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The Hunger Games Masterfully Explores Trauma

Content Warning: this review discusses trauma, PTSD, grief, and violence, as depicted in the books. Spoiler warning for all three novels in The Hunger Games trilogy.

So I’m going to go ahead and spoil my own review by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed these books and have a lot to say. They’re a compelling exploration of the effects of trauma. Aside from one moment toward the end of Mockingjay that I felt was gratuitous, the vivid, in depth description of violence and trauma feel necessary. Katniss’s choices feel earned, and the emotional beats hit home. They made me cry, okay? They’re just so good.

Kylie has done a series of recaps of the films (Claire has one on “Mockingjay Part II” as well), that are well worth reading, especially as she comes away with a very different impression of Katniss and the themes than I do. Actually, I would love to have an article where we talk about it, since we have such differing perspectives. Perhaps in the future?

Plot

Sometime in the distant past, the nation of Panem rose from the ashes of modern society in the aftermath of unspecified geological and geo-political crises. Surrounded by 12 districts that each specialize in a good necessary for survival, the opulent Capital enforces peace via isolationism and direct competition during the annual Hunger Games. One male and one female child from each district are forced to fight to the death, with the victor and his or her district being showered with gifts and luxury items to further enforce compliance.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year old girl from District 12 (specialization: coal) and our narrator, volunteers as tribute for the games when her younger sister Primrose is selected as the female competitor. She’s a skilled hunter but an unskilled actor (she’s terrible in front of the camera), a natural strategist, and a loner. Her father died in a mining accident a few years prior to the start of the novel, and due to her mother’s isolated grieving process, Katniss had to care for both her younger sister and her unavailable mother. What I’m trying to say is that she starts the serious off with PTSD from her father’s death and a chip on her shoulder the size of Alaska.

Anyway, she charges her best friend and hunting partner Gale with taking care of her family while she’s in the Games and sets off with her unlikely team: unsettlingly effervescent PR woman Effie Trinket, drunken and traumatized mentor Haymitch, and earnest, idealistic Peeta (who is already a little in love with her from an event in their childhood). Haymitch uses Peeta’s love for her to humanize her and win audience approval so that they can get sponsors in the games. Oh, and Katniss has a badass stylist named Cinna who is fucking amazing. I love him.

A salute to the fallen Cinna.

Once in the games, Katniss uses her hunting skills to survive. Her loner attitude and anti-social streak wins her both enemies and allies. Peeta is obviously in love with her, and she pretends to love him in return to get gifts from the sponsors to help them both survive. Lots of children die in horrible ways that leaves the reader feeling disgusted with Panem as a society, and Katniss wins the games by threatening to commit suicide with Peeta and leave them without a victor.

The act has unintended consequences for society, as many of the districts interpret it as an act of rebellion. In Catching Fire, we simultaneously get Katniss coping with the trauma from the games and her trying to use her faked romance with Peeta to quash the rebellion. The leader of Panem, President Snow, had threatened her family and district if she did not help him restore the status quo. Her efforts fail.

As districts begin rebelling, sparked by Katniss as the ‘girl on fire’, Snow organizes a Quarter Quell games. 75 years ago, the districts rebelled against the Capitol and in retaliation, the 13th district had been destroyed and the Hunger Games instituted. Now, every 25 years there is a special, extra Hunger Games to reinforce the Capitol’s control of the economy and entertainment. For the 3rd Quarter Quell, Snow rigs the system so that the competitors will be drawn from the pool of former victors, thus ensuring that Katniss will be placed back in the arena. Peeta volunteers for Haymitch, who immediately forms a pact with Katniss to keep Peeta alive because he is the ‘best’ of them.

The Quarter Quell games are even more traumatizing, as they specifically target the PTSD and trauma each of the former victors has lived with since their games. Katniss teams up with even more awesome allies (some of whom die 🙁 ), and she winds up escaping from the arena with a handful of others when they blow up the containment field. As she is whisked off to safety, she learns that Peeta was captured by the Capitol.

In Mockingjay, we learn that district 13, far from being obliterated, had retreated underground. Their resource was nuclear weapons, you see, so the Capitol dare not wipe them out for fear that they would retaliate and nuke the Capitol. District 13 and the Capitol have been living in an uneasy truce for decades, but with the rise of Katniss as a symbol of rebellion, they’ve decided the time is ripe for a coup.

