The Hunger Games trilogy has literally changed my life. I don’t say that lightly. My whole worldview is radically changed since reading them 4 years ago. The lessons I’ve learned have stayed with me until this day
Survival is always about more than survival
Katniss lives on the verge of death for most her teen life. She quickly learns how to hunt and is able to sustain herself, her sister, and her mom. Everything she does depends on her being hyper focused on survival. This is why she hates her sister’s cat. It’s just another mouth to feed, in her eyes. On the eve of the 74th Hunger Games, Peeta says “I don’t want to kill or be killed for the purposes of the government. I don’t want to be a pawn in their games.” Katniss’ reply is, “I can’t afford to think like that. I’d kill for self defence.” Her point is that survival is the only thing that matters. And yet, during the games, she meets another tribute who looks just like her sister. At one point, this little girl’s life is threatened and Katniss reflexively the attacker. Suddenly it’s not just about her survival.
At another point, Katniss triggers a set of explosives to destroy her enemies’ supplies. This was an act of offense, a pre-emtive attack. However, if she doesn’t win the hugger games, she dies. So does this count as pre-emptive self defence? It’s still about survival.
In one scene, Katniss has to put on a show of being in love with Peeta in order to receive a shipment of food. Her survival didn’t depend on hunting and fishing. It depended on being likable.
The games don’t end when you get home
This message was driven home especially hard in book #3. Katniss doesn’t have to physically fight for her life in most of the book. She has to navigate politics, manage her image, and act. The same skills she used in the Hunger Games are necessary on a day to day basis.
Everyone is playing the game, not just tributes
The politics, image management, and acting are done by everyone, not just tributes.
You have to play the game and be aware of other players
When Katniss first meets fellow tribute Finnik, he presents himself as a playboy. He has an undisputed reputation for sleeping around with multitudes of women. It seems pretty clear that he’s just another tool. Later we find out he’s part of the resistance. Who would have guessed?
Everyone has baggage
After the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss suffers from PTSD. Peeta has an artificial leg. Their mentor, who’s quite capable, is an alcoholic. Katniss’ mom recovers from depression. All of these people who are integral to overthrowing the government are deeply flawed. It would be immensely convenient to pick and choose teammates who are fully capable, but it’s not possible.
No one is useless
Conversely, no one is useless. The crazy person on Katniss’ team in the 75th Hunger Games, figures out how the terrain switches from one terror to the next, a concept that eluded the rest of the sane protagonists. The nerdy guy on the team seems to be a useless fighter, but he engineers the death of the last two enemies and the escape from the Hunger Games. A drug addict sacrifices her life to save Katniss and crew. Even these deeply flawed characters turned out to be pivotal in Katniss’ success.
There’s more to life than happiness, but there’s more to life than usefulness
There’s a scene where Katniss and Peeta are holed up in a cave. Peeta asks Katniss for a story about her childhood. Katniss’ story is about getting an extra special birthday present for her sister. She used her hunting prowess to kill an especially large deer, her stealth to get it through town to the butcher, and her negotiating skills to be able to trade the deer for the goat. Her concluding statement was “that goat now provides cheese and milk, it is extremely useful.” Peeta, dumbfounded at this conclusion says “You mean, it made your sister very happy, right?”
Utilitarianism is hard
Who can say which is better for people: starving to death with the guarantee that you won’t die a violent death, or the risk of being ripped apart in exchange for food? This is the decision Katniss has to grapple with throughout the book. At the beginning, she jokes about her District, “District 12, where you can starve to death in safety.” Starvation is a constant threat for all inhabitants of District 12 because they rely on the Captitol to provide food for them. Meanwhile, just outside the fence is an abundance of edible berries, roots, and fruit ripe for the picken’, not to mention juicy rabbit, squirrel and deer (assuming you don’t get eaten by the wild dogs or bears first). I think it should be a personal decision that we make for ourselves, not each other.
Hedonism is hard
When you win the Hunger Games, your district is showered with gifts, particularly food, you’re given a mansion to live in, and you never have to work another day in your life. But, you also have to live with PTSD, the guilt of being a murderer, the guilt of being a pawn in the government’s games, the extremely high risk of substance addiction, and the small risk that you’ll be pushed into sex trafficking (it’s extremely fashionable for members of the Capitol to sleep with Victors). Is it really worth it? If someone said, “Nah, I’d rather die in the Hunger Games.” I wouldn’t blame them.
Is it better to be a victim of a crime, or the criminal?
This is a question that Plato/Socrates posed, and I still don’t have an answer. It occurs in this book, in the form of, “Is it better to kill, or be killed?”
The system of oppression is perpetuated by everyone’s complacency
There are two kinds of evil. The first is people who are messed up and just want to cause suffering. The second is people who watch and do nothing. But, but, but, I think the Hunger Games makes a good case for A) that complacency is often a result of people’s desire for personal safety, family safety, or nation safety, or a lack of empathy for the victim, B) everyone is a little guilty, in a system of defused responsibility, it’s impossible to blame one person C) when we feel ineffectual, we don’t even try, and D) it’s possible to be completely oblivious to others’ suffering
A) Katniss was out hunting in the woods when she found two people clearly running for their lives. One locked eyes with her and screamed “Help!” But Katniss, not yet battle hardened by the Hunger Games, chose to do nothing, since hunting is illegal and she didn’t want to get caught.
B) Before tributes go to the hunger games, they each get a 3 minute interview with THE famous TV personality. This guy’s job is to entertain the crowd and to make the tributes look good so that they get more sponsors. This guy has the voice and attention of the whole country, and instead of using his voice to speak against the evils of the government, he chooses to assist in it. It’s not like it’s his job to stop it, just like it’s not the job of the people who actually run the Hunger Games.
C) Katniss’ mentor has given up on life. He’s an alcoholic who can’t stand doing his job of helping kids kill kids. What can he do to stop the biggest sporting event ever? Could you imagine trying to stop the Olympics? I don’t blame him for feeling ineffectual and wanting to give up trying.
D) Katniss’ other mentor/chaperone mentions how previous year’s tributes were “completely uncivilized when they ate, they had no manners at all.” Katniss remembers the previous year’s tributes were the skinniest in District 12 and manners were probably the last thing on their mind. That didn’t occur to her chaperone.