“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold,” says Katniss Everdeen, opening Suzanne Collins’ novel The Hunger Games as both narrator and protagonist, and launching a major theme and complex of imagery in the book.
The widely-anticipated movie version of the novel arrives in a little over a month, in late March. The transformation of novel into film, with its inevitable directorial choices, budgetary limitations and too-specific casting of too-attractive young actors, will enchant some and disappoint others. No film can perfectly incarnate the word-world of a book to everyone’s satisfaction. (Here’s a link to an official trailer, in case you’re curious and haven’t yet seen it.) But it’s the novel I wish to focus on here.
The presence or absence of warmth is a recurring theme: heat — passion — violence — fire continually trade places throughout the story. Human warmth is, after all, what initially launches Katniss into the story. She volunteers on the spur of the moment to take the place of her beloved sister Prim, in the annual national lottery that selects a pair of youths from each of the twelve districts of a future North America and drops them into a televised death match. It’s blood sport with a vengeance.
Prim is now safe, thanks to Katniss. But once Katniss is taken from her home, along with the other chosen youths who are now her rivals, she is pampered, buffed, polished, trained — and made over to show off an explicit fire imagery her stylists have conceived for her. As part of the lead-up to the competition, along with her rivals, she is interviewed and paraded on a nationally broadcast special program. But first, the finishing touches.
The team works on me until late afternoon, turning my skin to glowing satin, stenciling patterns on my arms, painting flame designs on my twenty perfect nails. Then Venia goes to work on my hair, weaving strands of red in a pattern that begins at my left ear … They erase my face with a layer of pale make-up and draw my features back out. Huge dark eyes, full red lips, lashes that throw off bits of light when I blink. Finally, they cover my entire body in a powder that makes me shimmer in gold dust. (127-128, pprbk. edition)
After the makeover, Katniss is dressed in her costume for the evening.
I can feel the silken inside as they slip it down over my body, then the weight. It must be forty pounds … The creature standing before me in the full length mirror has come from another world. Where skin shimmers and eyes flash and apparently they make their clothes from jewels … the slightest movement gives the impression I am engulfed in tongues of fire. (128)
I’m not perceiving something new here — other authors have gone further — there’s a book out titled The Girl Who Was on Fire which explores this theme in the novel in depth. Soon the gritty, violent death-match will replace this world of artifice and polish, and with the starkest contrast leave a trail of bodies dispatched bloodily, and even the survivors gashed, burnt, deafened, half-poisoned, dehydrated and starving. But the elemental world the novel has conjured persists in these sharply unglamorous forms. Fire of the spirit, the singular drive to survive. Fire of anger at the political motivation underlying the contest which deploys needless violence and death. Fire for cooking, fire as weapon, water for thirst and bathing, earth — a cave — for protection. Fire of human passion, whether genuine or contrived for show.
The Hunger Games has already achieved the dubious distinction of banned book status, as if it advocated violence instead of patently demonstrating against it. But violence nevertheless permeates our world, and the younger readers who have taken this book to heart and made it into a phenomenon respond enthusiastically to a story and an author who acknowledges this fact honestly. Further, Katniss offers a strong female protagonist in place of the one-dimensional tag-along female romantic interest more typical of plot-driven stories with male leads. She manages to confront imminent death, make hard choices, and still retain her integrity in the face of what is after all adult manipulation and advocacy of institutionalized violence for political ends. The same human capacity for strong feeling that draws us toward violence can also lead us to bonds of strong affection and loyalty that are one antidote to violence. If that is fighting fire with fire, it often works.