Why The Hunger Games Worked

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.


88 thoughts on “Why The Hunger Games Worked

  1. Hmm, I remember reading your second review of The Hunger Games and totally disagreeing with you, so I’m glad you wrote this post as well. I kind of agree though, the only reason we started liking Katniss was because of little Prim.
    **SPOILER ALERT** Just curious, but why do you think the author killed Prim in the third book?

    Ah, and sorry for my absence commenting on this blog for the past few months, I’ve missed it!
    Glad to be back,

    1. Oh! It’s the same concept as making walk on characters sympathetic! Only on a scale fit to the circumstances!

      1. You’re a genius, Robyn. I didn’t think of that. Liam’s Law of Sympathetic Characters is even more powerful than I first thought.

      2. Although, must admit that it was your comment that sparked the realization of the connection, Leinad.

      3. *snorts* Liam’s Law of Sympathetic Characters… Hardly.

        But yes. Liking little kids is an enormous reason to like bigger characters, and sacrifice for little kids– that’s piling everything on. The author really did well.

  2. I think you are completely right. It’s that act of love and bravery at the beginning which makes us respect Katniss through the book. Perhaps that’s also why (or partly why) I liked the second and third books less than the first: because we don’t have any similar acts of sacrifice from Katniss.

  3. Liam, don’t do this to me! D:
    Okay, in my opinion, THG was so popular because it was the next internationally hyped out series in teen fiction after Twilight–and it had an MC who could take care of herself. I have people left, right and center telling me it’s a good book while the experience I had while reading it was nothing short of nightmarish. Had it not come out just as the Twilight hype was dying down, I don’t even think it would have been that popular.

    Katniss may be a good character in your opinion but I find her annoying. I don’t even mind that she’s selfish. I think she’s fundamentally just badly written. I don’t see justification for her selfishness. It’s written in the first person but I still can’t understand her thought process, whereas a good book would help me understand the character even in the most ambigious third person. Selfish character can be great provided the reader can comprehend them and their ways. I can’t do that with Katniss Evermean–oops, Everdeen.

    1. A* selfish character, stupid smartphone. (See what I did there? xD)

      Anyway, I am going to add to my previous comment. (Because I posted that at 5.30 in the morning and I wasn’t thinking very coherently.) Maybe it’s just me, but I actually dislike her MORE because she went in place of Prim. I’ve only read the first book (I couldn’t stomach its sequels), but Prim (whatever little we see of her), is extremely childish, and not even in a good way. Maybe this goes back to our conversation on Goodreads about writing children, but I think she comes off as extremely weak. Not even in a *sympathetic* kind of way. Just…helpless and stupid. Add to that my dislike for Katniss as a main character, and the entire ‘I volunteer as tribute’ scene feels…fake. A farce or something.

      Compare Prim with Rue. Both of them are the same age and have grown up in the same sort of environment. Yet, you see a level of maturity in Rue that you just don’t see in Prim. Still, I know that in the first book, Prim is barely there. But as a reader, you can pick up these small cues. What I infer is that Rue is just…better. And she makes Katniss a better person in my eyes. Not Prim, who she volunteered for, but Rue. I loved the interaction between Rue and Evermean–ahem, Everdeen. Katniss seemed almost human.

      The concept of THG was incredible. It was probably the only thing that saved the series in my eyes. But Katniss is irritating, Gale and Peeta are both weird and the love triangle is *pointless*. I know how Collins wove together the romance and the action, but she didn’t do it properly. Peeta is just another Katniss fanboy–and I remember reading in the book that “people always watched Katniss” because she was apparently beautiful and had a nice voice. (A selfish, ragged girl who cares about nobody but herself has a fan club? What sort of universe is she living in? I get told off by random people for wearing men’s shoes because they’re comfortable but not “feminine”. How does someone as unlikable as Katniss, as tomboyish as Katniss have a bunch of guys after her? Not her personality, because she’s so awful. And I’m all for “dress how you want to, it doesn’t matter what they say”, but let’s get real. A girl who doesn’t dress and act like one is immediately considered less of a woman. My point is simple: Katniss having a following for no reason is a tad Mary Sue-ish.)

