Hunger Games, Second Interlude

You know, I’m not one to demand total uncertainty. The fact the protagonist lives is never really in doubt here, and there’s no need to jump through hoops in a doomed attempt to make it suspenseful. But at this point, there’s nothing at all left to wonder.

No, really.


Peeta will live, and everyone else will die. (And Peeta will obviously live, because for all this book likes to pretend it’s dark and edgy, it isn’t. Almost all deaths have been off camera, and only Rue’s has actually mattered.) A better written story could still get some mileage out of how we get there, but this isn’t that kind of story. It’s extremely unlikely Katniss will be in the position of killing anyone innocent, since the book has thus far contrived to avoid that – the trained kids kill everyone, and then she kills the trained kids. No moral dilemmas or depth here. The lack of research and generally slapdash plotting mean there’s little suspense about the actual events.

And worse, the book then personally tells you there will be no suspense by repeatedly making things happen to remove an issue.

Convenient plotting is one of my various pet peeves in writing. For example, I was reading a mediocre book that had this one side character I loved. See, he was a member of the evil religion but he was actually a really great guy. He sincerely thought that if people didn’t convert to the evil religion then they were preventing world peace, and more, despite that went above and beyond to try to mass convert them instead of just killing the last holdouts, because he really wanted everyone to live in the happy paradise, even the assholes who wouldn’t believe in it. When he’s forced to confront things outside his religion’s teachings, he acts with sympathy and grace. At the very end of the book, this character, who wears ceremonial armor as religious gear, realizes he was wrong and acts to oppose his superiors. He is stabbed, but the fact the armor is ceremonial doesn’t mean it isn’t made of functional steel, and yes, he is just that awesome that he’s been walking around in heavy plate the entire time.

So, right after that, he takes it off for no reason and gets stabbed again a few pages later, this time successfully. Incidentally, right after this everyone learns healing powers. Anyway, he gets a great funeral. Because it’d be too messy to actually deal with a thinking person whose views aren’t exactly like yours, it’s much better when you can slot him into a nice box and never have to deal with him again.

The book consistently fails at its premise. At every step it acts to minimize the actual events. The focus is not on the childmurder games and the inherent horror of the concept, it’s that Katniss, the main character, happens to be in a dangerous situation. The book would be no different if the games were voluntary or if they were something else entirely.

You know, it’s interesting that the books were partly inspired by the Iraq war when the book uses a similar linguistic trick as the whole “insurgents” business. The kids are referred to as enemies or opponents or even competitors. Her main opponents are just called Careers and she constantly emphasizes how big and adult they are. Rue is just there to motivate her to do what she was already planning to do, which is act in her own best interest. The one other person she pays attention to is talked about like she’s nothing more than an unusually bright animal. The book consistently fails to treat any of the side characters as if they have their own thoughts and feelings.

And Katniss is a horrible, horrible person. It’s entirely possible to write someone who has reason for this, and the book fails to do this.

I think the core of the issue is the direction you think in. I think the author would be honestly baffled by most of my criticism. She’s not saying killing people is right. That’s why she made sure the people Katniss would have to kill are also evil. She’s not saying being okay with killing is right, that’s why she said Katniss didn’t see her various kills as killing until the last one, where she’s trying to save someone. She’s not saying being a woman makes you evil, those women are evil.

It’s only when you oppose the narrative itself and ask why those decisions were made you get objections. To me, the narrative isn’t simply “those kids are evil” as a neutral point. They were made evil by the narrative to justify their deaths. This has a lot of overlap with real life, which is why I feel it’s important to bring up. When people describe what happens, it’s very easy to create a narrative and that narrative may not have anything to do with reality, but a lot to do with how we want things to be. Here’s a perkier written though still ultimately depressing bit on this.

So, this intermission, a rewritten outline of the book. Let’s see how much I remember.

Katniss is actually hungry, for a start.