They attempt to use her as a figurehead for their rebellion, but, she’s majorly traumatized. Like, seriously. She’s has killed and watched her friends die more in the past year of her life than most people see ever. She has nightmares, dissociation, depression, anxiety, fits of rage, lethargy. She’s racked with survivors guilt and blames herself for her allies dying and Peeta being captured. Gale attempts to reach out to her, but they’ve changed since the games. She’s living with ghosts and trauma, and he’s on fire (heh) and ready to kill and destroy.

District 13 and President Coin end up sending her into situations where no combat is expected (but it happens anyway), to film propaganda videos. Peeta is rescued from the Capitol, but he’s been ‘hijacked’ and tries to kill her because he thinks she’s a threat. Basically the one person who loved her unconditionally now sees her as the enemy

The districts continue to rebel until the last stronghold is the Capitol. Katniss goes in with a team that includes Peeta and Gale, thinking she will break off and find a way to assassinate Snow on her own. She has the equivalent of a third Hunger Games experience as they travel through the city to Snow’s residence, including the death of more friends and allies. It culminates in the death of her younger sister by a bomb that may or may not have been designed by Gale and Beetee, an ally from the Quarter Quell.

She survives the fire bombing, but is broken inside, in a near catatonic state. A war criminal imprisoned in his former home, Snow tells Katniss that Coin ordered the bombing that killed Primrose Everdeen, not him, and Katniss starts to question everything she thought about Coin. At the execution where she is supposed to kill Snow, she ends up killing Coin instead, though Snow dies soon thereafter from slow poisoning.

Gale leaves her over the death of Primrose, neither one able to live with the possibility that it was his design. Her mother stays behind in the Capitol, which is now controlled by Commander Paylor from district 4. Katniss, Haymitch, and Peeta return to district 12. Haymitch returns to his drinking to drown his trauma and Katniss shuts herself away for a while with her grief. In the end, she chooses to make a life with Peeta and eventually overcomes her fear of motherhood. They have children, whom she no longer fears will be sent to the games, but with whom she must also explain her and Peeta’s experiences.

Structure

Whew. If it seems like I spent a lot of time on plot, it’s because there’s so much here. These are dense, action packed books where very little can be left out of a summary because it all runs together thematically and characterization-wise. But I’m getting ahead.

I’m so excited to talk about these books.

The two questions I raised in my first review for a YA dystopian trilogy are: 1) What purpose does 1st person narrative serve in this context? Does that choice enhance or detract from the narrative? and 2) What purpose does the dystopian setting serve? Does it enhance or detract from the narrative or, is it merely a setting like any other?

The answer to the first is obvious: Katniss is an exploration of PTSD and trauma. I’ll dig into this more in characterization, but I will point out that through Katniss, we get to witness first hand the effects of sustained, repeated trauma and violence on the human psyche. While it is possible to write this in a third-person intimate POV and retain much of the affect on the audience, 1st person makes it much more vivid. We experience Katniss’s disorientation, time loss, and frustration over not having all the information to piece together how she is being used and manipulated by those around her.

In fact, the trauma is so intense in Mockingjay that at times even I had to put the book down and take a break. I mean, it’s A Song of Ice and Fire levels of brutal at times and the emotional energy required to experience it can take its toll. It’s worth it and heavy at the same time.

The one drawback is that with a single POV, the narration is limited. There is a lot happening off screen that we are not privy to because Katniss is not involved. I wish I knew more about what Haymitch was doing while Katniss is in the games, for example. A Capitol POV would provide useful insight into how oppressive the seemingly glittering lifestyle of the rich and sated can be. Overall, I’m satisfied with Katniss as the single narrator, but I still wish I knew more about the other character’s headspaces. I suppose that’s the mark of good writing?

Because Katniss tends to be more pragmatic than intuitive, others use her more easily for their own ends. The political machinations of others are opaque to Katniss, and thus, opaque to the audience. Her lack of political savvy can be frustrating to a more intuitive reader who guesses other characters hidden motivations when Katniss takes them at face value. You can feel her being manipulated but do nothing to change it.

The setting is as effective as the POV. The Hunger Games series is an exploration of trauma, war, and the effects of violence on the human psyche at so young an age. If you take a step back, Katniss is not that much younger than many of the young men who went of to war in Vietnam and the World Wars. Mockingjay is explicitly a war, but the games themselves function as a microcosm of the battlefield, where one does not know enemies from friends and one false move could get you killed.

Yet, the dystopian setting provides us with more than just an analogy for war. Violence against children in this society is normalized to the point of entertainment—much like the Roman gladiatorial arenas. The attitude of the gamemakers and Capitol citizens is an affront to our sensibilities of what is acceptable to do to children and teenagers in the name of ‘peace’ and ‘prosperity’. Its an unsettling world.