      MEANWHILE, Gale is just so incredibly creepy. Not in a pervert sort of way, but…let me give you an image: I can picture him kicking kittens for fun. (HEY, maybe that’s why they get along! A kitten-kicker and a squirrel-killer. Man, what do these guys have against cute critters?)
      Once more, my judgement is based *entirely on book 1* of the series. So Katniss making a huge song-and-dance about pretending to be in love with Peeta while worrying about what Gale thinks…it just takes away from the story. I found it distracting. She has a bunch of crazy, murderous tributes after her, and she’s worrying about her love life? Really, Evermean, really?

      But that doesn’t mean the entire book was garbage. Most of it was, but not all of it. I liked the ending. A little. Killing each other as an act of rebellion. It’s smart, it’s murky and it’s political, which is what the book’s main focus ought to have been. The idea had SO much potential, but she’s made it into a teen love story that boys can also enjoy because there is a certain amount of action.

      Books like THG are one of the reasons I’m gravitating away from teen fiction these days. House of Hades is probably the only YA I’ve read in months. Mainstream YA is just becoming a combination of chick-lit and bad action movies boiled over a large flame and stirred with a generous dose of no-talent authors.

      Tell me the next time you find a well-written mainstream YA novel. (And by mainstream, I mean globally recognised stuff. Not something you can only buy in America. Which is, trust me, the case with a LOT of fiction.)

      1. This post was not meant to be a review. I tried not to say in the post whether I came out liking or disliking the book after all this time– I merely pointed out a single technique near the beginning of the book. I have nothing to say on the love triangles, or the reality of the character’s narration, or her Mary Sue status. I’m glad you got a chance to rant, but I’m disappointed that this post got this reaction– it wasn’t meant to.

      2. Interpretation is the biggest danger of writing. Actually, you shouldn’t be disappointed. The fact that you got varied opinions means that it’s just that sort of post that attracts different ideas. You perhaps didn’t mean it that way, but that doesn’t matter. What I actually like about this blog is that one can discuss these things in detail. It doesn’t have to be related to the post, just related to the broad subject of this platform–writing.

    2. Well, I apologize for praising a book you thought was horrible, but I am of the opinion that if anything is well-received– even Twilight– something had to be done correctly. Perhaps it was just popular because it was over-hyped, as you said, but that would have gotten the sales up in the first week; it wouldn’t have given the book the legions of fans it has today. The main character may have been badly written with big jumps in reasoning, but for a lot of people, it worked. It doesn’t matter what I actually think of the book as a whole. I’m just here to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

      1. Why was Twilight well-received? In my opinion it was probably the writing style. It basked in comfortable mediocrity. Bella is a stupid character but a passable narrator. Though it pains me to say this, the book is just right for someone only beginning to enter the world of reading. It makes sense that a majority of the Twilight fangirls are thirteen-year-old girls.

        As for THG…the concept, I think. The concept was fantastic. Even my father–whose reading standards are so high they put Mt. Everest to shame–thought the premise was an interesting one.

      2. Part of it, too, was the concept. Remember, there was once a time when vampires were the stuff of horror stories, not the lovable cuddly people they are now. It was novel at the time. Nowadays, of course, we forget that and decide that nothing really made Twilight that special.

        And you’re right about the Hunger Games. Personally, I thought it was well-written as well, but I know that doesn’t work for everyone.

      3. Ah, yes. Vampires. That’s why I picked up the book in the first place. “Ooh, vampires! Blood, gore, action!” Oh, well.

        The action scenes were okay. I don’t completely hate it, but the negatives outweigh the positives.

  4. To be honest, I didn’t find Katniss (that) selfish, at least not until the third book, but by that point I was willing to cut her some slack.

    Also, what do you think of a main character who becomes increasingly unsympathetic, but all the other characters get more and more likeable? So it gets to the point where you’re rooting for everyone but the main character?

    1. That, my friend, becomes a problem of chosen main character, which would make a lot of people put down the book. However, there have been good character arcs where the main character is forced down a path of darkness, and the low point is when they aren’t sure they can even turn back. But they’re always likable because you want them to stop destroying their lives.