The goat, like the TV, is given to all families. There are commons for everyone to graze their goats on. You get ONE GOAT. You may kill or sell the kids but you can’t keep them to grazing age, which is why the land isn’t overgrazed. If it dies, you bring the body in and you get a replacement goat. Stealing someone’s goat and eating it is considered a huge crime, which discourages it for the most part. This means that goat milk is not particularly valuable and explains why Katniss and her family are drinking it – something necessary for Katniss to be in good enough condition to survive the games.

Trade at the black market is badly exploitative. She has to pay a portion of her catch to the peacekeepers directly in return for not being prosecuted for hunting. This also explains how Katniss can be both hungry and eating valuable meat, the fact there’s a single market allows price-setting so she can’t get their real value. She does some direct trade with individuals, but most people can’t afford meat regularly and can’t afford the valuable meat at all. She doesn’t know how to tan leather herself, so the pelts have to be sold and she’s paid little for them. Think your usual RPG economy – they’re paying far less than they’re asking for. Only you have to eat.

By creating a system were goods aren’t properly fungible, Katniss can have a decent, if lean, diet, because she often doesn’t get much value by selling. It also explains why she can’t seem to build up a store of food against going hungry – she can’t convert perishable goods (her hunting) into nonperishable goods (processed grain) without a lot of loss. (And she doesn’t know how to preserve meat on her own – she knows about the idea of smoking meat, but her occasional efforts just ruined the meat because she used pine or green wood, and she gave up. Their primary fuel source is coal, which you can’t use to cook food directly – and everyone knows this in the same way you know not to put metal in a microwave.) She still field-dresses her kills, but in this case it’s so she can take the extras for herself.

Gale doesn’t exist because I don’t see a point to him, but there are plenty of other hunters, who are generally adults. Hunters regularly steal kills from each other, so to set traps she has to go pretty deep into the forest. The closer areas are also just generally lean pickings, because they’re far more heavily trafficked. Katniss’ area has little sense of community, which is why Katniss herself has none – the adults are either ignoring her or fucking her over in some way.

Her parents are both dead. There’s no orphanage. Both of them taught her basic hunting and gathering before they died, and Katniss pours over the book of plants her mother had to learn what she can, but knowing a plant’s use is very different from knowing anything about disease and diagnosis. There is no local apothecary – you either buy the capital’s medicine or you make your own.

There are no pigs – there are no big distinctions between the classes, just people who more often have food and people who more often don’t. Peeta’s told to feed the bread to the goat.

Peeta and Katniss actually interact. Katniss can’t preserve meat properly, so when she gets a surplus of something that she leaves a dead animal and runs off or goes in, asks for some cheap bread, leaves a dead animal and runs off. During the winter, when Katniss’ hunting can’t really sustain them, Peeta “happens” to have burned/stale/ugly bread he doesn’t want more often.(The majority of the town isn’t functioning on a seasonal economy, so they don’t have bad lean periods in the winter like she does.) This makes Katniss more determined to pay him back somehow and bring extra meat next spring.

Without Katniss, Prim’s odds of survival are little better than if she’d taken part in the games herself, so Katniss is determined to win. (The baker family does say they’ll look after her, but Katniss figures it’s an empty promise. Also, kids can take out only one tesserae per family member (to prevent the loophole abuse I mentioned) and you can’t say someone’s an adopted parent or sibling, so Prim has no value to them.)

Katniss knows a bit of knife fighting because life really, really sucks in her district. Her primary weapon is a sling.

The pin is just a gift, and it’s not gold because seriously, fuck gold. It’s so impractical. The being-nice-to-the-tribute thing is not because Katniss is so special, people generally try to not be dicks to the kids who are going off to die.

Oh, and the games have nothing to do with any rebellion. They are about an exciting opportunity. Even the fact there was a rebellion is something no one talks about in public. Because really, you don’t remind people at every turn that violent uprising is possible.

Katniss’ attitude is she doesn’t want to fight Peeta and won’t if he doesn’t attack her, but that she’s going to win. That she won’t go after him stated directly to him because communication is a glorious thing. The possibility of Peeta making it into the final stages of the game is nonexistent so she does her best to not think about it.

