Survival is at the core of “The Hunger Games,” a dystopic vision of the future by author Suzanne Collins. Collins’ main character, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, faces the struggle for survival. But death in the brutal, harsh world of Panem can come in many forms, whether at the hands of the totalitarian regime or in the grip of slow starvation. Yet Collins roots this future in the real determination—and desperation—of one girl. Katniss may be forced to play a deadly game solely for the entertainment of the Capitol, but she upends that game and recreates it into an emblem of freedom.
“The Hunger Games,” released in 2008, was wildly successful, as were the two sequels. Since the first release, the Young Adult market has welcomed grittier, more realistic dystopian tales that recall such classics as “A Brave New World.” The success of “The Hunger Games” led to a blockbuster movie release of the same title in March 2012.
“The Hunger Games” opens on the morning of the Reaping, an annual event where two tributes from each of Panem’s 12 districts will be randomly drawn to compete in the Hunger Games.
The Games stem from a long-ago rebellion and began as a reminder to the districts of the Capitol’s power. But today, they have become amusement, a weeks-long reality show in which 24 children fight each other to the death. In most districts, citizens are forced to watch, but the Games are can’t-miss entertainment to the citizens of the lavish Capitol.
In District 12, Katniss spends the morning with her best friend, Gale Hawthorne. Her district is one of Panem’s most impoverished; and she and Gale are some of the district’s poorest. Their families survive only because she and Gale illegally hunt. Their poverty has also led them to willingly add their names multiple times to the Reaping in exchange for food and supplies.
Yet it is her little sister, Prim, who is called. Katniss runs forward and volunteers as tribute. Joining her in the Games will be Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son. She knows him for one thing—of the day she was starving and he gave her bread. Now, the two will face each other in a fight to the death.
After being given a token to represent her district from the mayor’s daughter, Katniss and Peeta are taken into custody and sent to the Capitol. The token is a gold pin, a mockingjay. Although Katniss doesn’t realize it at the time, the bird is the result of a failed “mutation,” or genetic alteration, and is a symbol of failure for the Capitol.
In the Capitol, Katniss is in the hands of her escort, Effie Trinket; her mentor, Haymitch Abernathy, a former District 12 victor who cares more for drinking than the tributes; and her stylist, Cinna.
To gain favor with the crowds, Cinna instructs Katniss and Peeta to hold hands during the opening parade in a show of solidarity, and the duo wow the audience with their outfits, which are literally ablaze. Then in a televised interview, Peeta seals their fate as the “ones to watch” by announcing he is in love with Katniss. Although Katniss believes it is an act to garner sympathy, she is willing to go along with it if it means her survival.
But the time in the Capitol is over, and Katniss finally faces the Hunger Games. The tributes ascend into the arena facing a large cornucopia full of “gifts.” Yet the gifts only mean bloodshed, and Katniss instead rushes into the surrounding woods. But there’s more than just other tributes to contend with. Gamemakers control the arena and are tasked with putting on a good show. The gamemakers send a volley of fireballs at Katniss—a play on her parade outfit as the “girl on fire.”
Yet there are moments of clarity. Katniss befriends Rue, a young tribute. After Rue is viciously murdered, Katniss faces the cruelty of the Games and a government that supports it. Through Rue’s death, she realizes she will not be a pawn in their game. In that moment, she turns into a symbol of rebellion.
Katniss searches down Peeta after the gamemakers announce that, for the first time ever, two tributes from the same district may be victors. Katniss knows the gamemakers want a good show, so she gives it to them by pretending to be madly in love with Peeta. But the more she acts the part of a lovesick teen, the more she starts to wonder about her own feelings. The budding romance may be good television, but the gamemakers are ready to end the Games. Katniss and Peeta are forced toward the cornucopia by wolf mutations that bear resemblance to the murdered tributes. They fight the last tribute and force him over the side of the cornucopia, where he’s set upon by the vicious mutts. Katniss finally kills him in an act of mercy.