When we get behind the scenes of the victor’s lives in Catching Fire and Mockingjay we see that the trauma does not end at the victor’s podium, that these traumatized children are forced to endure yet more damage at the hands of the Capitol and live with their ghosts for the rest of their lives. Haymitch’s drunkenness, the tributes from district 6 addicted to morphling (an opiate), Annie’s ‘madness’, Finnick’s trade in secrets to cope with being the equivalent of a high level prostitute, these are all coping mechanisms for men and women living with long-term PTSD.

The juxtaposition between the polished and painted Capitol and the impoverished districts, the wealthy Capitol citizens and the district members struggling to survive, the painted exterior Katniss puts on for the cameras and the shattered woman beneath. All these throw the gruesome violence into sharp relief and intertwine with each other thematically. In other words, the dystopia is necessary because it directly feeds both the external conflict and Katniss’s (as well as the other characters’) inner conflicts.

Pacing

The first two books are phenomenally paced. The set-up leading to the Hunger Games and Quarter Quell do not feel like wasted space. The pacing of the games themselves is masterful. The alternation between action and waiting builds suspense. They act as foils to each other as well. Where in the first Hunger Games, Katniss relies primarily on her independence, the Quarter Quell has her realizing the importance of teamwork, interdependence, and trust.

I appreciate that her relationships with Gale and Peeta do not take center stage in the way that the love triangles in The Legend Series did. She is concerned about them, sure, and much of her internal space in the first part of Mockingjay is fixated on protecting and rescuing Peeta. But the plot does not revolve around the two men jealously fighting over her or misunderstanding her in order to play up dramatic tension over who she will or won’t choose. At least, not until parts of Mockingjay, but I’ll get to that later.

Mockingjay’s pacing did not always land. There were moments where resolution came to quickly—like cracking ‘the Nut’ within pages of it being introduced—and others where plot points were obviously plot points. Peeta’s recovery from hijacking feels rushed and the loss of all hoverplans on both sides of the war is very convenient. When Katniss suggests using the service tunnels to get to President Snow in the Capitol, I’m left wondering why no one suggested that when they were besieging the city in the first place rather than attempting an above-ground assault.

The ultimate plot point for plot point’s sake was Primrose’s death. It’s vaguely foreshadowed, but feels more like fridging than anything else. At this point in Mockingjay, Katniss has lost almost all of her friends, believes Gale is a prisoner of the Capitol and Peeta perhaps dead, she literally only has Primrose left to her at this point as far as she knows. And she is then forced to watch her burn as a human candle. Not only does it seem to punish Primrose for her compassion and empathy as a healer, the only function it serves in the narrative is to push Katniss over the edge into a near catatonic state. It fuels her eventual murder of Coin when she was expected to kill President Snow. Like, this is the definition of fridging, and I hate it. Primrose did not have to die.

It also leaves Katniss almost entirely alone, except for Peeta, and bereft of any strong female bond. The lack of female/female bonding with Katniss is a criticism I have of the series as a whole. Every strong bond Katniss forms is with a male character: Gale, Peeta, Haymitch, Cinna, Boggs, Finnick. She barely has a relationship with her mother, which is understandable given her mother’s neglect after their father’s death. But still. Every female character she bonds with ends up either dead or irrelevant by the end of the series, and even then, none of them have as strong a bond as any of the male characters in her life.

Well, not female ones at least.

Rue, her ally in The Hunger Games, is dead, and the bond was primarily due to Rue reminding Katniss of Prim. Her childhood friend Madge Undersee dies in the bombing of district 12, not that she had a strong relationship with her anyway. Johanna Mason, a former victor that survives the Quarter Quell with her, is antagonistic from the first and while the two become reluctant training partners in Mockingjay, Katniss never has more than a begrudging respect for her. Compare this to the true, deep friendship she feels for Finnick, another survivor of the Quarter Quell.

Primrose is the only female character that Katniss has any sort of strong, consistent bond with over the course of the series. Even then, the bond is primarily maternal and very much offscreen given that most of the series is about Katniss and her trauma. There are a few good moments between them, but Primrose does not take up nearly the amount of mental or emotional space that Gale, Peeta, and Haymitch do for Katniss.