Haymitch does his best to sober up to help them, as he does every year for every set of tributes because he’s not a dick, but he really can’t function without some amount of alcohol in his system. (And this is not an exception because District 12 sucks, the non-trained winners are pretty uniformly messed up and even the trained kids only do so well.) He manages to stay lucid enough to do the minimum things that only their mentor can do. Effie has to do almost everything, and between that and Haymitch’s usual behavior she really, really hates her assignment. The fact their tributes always die horribly just adds to the stress. The kids are unsympathetic to either adult, since it’s not like they want to be here either. Peeta is more upset by Haymitch’s unreliability, while Katniss already assumes everyone who isn’t her or Prim is a useless asshole, so she takes it more in stride, but is also less willing to listen to advice.

Because I am vindictive, the kids think Effie’s stuck up for being so bothered by Haymitch, only to get hugged shortly after with a bunch of sobbing about how they’re great kids and realize that random hugs by drunk strangers aren’t fun.

People don’t bet on the games, but they do give gifts to kids that impress them. Because they’re the fucking capital, they’ve got money to burn. The kids are advised to focus on the flashy weapons, because they’re fucked either way and maybe if they can look good for the cameras when the games start they’ll get some help. Katniss, though, figures no one will care because no one ever cares about District 12, and she’s going in as a hunter. She focuses on things like edible/toxic plants, since she only knows those in her own area. Peeta tags along because fuck it, he’s doomed either way, and he agrees with her assessment that their tributes always die anyway, so there’s nothing lost by trying something new.

(Katniss has no such opinion on fashion, which is why she’s so willing to go along with everything she’s told there. There is less of CINNA THE MOST BESTEST AND WONDERFUL PERSON and more focus on how worried she is about people not liking her enough.)

The trained kids work in pairs, everyone else alone. Katniss does notice Rue, but it’s because she’s paying attention. Rue sticks to the stations with no one at them because she’s a twelve year old kid and she’s scared of everyone. Katniss thinks about calling Rue over to their station but it is the childmurder games and she doesn’t want to get attached, and besides the girl wouldn’t trust her anyway.

Katniss either brings or requests a sling as her weapon on the third day, assuming she tries to get a high score at all. I would actually suggest she never does anything to demonstrate how awesome the sling is and the judges let her have one thinking it’s basically an inferior version of throwing knives, which are the only ranged weapon allowed because ranged weapons are just so much better that they’d dominate the games. They aren’t giving the kids guns so there’s obviously some attempt at keeping things balanced.

The kids are given little food and plenty of weapons. Sponsor gifts are largely food, and you also get bonuses for a kill. The cornucopia is mostly trap supplies, sleeping bags/blankets/clothes, weapons and and medicine.

Cool as kids thrown into this with no idea how to function is, everyone’s been raised on the this, so they hold up relatively well. The trained kids form a pack to collect a bunch of early rewards, then split into duos by district once there are fewer trained kids. They work together until there’s only one or two people left, then split up to find them, with the understanding that after that they start hunting each other. In sum, they have established rules. (They will, however, kill their partner if the partner is crippled, to get the reward bonus) Between this and weapons training, they completely outclass normal kids.

There aren’t rabbits everywhere. If Katniss wants food, she’s got to kill wild dogs, bears, and venomous snakes. That’s how Katniss’ sling is useful. Years of hunting and jury-rigging with scraps mean she knows how to do stuff like heat blood in a plastic bottle without it melting, so she has less of a problem with dehydration. And there are more pools of water around.

Although she claims to be willing to take part in the games, she initially avoids everyone instead, with no rants about wanting to kill them. She explains this as wanting to get her bearing and hoping the trained kids will get injured and hungry in the meantime. She runs across other untrained kids a couple times and they either mutually back away or throw a knife in her general direction and run.

She does throw the BEES at the kids, but she doesn’t premeditate to make sure they’re as active as possible beforehand and she’s hoping it’ll just drive the kids away and weaken them. Actually seeing them die upsets her.

