Some really demented and geeky part of me really misses writing papers about literature and theory and discussing books in a seminar session. I know, it’s disturbed. I ate, slept, and breathed those activities for three years AFTER trying to get high schoolers to do the same thing on a much smaller scale for my day job.
Luckily for me, I just finished The Hunger Games Trilogy and am itching to do something academic with it. Double luckily for me, today is the last day of November blogfest and therefore I feel obligated (desiredly obligated) to write something of some quality and promise.
DISCLAIMER: THE FOLLOWING IS A SPOILER FOR THE HUNGER GAMES (Books 1-3)! PROCEED WITH CARE!!!!!
That said, the following is my analysis of the intertextual dialectic I found naturally arising between these two young adult literary series.
Both novel series could be classified as love stories, adventure stories, and tales of young women coming of age. Both revolve around a teenage girl, faced with a series of dilemmas. However, while Twilight boasts of a realistic northwestern town in Washington, named Forks, and seems to convey the “normal” lifestyle of a 21st century teen, the books are anything but normal. Therein lies their danger. The society presented is anything but realistic what with werewolves and vampires leaping out of tall forest trees and sky diving off of ocean cliffs. Yet, it gives the illusion to its femme teen audience that a love like Bella’s and Edwards is very normal and to be yearned for. On the other hand, The Hunger Games, which is set sometime after the collapse of North America as we know it, is a future dystopian society that manages to mirror our own, but to a far greater degree of immorality and barbarism. Sure, technology exists that is not present today, and yes, some behavior is rather uncivilized, but it is within reach, within human history. In fact, the novels’ reliance on the Ancient Roman Empire for both character names and its basic plot (children forced to fight in annual “arena” style games) is recognizable to most 21st century humans with even a slight grasp of history. This dystopian setting automatically becomes a place more reality-driven than a forest in modern day Washington state, simply because it speaks of humanity, not lycanthropes and nosferatus. It’s as though The Hunger Games is saying to Twilight, sure, you may be contemporary and you may name characters common monikaers such as Isabella and Jessica, but our Katniss and Beetee are far more common to the human experience, and therefore, more valuable.
In essence, The Hunger Games, in its futuristic science fiction is mimetic, it copies or reflects reality in a way that is immediately recognizable to the reader. Twilight, for all its contemporary contexts, falls far short of anything reflective of actual reality.
It’s clear that a connection can be drawn between the teenage Bella Swan and the (albeit somewhat younger) teenage Katniss Everdeen. Both face two love interests, both face life and death decisions, and both struggle with family connections. Unfortunately, Bella’s character is simply an affront to all progress made by females in the last one hundred years, whereas Katniss Everdeen actually champions an egalitarian society. Bella is the archetypal damsel in distress, the helpless maiden, the princess in need of a prince (except that unlike Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, she isn’t even all that pretty and wears oversized flannel instead of shimmering ball gowns). Her last name, Swan, even suggests her frailty and fairy-tale origins. Katniss, on the other hand, is almost androgynous in her abilities to both hunt and heal. However plain she may be, as is Bella, she is easily turned into a sex symbol by the Capitol’s costume crew when it fits their liking. Bella cannot function (remember book two and those empty pages) without either Edward or Jacob, indeed possibly both of them. Meanwhile, Katniss is propelled into action by the loss, or perceived loss of either of these male friends. Bella’s self-deprecation and pouty nature is inwardly-focused and completely self-absorbed, thus making her often a quite unlikable protagonist. On the other hand, Katniss’ self-doubt and self-loathing always hinge upon her disgust at her flaws and the pain they cause others. She is outwardly focused, and so while sometimes her rants are painful to watch, they are, in essence, admirable. This inward/outward dynamic carries even further. While Bella ignites a centuries old battle between blood-suckers and canine-human monsters, the conflict is relegated to the “underworld” and a small pocket of humans in fictional Forks. Katniss, however, becomes a symbol that both sparks and successfully leads a nation to rebel against their cruel and oppressive government. Bella fights for some twisted sense of supernatural love, that in the end really only benefits her. Katniss jeopardizes everything for justice and the salvation of thousands, if not millions of citizens of Panem.
Need I go on? Katniss is clearly a better version of the teenage heroine. She says to Bella Swan, I’ll take your romance and see you magnanimity. What you do for eternal love, I do for humanity. Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Once again, in a mimetic sense, Katniss is the character teenage girls should strive to be: courageous, resourceful, strong, compassionate, assertive, and grounded in self-understanding, not needy, whiny, frail, pandering, insipid, and eternally dependent on the male species for a sense of purpose and identity.
