In the far future is the remnants of North American humanity, organized into a dystopian country named Panem. This country is composed of the Capitol (somewhere in the Rocky Mountains) and twelve Districts. District 12 is the coal mining district, and is located in what used to be Appalachia. Seventy-four years ago the Districts rebelled against the Capitol, but the Capitol won and now rules with an iron fist. The Districts send their produce to the Capitol, and live austere lives as effective slaves of the Capitol (enforced by Peacekeeper troops). The Capitol reminds them of their position with the Hunger Games, in which a boy and a girl “tribute” are randomly chosen every year from the children of the district. These children fight to the death in an an arena, the Games broadcast on television over Panem and are mandatory watching.
Katniss Everdeen’s younger sister, twelve years old, who she had protected ever since their father died in a coal mine explosion and her mother was catatonic from grief, was chosen as District 12's Tribute. Katniss, in shock, volunteered as Tribute instead. District 12 does not clap for her, but as one, silently raises three fingers from their lips out in the gesture for thank you, respect, goodbye. From the boys, Peeta Mallark, who had once thrown Katniss a loaf of bread when her family was starving, was chosen as the male Tribute.
The Capitol lives in luxury and the games are an entertainment spectacle. For the entry procession, District 12's costume designer, Cinna, dresses them in black (representing coal) and his fake fire draws everyone’s attention to them, which is important, because winning the Games requires getting sponsors. The few days before the Games are occupied in some light training, some television interviews, and finally a presentation of skill before the Gamemasters who give the Tributes a score. The interview goes well for Katniss as long as she is herself, and Cinna gave her a dress that capitalizes on the excitement of the procession. Peeta has the interview after her, and has a good rapport with the Caesar, the longtime host of the Games. The conversation turns to girls, and Peeta says that he is unlikely be able to live happily ever after with the girl he loves even if he wins—when pressed by Caesar he says it is because she is also a Tribute. So not only is Katniss, the “girl on fire” is also desired by Peeta.
The only living Victor from District 12, Haymitch is in charge of mentoring them and helping them win. He tells Katniss that her only real strategy is to play up the “star-crossed lovers” angle, which is difficult for Katniss because she’s ashamed of Peeta’s having given her food, plus, she has a long-time hunting partner Gale, who seems like he has a right to the lover spot, even though she does not want to be married. During the skill presentation, frustrated at being ignored because she is last, she takes an arrow and shoots the apple out of the pigs mouth that the Gamemasters were milling around, eating and ignoring her. She shocks the Gamemasters, but is given a high score.
When the Game begins, Katniss simply heads off away from everyone else, which works for a while until she needs water. Peeta helps her escape some of the gang of Tributes from the wealthier, low-numbered districts, and she allies herself with the small, twelve-year-old girl from District 11 (Rue). They execute a plan to blow up the food that the gang has stockpiled, to even the playing field. The plan works, but they find Rue, who dies in Katniss’ arms as she sings a lullaby as she dies, and then places flowers all around her. Eventually Katniss and Peeta team up, as Katniss slowly accepts that Peeta’s plan is to protect her, knowing that she will have to kill him eventually. Peeta has realized that
After most of the Tributes had died, the Gamemakers announce a rule change, that two Tributes can be Victors, but only if they are from the same district. So Katniss and Peeta help each other fend off the many dangers of the Games, until it is only the two of them. During this time Katniss must play lover, which is difficult because of the spot Gale occupies, but at the same time she finds that it is not entirely an act. Once they are the only two left, the Gamemakers renege on their rule change. Katniss realizes that the Games need a Victor for them to work, so she and Peeta begin to eat some poisonous berries they had found earlier and the Gamemakers allow the original rule. Haymitch warns her that she has demonstrated that the Capitol can be resisted with her act of defiance, and that she—and likely everyone she loves—will die if she does not convince everyone that it was not an act of defiance but simply being madly in love and not being able to live without her lover. So at the interview after the Games (where they must rewatch the death-scenes of the Games), Katniss cuddles with Peeta, and they announce their engagement. President Snow says he will pay for the dress and festivities.
In the first book, we learn that the Capitol rules by trauma, and we get a good picture of the trauma it inflicts on the Districts, families, and Tributes. We learn of the gross economic disparity between the Capitol and the Districts, and the feeling of entitlement in the Capitol, which frequently treats the people of the Districts as effectively animals. We also learn that the Capitol has created genetic mutations of animals, as well as some animals that have creepy human characteristics (like the eyes).
