Wondering How a Man Reads the Hunger Games

I’m not going to address the title of this post again. But I am curious how men who read the Hunger Games react to the story. I am sure there is not a monolithic male response. I’d love to hear your comments if any guy feels free to share though. Did you identify with Katniss’ emotional struggles? How did you perceive Gale and Peeta’s strengths and weaknesses? I’m just curious—and wondering if my response was because I identified with Katniss particularly as a woman.

I had a ridiculous title for my first iteration of this post—Hunger Games, Reality TV, and Our Sensationalist Culture—which I started after watching the first book and movie, but before I had finished the entire series. Now, I’ve finished the trilogy, and my perspective has certainly changed.

SPOILER ALERT! You have been fairly warned.

This is not a review per se. Instead, I’m just thinking out loud. I think that Suzanne Collins has written something that will endure the test of time, and in our entertainment culture, that’s rare. I’m not sure the movie will endure the test of time, but I think the books will—that in 50 years, it will remain a series that we will expect thoughtful readers to have read by the time it seems age appropriate.

In the first book, I thought a lot about the parallels between the book and our modern day sensationalist entertainment culture. Suzanne Collins says she drew some of her inspiration from reality television juxtaposed with news of the Iraq War. From our long ago history of the games of human sacrifice in the Roman Coliseum to sensationalism at the expense of our children on modern Reality TV (see Toddlers and Tiaras or Dance Moms), Collins’ fictional world is not THAT far fetched.

I also thought a lot about the concepts of dystopia and eutopia. The Hunger Games series is described as dystopian fiction.

Dystopia – a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2012.

But there’s an interesting juxtaposition in the first book. While Panem is dystopian for the majority, it’s utopian for the minority in the Capital. Their utopia comes at the others’ expense. Not unlike our 1%. Yet in future books in the series, we realize the moral ambiguity among the 99%. It becomes increasingly unclear over the series who exactly has the moral high ground.

As I got into Mockingjay, the final book in the series, sensationalist reality TV no longer seemed relevant. Notions of utopia and dystopia faded in my head. Instead, it became somehow about me. I started clearly identifying with the mental battles Katniss faced when Peeta, after being hijacked, made a comment to Katniss that seems to echo her own self-loathing and self-condemnation. I pretty much cried the rest of the way through.

The beauty of a well written fictional book is the variety of ways we can make it our own. And I related to the Game outside of the arena in Mockingjay in my own personal way that I will not try to universalize for others. I related to it as a strong woman, at least perceived as strong by others, who often feels close to undone on the inside by the tug of others’ perceptions of me and their expectations of me. But most of all, like Katniss, feeling close to undone by my own perceptions of the ways I have let others down.

The end of Mockingjay is brutal, probably because very little ever seems redeemed. Katniss is abandoned with her grief for months during her trial then deposited in her home in District 12 with only a note from her mother. When Haymitch walked out her house and didn’t come back, I felt her profound loneliness. Used in the first Game, then even worse so in the 2nd Quarter Quell. But used most of all in the game outside the Games. Used, and then left as a burnt out shell of the strong woman we met in the first book. It was all a big, brutal game, and all the people she loved turned into players.

I don’t read books that don’t draw me in. I just don’t have time for mediocrity at this stage of life. But these books drew me in. Immersed me. Mostly I felt wave after wave of brutal disappointment as the story went on. Not at Susanne Collins or how she wrote the books, but the kind of brutal disappointment that identifies with the main character, the kind that Katniss felt as each revelation took her apart mentally. That probably sounds ridiculously narcissistic—that I would identify with Katniss. Ha! Me holding my own with a bow and arrow in a game with Careers—truly ridiculous. Yet that’s what makes these books great stories, because Collins does manage to draw me in and causes me to closely identify with Katniss. It’s not narcissism. It’s incredible story telling. All that to say, Mockingjay was emotionally brutal to me because I could hear Katniss in my own head.

When I finished the last book, I had some serious emotions to deal with. Why did I resonate with Katniss’ emotional downfall so much? In the end, there was a singular truth that cleared it up for me. I was most disturbed by the realization in the books of the game outside of the Games, and how that bigger, global, all encompassing game separated Katniss from everyone she loved in her life. But I am not in a game. I am in a story! And that truth puts Katniss, Peeta, Gale, and the gang back into the fictional cubby hole where they belong. I leave them, having enjoyed their fictional story, but clear on why identifying with their emotions was just a result of good fiction and why it wasn’t relevant to the reality of my life. While the setting of reality TV gone haywire in an oppressive society is believable, even possibly close at hand in modern day reality, the betrayal by those closest to us is believable, and the profound loneliness as we endure utter devastation with no emotional support from those who used us is believable, ultimately you and I are not in a game. We are in a story, and it’s a story with a good Author and secure outcome.  That makes all the difference.

10 Responses to Wondering How a Man Reads the Hunger Games

  1. Amie April 21, 2012 at 10:24 am #

    I just finished reading these 3 books last weekend and have had a lot of big feelings to deal with as well. I couldn't really put my finger on it though and your post helps a lot. Thanks.

  2. -greg April 21, 2012 at 4:09 pm #

    I read the trilogy over a weekend months ago, so my details may be fuzzy (and over simplified), but as a man who has read them, I suppose I should comment.

    I really enjoyed the series, as good literature should, it draws you in and envelopes you within the unfolding story. You quickly feel like you transition from observer to participant within the series, especially as it becomes less about the games and more about revolution.

