Themes in The Hunger Games

Since the invention of writing people have been analyzing it to death.  Schoolchildren all over the world know this as they do their novel studies in English Literature (or an equivalent class).  Recently, The Hunger Games has been the new target of educators who *gasp* are trying to get kids actually interested in books and reading.

Are they justified in this choice?  I suppose time will tell, but in the meantime let’s take a look at some of the themes present in the popular series, shall we?

Survival

1.  Survival.

Katniss struggles for survival on a daily basis, hunting and gathering out in the woods to provide for Prim and her mother.  For her and many others in District 12, the threat of death is ever-present and it only gets ratcheted up about 10 notches when Katniss is chosen as a tribute.  She has to survive her normal life, she has to survive in the deadly Games with only a 1/24 chance of survival (in the beginning anyway) and she has to survive the wrath of the Capitol afterward.

Now, all of us struggle for survival on some level, which is also why the series is so popular.  Most of us haven’t had to go out and illegally hunt in the woods since the age of 11, but we all struggle to fit in, to provide for ourselves through work, etc.  The Hunger Games can also be described as a coming-of-age story, which is in part because of the heavy theme of survival.

Inequality

2.  Inequality.

This theme is at least as important as the theme of survival, if not more and usually gives teachers an opportunity to push their political agendas.  Okay, maybe that’s a bit cynical of me to say, but politics aside, there is a terrifying amount of inequality in The Hunger Games.  People in the Capitol live in absolute luxury with delicacies available to them at the press of a button while people in the non-Career districts starve to death in the streets.  Out in the districts there is virtually no opportunity for advancement unless you win the Hunger Games and get to live in the Victor’s Village, which is chance-y at best.

Now if I were inclined to push my own political agenda I would start on a rant drawing parallels to today’s society, but I don’t feel like throwing a rock at that particular hornet’s nest.  So let’s just say you can draw your own parallels to today and leave it at that, shall we? (Note: this is not an invitation to talk about your political beliefs in the comments section.)

Even in the Games themselves, things are unequal.  In the first book when the Gamemakers start the fire, they are using it to push Katniss toward the Career pack and not the other way around.  They end up targeting the poor girl from District 12, a district that traditionally does terribly in the Games.

Perception

3.  Perception.

In The Hunger Games, things aren’t always what they seem.  Katniss strives at first to be perceived as a tough warrior, someone that the sponsors will trip over themselves to help because she stands a good chance of winning.  Later on she keeps up that perception that her and Peeta are star-crossed lovers so she can maintain the sympathetic sponsors who cause the 2 winners rule change in the last third of the first book.

The Games are all about perception.  Haymitch as a mentor has to find out what angle his tributes are going to play in the interviews with Caesar Flickerman.  Even on the train when Haymitch examines Peeta and Katniss to assess their chances, Katniss thinks, “The Hunger Games aren’t a beauty contest, but the best-looking tributes always seem to pull more sponsors” (Pg. 58).  It’s all about perception and playing the game.

Innocence

4.  Innocence.

This isn’t really an obvious one, but innocence is an important thing in The Hunger Games.  Katniss, because her dad died and she had to assume the role of pater familias at age 11, is far from innocent.  She’s rather cynical and bitter and certainly more mature than most 16-year-olds have a right to be.  Compare that to poor innocent Prim, who when Katniss took her out hunting a few times would say that if they brought the animal back home they could still save it.

The Hunger Games themselves are horrific.  We tend to forget this because the actors in the movie look so much older, but these are teenagers age 12-18.  I don’t know about you, but 12 is pretty young to be killed, kill and/or see the people around you be killed.  The winners of the Games are usually traumatized and seem to try to self-medicate like Haymitch or the morphlings in Catching Fire.  Or they harden themselves against the world like Finnick and stop caring about most things.

It’s also pretty hard to be innocent in places like District 12 where there’s death and starvation all around you.

Love

5.  Love.

Suzanne Collins didn’t do a stellar job at developing the Katniss-Peeta relationship, but it was enough.  Love is a huge theme in the entire Hunger Games trilogy because it not only encompasses romantic love, but platonic love as well.  Katniss volunteers for the Games out of a love for Prim; she didn’t want to see her little sister die.  Mrs. Everdeen goes into a deep, deep depression when her beloved husband dies.  Finnick Odair nearly goes mad with grief in Catching Fire when he hears the jabberjays calling out in Annie’s voice.  Peeta does everything he can despite generally being a wimp in order to protect Katniss out of love in the first book.

I could list dozens of different examples, but I think you get the point.  Even if it isn’t always well done, love is a big part of the trilogy.

Book Snobs

The Hunger Games is a cultural phenomenon and it’s only going to get bigger with the release of the Catching Fire movie in November of this year.  Therefore it’s probably easier for educators to embrace it and get teenagers excited about a book than to keep the curriculum stagnant.  Just the other day I overheard some teenagers who had not read a book cover to cover in years discussing The Hunger Games with excitement in their eyes.  Not just the movie, but the book!

Lots of people believe that if kids are going to get interested in reading they should start on ‘good literature’ (read: whatever the person in question deems ‘good’).  But I personally believe if a book can get kids and teenagers reading and having animated, in-depth discussions about it, who cares about its literary quality as deemed by literary snobs?  The Hunger Games, admittedly is not a great book, but it’s not bad either and if it’s a gateway book to get kids interested in reading for an entire lifetime, I’m all for it.

3 comments

  1. greencat365

    My gateway drug was kiddie stuff, too. Ever heard of The Diadem Trilogy? Yeah, I didn’t think so. If I could ever find it again and read it it would probably be total schlock, but then I got into Anne McCaffrey, and then Dune, and then Frankenstein, and one thing led to another. The Hunger Games is a better introduction to the world of novels than a lot of what’s out there.

    • Carrie Slager

      That’s very true; kids could be introduced to far worse gateway books. And you’re absolutely right because I’ve never heard of the Diadem trilogy. I never really had a gateway book because I grew up reading, but I can certainly understand starting ‘easy’ and moving on to the classics.

  2. cav12

    I was a teacher-librarian for a number of years and believed in getting students to read anything, be it graphic novels, non-fiction books, and fiction. Thanks to JK Rowling, a generation of children read and any writer who can instil a love for reading gets an A from me. Great post.

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