Cheat Sheet: All you need to know about ‘The Hunger Games’

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, a new feature we’ll be running from time to time here at HitFix, designed to help catch you up on all the pop culture phenomenons you don’t have time to digest yourself.

It’s hard to keep up some days.  Every time you turn around, some new book series or comic book or video game has become the big buzz item, and if you haven’t read it or seen it or played it already, you can feel lost in the conversation.  I’m the sort of person who will push myself to read an entire series or watch an entire series or play a game simply so I understand what people are discussing, which is why I’ve actually read the Twilight books from start to finish.  I found them painful the entire time, but I can also speak with some sense of personal authority about Stephenie Meyers and her writing, and it’s not just some knee-jerk reaction over what I sort of half-understood based on a Wikipedia entry or a movie trailer.

Right now, “Hunger Games” is heading into production with Jennifer Lawrence attached to star as Katniss Everdeen, and if you’ve never read the books, you might be wondering why fans are so rabid about this series of books, why they’re so invested in the casting of the lead, and what you might be expecting to see in theaters in 2012.  That’s why we’ve decided to make “Hunger Games” the first entry in our Cheat Sheet series, and hopefully by the end of this article, you’ll be able to observe the rest of the casting and the crazy hype with an expert’s eye.

And who knows?  Maybe a few of you will even be motivated to pick up the novels by Suzanne Collins as a result.

I did not follow along as the books were being published.  I picked up a bundle of all three novels, Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay, at Costco one afternoon for something like $25.  By that point, Gary Ross was already attached to direct the films based on a screenplay by Billy Ray, and so I cracked open the first book with a sense of obligation.  After all, many of these kid-lit fads are genuinely awful books that catch on because of whichever potent wish-fulfillment fantasy they tap instead of any actual merit or quality in the writing.

That is not the case with these books.  Suzanne Collins is a talented writer with a great sense of both character and pace.  She has created an interesting world, one that exists largely on the allegorical level, and she has peopled it with characters that are easy to like and that are recognizably human.  The books grapple with ideas about society, relationships, and personal responsibility, but they do so without ever sacrificing the fundamental value of a good yarn well-told.  Taken as a whole, I think it’s a great read, playing with some pretty familiar archetypes and ideas in a way that makes it feel fresh and urgent and, yes, personal.

First, you should know that it’s a post-apocalyptic novel.  Set in the country of PANEM, it’s obvious that there was, at some point in memory recent enough to still serve as a fresh wound but also distant enough that it’s “history” now, a nuclear exchange.  There doesn’t seem to be much sense of a world outside of Panem, which is essentially all of what used to be North America.  The entire country has been broken up into Districts, all of them serving and honoring the Capitol.  Each year, the Capitol chooses one boy and one girl from each District and has them participate in a televised event called the Hunger Games, which consists of a battle to the death.  Whoever wins gets special treatment for their family for life, and for their District for a year.  Extra food, special care.  It’s plenty of incentive, as if the basic drive to survive wasn’t already, and so the Hunger Games are terrible, brutal, changing each year so no one ever knows what to expect.

So, yeah, there’s some “Mad Max” in there, some “Battle Royale,” some Theseus and the Minotaur.  And, yes, there’s a love story or two playing out against all of this as well.  And yet, even with that sort of blatant hodgepodge, it’s the way Collins puts it together and paints the details of her world and her characters that makes it work.  There is a great sense of life to the books.  She believes in the world of Panem wholeheartedly, and she makes it grounded and honest and tangible.  Using our world as a starting point helps, so when you think of the home of Katniss Everdeen, the main character in all three books, don’t just think of it as District 12.  Think of it as coal-mining country in the American south.  Basically, think of the world of “Winter’s Bone.”

Now that Jennifer Lawrence hiring starts to make sense, doesn’t it?

There are 12 Districts, so there are 24 contestants each year in the Hunger Games, and the selection of those contestants is the kick-off of the cycle each year, a big event by itself.  The way Collins designs the “season” that is built around the Hunger Games is a canny riff on the way our own pop culture’s discover-hype-digest-regurgitate cycle works, just one of the many things that makes it feel like vital pulp fiction for who we are at the moment.  That’s important for any pop culture sensation, a feeling that this is the moment when this particular story/character/idea had to happen.  Collins has spoken about how she was inspired to write these books when she was channel surfing and realized how reality TV programming and war coverage was shot and promoted the exact same way.