Katniss joins up with Rue because Rue is a scared hungry little kid following her around. (Rue does it because she’s just that hungry, not because she knows Katniss is an awesome person.) Their “alliance” is Katniss promising not to hurt her, Rue has nothing much to bring to the table. She starts seriously wondering if she’s willing to kill Rue to save Prim.

Incidentally, Katniss is eating fine. Everything wants to kill her, but at least it’s abundant, and most of it can’t climb trees. Katniss’ particular flavor of food issues is trouble rationing, because food can spoil and you still have to eat it. Back home this was counterbalanced by saving food for Prim, without that, she tries to carry food in her belly rather than backpack. This means she has limited food on hand if she has to hole up somewhere, but she’s not losing weight constantly.

The mines are there, but they aren’t a special thing. It’s risky to do but every few years a kid manages it without getting blown up. Before it, Rue teaches her songs – if Katniss can’t meet up, Rue will sing that she’s okay so she’ll know, and if something goes wrong she’ll sing that. Katniss’ damaged hearing comes back, she hears the alarm song and finds Rue. (Also, instead of standing there like an idiot, Katniss flattens to the ground before the explosion.)

I’m thinking Rue gets hit by some trap and Katniss finds her. They don’t know who set it or if the person’s even still alive by that point, as whoever it is doesn’t return to the site.

Rue dies a little while after the announcement and a lot of denial on Katniss’ part, leading Katniss to seek out Peeta. She’s pretty conflicted on this – she failed to save Rue so she wants to save someone, but she resents that he’s alive and Rue’s dead. She’s extra angry at the capital because she’s sure they could have fixed Rue even though she couldn’t. The two tributes thing seems like mocking to her because it comes right after Rue’s injury. Katniss has been mostly ignoring the romance angle and while Peeta still helps her out, she’s run into enough other kids who don’t want to fight by that point that this is attributable to normal friendship and not necessarily love.

I like the idea that respecting bodies is a shared cultural trait, so Katniss’ first act of rebellion is to stay with Rue’s body because the body is supposed to stay with family/kin and her refusal to let them mess with it amounts to calling them defilers. She gets tasered for her trouble when an hour or two in they realize she’s seriously not moving. It’s when she gets back up that she says Peeta’s name and goes to find him.

(It’s not that expensive to send things, but the districts aren’t allowed to send anything to their own tribute for obvious reasons. So District 11 still sends her the bread.)

8 Comments

  1. morgondag says:
    “And Katniss is a horrible, horrible person. It’s entirely possible to
    write someone who has reason for this, and the book fails to do this.”

    She is a 17-year old who is put in a contest where she statistically has about 4% chance of surviving, and thats assuming she is willing to kill, if not, then it approaches 0%. How could this not be a reason? In fact, I would hesitate to call ANYONE a “horrible, horrible person” based on ANY kind of actions in a situation like that.
    And she did not murder those kids under the tree. She killed them on purpose yes (whatever she might have told herself afterwards), but THEY came for her first trying to kill her, had her holed up, and would most likely try again next day. That is self defense.
    YOU are a horrible, horrible person for talking like that about a poor girl who had to go through so much! Don’t listen to her lies, Katniss!

    … maybe I’m losing perspective a bit here. Anyway, I agree with much of your criticism for poor research and implausible events, but not at all with how you see Katniss. You seem to get angry with her everytime she is prioritize her own survival, but that is just not reasonable. She has no other perspective at that point than winning the games or losing, dying, and thats perfectly understandable. Hating the careers is not objectively, intellectually, correct, but is quite natural for her to react like that. In later books I think she gets a more nuanced view of careers.
    If we take THG as an extreme metaphor for a competitive society, then it is not reasonable to expect people to just stop competing, stop placing themselves and their family ahead of some stranger and their family. You are in the system, you follow the logic of the system and you see no way out of the system. We cannot condemn everyone everytime they do this.
    What we CAN hope for is that when the situation actually shows the posibility of breaking out of the system and really change things, people are willing to take risks to follow that ray of hope. Katniss does precisely that later on in the books and is in that way a good rebel character. Since people who read the books will generally more or less see Panem as the present day capitalist society and Capital as the 1% I think she is a good role model, whatever flaws of logic and so on there is in the books.

