Rereading Katniss

Over the last few days, I’ve been rereading the Hunger Games trilogy for the first time in years.

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but with the libraries closed and my copies in London, there were a number of significant barriers in the way. However, when I found myself back in the UK temporarily for medical reasons (essential travel) and therefore reunited, in the short term, with my books, I decided now was the time.

The Hunger Games was, of course, a massive phenomenon in the world of YA fiction, impossible to ignore. I won’t pretend I was ahead of the trend on that one, because I wasn’t; there are very few major YA books from the past 15 years where I’ve been an early adopter, especially since teen me was often snobbish about anything that seemed too popular. But I vividly remember the first time I read the books, racing through all three of them in the space of about a day and a half. I never bought into the ironic, Capitol-esque marketing ploy of “Team Peeta or Team Gale?” because as far as I was concerned, that wasn’t at all what interested me about the books.

I wanted to reread because I found, recently, that I couldn’t remember them in detail; I was also interested because of comparisons others had drawn with my own work. Obviously, I’m not about to start using THG as a comp title — it’s old enough now that doing so would only make me look like somebody who hasn’t read any YA for a decade, for a start — but I wanted to see how apt those parallels might or might not be, and whether I could learn anything from it.

I don’t know that what stood out to me now was what appealed to me as a teenager; I don’t have a strong enough memory of my sixteen-year-old self to be sure. But I definitely found myself engaging with the books both as a reader (emotional investment) and as a writer (analysing Collins’ craft and narrative choices).

I was struck by Katniss: how unlikeable she is. How uncompromising. Not because she thinks she’s better than the other characters or prides herself on being different or anything like that, but because her response seems to be, I don’t know how to behave the way you expect me to when it’s so antithetical to my experience of the world. Is that a neurodivergent vibe I get from her? Perhaps. It’s obvious, of course, that the way the Capitol expects her to behave is irrational and artificial, for a girl from her background — perhaps any of the District 12 girls would have reacted the same way. I’m not sure.

But the thing about Katniss is that no matter how calculating, how selfish, how violent she becomes in her attempts to survive, she doesn’t stop being a sympathetic character. This fascinates me, as somebody who tends to write morally grey characters who do terrible things but still wants my readers to care about them. Part of it with Katniss is the old tried and true method — if everybody around them is worse, you root for the awful character regardless. Part of it, I think, is that she feels such self-disgust and is so unflinching in her cruel assessments of her own character that she almost absolves the audience of any responsibility to do the same. You don’t need to judge her, because she’s already done it.

The fact that she sees herself in this way helps, obviously, with maintaining sympathy even after she’s killed and so on: it would be harder to root for a character who enjoyed it. You constantly have this sense with Katniss that she’s trapped, and has no other choice, but somehow this doesn’t translate into her feeling like a passive character who only reacts — even though a lot of the time, that is almost the case. She isn’t given the information she needs to make choices, and she isn’t given the power, either. But she never reacts the way people around her are expecting her to react, which I think is what helps the plot avoid becoming predictable.

I was also struck by the intensity of emotional consequences in the books. I’m not about to suggest THG is unique among YA dystopias in portraying trauma and depression — but I do think there’s something unusual in how profoundly events affect Katniss. In how it depicts her nightmares and panic attacks and depression, which pervade books two and three. Some of it’s obvious, and some of it’s more subtle, but no traumatising event is ever allowed to pass without consequences. Even when physical damage is ‘repaired’ by Capitol doctors, the mental scars remain.

Too often, I think, characters aren’t given the space to be screwed up after what they go through. After a book’s worth of trauma, they then go on to lead a revolution, and somehow they hold it together. But Katniss… doesn’t. And I feel like this gets overlooked in popular discussion of the series, possibly because the films were less able to portray those aspects than the books, or because of the media focus on the ‘glamorous’ and ‘romantic’ elements. People talk about how Katniss is a badass, and yeah, she is, but how often do we talk about how she’s also depressed, haunted by nightmares, intensely traumatised…?

As a friend put it in a conversation yesterday, there’s something defiant about Katniss’s emotional responses. The Capitol doesn’t want her to be visibly traumatised. The revolution doesn’t want her to be taking depression naps in a cupboard somewhere. They all want her to pretend. And she doesn’t. Not enough, anyway. There’s an “understated and bleak rebellion of I Am Going To Continue To Be Screwed Up About This, Actually”, as my friend said — Katniss’s refusal to be “just a piece in their games” continues in her unwillingness, or inability, to let it be just a game. And once you acknowledge the horror and the violence of the murder of children… it’s hard to leave it behind.

This trilogy stands out to me because it allows Katniss not only to be unlikeable and closed-off right from the very beginning, but also because it allows her emotional responses to be so powerful and all-consuming. I wonder if this is why a lot of people were less keen on the third book. Yes, some of the choices she makes are illogical, irrational, unwise. Yes, she spends a lot of the book doing not very much (although I have to say I can relate to the depression naps). But that’s because she’s traumatised. And seeing that on the page — seeing the way that nothing Katniss went through can be brushed off — gives the narrative more weight, and makes the losses and the suffering more powerful.