    With respect to the characters, there is an interesting pull with Katniss. At no point does it ever feel like she loves Peeta or Gale. It almost feels like a relationship forced by circumstances and this makes her character feel flighty in her interactions with them, but at the same time the circumstances make you appreciate how guarded she is (and it makes sense, would a revolutionary, bow-hunting, appalachian ever just settle for a relationship and settle down? probably not).
    But there is something unique in both Peeta and Gale. Gale is more of a mirror of Katniss and Peeta is more of a foil. Gale reflects her strength and anger, wheras Peeta is the only outstanding character (and ultimately the person Katniss needed- she probably would have been fine acting out caprice vengeance with Gale, but needed the simplicity of Peeta for her own development and redemption). This is further seen in how the characters “get hijacked.” For Peeta, the Capital hijacks by making him something he is not, but for Katniss the commander of the revolution hijacks her for who she is. I didn’t find myself identifying not so much with the characters, as their emotions. As someone who has served overseas, the “homecoming” part of the story was truly heart-breaking. It reminds me of all those who have experienced trauma and don't get the luxury or ability to deal properly with PTSD. That was probably the hardest part for me…

    But I love how the mockingjay was a synecdoche. A bird that was a weapon, became a symbol of adaptation and survival, and resulted in a “new reality” dominated by song. So for the entire series to do that (even ending the epilogue with song), was pretty creative.
    Amen to your last paragraph. Story and fiction is a powerful thing… Updike said, “Fiction is nothing less than the subtlest instrument of self-examination and self-display that mankind has invented yet.” Fiction, yes, but we are made for Story, and good story-telling is innate within us. I think it is part of the imagio dei who indeed envelopes us within the Grandest story of all.

  3. Wendy April 21, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

    Greg, thanks for adding that. I hadn't thought about the differences in Peeta and Gale that way. But that makes sense in the development of the characters. And I appreciate your perspective as someone who served and came back home.

  4. connectingdotstogod April 21, 2012 at 8:02 pm #

    Interesting thoughts. I too found The Hunger Games trilogy a fascinating read on many levels. I, like many bloggers, couldn't resist some applications to God's story. In my post, The Hunger Games and Hope, I pondered whether Jesus might have felt like he was participating in a reality show of sorts as he lived life by the artificial rules of this earth. He got voted off the island so that we could enter real life for eternity. Thanks for your interesting post.

  5. Kaelee Bates April 22, 2012 at 12:10 am #

    I can totally understand your thoughts and feelings with Katniss and her emotional turmoil. Part of what compelled me so much was how she seemed to become completely lost in defeating the Capitol at times. I feel this way with some of my own battles. If I allow it, a cause can become my identity, and when the cause is gone, I feel like I have lost myself. I have to figure out who I am all over again. As I am aging I am slowly learning not to let this happen as much, but it is still hard.

  6. peggy April 22, 2012 at 6:28 pm #

    Thanks for saying that you were effected by the emotions of the books. I thought it was just me. For several days after I was in a funk, because of how the end was just more sadness and settling and unfulfilled dreams. (IMHO) But then, in a bible study, I realized too, that this is not the end to my story, and while I felt the parallels to things in my own life, I realized that the end of my story is not set, at least here in this life, and my ultimate epilogue is already set and finished. That made me able to shake the funk.
    My husband also read them and felt that they were more of a foreshadowing of where we could be headed as a society in general. There is so much of reality TV that is headed into that direction.
    Thanks for a great post.

  7. allisonwall April 23, 2012 at 3:50 pm #

    Thanks so much for your insightful thoughts on this series. I agree with you that the series is probably the most remarkable addition to young adult fiction in the past…I don't even know how long. My sister and I were both emotionally traumatized after finishing the final book as well, and I read this post out loud to her…it really helped us make some sense of why it upset us so much. Thanks for posting!!

  8. Amanda April 24, 2012 at 1:10 pm #

    The fact that many (most?) people come away from this series with a inexplicable emotional turmoil/trauma is deeply concerning to me. Praise God that we have a living hope! But what about the countless young people and children who do not have the skills to deal with these emotions or have our sure and blessed hope for our future? I agree with Peggy's husband (comment above) that this series is a foreshadowing of what is quite likely our future as a global society to some degree. I pray that God would help us shine brightly in this present darkness, knowing with confidence that the Lord Jesus Christ is reigning over the affairs of this world for the good of His Church!

  9. Andi April 25, 2012 at 8:10 pm #

    I havent seen the movie or read the books but am looking forward to reading the books..

  10. missjubilee May 12, 2012 at 7:52 am #

    I really appreciated your post and the comments on it. My brother just finished the series today and posted on Facebook that he was completely turned off by the last book with all its depression and self-loathing. I had felt the same way when I read them a year or more ago, though I'm still hoping to see the movie (for some inexplicable reason China didn't allow it to be released in theaters… and yes I'm being a touch sarcastic). So your post about reminding yourself that you're in a STORY, and not a game, was a really good summary of the truth that helps shrug off the negative emotions from the book. Sometimes when I read a book or see a movie the reality of what is TRUE breaks through my immersion in the world of the book and makes me mourn for the characters. Katniss needs hope beyond her manipulated life and love with someone greater than man, just as Bella needed a reason to live beyond the vampire who dumped her in the second Twilight book, and the reporter and her father needed hope for life beyond death as they stood in front of the tsunami in “Deep Impact” (the first story that strongly impacted me in this way). It doesn't happen often. Sometimes I wonder if letting myself get so absorbed into worlds that assume God does not exist is a good habit. I love fiction, but I need larger doses of Truth to balance the practice of pretending other realities are true.