talk by Nathaniel Rich (author of Losing Earth: A Recent History) at the New Orleans Museum of Art, and during the panel someone asked about whether he feels hope. He responded that having children is, in a way, the ultimate act of hope. I’d like to think that Katniss would agree.

Works Cited

Alter, Alexandra. “N. K. Jemisin on Diversity in Science Fiction and Inspiration from Dreams.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 24 Aug. 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/25/books/n-k-jemisin-on-diversity-in-science-fiction-and-inspiration-from-dreams.html. 

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. Scholastic Press, 2008. 

Collins, Suzanne. Mockingjay. Scholastic Press, 2010.

Kareem, Jamila. “Femininity in Speculative Fiction.” University of Central Florida ENC3373, 16 September 2021, webcourses.ucf.edu. 

Levithan, David. “Suzanne Collins Talks About ‘The Hunger Games,’ the Books and the Movies.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 18 Oct. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/18/books/suzanne-collins-talks-about-the-hunger-games-the-books-and-the-movies.html. 

Long, Heather. “Total Misfire: Brands like CoverGirl and Subway Miss Point of Hunger Games.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 22 Nov. 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/22/hunger-games-catching-fire-covergirl-subway-nerf-ads. 

Rich, Nathaniel. “Arts & Letters Series with Nathaniel Rich Discussing Losing Earth.” Friday Nights at NOMA. Friday Nights at NOMA, 17 Jan. 2020, New Orleans, New Orleans Museum of Art. Thaller, Sarah. “A Feminist Bait-and-Switch: The Hunger Games and the Illusion of Empowerment.” Parlour News, Ohio University, 21 Sept. 2016, https://www.ohio.edu/cas/parlour/news/hunger-games-illusion-empowerment.