Now that the box office numbers have come out, it appears that The Hunger Games has had the third best Hollywood opening weekend of all time, after The Dark Knight and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (both excellent films in their own right).
I can’t say I’m disappointed or surprised. Harry Potter and The Hunger Games top the list of my favorite book series (closely followed by the Hitchhiker’s Trilogy in Five Parts and the Lord of the Rings) for reasons that, thankfully, the movie producers behind the film adaptations chose to honor. While the universes and characters created by Suzanne Collins and J.K. Rowling are very different in many regards, they are also similar in so many ways that matter, especially when compared to other Young Adult literature like (*gulp*) Twilight.
The more I think about what makes these stories great, the more I respect (and envy!) Rowling and Collins for their talent as storytellers.
Varying degrees of spoilers for The Hunger Games and Harry Potter books and films below:
The universe: In The Hunger Games, it’s Panem (from the Ancient Roman strategy of subduing its citizenry panem et circenses, or “bread and circuses”), and in Harry Potter, it’s Hogwarts and the rest of the wizarding world. Both of these universes are identified in relation to the real world that the reader is already familiar with (Harry Potter moves in and out of the wizarding world and the muggle world of modern Great Britain, Panem is a postapocalyptic state founded on the ruins of North America) and yet are fleshed out enough to stand alone as fictional worlds.
These are worlds you can get immersed in, worlds that make sense as extensions of the one we know, and worlds in which the major conflict of good and evil says as much about our own society as it does about theirs.
The antagonists: Every good story needs a good conflict, or several. And while the sub-conflicts vary from novel to novel within each series, generally speaking, both sets of protagonists are pitted in a life-or-death battle against antagonists that would (and should) make your blood freeze in your veins. Panem’s President Snow, who demands the deaths of twenty three children every year and who doesn’t bat an eyelash at subduing rebellions against his regime with torture, propaganda, and brute force, channels the very real evil of many modern-day dictators. And Voldemort? Well, Sirius Black said it best:
“Imagine that Voldemort’s powerful now. You don’t know who his supporters are, you don’t know who’s working for him and who isn’t; you know he can control people so that they do terrible things without being able stop themselves. You’re scared for yourself, and your family, and your friends. Every week, news comes of more deaths, more disappearances, more torturing … The Ministry of Magic’s in disarray, they don’t know what to do, they’re trying to keep everything hidden from the Muggles, but meanwhile, Muggles are dying too. Terror everywhere … panic … confusion … that’s how it used to be.” (The Goblet of Fire)
What I find the most fascinating about these villains, though, is that no matter how over-the-top evil they are, they are still complex characters that speak to our reality. Think of villains like Sauron, a shapeless entity who lacks any human qualities and looms over the Lord of the Rings trilogy like a black cloud. Then compare him to President Snow, the flesh-and-blood man who has seized power in a time of chaos and is determined to keep that power through whatever means necessary. Or to Voldemort, born Tom Riddle, whose rejection of his father’s heritage takes him to a genocidal extreme. You hate these men, and rightly so, but you can also understand why they are the way they are. Even Gale’s descent into hell, that ends with a tragic act of violence, is completely understandable, given everything that he’s suffered. That, in my mind, makes them even more terrifying. The real world might not have magical rings of power, but we certainly have power-hungry dictators and ethnic supremacists. Collins and Rowling show that evil can be created in the most mundane of situations, and what is scarier than that?
The heroes: Thankfully, these villains don’t go uncontested. There are countless secondary characters in both series that deserve mentioning (Finnick, Prim, Rue, Cinna, Luna, Neville, all the Weasleys, etc), but since I’m not interested in turning this post into a doctoral dissertation, I’m going to focus on the three main characters in both series. Or, more specifically, the two heroes and heroine in each series.
I love these guys. So, so, so much. These are four of my favorite male characters in all of literature, and I have a tendency to geek out when talking about them, so I apologize if that happens here.
In a world (ours) where young men are taught that strength comes from the size of your muscles and value comes from your ability to succeed as an individual, these are four young men who find their purpose through their relationships with their families and friends. Ron, Harry, Peeta and (to an admittedly lesser extent) Gale are, to varying degrees, brave and cowardly, self-sacrificial and self-serving, jealous and supportive, cunning and guileless. You know, just like real people. They struggle with their shortcomings, like the rest of us, and they fight with their friends over ridiculous things, like the rest of us, but they are able to overcome their flaws when their loved ones need them the most.
Harry is constantly battling the rage that he feels as a result of the losses he’s suffered in his life; Ron has to fight his was out from under the shadow of his famous friend, his brilliant crush, and his much more charismatic and successful older siblings; Peeta lives in an abusive household and has to deal with the self-esteem issues that come from not even having the confidence of your own family (also, there’s that whole “I had to participate in two Hunger Games, lose my leg, and then get viciously tortured by the Capitol” plotline); Gale lost his father in a coal mining accident and has subsequently been itching for a rebellion against the oppressive government that would destroy the rest of his family. These are not your Edward Cullens or Jacob Blacks, whose biggest problems are whether or not Bella will pick them as her boyfriend.