At the end of the day, Primrose did not have to die to move Katniss’s plot forward. She could have rebelled against Coin for killing the children with the fire bomb instead of her sister. Unlike the rest of the deaths, killing off Primrose felt sadistic rather than earned. It left Katniss bereft of emotional support and lacking in any strong female bonds.

Characterization

Suzanne Collins writes secondary and tertiary characters with real emotional depth. I cried more than once over a secondary character’s death (Rue, Finnick, Mags, Primrose). Katniss might not be the most emotionally attuned narrator, but she vividly describes other character’s personalities and mannerisms. The more trauma Katniss experiences, the more she is able to recognize the signs of trauma in others and relate to them. This level of description brings the other characters to life in a way that mere physical description can’t.

Gale and Peeta are nice foils for each other and for Katniss. They’re different enough from each other without being overly trope-y, and you can see what it is about each of them that draws Katniss. Gale is passionate, rebellious, and deeply caring. He represents comfort, home, safety, and a past where Katniss was relatively happy. He’s a partner she can rely on, a mind she understands implicitly, and someone to whom she doesn’t have to explain herself.

Peeta, on the other hand, is gentle, quiet, and good. Where Gale sees and embraces Katniss at face value, Peeta is a romantic who projects an idealized picture of Katniss onto her. He believes the best of her, even if he understands she is acting a part for the Capitol’s benefit. Peeta represents her best self, an ally who she can always rely on to expect the best from her and love her no matter what choices she makes. He also shares in her trauma and accepts her brokenness in a way Gale struggles to after she returns from the Games. In other words, it’s understandable that she would be friends with these two very different men

This brings me to the so-called ‘love triangle’ and the epilogue to Mockingjay. I admit, I’m not a huge fan of epilogues in general (I refuse to accept the epilogue to Harry Potter, you can’t make me like it). At first, I didn’t like the ending at all, but then I realized it wasn’t the ending so much as the set up. My initial impression was that Katniss wasn’t allowed to choose her ending, that she was ‘forced’ into making a life with Peeta because there is literally no one else left for her. The more I thought about it, I realized this isn’t a bad ending so much as one that isn’t entirely consistent with certain aspects of Mockingjay that felt shoehorned in.

For most of the series, Katniss’s relationships with Peeta and Gale are less about them as romantic rivals with each other than it is about Katniss lack of desire for any kind of romantic relationship. One of the first things we learn about Katniss is that she never wants to have children. She fears motherhood (no doubt due in part to her problematic relationship with her mother), and does not want to raise children who might have to face the Games. This forms the bulk of her romantic rejection of both Gale and Peeta. She does not want children, and because to her, marriage = children, she does not want marriage. Both men respect her decision, too. It feels less like a love triangle and more like a young woman with two close male friends who happen to have romantic interest in her that isn’t entirely reciprocated in either case.

I also get the impression that Katniss falls somewhere on the demisexual/asexual/aromantic spectrum. In direct contrast to both of their obvious romantic interest in her, she expresses little to no romantic interest in either Gale or Peeta. It isn’t just a matter of her being too preoccupied with survival and trauma, though that happens as well. Situations that could read as romantic are either pragmatic or platonic in her perspective. She seeks physical comfort from Peeta for her nightmares, but it has little romantic subtext. None of her kisses with either man have strong romantic or sexual undertones.

The lack of romantic subtext makes any interpretation of a ‘love triangle’ forced at best. Her relationships with Peeta and Gale simply are not a romantic struggle for dominance. She cares about both of them, deeply. She needs both of them in her life and does not enjoy the fact that they both have romantic interest in her that she does not seem to reciprocate. She clearly struggles to figure out how she feels about both of them and would prefer they ‘just got along’. But romantic conflict? I see none. And if there is sexual tension, it is heavily subdued.

Her getting married to Peeta and having children need not conflict with this. You can be asexual and still have sex and give birth. You can be aromantic and still love someone and get married. To me, Katniss most definitely reads as aromantic and falls somewhere on the demisexual/asexual spectrum. I know there are others who disagree with this interpretation. That’s fine. This is just my read. I happen think it is an important aspect of her characterization, not to mention that having an ace/demi/aro female protagonist for young adults is huge. However, since there is no word from god Suzanne Collins on this score, it remains ambiguous.

So, upon further reflection, I actually like the ending. Sometimes, you make life work even if it isn’t perfect. She chooses to live, survive, and make a life with Peeta. They’re two people broken by war, PTSD, and trauma and instead of falling apart, they choose to put a semblance of life together even if it is difficult. She chooses to love him and have a family even though it was what terrified her more than anything when the novels first began.

