I’ve read The Hunger Games a grand total of two times. The first time I read it, I loved it. The second time, I bashed it.
Before we go on, I’d like to apologize for that second time. Bashing any book is unwise. It’s fun, yes, and especially so when there are legions of fans for that book, but it’s a fleeting exhilaration, and most of those fans don’t listen to you anyway. If a book is badly written, it will come across as badly written the first time– you don’t need to reread it with a magnifying glass to see it.
That being said, the points I raised in my second review of The Hunger Games were valid; I’m not the only person to think that Katniss, the main character, is hugely selfish. My mistake in that review, however, was assuming that because of that, no one would like her. Of course, I had already been proven wrong by the aforementioned legions of fans. Why would so many people be charmed by this book if it was fundamentally flawed?
The answer, of course, is that they wouldn’t– and the book wasn’t that flawed in that area. Yes, Katniss taken by her selfishness alone is unlikable, but that’s why the readers never had to take her by her selfishness alone.
If you think about it, the introduction of Katniss is genius. It begins with waking up in the morning. Nothing special, but immediately after waking up we see Katniss interacting with her little sister, Prim, someone we can’t help but like. In that moment, we are faced with a choice that grows as we see the society in which they live. Prim is the center of our scale. On one end, we have the Capitol, who holds annual Hunger Games to brutally quell rebellious ideas. On the other end, we have Katniss, the clearly imperfect person who opposes the Capitol.
The decision is this: in whom are we prepared to invest our emotions? The Capitol has logical reasons behind their actions– their actions are reprehensible, but they still make a little bit of sense. Katniss is fighting for survival, but it’s her own survival she’s fighting for. The deciding point is Prim.
We like Prim immediately. She’s an innocent little girl in a terrible society, stuck with a selfish sister who shoots squirrels all day. She’s perfect. (If she was the protagonist, she’d be horrible, but as a side character she seems okay– especially since we have the Big Problem hanging over her head, as described by this post.) Our decision is made as we see who likes Prim more.
Obviously, it’s Katniss. The Capitol doesn’t even know Prim’s name. They might have compassion on hundreds of other perfect little girls, but we only know about Prim. Thus, we side– at least for the first few chapters– with Katniss.
That in itself is genius, on par with Neil Gaiman’s expert manipulations of emotions in The Graveyard Book, where we face a choice between a defenseless baby whose family was just murdered, and the man with the dripping knife. Who do we side with? The baby, of course, and that affects who we find sympathetic through the rest of the book.
But there’s more than that. If that was all the reason we had for liking Katniss, we wouldn’t get halfway into the book before deciding it was a lost cause. It’s more than that.
This decision of ours to invest ourselves in Katniss’s story already begins to deteriorate by the time the Reaping rolls around. We’ve seen Katniss in her natural habitat now– she’s angsty, selfish, and almost depressing to read about. Before we can lose interest, however, there comes the Reaping.
This is the time when two minors, a boy and a girl, will be chosen to participate in the Hunger Games. Everyone from twelve to eighteen must have their names entered, and Prim just turned twelve. True to her nature as we’ve seen it, however, all Katniss can think about is herself.
Then Prim’s name is chosen, and we see what Katniss is actually worth.
The words “I volunteer as tribute” have become famous since The Hunger Games was published. They seem to wrap up the idea of the book in only four words, and firmly entrench the audience on Katniss’s side. Why?
One spectacular concept: sacrifice. Katniss is selfish, yes. If her family didn’t depend on her, she’d run away in a heartbeat. However, in the one moment where she could be selfish and lose all our sympathy forever, she chooses to take Prim’s place and go to the Hunger Games. That hooks us for the rest of the story.
When I read this the first time, I didn’t understand it. I just thought it was a really good book. When I read it the second time, I still didn’t understand it. I just thought Katniss was a horrible character and couldn’t see why everyone was so gullible.
But honestly, that’s amazing writing. I have no idea whether the author planned that from the beginning, or whether she had just set out to create a depressing story and hey, what’s more depressing than this faceless government choosing a little girl to be an example? Whichever it was, it turned out really well. I applaud the author, and I apologize again for my review.
Disclaimer: I know this is a different style post than I usually do. The worst thing for anyone to do after reading this post would be to copy this process exactly. I realize I run that risk in posting this, but I meant to showcase an extraordinary feat of emotional manipulation. Be amazed with me. Also, I apologize for possibly spoiling the beginning of The Hunger Games, but I restricted myself to the very beginning. The rest of the book is yet unspoiled. Enjoy it if it pleases you.