  5. Alright, so I read the first and second book of The Hunger Games, and then I guess I lost interest. It was grabbing at first, and though most would disagree with me.. I didn’t like it much. Katniss seemed a not very well developed character in my opinion, and the beginning, again in my opinion was hopelessly boring. If it had been any other book, not a hugely popular award winning novel, most likely I would not have even got up to the Reaping part of the first novel.
    …I apologize for my mini rant there Quirk, but I understand your point being said, and agree for the most part.

  6. You should have talked about this after the Catching Fire heat. I would have a lot more things to talk about than now. Right now my mind is full of Briony. (Chime, Franny Billingsley) (I’m kidding.)

    The Hunger Games… I agree with a whole lot of things you pointed out. The plot was designed perfectly. Yes, Katniss was selfish. Yes, when you compare the Capitol and Katniss, of course you choose Katniss. But I think what makes Katniss likable, is that circumstances made her the person she is now. Her dad’s death in the mines. Her mother’s withdrawal. She having to survive on her own with her sister to feed. These are the circumstances District 12 was in, as do Katniss. These circumstances mould her into the person she is, and while readers see it, they sympathize with her. (That’s my opinion.) Then again, Prim is a factor, too.

    Oh, and I think, what keeps readers interested with the story, besides from what you said which is quite true, is that Katniss didn’t mean to be in this mess. She was struggling for survival of her own family, a burden she didn’t have to take for Prim. She was struggling for the survival of Peeta. Her emotions were played, tampered with until she was no longer her own. The scenes all make us sympathize with Katniss a bit more, and the fondness grows.

    Anyway, it’s what I think about the Hunger Games. You addressed some really good points, and I find myself looking at THG plot-wise, and how every move Katniss makes impacts the whole story. Nice post. 🙂 (I think I’m more focused on the emotional part.)

    1. The problem with characters who didn’t mean to be in this mess, as you put it, is that they quickly become angsty, which quickly becomes annoying. I love books where there’s this enormous problem the characters have to conquer, but when they get angsty, I get kicked out. I think Katniss had a good balance in the Hunger Games.

      Thanks for the input.

  7. Liam, can I just say I am hugely shocked at this post (though I agree)? I would not have expected it from you. So…here’s some applause. *claps*

      1. Yes. But you said they live to shock. But what makes them more alive than pens and pencils?

      2. Hmm… Well, I think the close enough versions of that would be a fountain pen that wrote with electricity (the ink would have little sparks in it and be a sort of neon blue) or a sonic screwdriver.

        Also, I’ve yet to see a battery shock anything.

      3. He lives to give advice. Mostly good advice, but occasionally bad advice as well. Most of the writing advice is good. But the advice to touch both poles of a car battery is bad.

      4. You’re hilarious. Don’t you realize I could damage my reputation doing something like that? Someone sees me just randomly licking a battery and Poof! everything I’ve worked so hard for would be gone. No more invitations to balls, no more chance of climbing the social ladders… I’d be shunned. I’d have to snap and become a Mistborn thief!

      5. That’s true… I just need find a deck.

        (I really wanted a ten to play when I had to shovel around the mailbox earlier today. That would’ve been so much faster…)

      6. …Point. Yeah, I might need to leave that alone. I’ll just… I don’t know, use my dad’s flamethrower. That should work.

      7. I’m also not allowed to make a unsanctioned deck for fear of copyright infringement. Picking the lesser of the two evils, I’d rather run the flamethrower, even though I’m somewhat terrified of it.

      8. You know what? I have a better idea. *walks into shed* *crashing, cat’s howl, glass shattering* *walks out of shed with a dragon*
        Come on, Spot! Come on, boy! Melt the snow around the mailbox!

      9. You underestimate his character. I can only hope he doesn’t hear you insulting him like that.

      10. Not melted, but Dad came home and used his snow blower. It’s at least moved somewhat. And I did go shovel it the other day.

      11. At the last minute, he voiced his concern of burning the mailbox. I considered that and agreed that it wouldn’t be a good idea.

      12. *opens mouth to argue but thinks better of it and decides not to lower herself to that level*

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