What bothers me is that in Mockingjay, there are beats where the love triangle aspect is played up that aren’t present in either of the other novels. Gale gets uncharacteristically defensive and aloof at Katniss’s concern for Peeta’s safety and sanity as a prisoner of the Capitol, for example.

At one point, Gale and Peeta have a conversation about Katniss when they think she’s asleep where they discuss who she will choose. I don’t mind the conversation per se—I actually like the fact that Gale ends the conversation by saying that ultimately it is Katniss’s choice. It’s a welcome relief that the men are willing to respect that her choice is the deciding factor. The problem? It doesn’t fit with the direction the story goes. It sets up this idea that Katniss is going to choose between them, and she doesn’t.

Katniss doesn’t choose Peeta over Gale. Gale leaves Katniss because of the bomb that killed Primrose (an understandable reaction given that neither knows if it was his bomb). Peeta is literally the only one left. There is a moment where she recognizes that Peeta is better for her than Gale, that she needs Peeta’s calm support rather than Gale’s fiery rebellion. But she doesn’t really choose Peeta because by that point, Gale is gone. She doesn’t choose Peeta over Gale so much as she chooses Peeta over a life of loneliness or substance abuse.

I say this as someone who went into the novels expecting a full on love-triangle based on the ship war comments I’ve seen floating around the internet. I expected love triangle and when that was practically non-existent in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, I was pleasantly surprised. It made the beats in Mockingjay rather jarring. I know others see much more romance and love-triangle set up than I do, which is fair. I just wish it were absent altogether.

One of the few things about Katniss that bothers me is her attitude toward the citizens of the Capitol for the first two and a half books. She has a tendency to objectify them. She talks about her prep team as if they were puppies, not people. “The Careers” are a pack, not a team. While a lot of this changes in Mockingjay, especially toward the end when she sees that the Capitol citizens are as terrified as she is, her dehumanization of the upper classes can be difficult to stomach.

Other than that, I find her fascinating because she is so unlike the stereotypical female protagonist of YA novels. She struggles to trust and form bonds with most people. In Mockingjay she goes so far as to say she doesn’t even like most people. Some might find it hard to be in so detached a headspace, but I appreciate the difference and uniqueness of her voice in this regard. She might be detached, but she’s mature. She’s introverted and self-contained and struggles to trust others. She’s capable, intelligent, but also filled with guilt and self-blame.

She dislikes conventional displays of politeness like small talk and hugging. She’s hyper literal and has to work to understand subtext. Empathy does not come easy for her, and much of her headspace in The Hunger Games is made up of her ‘performing’ what many would consider ‘normal’ human emotions and interactions for the camera. While her ‘romance’ with Peeta for the audience is an extreme example, it is worth pointing out that this is not the only time Katniss feels like she is acting in ways she knows are expected but she does not feel.

It is understandable, then, that Katniss was not translated well on screen. She is a very internal character who does not conform to expected patterns of behavior or thinking. She does, however, care deeply, she just doesn’t express it in the expected ways. Her strategic mindset and detachment seems to have been played as low energy and complete lack of emotional expression. Rather than a traumatized, but highly focused girl attempting to survive in an environment that is out to kill her, she came off as flat.

I think she taught Deadpan how to deadpan. (Not blaming Jennifer Lawrence, mind you, I think she’s doing what she was told to do).

The best example of this is how her dialogue with Peeta in The Hunger Games was changed from book to film. The film dialogue is as follows:

Katniss Everdeen: Listen to them.
Peeta Mellark: Yeah. I just don’t want them to change me.
Katniss Everdeen: How will they change you?
Peeta Mellark: I don’t know. Turn me into something I’m not. I-I-I just don’t want to be another piece in their game, you know?
Katniss Everdeen: You mean you won’t kill anyone?
Peeta Mellark: No… I mean, you know, I’m sure I would just like anybody else when the time came, but I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them that they don’t own me. You know, if I’m gonna die, I wanna still be me. Does that make any sense?
Katniss Everdeen: Yeah. I just can’t afford to think like that. I have my sister.
Peeta Mellark: Yeah, I know.

Katniss is framed as being too consumed with surviving to think about her ideals. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as Kylie puts it. In the books, it’s less about Katniss being locked into a particular need than it is about a difference of mindset.