Just when Katniss thinks she and Peeta have won, there’s one more announcement. The two-victor rule has been recalled. Peeta faces Katniss and tells her to kill him, but Katniss knows they’d rather have two victors than none. They’ll die together, she tells Peeta, giving him poison berries. They put the berries to their lips just as a voice frantically yells for them to stop. They are the victors.
They may have won the Hunger Games, but the danger is far from over. Katniss “outsmarted” the gamemakers, which the government considers an act of rebellion. Her only hope is to continue playing the part of a love-struck teen. Yet when she finally admits to Peeta her love is all for show, the pain on his face makes her realize his affection is true. Katniss returns to District 12 confused and afraid, yet she returns with a new strength. She has realized she wants to not only survive, but to be free. Much like the mockingjay she wore as a token, Katniss was used by the Capitol as a device to terrorize its own citizens into compliance, but she developed into something all her own.
The movie release of “The Hunger Games” is remarkably true to the book, but there are some minor character differences. The first is found in Katniss herself. Her character is not changed, but the viewer’s perception of her is. The book is told through Katniss’ point of view, yet the movie is not, which leads to some loss of her feelings and motivations. The best example is her confused feelings toward her best friend Gale and her tribute rival Peeta. In the book, readers see that Katniss is often thinking of Gale when she kisses Peeta for the camera, yet the movie portrays her actions more like she’s actually falling for Peeta.
Another minor character change can be found in Haymitch, Katniss’ drunken mentor. In the book, Haymitch can be needlessly cruel and cynical—at first he doesn’t even try to help Katniss and Peeta because he assumes they have no chance of survival. Yet he sobers up and becomes a valued mentor early on in the movie. Haymitch’s alcoholism is displayed during a drunken tumble during the Reaping in the book, which is also missing from the movie. In the movie, Katniss buys the important mockingjay pin and then is given it back after she volunteers for her sister, whom she gave it to for luck. In the book, the mayor’s daughter gives Katniss the pin. In the book, it starts with more meaning—it was worn by a past tribute and is more symbolic.
One of the major differences in character is that of the avoxes. In the book, avoxes are traitors to the Capitol. As punishment, they have their tongues cut out and are forced into servitude. Katniss runs into many avoxes—one of which she recognizes as a girl from her district—and is faced with the brutality of the government. The avoxes are missing from the movie.
Like the characters, the plot of the movie remains very true to the source material. In terms of the overall plot, the gritty violence of the book’s arena deaths is minimized and more stylized. While the movie is still violent—or as violent as a PG-13 rating can be—it misses some of the terror and brutality of the book. The best example of this missing violence can be found in the instance of the wolf mutations. In the book, they are described as being able to stand on their hind legs and with certain characteristics of each fallen tribute. They also wear tags stamped with the district of each tribute and have very human eyes. In the movie, the mutts are simply large, ferocious dogs.
Starvation and the theme of constant hunger are also missing from the movie. In the books, Katniss is constantly on the verge of going hungry—it is only her illegal hunting that keeps her family alive. This leads to her obsessing a bit about food in the book. She is astonished by the amount and variety of food available in the Capitol and spends a lot of time eating. The poverty of District 12 is there in the movie, but it isn’t as developed as in the book. This is also illustrated by a scene in the book in which Katniss nearly succumbs to dehydration, which is completely missing from the movie.
One of the major plot differences between the movie and the book is the reaction of Rue’s district—District 11—to her death. In the book, Katniss stays with the young tribute as she dies and comforts her. She recognizes her death by gathering flowers and laying them around the dead girl, and she’s thanked for her humane treatment of Rue by receiving a gift of a loaf of bread from the members of District 11. The movie pulls from the next book in the series for the reaction to Rue’s death. Instead of giving Katniss a loaf of bread in thanks, the district descends into riots. They are moved to revolution by Katniss’ action, something that doesn’t happen in the books until later.
While there are minor differences between the book and the movie, the two are remarkably similar. The movie, which was co-scripted by author Collins, remains true to the heart of the book. The cold brutality of authoritarian government and the desensitized clamor for more and more brutal “entertainment” form the basis of both book and movie. The strength and resilience of one girl who is unwilling to be another pawn of oppression remain the beating heart of the story.
-Jenny Coon Peterson