I suppose you could say both Twilight and The Hunger Games demonstrate the basic power struggle between good and evil. One is just so much more politically and socially deep than the other. Again, Twilight’s focus is very narrow, very inwardly focused, and essentially reflects the shallowness of the characters. The reader gets some sense that the world may be at peril if vampires like James,Victoria, and the Volturri continue to thrive and feast, but mainly you sense that if Bella had never entered the picture, the problem would never have been. On the other hand, Katniss does, yes, spark the rebellion in Panem, but not only was it much overdue, but reflects the secret longing of every starving, brutalized citizen of Panem. She provides strength in a weak world, a world way too similar to our own (both first world and third world realities). In many ways, the current America is a mirror of the Capitol. We are over indulgent, excessive, consumeristic, and addicted to reality tv, no matter how over sentimentalized, seedy, immoral, violent, or gory it may be. The fact that the citizens of Panem watched the hunger games on their televisions as entertainment hits a little too close to home. But there’s absolutely nothing in Twilight that ever once causes me to question my own culpability. There is no connection to be drawn at all really, other than that yes, rain really does fall often in the wet state of Washington.
And then there’s the love triangles. Who are Edward and Jacob really aside from their passionate pursuit of Bella? And who understands that anyways? She’s boring. Homely. And a little on the morose side. Sure Edward is polite and charming and sweet, but so are most guys when they find the girl they love. There’s nothing uniquely noble in that, except that Edward is so far above every guy in that department that he also ceases to be realistic, to say nothing of his chiseled good looks and “velvet” voice. Jacob is the same, only hotheaded and stubborn. Same guy, two different temperatures. What do they do for the world? Besides fight each other? What do they do for anyone besides Bella? Nothing. No thanks.
Now, Gale, he’s a man’s man. He’s sacrificial, passionate, driven, and respectable in a man vs. wilderness kind of way. He leads the revolution forward, he’s a soldier, a fighter. He’s a rebel with a cause. Peeta is equally likable. He’s honest, tender, concerned for the underdog, and probably the most selfless character in the entire series. He’s good with people,camera-friendly, and a great PR guy. And this, folks, is why, despite my frustration, he gets Katniss in the end. Katniss gets what she needs, not what she wants. Here’s where Suzanne Collins did one over on Stephanie Meyers, and me. Edward is the character everyone knows Bella will end up with. Narratologically, the story is structured that way. She falls in love with him at first sight. He gets the most airtime in book one, thus immediately eliciting the reader’s sympathy and fan-base. For those reasons, I assumed Katniss would end up with Gale. He’s the character she is “in love with” or at least confused by, for the first book and a half. It seemed so obvious to me that he was the one she really, truly wanted. Just like how it was obvious that Edward was the one Bella really, truly wanted, even when presented with Jacob as an option. And so, as predicted, Bella gets Edward. Not so with The Hunger Games. Katniss loses Gale. And in losing him at the end of book 3, she makes the greatest realization of her life perhaps. “What I need to survive is not Gale’s fire, kindled with rage and hatred. I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth insted of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again. And only Peeta can give me that” (388). This kind of self-actualization only makes Katniss and the love triangle between her and Gale and Peeta that much more legitimized and valuable. She learns, she changes, and she transforms for the better in her journey towards self discovery. Bella, who, ironically chooses ice over fire as well, changes too: into the undead. How remarkable. How truly ontologically deep. Annndddd….how predictably shallow in a gothic fairy-tale kind of way.
I was Team Gale, I’ll be honest. But, I’ll take the honesty, the pain, and the reality that is Katniss getting what she needs over what she thought she wanted anyday. Especially when the other option, as with Bella, is to get what I want, and then totally lose myself in that thing so that the lines between need and want have become so blurred, they’ve melted entirely. The Lion didn’t lay with the lamb, he turned her into one. Bella doesn’t maintain her sense of self AND gain Edward, she loses who she is to his icy embrace. No thank you. That’s no way to live, especially not when you’re living forever.
And so, I find in every way, The Hunger Games employs the same basic narratological structures in terms of plot, themes, and characters, but in a far superior way. It mimics reality. It gives readers plausible, round, dynamic characters that are not only believable and real, but inspiring. The Hunger Games says, ok Twilight, thank you for playing the mimetic game, thank you for creating 21st century characters and dumbing them down with 17th century gender roles and literary flatness. We show you, instead 24th or 25th century characters with similarities to today, a mimicry of current struggles and triumphs, that our readers may sense the striking similarities, resonate with them, and be enriched.