“I don’t know how to say it exactly. Only…I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?” he asks. I shake my head. How could he die as anyone but himself? “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.”
I bite my lip, feeling inferior. While I’ve been ruminating on the availability of trees, Peeta has been struggling with how to maintain his identity. His purity of self. “Do you mean you won’t kill anyone?” I ask.
“No, when the time comes, I’m sure I’ll kill just like everybody else. I can’t go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games,” says Peeta.
“But you’re not,” I say. “None of us are. That’s how the Games work.”
“Okay, but within that framework, there’s still you, there’s still me,” he insists. “Don’t you see?”
“A little. Only… no offense, but who cares, Peeta?” I say.
“I do. I mean, what else am I allowed to care about at this point?” he asks angrily. He’s locked those blue eyes on mine now, demanding an answer.
I take a step back. “Care about what Haymitch said. About staying alive.” Peeta smiles at me, sad and mocking. “Okay. Thanks for the tip, sweetheart.” It’s like a slap in the face. His use of Haymitch’s patronizing endearment. “Look, if you want to spend the last hours of your life planning some noble death in the arena, that’s your choice. I want to spend mine in District Twelve.”

The Katniss of the books is framed as being literal to a fault. She does not understand Peeta’s metaphorical statement and, once explained, she waves it away dismissively. He is an idealist who believes he cannot win and is therefore fixated on the meaning his death will have. On not allowing himself to be corrupted by the system. Katniss is a realist and believes she has a possibility of winning. She could care less how she dies because she is unconcerned with the implications of her actions, only what they will be.

It isn’t that she can’t afford to think like Peeta; it’s that she simply doesn’t. Her mindset is different than his. As much as she feels guilty for not being consumed with her ‘purity of self’, as Peeta is, once she understands that he will kill the same as everyone else, she is disinterested in changing her outlook. He wants to defy the framework of the games with a meaningful gesture to prove his independence; she accepts it and will work within it to the best of her advantage.

The irony of the situation is that Katniss ends up doing exactly what Peeta set out to do, though unintentionally. It’s kind of the story of her life. She acts in ways that are of strategic advantage to her that end up having meaningful implications she did not intend because Katniss only looks at what she is doing at the time, not at what it might mean. Her obliviousness has been criticized by some, but I rather love her reluctant hero stance and failure to understand the consequences of her unintended moral stances. I find it refreshing, though I can understand why it might annoy others.

Themes

Trauma, trauma, and more trauma. And PTSD. And grief and loss and healing. I could wax lyrical about how honest an exploration Katniss is of trauma, grief, and PTSD. As a survivor of abuse who has lived with PTSD for most of my life, the more I read her, the more I felt like I was reading my story come to life. Katniss gives herself a laundry list of menial tasks to help her cope with grief (I’ve done that). She has a mantra she uses to remind herself who she is when her mind threatens to dissociate (I have one). She has nightmares and flashbacks and is triggered by seemingly innocuous things (happens all the time). Finnick teaches her how to use distraction techniques when she’s in crisis (a very useful coping mechanism).

She seeks out hidden, secret places that calm her when she’s in distress. The longer she lives in district 13, which is underground, the more her claustrophobia due to her father being killed in a mine takes it’s toll.

Even her physical trauma is treated realistically. Her wounds take time to heal, and have a lasting effect on her. In Catching Fire, she keeps checking to see if her ear is still deaf even after she knows it is fully healed. Her concussion is still a concern over a month later. The impression you get is that both physical and emotional wounds stick with you. Violence and trauma take their toll on the human body and psyche.

It isn’t just Katniss either. We see the physical and mental toll that war and violence take on everyone, especially the former victors. Annie is ‘mad’ but really dissociative. Finnick copes with his trauma with distraction, but it doesn’t always work. Peeta’s hijacking results in him being unable to tell reality from fiction and his friends come up with the game ‘real or not real’ to help him sort through his damaged memory. Substance abuse is explored delicately and in heartbreaking detail.

These books also explore the degree to which the children suffer for the wars their parents fight. The Hunger Games are quite literally a punishment for the rebellion of an older generation. Fear for their children’s lives is used to keep society in line. It’s a world where “anyone can die” is quite literally the means of social control.

The ways in which survival and entertainment can be used to control the masses is an underlying theme as well. The name of the country, “Panem”, comes from the latin phrase panem et circenses, “bread and circuses” and the connection to the Roman empire is fairly explicit. If the Hunger Games arena as a cipher for the Roman gladiatorial games wasn’t enough, the Capitol citizens and wealthiest districts have Latin names for heaven’s sake.

Plutarch explains to Katniss that the Capitol maintains control over Panem, however, tenuous, due to their strangle hold on supplies and entertainment. The lower classes are kept underfed and isolated from each other, beaten down into submission due to their literal dependence on the Capitol for their livelihood and the survival of their children.