And yet, like most teenagers, these young men do have romance problems. While at Hogwarts, Harry and Ron go through their share of crushes and heartbreaks, before finally ending up with two of the strongest girls in the series (I love the fact that the heroes of the story end up with heroines who are just as strong in their own right). However, I am much more interested in the romance aspect of The Hunger Games, which threatened to turn the film adaptations into another round of Twilights. It’s not just that (well-written) love triangles are my guilty literary pleasure. It’s really mostly because of Peeta, who comes out at the top of my list of favorite male characters in literature.
Yes, I know he is pretty one-dimensional until the last book in the trilogy. But I love that he’s a strong male character who is respected for his charisma, intelligence, and kindness, rather than his ability to kill or destroy. And I’ll be darned if his character doesn’t have one of my favorite arcs in the books, especially in terms of his romance in Katniss. I mean, he’s been in love with her for years, and when she finally returns his affections, he finds out that it was all an act for the same people who sentenced them both to die? And then, even worse, he had to go on to live out a phony version of the real relationship he had always been hoping for, for the sake of political stability? Yeah, I know it’s far-fetched. But I thoroughly enjoyed watching their relationship- sort of fake for Katniss, very real for Peeta- played out over the series. Throw in some intrigue with Katniss’s childhood friend and Peeta’s rival, Gale, who has to watch all of this play out on national television, and you have just given me a love triangle that blows Twilight out of the water.
(Yes, I admit, I’m having a fangirl moment here. Indulge me.)
The heroines: As fun as the romantic angles of a novel can be, I need heroines that do more than make guys fight over her. As such, Hermione and Katniss are at the top of my list of reasons why I love both of these book series.
Everything that I said about the flawed, complex personalities of the heroes could be applied to these heroines. Hermione is brilliant and book-smart, and she can whip out one-liners like the best of them (“just because you’ve got the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn’t mean we all have“), but she is skeptical to a fault (especially in a world full of magic. Come on, girl!) and has a tendency to blow up at her friends, especially Ron, rather than tell them what they’ve done to hurt her. Katniss is strong, brave, extremely capable in survival situations, and so loyal to her family that she sacrifices herself at the Reaping so that her sister won’t be sent to the Hunger Games. And yet she’s stubborn, self-deprecating, has a violent streak, and finds it almost impossible to open up emotionally to anyone but her sister.
While well-written flaws add depth to any character, I think they’re especially important for the characterization of these heroines. Far too frequently, girls are given literary and cinematic role models that are basically perfect, but to try and make them the least bit accessible, their writers given them traits like “clumsy” or “awkward”. Often, “clumsy” and “awkward” are the only discernible personality traits these girls have (I’m thinking of someone whose name rhymes with Shmella Shwann), and yet we’re supposed to think of these girls as characters we can look up to.
On the other hand, if a female character isn’t boring and clumsy and perpetually incapable of walking out her front door without having a near-death experience, she’s usually written as a badass that seems more like an organic nuclear weapon than a human being (think “The Bride” in Kill Bill). Which is fine for some purposes, but the biggest reason I love Katniss and Hermione is that neither of these girls fits into those neat little boxes that Hollywood likes to make for women.
These are girls that do their fair share of saving the day, and yet there are also times in which they themselves need to be saved. And that’s not because they’re weak, clumsy damsels in distress, but because they’re human beings, and we all need to be saved now and then.
Also, just like the heroes, these girls don’t fit into the virgin vs whore dichotomy that so many female characters are written into. They have messy romantic feelings, but these feelings almost always take a back seat to the larger concerns of, you know, saving the world. Hermione is devastated when Ron walks out on Harry and her, but rather than spending months moping in her bedroom like Bella, she keeps working to find the Horcruxes and destroy Voldemort. Katniss acknowledges that she cares for both Gale and Peeta, but more than anything she is frustrated by the fact that she feels pushed to have a romantic relationship with one or the other, when all she really wants to think about is staying one step ahead of the Capitol. Both girls are strong, capable, and yet very human, and neither heroine is reduced to, or alienated from, her sexuality as a young woman. And that’s such a refreshing balance to see in role models for young girls.
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The best stories do so much more than offer a window into a new world. They challenge us to critically evaluate our own humanity, and they offer insight into the human condition. These stories address the major themes that mankind has grappled with throughout history; they remind us of the value of our relationships, the cost of evil, the consequences of our decisions, and the importance of doing what is right.
I think that’s a big part of why stories like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are so popular. Suzanne Collins and JK Rowling created fantastic worlds in which complex characters battle real-world problems like racism and oppression.
And in a world like ours, where kids are increasingly turning to their Xboxes for entertainment, I am very glad we have authors like Collins and Rowling who can entice children into reading literature with substance.