Things aren’t okay

I was deeply affected by the first Hunger Games movie. I’m a girl who can sit through art-house horror without losing much sleep, but I thought about The Hunger Games for days after I finished watching it. The hand-held cameras may have seemed cheap to some, but they leant a grounded, indie grittiness to the story and made it feel like more than just an action film. The story of Katniss Everdeen’s (Jennifer Lawrence) journey through a Battle Royale death match against 23 other teenagers sounds fairly standard on paper, but Lawrence’s performance and the stark direction gave the film a weight that made you really feel the horror of each death, flinch at each cannon boom, and realize that survival was not the end of her story—not even close.

Having now seen Catching Fire, the adaptation of the middle book in Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy, I find myself mourning the loss of the gritty cinematography of the first film, but otherwise highly impressed. I think Suzanne Collins’ trilogy is one of the most important pieces of young adult fiction right now, and if I ever have children I will give it to them to read. What Collins does better than other bestsellers like J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyer is simple: she treats her characters like real human beings, instead of action heroes, and therefore this sequel avoids many of the pitfalls that other series struggle with.

In order to explain why, I need to first give a quick review of the Monomyth, also called the Hero’s Journey. This is a basic pattern of narrative storytelling that was most famously described by Joseph Campbell. Many writing experts believe that it holds true for almost every traditional narrative story one can tell. There are 17 stages of the Monomyth, but the gist of it is this: the hero begins life in an ordinary world, and receives a call to adventure that will take him into the unknown. The quest pushes the hero through various trials, and introduces him to new allies who will help him and foes whom he must conquer—often a metaphor for overcoming something internal in his own psyche. The most severe challenge includes death—either physically or metaphorically—and the hero returns back home with his prize, having become the master of two worlds: the old and the new. The final stage of Campbell’s Journey is called “Freedom to Live;” the hero, having mastered the unknown, finds freedom from the fear of death and thus lives freely, never regretting the past nor worrying about the future.

The Hero’s Journey is found in everything from Star Wars to Greek mythology, and in a multi-book (or film) trilogy, one of the biggest hurdles lies in how the sequel must pull the hero out of the last stage and drag them back to the first. Facing great danger and living to tell the tale is no mean feat, and we’ve come to expect that our heroes will just shrug it off. The ending to the first Harry Potter and Hunger Games stories seem very similar: the young heroes face off against a seemingly insurmountable challenge, defying expectations and proving their abilities to both others and themselves, and then they return home. But in the next book, Harry is pretty much ready to go back to Hogwarts and get into all sorts of trouble again. He faced down an evil wizard and nearly died when he was 11; by the time he hits the age of 16, he’s had climactic showdowns every single year, barely escaping with his life on a regular basis, but he almost always bounces back. He renews his journey each year.

In contrast, Catching Fire shows that Katniss Everdeen has done anything but bounce back since surviving the Games. She has returned to the ordinary world as a victor, having become the master of both her home ground and the otherworldly universe of the Capitol and the Hunger Games; however, she struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder on a regular basis and has only gotten more fearful for the safety of her family. She isn’t a victor; she’s a survivor. While she’s thrust into a similar set of situations during the events of Catching Fire, her previous experiences have not emboldened her to embrace the quest. By the end of the trilogy, Katniss has become the symbol for a revolution she never wanted, and is tasked with representing the common man in the uprising—a role she does not want to fill. She’s frightened, traumatized, and both physically and mentally scarred by the end of the trilogy. There is no real happy ending for her, because there can’t ever be one after what she’s been through. We can’t rely on her as a stalwart hero, as we genuinely don’t know that she will reach the end of her journey in one piece.

It’s bleak, but it makes for excellent character drama and growth, and it also faces the realities of mental health and emotional trauma head-on. There’s certainly room for escapist fantasies with heroes like Harry Potter; they are better than us, and can take on more challenges than we ever could. But The Hunger Games resonates because the emotional stakes are real and the character reactions are relatable. Catching Fire sets up the true finale of the series, but it’s an excellent example of how to do a sequel right, and how to keep your hero’s journey interesting along the way.

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