The upper classes are controlled by entertainment, the morphine of the masses. Keep the wealthy people numb to the suffering of others. Provide a steady stream of luxury goods until they believe they cannot do without them. Keep them fat and happy and they will not rebel either. The wealthy classes have enough commitment to the status quo to keep themselves comfortable that they will not make trouble. The lower classes, on the other hand, simply do not have the recourse or strength to rebel.

It’s a theme with troubling implications. It shows us just how quickly the human race can become accustomed to brutal violence, even against children. While the films might not have done this aspect justice, I find it darkly compelling. We have only to look around at the current political climate in the United States to see how easily people of privilege can reject the suffering of the poor and marginalized. The system benefits by turning the lower classes against each other and preventing them from organizing. With the system rigged against them, it nearly impossible for them to seek recourse within the system and revolution is often the only chance for justice and equity.

Yet even revolution has it’s dark underbelly, which we see as well. Coin is as hungry for power as Snow and also willing to use murdered children to further her own aims. The revolution is ultimately not won on the back of a single girl who champions the masses with her golden vision of the future. It is instead won with struggle, difficulty, and on the backs of broken men and women who must live with their choices and ghosts for the rest of their lives. Their world is ultimately better for Katniss’s unintentional revolutionary act in The Hunger Games, but it has its costs: in lives lost, in nightmares, and in traumas both mental and emotional.

Everything has a cost. Sometimes the fight for a better life requires paying a cost that you don’t know until it is exacted from you. Healing is difficult, complicated, fraught with interpersonal conflict and frequent set backs. Some ghosts never leave you, some traumas never fully heal. In the end, it is the choice to pursue healing that matters, to fight even when it feels like you’re doing nothing but standing still or hiding in a closet.

Summary

I was talking to a friend who was not compelled by the novels. I asked her why and she explained that she didn’t see Katniss grow at all, that she ‘didn’t have an arc.’ It was a curious remark because to me, Katniss has a very real, very obvious arc: coping and surviving trauma. Katniss starts the series with PTSD from the death of her father (she has nightmares about the mining accident that blew him up) and subsequent caretaking of her younger sister and mother. Her mother coped by withdrawing her children, neglecting them because of the pain and grief she bore so Katniss had to raise her younger sister for several years, effectively ending her adolescence when it had barely begun.

She’s then thrust into a series of traumatic events—the Hunger Games, the Quarter Quell, the rebellion—witnessing the death of friends, loved ones, and strangers, and barely has time to cope with one trauma before another swiftly follows on its heels. Her arc is not the typical triumphant victor, but of a traumatized teen coping with PTSD.

By talking with my friend, I realized that for someone who has not experienced trauma and PTSD (or has, but has not internalized or examined that experience at length), it would seem as though Katniss stands still. She does things, or things happen to her, and does not seem to change much. Since I have lived with PTSD most of my life, I see the story of a girl coping with immense trauma, and choosing to survive and fight despite it all. For someone like me, that is an arc in and of itself, the choice to live, to cope, to fight the demons in your sleeping and waking life. It’s not a dramatic or loud arc, certainly not the victorious or triumphant arc one expects from a YA novel about a girl at the head of a revolution.

It is also real. This is the story of a thousand little fights every day that no one else knows about. The litany of tasks that Katniss uses to cope with her grief after Rue’s death (“time to hunt now, Katniss; time to eat now, Katniss”) is one that I’ve had to use many times to keep myself going when life is hard to manage. The grounding Katniss uses in Mockingjay to remind herself of who she is when her mind threatens to fracture apart and dissociate is another. Gritting her teeth against the pain, the struggle to reach out, the isolation, hyperawareness, hypervigilance. The fear that every friendly face is a secret enemy. The choice to sleep alone rather than disturb others with nightmares. The sudden shock at something you’ve seen a million times suddenly bringing on the memories. Shutting down emotions to avoid them taking over.

Katniss is a literary masterpiece of PTSD and her arc is survival and coping with that trauma. It’s also hard to read. I can understand why to those who haven’t lived with it, it feels detached, slow, and far from the victorious shout that one expects from the hero of a trilogy. It’s a shudder and a tears held back when one expects a ringing cry of victory.

Katniss’s arc is not that she’s a fundamentally different person at the end, but that she coped in a way that was effective enough for her to survive. Her growth is that at the end, she’s able to do the thing she feared most: marry and have a family and be content. She has coped, found a measure of healing, and chosen to survive and live despite the trauma. And that, for someone with her trauma, is a fucking huge victory and a goddamn amazing arc.