The second book shows more details of Gale and Katniss’ hunting life in the woods, (illegally) providing food for their families. Katniss is now wealthy, so does not need the food for her family, but she loves hunting and uses what she catch to help Gale’s family. Peeta is hurt when Katniss tells him on the train ride home that her love was an act, but the easy friendship between her and Gale no longer works, either. We learn that District 12 is fairly lax about enforcing the rules, especially the rule against hunting. During the games Rue told Katniss that District 11—agriculture—was much more strict. Katniss also accidentally sees a television broadcast intended for the mayor only, telling about unrest in District 11.
A few months later Katniss and Peeta went on a victory tour—so the Capitol could rub salt in the wounds the deaths of their sons and daughters have made (attendance at the tour was mandatory). Before they left, President Snow unexpectedly appeared at Katniss’ house. At Snow’s suggestion they agree to not lie to each other (“it would save time,” said Katniss) and told her that people like her—whose displays of humanity could be seen as subverting the Capitol—endangered the stability of the country. He said he did not believe that she is in love with Peeta; she must make him believe. He made an observation about Gale hunting in the woods (hunting is illegal and punishable by death) that revealed that he knows what her loved ones are doing and her obedience is what keeps them safe. Katniss tried her best during the tour, but her humanity kept getting in her way. In District 11 she gave a lovely eulogy for Rue, whom she cared about, and saw the crowd respond and be repressed by the soldiers. She kept more to the script after that, but she was not a good actoress, and when President Snow hugged them at the celebration in the Capitol, she raised her eyebrows to ask if she convinced him, and Snow subltly shook his head no.
That year was the 75th anniversary of the ending of the Rebellion and the founding of the Hunger Games, and every 25 years the Quell—gathering of Tributes was different. That Quarter-Quell, the yellowed envelope taken from the box containing instructions for Quarter Quells for hundreds of years indicated that the Tributes must be taken from the surviving Victors. As the only female Victor, Katniss was once again a Tribute. Peeta volunteered for Haymitch. Haymitch—always living in a state of constant drunkenness as a result of decades of being forced to mentor young people and seeing them killed in the arena—was joined by Katniss that evening. In the previous Games, Haymitch saw Katniss as the most likely to win, so he chose to help her during the Games. She made him promise that this time they will both focus on Peeta’s survival.
In the Capitol, Cinna, who Katniss regarded as a friend, had made another stunning dress. During dinner Katniss discovered the she knew the Avox who serves them—slaves whose tongues have been cut off because of treason. During the skills presentation she hung the previous Gamemaker in effigy, again earning a high score (much to her surprise). During the pre-game interviews, the Victor-Tributes played up the connection between the Capitol and the Victors, one read a poem for his lover (which many in the audience thought was them). Cinna had made Katniss a wedding dress, which when she spun turned into a Mockingjay—the symbol on the pin that the Mayor’s daughter gave her for the previous Games. And then Peeta expressed regret that they got married early (which was not true), because who could have foreseen that the Victors—who had been immune from the Games for 74 years—would become Tributes, and he wished they ha not have done it because of the baby. Even the most staunch Games-loving person could not help feel that there was injustice there. And then when the Victors stood up for their bow, Katniss instinctively took the hand of the Victor from District 11 as well as Peeta, and it spread, the show of solidarity between the Districts since the Dark Days of the previous war, broadcast to all of Panem, before the Capitol realized what was happening.
The next day, right before Katniss was raised onto the arena, she saw Cinna beaten while she was stuck in the glass tube. She entered the arena disoriented and traumatized, but made a dash for the bow and arrows. Finnick, a Victor from District 4 (the sea), arriving at the same time says he is an ally, showed him the armband Haymitch had been wearing. Finnick got Peeta (who cannot swim), and with the Finnick’s elderly mentor, headed out into the arena. That night they encountered a deadly cloud, which drove them back to the water, but not before Finnick’s mentor steped into the cloud so that the others can escape. They shortly allied with several others, discovered that timed nature of the arena, and hatched a plan to leave the beach, enticing the four “Career” Tributes to return and get electrocuted by a wire connected to the tree where lighting strikes at midnight. The plan was not entirely successful, because several of the Careers found them and cut the wire. Katniss was always untrusting of her allies, so when Johanna, an angry Victor from District 7 cut her arm, saying that it would remove the tracking device, she thought Johanna was double-crossing her. She went back to the tree to find Peeta, and as lighting was about to strike, attaches the wire-wrapped dagger that their ally had pointed towards the invisible edge of the arena to an arrow and shoots at the force field. The surge of electricity, caused the destruction of part of the arena. A hovercraft got her and she woke up from the lighting stun still in fight mode, eventually finding Haymitch and the Gamemaster, who hastily informed her that they were rescuing her and taking her to District 13, and that her allies had agreed to enable her rescue. Unfortunately, the Capitol got to Peeta before they could. Katniss was livid that Haymitch was planned something without telling her, and double-crossed their agreement to focus on Peeta. She tried to kill him and was sedated.