    1. Farla says:
      And she did not murder those kids under the tree. She killed them on purpose yes (whatever she might have told herself afterwards), but THEY came for her first trying to kill her, had her holed up, and would most likely try again next day. That is self defense.

      She had a way of escaping and held off on it in favor of risking her own life for a better chance of killing them in a really horrible way.

      The problem isn’t Katniss acting in self-defense. It’s the fact she jumps at the chance to kill people and doesn’t appear to have any moral qualms about it. The wasps are a horrible, horrible way to die and instead of thinking that she’s sorry this is her only option, she plots to make sure they hurt the other kids as much as possible. She doesn’t even rationalize about how it’s different in this situation because the careers aren’t people, but then, she was utterly fine with the idea of murdering the non-careers, including non-careers who had done nothing at all aggressive toward her.

      In later books I think she gets a more nuanced view of careers.

      You may be thinking of the fact she ends up on good terms with Four, but that’s after Four is retconned away from being a career.

      If we take THG as an extreme metaphor for a competitive society

      Why on earth would we be doing that? It’s not about competition. Katniss never competes with others in her daily life and in fact lives in a place that appears to have no ways to advance, the resource shortages are deliberately imposed, then the first book almost all the other kids just try to hide out and survive, and we even learn that the Hunger Games can be won by just waiting them out and surviving what’s thrown at you. And the only competition that matters is looking cutest for the audience and being popular.

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  2. morgondag says:
    Also, Susan Collins may not be the most subtle writer, but when it says “meaning the person whose death I’m now devising”, the wording is probably not chosen to make the reader think “yes, just go ahead and kill her!”. The idea, somewhat confused perhaps, must be either that Katniss with a part of her mind is critically reflecting on what THG are doing with her way of thinking, or at least that the reader is meant to.

    Btw, if you wonder why I’m commenting on an old thread, I came her from TV Tropes.

    1. Farla says:
      Then Susan Collins is a far worse writer than I thought, because the only reason to phrase something in a smug, over the top way is if you don’t think what you’re doing is edgy enough and want to really wallow in how cool you are.

      If Katniss is supposed to be truly disturbed by it, she should be euphemizing away from it because she doesn’t want to admit what she’s doing. If Katniss is numbly accepting it, she’d just say the person she’ll kill. (“The person I have to kill” would be even better for showing she sees it as an inevitable thing she has no control over.)

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  3. waretaringo says:
    just have to ask, was the character you were referencing Hrathen from Sanderson’s “Elantris?” I happened to be reading the book myself a couple weeks back and the description fits him pretty closely.
    (Mind you, I thought the book was at a cut or two above mediocre myself, but that’s quibbling in the face of the larger issue of Ms. Collins being terrible at her craft.)
    1. Farla says:
      Yup, that guy.

      Well, we might mean different things by mediocre, as well – I read it and more or less enjoyed it, but not enough to overlook the various flaws throughout. Particularly annoyed by the fakeout where a female character decides to fake being dumb for gain, only to turn out to actually be an idiot by not having any real plan but act stupid and then be shocked that this doesn’t translate into being taken seriously.

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  4. Jocelyn Leung says:
    “For example, I was reading a mediocre book that had this one side character I loved.”

    Just curious, is the book you’re referring to Elantris by Brandon Sanderson? The priest character (forgot his name) matches that description perfectly, with the evil religion and ceremonial armor and everything.

  5. CrazyEd says:

    They aren’t giving the kids guns so there’s obviously some attempt at keeping things balanced.

    Ironically, guns would easily be the best way to keep everything balanced. God created man, but Samuel Colt made them equal. Some of the characters in Battle Royale are only able to survive for as long as they did because they got a gun, and in the manga version, pretty much everyone but the main character who relinquishes a gun at any point dies within one or two chapters.

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