I’ll admit I’m biased because that’s my story. Not that I’ve had to face the same kind of trauma she had to. We each have our own forms of trauma and PTSD. We’ve both chosen to cope with it, to live. I read these novels and wanted to weep because I finally had a hero who understood my story and reflected it back to me. Someone who didn’t just ‘move on’. She had consequences to her trauma, had to live with it for the rest of her life, and coping was hard work. Because it is in real life too. Living after trauma isn’t glamorous or glorious. It isn’t flashy. Most of the time, it doesn’t look like a lot of happening to someone on the outside looking in. But inside Katniss’s head, a lot is happening, and that’s the real story. It’s what I love about this series.

It’s also why I can’t unreservedly recommend it. Those who have not lived with trauma and PTSD may not understand Katniss, might find her boring and lacking in growth as many of my friends have. And for those who do struggle with it, it might be too real. I know that I could not have read these as a teenager without being triggered by how real her trauma is. It gets difficult to read in Mockingjay because it is too much like my existence. But for someone who wants an inside look at trauma or who is at a place in their own healing that they want to read their story, these books are for you. And then we can talk and weep together and wish that there were more female friendships and maybe even a f/f ship.

Final Grade: A

Excellent worldbuilding; slightly inconsistent pacing and use of the love triangle trope where it did not fit; consistent thematic and characterization of the long term effects of trauma and PTSD; (possible) representation of a demi/ace/aro female character who is also a woc; interesting secondary and tertiary characters; lack of f/f bonding is a problem, though.

Random Thoughts

  • I would love to understand the Careers more. Their strategy on the surface makes no sense (they’re each others’ biggest threat, so why band together?). I’ve talked with a friend at length about this and we have headcanons. Still, I’d like more flesh on these characters.
  • Mockingjay ends with this rather gruesome scene of Katniss’s children playing on what used to be a mass grave. It’s the perfect encapsulation of the books: joy can come from grief and war and trauma, but it takes a long time, and the dead ghosts will always be there if you look hard enough.
  • I ship Katniss with Johanna Mason (she had me at getting stark naked in her first scene). Such a missed opportunity.
  • Speaking of this scene. It’s also the one where I stop liking Peeta. It’s in Catching Fire right after all the former victors do their introduction lap for the Quarter Quell. Finnick tries to flirt with Katniss, and she’s not having any of his overt sexuality. It’s not even that she’s grossed out so much as “can we not?” Then Johanna Mason strips naked and rides up the elevator with her and Peeta. Peeta laughs and tells Katniss people do this because she’s ‘innocent.’ But like, it’s not innocence so much as disinterest. She has zero interest in other people’s sexuality. And Peeta thinks them basically sexually harassing her is funny. Sorry Peeta. I no longer like you. Don’t ask me why I still like Johanna. I just do.
  • Even if it isn’t followed through super well, I appreciate the linguistic diversity in Katniss’s description of the Capitol accent.
  • I appreciated the flipped gender expectation surrounding Peeta and Katniss. She’s the skilled, calculating hunter and he’s the gentle, artistic baker.
  • At the same time, I kind of love the idea of Peeta as the “not like other boys” trope, or should I say “not like other tributes”. Normally, we get the exceptional POV by default, but here, the one who is “above” the games, the ‘best of them all’ is one of the protagonists’ friends and eventual marriage partner.
  • Another thing I enjoy about Peeta is that he is a baker’s son. So “Peeta bread”. LOL.
  • I know it’s common in pop culture, but you really can’t snap someone’s neck by twisting it. It’s physically impossible.
  • Random formatting quibble: I prefer gaps on the page when there are time gaps in a chapter.
  • Memories and flashbacks are incorporated very well into the text; timely and appropriate without feeling forced.
  • Coin isn’t as fully fleshed out a villain as Coin. Yet one more way that Mockingjay feels a bit less tight than the other two novels.
  • I have a lot more, but I think I’ve said to much already. Take your thoughts to the comments!

Up next is the Divergent Series, so stay tuned! After that I’ll do another poll to see what my fate shall be.


Images Courtesy of Lionsgate

Gretchen
Written By

Bi, she/her. Gretchen is a Managing Editor for the Fandomentals. An unabashed nerdy fangirl and aspiring sci/fi and fantasy author, she has opinions about things like media, representation, and ethics in storytelling.

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