Part Thoreau, Part Princess
How The Hunger Games combines the wilderness survival tale with the Cinderella story—and subverts them both.
The Hunger Games challenges familiar coming-of-age tropes
Murray Close/Lions Gate Entertainment.
See all of Slate’s coverage of The Hunger Games here.
Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games became a big hit in part by being many things to many people. Some fans take it as an allegory of high school, others as a critique of modern celebrity, and others still as a love story, since the tough capable heroine Katniss must ultimately choose between two young men. The novel and its sequels also play a particularly neat trick with two archetypal storylines which, before these books, seemed incompatible: They are at once a wilderness story—a narrative of rough nature and plucky survival—and a Cinderella story, in which a girl who never dressed up before becomes an object of romantic fantasy for the projections of fascinated adults.
If you’ve spent the last year reading nothing but Tolstoy and Musil, you may not know that The Hunger Games and its two sequels take place in a future country called Panem, a totalitarian regime with a prosperous, decadent Capitol and 12 districts over which the Capitol rules. Each year the Capitol displays its power and cruelty in a televised spectacle called the Hunger Games: Two teens from each district, most selected by drawing lots, compete in a specially designed arena until only one teen remains alive. The books follow Katniss Everdeen, a poor girl from an impoverished coal-mining district, after she volunteers to take part in the Hunger Games in order to save her sister. The games themselves, and the lead-up to them, occupy the first book.
The Hunger Games is part of a long tradition of fiction and nonfiction in which young people discover themselves by surviving on their own—learning what’s safe to eat, how to find shelter, how to avoid mortal danger. Thoreau’s Walden and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe stand behind such stories, which in modern times include Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. In most of these stories, survival is an indicator of moral virtue: Children and teens who make do in the woods also learn about their true selves. These children and teens are usually boys, or else tomboys; O’Dell’s Katana, who makes her own arrows, violates tribal rules in order to do so.
In contrast to such tales is the Cinderella story, which portrays a girl’s emergence into womanhood by dressing up and becoming visibly beautiful, in what the cultural critic Ilana Nash calls a “chrysalis moment.” Fairy tales offer many such stories; novels and films about tomboys—think Gidget or Pretty in Pink—offer more. Such stories bring girls into society, rather than removing young people from it; they can be stories about moral peril, as well as stories about the right way to grow up.
The Hunger Games surely belongs to the genre of stories about kids who learn to survive in the wild. Almost the first thing we learn about Katniss is that she’s a crack shot with a bow; her wilderness skills let her feed herself and her family. Gale, Katniss’s hunting and scavenging companion, proposes that the two of them “Run off. Live in the woods. You and I, we could make it.”