The book opens as they’re just gearing up for the 74th annual Hunger Games, and KATNISS EVERDEEN is a 16-year-old girl struggling to hold her fatherless family together.  In particular, she is devoted to her younger sister, PRIM, and when Prim is drawn in the “reaping,” an annual lottery, Katniss can’t stand by and watch it happen.  She steps in and volunteers herself instead.  As a result, she’s sent with the other reaping “winner,” PEETA MELLARK, to serve as District 12’s tributes for the year.  That’s the hardest part about the first book’s set-up, emotionally.  These kids walk in knowing that 23 of them will die, no matter what.  That’s what the Hunger Games are, and what they’ve always been.  So even the tributes from the 12 different Districts can’t really rely on one another, since they know they can’t both survive.  They are not players.  They are not contestants.  They are resigned to death walking in the door.  They are, indeed, tributes.

There’s an added element to the way the reaping works that is fairly grim, involve the tesserae each family receives each year.  That’s a government-controlled allotment of grain and oil, and it’s very small, barely enough for one person.  The only way to get an additional tesserae is to put your name in the reaping an extra time, and you can do as many as one per family member for your whole family.  It increases your chances of getting picked, of course, but it also keeps your family alive.  And each year, you put that many more in again, with all the old ones still in there, so someone could have dozens of entries with their name on it in the reaping by the time they finally turn 18.  The name of the Hunger Games is both appropriate and also a blatant insult to all those forced to participate in it.

Each District has its past winners, living in some sort of comfort that is also a captivity, since they have to continue to participate in future Hunger Games as mentors and commentators and on-camera figures.  The one winner living in District 12 is HAYMITCH ABERNATHY, a drunken acerbic figure who is assigned to coach both Katniss and Peeta once they’ve been selected.  Things are only made more complicated when Peeta, who Katniss certainly knows him from their village, confesses during a television interview that he harbors a long-secret love for Katniss.  They are assigned stylists and weapons trainers, and they have to participate in an opening parade, where Katniss makes her first major impression on the TV audiences in a dress that almost appears to be made of fire.  Looking at the way people reacted to Jennifer Lawrence in a red dress on the Oscar carpets this year, I think this sequence is pretty much a slam dunk.

There is a great bad guy in the books, PRESIDENT SNOW, the leader of the Capitol, and what makes it work is that he’s the head of a corrupt system, allowing for many other lower-level bad guys along the way but with him as the human face of everything that’s wrong with Panem.  And he’s not overused in the first book, either.  Collins has a very good sense of structure for a trilogy, and I like that there is a finite story being told here.  And while I like the Potter books, it wasn’t until Rowling was finally free to break loose of some of the rigid repetition that came from the “one book, one school year” structure that I felt like the storytelling really started to kick into high gear.  With these books, each one is fairly different, and each one pushes things forward in a major way.

Ultimately, the larger games that Collins is writing about is the uneasy peace between the Capitol and the Districts, enforced in annual blood, and the 74th Hunger Games turn out to be the birthplace of a revolution.  That’s what President Snow fears most, and that’s why the Games are rigged to try to destroy Katniss and Peeta both from the very beginning.  As soon as they show up on television, their narrative threatens to overwrite everything that the Capitol stages the Games for in the first place.  The point of killing children is to show the Districts that anything they love and value can be taken away from them easily and permanently.  And while Katniss and Peeta are both young adults, mature because of hardship in their lives, there are other tributes from other districts who are just plain kids.

The first book deals only with the 74th annual Games, and the way the rules are changed several times over the course of the Games as a way of playing with audience sympathy and also manipulating the players themselves.  It’s cruel and there are several twists over the course of the book that are designed to hurt the characters and the viewers equally.  That’s one of the best thinks Collins does in the series… she plays with expectation, and she sets up situations where there is no single easy outcome that would satisfy every reader.  There is another boy from the village, GALE HAWTHORNE, who is presented as Katniss’s closest friend, and he has to watch the Games from a distance.  He sees the way the media embraces the Katniss/Peeta love story, and he has no way of knowing if it’s true or not.  Katniss has never really defined her feelings for Gale, so by the time she realizes she cares about his reaction to the on-camera love story, things are already complicated.

I’ve taken a fair degree of heat from fans when I’ve written about why the sexual politics of Twilight make me so uncomfortable, and why it disturbs me that so many women talk about them like they are “romantic.”  I don’t believe any story is just surface or just harmless, and especially not something that plays with archetypes in such unpleasant ways.  With the Hunger Games books, there’s none of that.  Collins writes strong people who are put in terrible positions, people who have to make choices and who have to deal with the results of those choices.  It is to her credit that the evolution of the Katniss/Gale/Peeta triangle over the course of three books is neither the whole point of the story nor a case of one clearly superior outcome from the start.  For a triangle like that to matter, we have to feel like all three people are worthy, and that it’s a hard choice for anyone involved to make.

