(I am going to try to do this without spoiling anything for those who have not read the book or seen the movie! I will not reveal the end!)
I delayed seeing this movie as long as possible. When it first came out, I found the very idea of kids watching kids kill each other repulsive. However, I read a few reviews that said the book had some excellent political overtones, and that the book was food for thought. So I put the book on reserve at the library.
First I read the book and found it to be a very good read, with no objectionable content for my teenage daughters. The book, the first in a trilogy, is itself divided into three parts. Part I , “The Tributes”, gives the history of 16-year-old Katniss, her family, town, and the games in general; Gale, her best friend, an older boy with whom she has hunted for years; and Peeta, the bakers’ son, who will be selected as the other tribute. Part II, “The Games”, is the suspenseful story of the games. Part III, “The Victor”, contains the climax and conclusion.
I passed the book along to my 14-year-old, who stayed up all night reading it and begged me to take her to the movie, which was still playing in some local theatres. I figured the movie would be comparable to one of the classic science fiction movies my husband and I have enjoyed, such as “Logan’s Run”. I asked my 13-year-old to read Part I as a requirement to go. I felt that Part I gave enough background for her to understand where the main characters were coming from and the political purposes of the games. Part II and III were largely composed of action which would be played out in the movie; she could catch up on Katniss’ thoughts later if she wished.
Briefly, the background story from Part I is…
Basically, America has been transformed into 12 districts, ruled by the Capitol. There had been an uprising, which was squelched by the Capitol, followed by a period of peace. To keep all the districts in their place and remind them never to try to revel again, every year each district must send 2 tributes, a boy and a girl ages 12 to 18 to fight to the death. The children are selected via a Reaping. One victor emerges, bringing showers of gifts and wealth to the family and district.
Katniss is from District 12, which is very poor. She and Gale hunt outside the district borders, which is illegal, but they are not punished because the town officials like to buy their meat and fruit on the black market. They dream of running away, knowing they can fend for themselves, but know they cannot because their families depend upon them for survival. Katniss’ mother was mentally incapacitated when her father died, and she has been taking care of her 12-year-old sister Primrose for years.
The unfairness of poverty is shown by how it related to the odds of being selected. For extra food for the family, an eligible adolescent can put his or her name into the drawing more than once; Katniss and Gale often have had to do this. Gale’s name is in the drawing 42 times this year. Primrose, whose name was only in once, is chosen, and Katniss volunteers in her place. Peeta is the boy who is chosen.
Peeta has been in love with Katniss since they were children – but she does not know this until much later. She knows that once when she was very young and her family was starving he threw her a loaf of bread; she never forgot this and felt indebted to him. She doesn’t know his true feelings for her and distrusts him, knowing they may have to kill each other in the end.
I was not disappointed by the movie. I was glad I had read it in advance, partly because I knew what Katniss was thinking from the book, and her thoughts were not narrated in the movie, but also because I knew when to avert my eyes, because I knew when the deaths and injuries would occur. My daughters laughed at me, watching the scenes wide-eyed. Watching sideways, I could see not too much was shown. (“No gratuitous violence”, one review had promised.)
I was disappointed, however, that the movie changed the origin of the Mockingjay pin. In the movie, Katniss finds it on the black market. In the book, it was given to her as a gift from the mayor’s daughter, a rich girl with little chance of being selected as tribute. The Mockingjay, an accidental mutation left over from experiments done by the government, was significant as a symbol of the government’s totalitarianism.
The movie added in outside perspectives that I had wondered about during the book, but which could not be revealed as Katniss was narrating from her singular point of view. Katniss’ mother and sister were shown watching her on-screen. So was Gale, as she feigned romantic feelings for Peeta and kissed him in the cave. Haymitch, their mentor, was shown talking it up with the sponsors to get the much-needed gifts of medicine sent to them, and even persuading the game makers that they should allow Katniss and Peeta to continue on because the audience would love the romantic angle.
A poignant scene in the book was the death of Rue, the 12-year-old girl from District 11 who reminds Katniss of her little sister. The two girls had temporarily teamed up, and Katniss found Rue trapped in a net. She didn’t get to her on time; she was pierced by a spear. In the book, Katniss shoots Rue’s killer partly out of revenge, partly out of self defense, and later realizes that was her first intentional kill. In the movie, she gets Rue out of the net and then sees her attacker; she shoots defending Rue, but the spear still pierces Rue. She holds Rue in her arms as she dies, singing her a lullaby she remembers her father singing.
In the book it had also been revealed that she did not like to sing, because it reminded her of her father, who used to sing to the mockingjays, and who had died in a mining accident. Gale’s father had died in the same accident. The movie had opened with her singing this same lullaby to her little sister, which was lovely for the effect of her later singing to Rue as if it was her little sister, but this really would not have happened because she did not like to sing. She does it for Rue, however, because she is the first real human contact she has had since the games began.
In the book, Katniss remembers what Peeta had said about hoping he could do something that made a difference in how people thought about the games. She weaves flowers around Rue’s hair, knowing that they will have to show this on television. She honors the girl, and for this she is thanked doubly by District 11: first, by sending her a piece of bread shaped in the symbol of their district, and second, by the boy from District 11 later sparing her life in appreciation.
In the movie, Katniss is shown picking the flowers and placing them around Rue. Then she puts up a hand sign, one that had been shown by her people after she volunteered as tribute, rather than giving the expected applause. It seems to be a sign of solemn respect, one that recognizes that something is wrong with the way things are being done here. The movie cuts away to a scene of the people of District 11 watching her, giving the sign back, and then starting an open rebellion. This (I believe) is the foreshadowing of what will happen in the next installment. General Snow is pondering what to do with her, and this is when Haymitch pulls strings to persuade him to let her live.
I won’t go into how the others died. It comes down to Katniss and Peeta in the end. I also won’t reveal what happens here, but there is emotional deception which is necessary for survival, and the way it ends is not quite satisfactory to the Game Makers. Katniss is warned that they will have it in for her. There is much to look forward to in the next installment, “Catching Fire”, which I am going to put on reserve next.
Just a bit about the name “Catching Fire”. Katniss’ stylist, wanting to ensure she is never forgotten, designs outfits for her and Peeta that spurt out fire. He says he wants everyone to remember Katniss as “the girl who was on fire”. During the games, when Katniss has run far toward the edge of the arena, the game makers send fire balls to chase her back near the others. I can see “Catching Fire” as a book about rebellion she has incited, as well as her being pursued by the government.
I do think this book and the movie, seen together with your teen, can be an excellent starting point for conversations about poverty, government, and respect for life. I would advise reading it ahead of time so you know exactly what to expect. Only you know if your child is ready for it.