There’s only one way to describe The Hunger Games series: explosive. Never, in my 19 years, have I read books so thrilling, fast-paced and addictive. There are bone-chilling horrors, swoon-worthy love interests and immersive action. To this day, I have yet to read a sequel better than “Catching Fire” (some might argue that “The Hunger Games” was simply the set-up for the second book, and I would agree). It’s genuinely ridiculous how enthralling the series is. The Hunger Games books are my guilty pleasure … but the more I read them, the more I realize they critique the very idea of a “guilty pleasure.”
I can talk about The Hunger Games for hours. In fact, I did over winter break. Embarrassingly, I fell back into my middle-school passion — I reread the books and bothered my older brother and a good friend into rewatching the movies with me. They nodded along awkwardly, trying to pay attention to the screen while I gave them a steady stream of commentary filled with movie trivia and Reddit fan theories. (I’m sorry, Ashvin and Julia.)
All of this is to say, I (and many others) find the series binge-worthy. The sheer brutality of the story alone makes it impossible to stop reading. The extremely popular yet skeptically viewed series details the duration and aftermath of the 74th annual televised Hunger Games, where children from the 12 impoverished Districts are forced to murder each other for the Capitol’s entertainment.
When the series first gained popularity, I remember quizzes titled “What Hunger Games District Are You From?” would pop up online, with questions like “Do you like to swim?” or “Are you popular?” that, when answered, placed readers in districts based on their supposed personalities. While fun at the time, these quizzes are the antithesis of The Hunger Games. The characters in the series don’t get to choose their education, career or life — they don’t get the luxury of deciding their fate. Most readers of The Hunger Games, despite identifying emotionally with Katniss Everdeen’s story, cannot relate to the struggles of the Districts.
It’s easy to hate the Capitol, the prosperous governing city that puts on the Games. Within the story, it’s clear the Capitol is the enemy. The Capitol (including the Gamemakers and government) watches the brutal Games indifferently while choosing tributes to support, viewing them as no more human than a beloved TV show character or player in a video game. They binge-watch the Hunger Games like it’s lowbrow entertainment — their “connections” to the tributes are trivial.
Upon rereading the series, it’s apparent that we, the readers, are the Capitol. We can’t look away from the story because its descriptions of love and suffering entrance us. We watch with nervousness and anticipation, rooting for our favorite characters to win, mesmerized by the danger and action. We marvel at the descriptions of rich districts while bristling with discomfort and surface-level sympathy when reading about the abject poverty Katniss, our protagonist, experiences. We romanticize their stories, ignoring the barely included details of genuine hardship. Our guilty pleasure is consuming their pain.
The Capitol’s adoration of Katniss’s romantic relationships can easily be compared to our society’s obsession with the love triangle between Katniss Everdeen, Peeta Mellark and Gale Hawthorne (Peeta forever!). The author, Suzanne Collins, has stated in interviews that the romance is supposed to be indicative of Katniss’s worldview: Peeta symbolizes hope and diplomacy, and Gale represents violent and efficient solutions.
However, the often quoted “The Death of the Author” piece by Roland Barthes comes to mind — truly, it is the critic’s job to interpret a work of art. Therefore, if someone views The Hunger Games as a tale of romance, that is their right as a critic, and it’s a valid interpretation. People exercise their right to do this often — The Hunger Games is well known in pop culture for its love triangle (and resultant society-wide debates about whether Peeta or Gale is a better romantic suitor for Katniss).
Undoubtedly, the hype around the Peeta vs. Gale love triangle is a large part of what generated interest in the series; the movies, in particular, emphasize “will-they-won’t-they” relationship dynamics. The hype around the love triangle is also why many don’t take the series seriously — because the story involves romance, and the audience of the books is mainly young teens, especially girls, the series is often dismissed as “just YA” or “cringey” and “for kids.”
Often, media marketed specifically toward teen girls is considered substanceless, vain or unimportant. Many people consider “chick flicks” or YA romance novels their “guilty pleasure” — something to be ashamed of, or at least embarrassed by. Society takes glee in ridiculing young girls for liking anything, especially anything remotely feminine. As I got to high school, I stopped talking about The Hunger Games. “Yeah, it’s so boring,” I would say. “Katniss is so basic.”
This brings up an interesting point: How did The Hunger Games, in all its “guilty pleasure” glory, affect the not-like-the-other-girls phenomenon? Katniss Everdeen, a teen brought up with extreme trauma who found it difficult to connect to others, especially girls, became the unintentional face of the “I’m not like other girls” movement in the early 2010s. As young tweens, we projected effortlessness, desirability and physical agility onto our reading of Katniss — she was a “cool girl.” Everyone wanted to be like Katniss. However, when the Hunger Games reached its peak popularity, suddenly all of us were emulating Katniss, and, consequently, “other girls.” If everyone is an “other girl,” no one is.
Thus, it felt necessary to dump our Katniss Everdeen personas and move on. Consuming The Hunger Games became a guilty pleasure — it couldn’t be enjoyed out in the open. We used the pretense of Katniss Everdeen to seem different, and once we realized everyone else did the same, we abandoned her, along with the rest of our middle school obsessions.
The Hunger Games ridicules how our society is desperate to bottle up and commodify suffering and romance. Often, we describe crime shows or romance novels or reality TV as our “guilty pleasures,” the lowbrow art we enjoy consuming. Companies pump out non-exhaustive supplies of content, desperate to appeal to our deep-seated desires to see characters experience a quota of pain, followed by a happy ending. We extract just the right amounts of love and struggle from real stories to create fictional accounts, then become convinced that we personally know a popular celebrity or character.
Our guilty pleasures are forms of escapism. Don’t get me wrong — immersing yourself in “lowbrow” art isn’t a bad thing. However, when we romanticize the lives of real people to escape our own reality, things become dangerous. We project unrealistic ideals onto real people, whose livelihoods depend on appealing to their fictional image. Celebrities struggle to keep up, and it’s clear in celebrity culture today. When celebrities, eager to commodify their lives, interact with social media, every action becomes a carefully scrutinized performance. This phenomenon places great pressure and anxiety upon many celebrities, who must make their imperfect lives seemingly perfect, and public too.
Katniss and her family felt this way in the Hunger Games, just as many celebrities do today — just think about the publicized, much-ridiculed breakdowns of Britney Spears in 2007 that were indicative of how much trauma the star was going through. Additionally, The Hunger Games has many eerie parallels to influencer culture, despite being published in 2008 (i.e. the mention of “sponsors” who provide already rich tributes with supplies for sustenance, which could be easily compared to the sponsorships that many social media influencers use to pay their bills today).
Rereading The Hunger Games blows my mind. My best friend encouraged me to reread the books right before winter break started. Now, we affectionately refer to the author Suzanne Collins as “Suzie,” after spending multiple weeks dissecting the genius of her work during our daily calls.
Collins’s other writings, such as the Gregor the Overlander series, as well as multiple nostalgic cartoons, notably the beloved Oswald the Octopus series, shine bright. The paradoxicality of Collins’s work is a pleasure to read. As my beloved writing GSI Connor Greer, who I annoyed into reading the first book, said: “It’s impressive that Collins manages to write something that is part of and makes fun of the algorithm at the same time.” Agreed, Connor.
The Hunger Games is my guilty pleasure, and I’m not sorry for it. As humans, we’re obsessed with stories of love and pain, as well as escapist fantasies. Just remember: When you escape into your guilty pleasures, you’re never as far from the real world as you think.
Daily Arts Writer Meera Kumar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.