In book two we learn more of the sadistic nature of the Games and the cruelty of the Capitol, either the people who originally came up with the Games if the envelopes are truly original, or President Snow if the convenient nature of the Quarter Quell in getting rid of Katniss was his idea. We learn that not everyone in the Capitol is supportive, as Cinna’s dress for Katniss is a clear act of defiance (yet he channels everything into his work, so that only he takes the fall, and not the people he loves). We see the very human trauma of people who are forced again to relive their trauma. We also see that the Victors are not happy, although it is unclear why, but some take drugs, and some like Johanna are rebellious. And we see more cruelty in how the Avox are treated.
Everyone thought that District 13, which was a maze of underground buildings that took hundreds of years to build, had been destroyed in the war, but the reality was that District 13 had nuclear weapons and in the war threatened to shoot at the Capitol unless there was an agreement that they would mutually ignore each other. To survive they became very structured, with military efficiency, which drove Katniss nuts, although she could get away with flaunting some of the rules as she had been diagnosed as crazy (not entirely incorrectly). Gale told her that in retaliation for her rescue the Capitol firebombed District 12 into oblivion. He managed to get several hundred people out before that happened and hovercraft from District 13 picked them up, but most of the District died and everything except the Victor’s Village was completely destroyed.
District 13 wanted to use Katniss in propoganda videos (propos) to symbolize the rebellion and to show that she is fighting the Capitol. Katniss did not want to be someone’s pawn again, but eventually decides that the Capitol must be stopped and agrees to help. She gets President Coin to offer immunity to all the Victors, and asks that she be able to shoot President Snow. She mets the propo team, and they produced an unusable studio video. Haymitch held a brainstorming session where he guided them into the realization that Katniss was very effective when she reacted naturally and utterly useless as an actor. So they took her to visit a hospital in District 8. Afterwards, the Capitol hovercraft bombed the hospital, in obvious knowledge that it contains wounded people. She and Gale had been equipped with special explosive arrows, which they used to take out one of the hovercraft. This video was a success, and was broadcast to the Districts.
The Capitol broadcast an interview with Peeta, who warned Katniss that District 13 would be destroyed by morning. Katniss was convinced it was a warning, and convinced President Coin to order a lockdown. Everyone went to the deep bunkers, and the Capitol bombed District 13 all night, destroying the near-ground floors. The next day they filmed a propo video with Katniss still alive, but she was unable to say anything effective, and Finnick stepped in, spilling all the Capitol’s secrets. Victor’s, he said, were hired out for sexual favors by Snow; if you resisted they hurt someone you loved. He was not interested in money, though, so he got paid in secrets, and he told all the payments-secrets he had about all the nasty things that went on in the Capitol. District 13 was successful in hijacking the Capitol’s broadcast network and aired the video (which went aired while the Capitol tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to air a video with Peeta condemning Katniss).
Some time afterwards they developed a plan to rescue Peeta and the other Victors being held by the Capitol. Gale volunteered immediately. The mission was a success, but the Capitol had used Tracker Jacker venom (a powerful hallucinogen from genetically engineered wasps) to rewire Peeta’s fear response to trigger him try to kill Katniss. Katniss remained conflicted in her loyalty and friendship for Gale, who she knew loved her, and Peeta, who had protected her, while at the same time being angry at Peeta’s change and his attempt on her life.
The rebellion took root in most of the districts, but is stalled by the Capitol’s impregnable military mountain in District 12. There for a propo shoot, Katniss sees Gale advocating psychological tactics where an attack draws people in and allows a time-delayed attack to kill more people. She is opposed to this Capitol-like tactic and talks them into a slightly different strategy. This ends up with some people from the mountain evacuating via the train tunnel after the entrances to the mountain are sealed. Katniss was standing in the arrival square, and tries to talk the scared evacuee into joining with the rest of the Districts, but he shoots her. Her Mockingjay propo costume was designed by Cinna before his death, and he had thought of everything, including armor, so she spends yet more time in the hospital.
