A few weeks ago I posted an essay in Immerse: A Journal of Faith, Life, and Youth Ministry re: The Hunger Games. While crafting that piece, I had some other notes that didn't make it into the final draft, but I thought also worth a post here on the blog.
Another way in to The Hunger Games is this: Don't be a tool.
Much of what makes Katniss such a winning protagonist is her perennial unwillingness to be a tool for the system--first for the Capitol, but then equally for District 13.
Early in Mockingjay, Katniss says to Prim, "Tomorrow morning I'm going to agree to be the Mockingjay." Her sister's wise and immediate question, "Because you want to, or because you are feeling forced into it?"To which Katniss responds, "Both I guess. No, I want to." (page 33)
People can do all sorts of things for different reasons, and we all can do the same thing but for different reasons. For Katniss, for Prim, for their movement, it is important that even if they appear to be a tool, it is not actually because they are a tool or are forced, but because it is their decision.
None of us desire to be tools, to be used. We have some suspicions, however, that in spite of our best intentions, we are serving as tools, pawns in a system of which we are only partially aware. We suspect there is no way out.
I believe this is one reason for the popularity of these novels and movies. Our sense of being tools is buried deep in some inarticulate nascent regions of our brain. Yet we know.
The intriguing question: By being perfectly willing to be drawn along on a narrative celebrating someone (a fictional character) who gives not being a tool a good try, are we actually allowing the story to function as a kind of cathartic proxy, an opiate for the masses?
Perhaps what attracts us in these dystopic parables is a slight uptick in our awareness of how trapped we are in the systems in which we are embedded?
This clarifies why this is such a popular teen novel (and since adulthood in North America has been juvenilized, we're all teens now, right?) Teens are so very much wrestling with self, and are in the early stages of forming their sense of autonomous identity, and identify formation.
"Who am I? And who are people telling me I am? And who are my people?" Close to this question are related and subsidiary questions, "Who do I love? Who loves me? Who can I trust?"
In the particular case of Katniss, there are ways the totalitarian system in which she lives requires her to do identity formation earlier than is typical or even healthy. There are other ways in which this system of control leaves Katniss foreclosed and emotionally stunted. This is what makes Katniss such an intriguing, attractive, and simultaneously disturbing, heroine.