Katniss doesn’t soften, or become more likeable. She fractures, and turns her broken edges outwards because that’s the only way she knows how to survive. And I admire that, actually. I see it in some of my own characters, and I found myself thinking how books like THG created a space on the shelves where my own stories could exist. Stories about screwed up, unlikeable, bitter teenage girls who do awful things because they want to survive. THG didn’t invent those stories. But it definitely gave them a foothold in YA that I’m not sure they’d have had otherwise.

And then there’s the ending. As a teen, I hated it. I didn’t know why Katniss had to end up with anyone. As an adult, I feel differently. There are still elements of it that bother me — I don’t love that Katniss ended up having children, somewhat reluctantly, after having been adamant since book one that she didn’t want them. I’ve always read her as somewhere on the asexual spectrum, and that hasn’t changed either.

But: where teen me saw her eventual relationship with Peeta as a disappointing inevitability, adult me sees a traumatised figure finally allowing herself to heal enough to love somebody. Where teen me saw obligation, adult me sees choice. After losing so many people that she cares about, Katniss allows herself to care about somebody again. She allows herself to love, even after so much loss. She allows herself to take the risk of loving somebody, when she could have closed herself off as a way of defending herself against future loss and pain.

And of course it would be Peeta. Nobody else can meet her where she is; nobody else understands, really, what she’s been through. Peeta, like Katniss, knows how it feels to trust nobody, not even himself.

I don’t know if I read it as romantic, or if it’s more of a queerplatonic intimacy that I see between them, but on this reread, I didn’t see compromise in that ending, I saw healing, alongside the only person who could ever see Katniss for exactly who she is. Since book one, Katniss hasn’t trusted anybody with her heart. Not because of the Games — it goes back further. After her father’s death, her mother’s depression left her feeling abandoned; in that we see the roots of Katniss’s determined and defiant self-sufficiency. Gale says, She’ll pick whichever of us she thinks she can’t survive without. She’s known since she was a child that she could survive alone, because she’s had to know that.

For some characters, choosing to go it alone would be empowering. But not for Katniss. Because she’s had to, always, so choosing to rely on somebody else in any way? That’s growth. That’s healing.

The Hunger Games was a phenomenally successful trilogy, boosted by the film adaptations. There’s a lot to be said for its plot and structure and how Collins avoids repetition between the first and second book, even when ideas/situations recur. No doubt there are dozens of long reads about what made it so popular, and all of them will have different takes.

But what stood out to me on this reread was Katniss, and how raw and unfiltered her experiences get to be on the page, even while her camera crew — and the film adaptations — try to polish them into something palatable.

I don’t know if The Hunger Games was a direct influence on my own writing. I wouldn’t have pinned it down as such, but I suppose it’s inevitable on some level: everything I’ve ever read has become part of my mental landscape and will have had its effect on my writing, whether tiny or significant. I suspect there’s more unconscious influence there with THG than I might have thought before this reread. I do think, however, that whether or not it influenced the way I wrote them, The Hunger Games created a space where my stories can exist and be read, and for that, I’m grateful.

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  1. Dave Higgins says:

    I was struck by Katniss: how unlikeable she is… Is that a neurodivergent vibe I get from her? …perhaps any of the District 12 girls would have reacted the same way. I’m not sure.

    Been a while since I read the books, so I might be misremembering, but I didn’t read Katniss as unlikeable; I read her as being “not a GIRL”. If she was male, all that prickly ill-fitting uncompromising reaction wouldn’t be unusual for a male protagonist, especially in YA where it’s all about the tipping point between wonky brain emotions and stoic masculinity.

    I find it hard to determine neurodivergence in YA because the adolescent mind is mid-rewire so YA protagonist “normal” isn’t Western society “normal”.

    • Finn Longman says:

      That’s an interesting point. Of course, “likeability” has always been a standard that is almost always only applied to female characters, and they’re held to much higher standards than male ones in that regard. There’s a lot about THG that subverts traditional gender norms — Peeta being a baker with a particular talent for frosting cakes, for a start. I wonder, too, if that absence of trad femininity for Katniss is something that appealed to me as a teen who found femininity baffling.

      I suppose one of the reasons Katniss strikes me as potentially neurodivergent is her lack of interest in ‘fitting in’. Many YA books and their characters have a big focus on belonging, on being part of a group, and this was something I never found easy to relate to as a teen who was both an outsider but also happy being so. It’s not just that she doesn’t conform to social norms — it’s that she doesn’t understand the point of them, and isn’t interested in finding out. But I agree that YA protags are rarely normal or typical of non-fictional people!

      • Dave Higgins says:

        Been thinking about it more since commenting: while THG has the “two hot boys are in love with me” trope, I don’t recall it having the driving force it usually has in YA with a female protagonist; instead, Katniss is goals first, romance second which is very much a stereotypical masculine focusing.

        Good point about her not really caring to fit in (as evidence of how ancient I am, I’d forgotten that teenage society is defined by the need to fit in, whether fanatically pursuing the in-group it or identifying by one’s outsiderness).

        • Finn Longman says:

          Yes, it’s noticeable that although the film marketing, like the Capitol in the book, focused very much on the romance, it’s actually… not that big a part of the story, on the page. Katniss’s mindset is, “This isn’t my priority, I don’t have time to focus on this, I’m too focused on survival to have feelings,” and very much relegates it to the backburner.

What do you think? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

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