After that, the rebellion prepared to move into the Capitol. Katniss wanted to go as part of the force to kill President Snow, and after some training, was sent with Finnick and her propo team. However, their mission was to film propo videos away from the action. And then, Peeta is delivered to their squadron. He had recovered somewhat from what the Capitol had done to him, but nobody, including himself, trusted him not to kill Katniss. Boggs, the squad leader said that she had now become a danger to President Coin—anyone who’s answer to “do you support President Coin?” is not an immediate yes is a threat to her taking the control of Panem after the war is over. Over the years the Gamemakers had rigged cruel defenses in the city (“pods”), and the squad triggers one accidentally, which kills Boggs. He transfers control of the computer containing the maps to the pods to her and tells her not to trust the second in command. After the situation is under control the second wants her to transfer control to her, but Katniss claimed to be on a special mission from Coin to kill Snow, and the squadron follows her.
After seeing that the streets are filled with refugees who could recognize her and Peeta instantly, they navigate underground, as one of the cameraman, an Avox that had been bought back by his family, had spent five years down there and knew his way around. On watch at night, Katniss wakes up to the sound of "Katnissss" whispering through the tunnels, and Peeta, instinctively responds until he wakes up and realizes what he is doing. They flee to the surface, but lose several members of the team, and when the mutts surround Finnick as they reach the stair upwards, Katniss activates the self-destruct sequence on the mapping device and drops it. She did it regretfully, because the Victor rescue mission had rescued his love, Annie (also a Victor, but not reaped in the Quarter Quell), and they had been married shortly before the mission.
They were sheltered by someone the (rebellious) Gamemaster knew, a woman named Tigress. The residents of the Capitol were fond of flamboyant dress, hairstyles, and even body dyes, but Tigress’ modifications into a tigerish human and the general unused air of her store suggested that perhaps she had fallen afoul of the Capitol on some way. Tigress hides them overnight and gives them costumes to blend in with the crowd heading for President Snow’s mansion, as he had offered them shelter.
In the morning they make their way to the mansion, where the children have gathered in front of the gates. A Capitol hovercraft flies overhead dropping parachutes that look exactly like the gifts that sponsors provide to Tributes in the arena, except they explode in the expectant faces. At the realization that the Capitol bombed their own people, resistance to the rebellion ends. Meanwhile, people come over to tend to the wounded, and Katniss noticed her sister Prim among them. Prim, like her mother, was born a healer, and had been maturing into a quality medic. Then a delayed bomb exploded, killing the remaining people and those who came to help them.
Katniss, back on medication, woke up in President Snow’s mansion. She wandered aimless around for several days, and eventually stumbled across the greenhouse where President Snow grew his signature, unnaturally fragrant, white roses. (Some said that Snow removed his enemies by poisoning themselves, but drank from the same cup to remove suspicion. Antidotes are not completely effective, though, and the roses were said to cover up the smell of the sores in his mouth.) She is allowed inside, where she finds President Snow kept. Snow says that it was not a Capitol ship; there would be no point in wasting life (both sides worried about having a large enough population to be viable afterwards), in fact he was about ready to surrender when the bombs went off, although he had admired the tactic. She expressed disbelief, but Snow reminded her that they had agreed not to lie to each other. Snow says that Coin played both of them—they were so focused on each other they she could come in and take them both.
The day of Snow’s execution, Coin called all the remaining Victors to a meeting and proposed a new Hunger Games, as a punishment on the Capitol that would not result in a large decrease in population. She wanted their votes on the idea. Peeta and Annie were horrified and vote no, the career Victors voted yes. Katniss voted yes, and Haymitch, a little surprised, said he’s with the Mockingjay. At the execution, Snow appeared to be laughing at her, and she realized that they had agreed not to lie to each other, and shoots President Coin.
Katniss was eventually acquitted of the execution by reason of insanity, and was sent to District 12. While at Snow’s mansion, she had seen Gale and accused him of the tactic which killed her sister Prim. At the first reaping, Gale had promised to take care of her family if her name was drawn, and it was his tactic that killed her. This resolved Katniss’ choice in favor of Peeta. She continued struggling with the trauma, waking up with nightmares, but Peeta, who had learned to deal with his fears and confusion by asking Katniss what was true and what was a lie by the Capitol, continued loving Katniss, and eventually she grew to love him completely. Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch pursued healing by writing down vignettes of everyone they loved (and the Tributes that Haymitch could not save) into a book, along with pictures or portraits that Peeta drew (as a baker’s son, he was very artistic because of the cake decorations). Despite not wanting to marry and especially not to bring children into an evil world, she did give Peeta two children out of love for him because he really wanted them.