The second book deals with Katniss wrestling with her value as a symbol of both oppression and revolution, depending on who is presenting the image.  Collins introduces the notion of the Quarter Quell, an every-25-years celebration that consists of a bigger-than-average edition of the Games.  Because it’s a special year and because President Snow is terrified of her, Katniss finds that the rules are set up specifically to press her into competing for a second time, something that just isn’t done.  That decision is what turns her from conflicted figure into dedicated rebel, and the second book twists the structure of the first, wringing new suspense out of what could easily have been a rehash of the original.  Collins never overplays the Games, but she keeps the built-in drama of them immediate throughout.  Anything could happen.  Anyone could die.  Katniss could even have more worth as a dead martyr than a living fighter, and I didn’t believe Collins incapable of making a hard choice like that.  There’s nothing arbitrary about what she does, though.  She writes to theme, and she’s very good at focusing the big ideas into entertainment and not just polemic.

The last book in the series deals with the full-blown revolution between the Districts and the Capitol, and it rewrites the alternate history that had been an accepted part of the first two books.  Big reveals are made.  Big decisions are made.  Collins keeps the human story urgent while telling a full-on war story as well.  It doesn’t feel like the first two books at all, structurally, and that’s an impressive risk to take just as the series was becoming a real commercial entity.  I think they wrap things up in smart ways, and while fans may complain that they don’t get everything they want, there’s no version of the story that would just deliver one happy ending after another.  It’s not that kind of story.  Loss is important in this world.  Pain is a big part of every day for these people.  And when there’s a war, there is plenty of suffering to go around.

Katniss Everdeen is a complicated character, and she makes bad decisions sometimes, but she is always painted as someone who is at heart decent, and who genuinely wants to do the right thing.  The role is a gift for Lawrence, and yet it feels almost pre-destined.  “Winter’s Bone” could not have been a more perfect audition for this film.  She feels like a very real member of that community in that film, and there is a hard adulthood that seems at odd with the soft, young quality of her face.  Lawrence  carries sadness and coiled wariness with her at all times in that film, and it seems like she’ll have to draw on a lot of the same qualities when she plays Katniss.

In finding her, they can now cast Peeta and Gale around her, so they are the right ages, and they can also find a Haymitch who has a rapport with her.  It’s not a huge cast, considering the scope of the story they’re telling, but there are a lot of supporting characters who come and go, and so my guess is there will be a lot of guest appearances, familiar faces in smaller roles, designed to fill the world out without breaking the bank.

This is a big gamble for Lionsgate, but a good one.  They’ve got great source material, a finite story to tell, and they’re treating it like a prestige movie.  They’ve got to pull off both the world-building and the personal story.  This is far more accessible than something like “The Golden Compass,” where I was pretty sure those stories weren’t giant-budget movie stories no matter who you had making them.  These are big mainstream popcorn movies waiting to be made, and you can do a strong adaptation with real integrity while still making something big and splashy and easy to sell.  It is Hollywood, but there is substance to it.  No matter how much flash there is up front, there’s actual meat on this one.

This is a case of one of these series that really deserves the attention and the hype and the expectation, and I look forward to seeing how Lionsgate puts them together.  I hope they move aggressively to keep making the films in a timely manner.  It’s not quite “Potter,” where it’s a race from day one, but when you’re starting with a cast that is playing younger than they already are, there is a very real danger that it could get ridiculous if you wait too long.

Short of revealing every plot twist, that’s pretty much all you need to know to jump into a “Hunger Games” conversation with authority.  You can grumble now along with the hardcore fans about how they need to cast Hugh Laurie for Haymitch, and you can pick a side in the Peeta/Gale debate, knowing full well that either side could be right.  And if all of this sounds good to you, don’t wait for the movies.  Pick up the books by Collins and enjoy her version first.  They’re a quick read, and this is a case where you have no reason to be ashamed to be seen with the books.  There’s nothing guilty about the pleasures they offer, and I hope this is just the start for Collins as a storyteller, and that she’s not done after this one story.

“The Hunger Games” will be in theaters March 23, 2012, so it’s this weekend a year from now, which should keep everyone involved very, very busy for that entire year.