I read the Hunger Games trilogy because I liked the movies and was curious how the books differed from the movies. The movie actually follows the books pretty closely, even to the extent of having four movies instead of three because the last book had too many threads to condense into one movie. The books do give a little more background on atrocities of the Capitol, in particular the genetically engineered and weaponized animals, and how humans are treated with the same value as animals. The books note that the name of the country comes from panem et circenses, Latin for “bread and circuses”, or people abrogating their political responsibilities in exchange for entertainment. In the movies it was not clear if Panem was a critique on rich American/West compared to the third world, but the book makes it clear that North America is simply the setting, but the timeline is so far in the future that self-government was only a historical fact, thus separating the book from any political commentary on the present. The biggest difference is that the books are narrated first-person by Katniss, which is very effective in communicating Katniss’ humanity, as she is able to tell what she was thinking and feeling.
In an interview Collins said that she wrote the story as an exploration of the ideas of “just war”. Presumably this is why the Capitol is so cruel, so that it is clear to the reader that rebellion is justified. The cruelty is so over-the-top, that an adult reader doubts whether this system could have survived even 75 years before collapsing, which suggests that the purpose is for the reader to unquestioningly sympathize with the Districts. It was hard for me to find much exploration of “just war”, except a little in third book. There were only two parts I could see that were relevant to a “just war” discussion. The first was when where Katniss realized that, despite her revulsion against killing, that she was even more revolted by the inhumanity and cruelty of the Capitol, and that fighting was the only way to further her greater aim. The second was when she realized that she drew the line at tactics that used psychology to enhance the killing.
Instead, the most visible theme of the book is the experience of trauma (which I feel is also the most notable experience of the movies). Collins is very good at slowly revealing the emotional trauma of the situation. In the first book the trauma is mostly Katniss, as she tries to navigate providing for her family and staying alive. The second book reveals more of the cultural trauma of District 12, and the third book shows the cultural trauma of all the Districts and Panem as a whole. The Capitol continues traumatizing even the Victors of the Game, who generally fail to be able to cope with it. For the most part, though, the characters just experience unending pain. Katniss a compelling character because, despite the pain, she retains her compassion and love, although the continued trauma does drive her somewhat out of her mind, and between the emotional and physical trauma she ends up addicted to painkillers during her trial.
Collins enables the reader to have a lot of compassion for the characters, especially Katniss, who, as the narrator, portrays the situation succinctly and effectively. I found myself somewhat traumatized reading the books (and to some extent watching the movies) because Collins describes the culture and the situation with enough flavor that I can imagine what it would feel like to live in Panem. And the contrast as Katniss acts with humanity, refusing to play the Capitol’s game, helps make the trauma more visible. My critique is that the only suggestion that the trauma can be healed is a paragraph or two at the very end. So even though it seems like Collins has some thoughts on healing trauma, and even implies that healing happens, the feeling of the book is trauma, not hope for healing.
Additionally, the books have a hopeless feeling. Yes, the Capitol is overthrown, the spectre of anew version of President Snow—Coin—was averted, but District 12 is still mostly destroyed. You get the feeling that the Gamemaker who engineered Katniss’ escape sees the world in terms of creating propo videos, which does not lend a sense of security to the future. And worst of all, Katniss volunteered to be Tribute to protect Prim, but in the end, she only managed to end President Snow, while the war—through the ideas of her once-close friend Gale—killed her sister. So at the end, the cruel political system appears to have been overthrown, but everything Katniss loved: Prim, her easy partnership with Gale, District 12, have all been destroyed. It is unclear what the message the reader is supposed to take away from this is. War is destructive? Heroics do not save the day? Life is pain? An inhumane system begets traumatic destruction? Portraying the sadness of the human condition is only half the job. What are some solutions? Where is the hope for us?
The Hunger Games books are well-written, revealing Katniss and the culture of Panem in a lot of emotional detail while at the same time being succinct in the description. The books are gripping, even if you know what happens from having recently watched the movies. The story has a very methodical pacing, and flashbacks bring up necessary background information (in the form of a story that Katniss tells of a memory) as necessary. The only problem I have is that the books feel like they are primarily about trauma; they definitely do not feel like they are about “just war”. The story is so good that it is hard to notice the trauma initially, but it is simply unrelenting, and I think that a great book needs to offer hope or healing rather than simply communicating pain.