Why the ‘Hunger Games’ Protagonist is no Hero

Hunger Games

If you haven’t seen the latest movie in the ‘Hunger Games’ Trilogy or at least read the books then consider yourself warned for any and all spoilers that may follow. 

The husband and I went and saw Catching Fire yesterday. I really enjoyed it and thought everyone involved did a great job of making the story come to life on the screen. I may have even liked it better than the first movie, but that’s not what this blog is about. See, there are always some discrepancies between how a character is written and how an actor portrays them. It’s kind like how a director can interpret the story completely differently than the author intended. You either accept the changes or you don’t and you move on. Usually the book is better, but in this one case I feel like I have to give the nod to the movie for helping me understand the story’s protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, better.

When I read the books I really enjoyed the story. I suppose I’m a bit of a glutton for dystopian societies. My only qualm was that I didn’t particularly like Katniss. Well no, that’s not quite right. Katniss is a marvelously realistic character. She has simple goals and a strong sense of morals that guide her actions even to her own detriment. She is fiercely loyal, but also pragmatic in the face of death. Here was a girl who overcomes incredible odds and unites a nation to overthrow their oppressive government and somehow I couldn’t bring myself to like her as the hero of the story.

Hero’s are supposed to sacrifice, overcome, and take charge. The hero, even the reluctant one, realizes that they have to do something to fix whatever problem the story has flung them into and they do it with gusto. You cheer for them and suffer alongside them and in the end you are both stronger for having endured the journey. Instead of becoming stronger Katniss felt like she got weaker and more overwhelmed as the story progressed which didn’t mesh with my idea of how a hero should grow.

Katniss has the sacrifice part down as over and over she loses the things she fought so hard to protect. She even manages to overcome a multitude of crippling obstacles that show her to be resourceful and damn lucky. By all rights as the protagonist of the story she should be an amazing hero, all except for the part where she finally steps up and takes charge of her destiny. That is where Katniss Everdeen falls just short of greatness.

While reading I kept rooting for her to finally snap out of her emotional turmoil and step up to take command. There were a few times when I was sure she was going to finally do it, only to have her panic and return to her mostly catatonic detached state. Over and over she runs away to hide when everyone knows that a hero is supposed to get fed up and take the fight to their enemies. She only cares about her loved ones and doesn’t want to take on the responsibility that comes with being the figurehead of the rebellion. It’s easy to see why those around her get frustrated when they have to risk so much for her sake and she just glares at them suspiciously.

By the end of the books I felt a bit cheated. I’d been promised a kick-ass female protagonist, instead I had a young girl who would have been far happier hiding out in the forest while everyone else took care of the evil regime. What the hell, Hunger Games? Look at that promo photo up top, that is what I signed up for, not a chick suffering from PTSD and wants to run away from the situation every chance she gets.


Now, I get that I am in the minority here. When I’d complained about the books to friends in the past they always pointed out that my issues with Katniss were unfounded. Her behavior was completely realistic given the circumstances. She had only ever wanted to protect the people she cared about. She made no secret of this fact. Not once did she honestly declare that her intent was to free the districts from the oppression of the capital. She only did any of it to try to protect her loved ones and while she felt immensely sorry for those caught in the crossfire, she’d do it all again if she thought it would save her family.

While they patiently explained all this I would nod and say I understood all that, but as soon as they had finished I’d ask why Katniss never just got so angry about all the suffering that she was forced to take action. Instead of accepting what she has been called upon to do she tries to avoid any responsibility and just kinda hopes it will all go away. Even in the third book when she finally goes to the capital she constantly drives home the point that she fully expects to die and lose everything, but her own life has so little meaning for her that she can’t be bothered to want to fight for it.

No Katniss, No! Do not go quietly into the night. That isn’t what a hero does. Hero’s might sacrifice themselves, but only when it will mean something, not just so they don’t have to deal with living in a constant state of terror. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of such a capable protagonist who didn’t seem the least bit inclined to save the day. It wasn’t like she was some weak, fragile thing before any of this. Katniss was physically and emotionally hardened by her life in District 12. This girl had already overcome so much with her father’s death and her mother’s breakdown. She had fought so long and hard to keep her family alive that I just couldn’t come to terms with that level of protection and devotion not being extended to the rest of Panem. Then I saw the second movie.

Somehow not having to rely on Katniss as narrator I suddenly began to pick up on things I didn’t notice while reading the books. Katniss was never a hero as I’d initially thought. She was the protagonist, sure, but she wasn’t intended to be the one who single-handedly took on the evil president. She was just a casualty of the already brewing rebellion. A young girl who did her best to protect those she cared about only to have them put in peril again and again. No matter how hard she tried to just get by in the horrible world she been born into she just kept getting forced into worse situations and losing or isolating all that she held dear.

Meanwhile, Katniss is left in the dark about the greater purpose behind her actions. The poor kid has no idea who’s on her side because everyone is so busy manipulating her for their own agenda that they can’t be bothered to clue her in. She was a moral character who understood that she had to do immoral things to succeed. While most people would shrug this off as being necessary Katniss was haunted by her actions. Even when saving those she sought to protect she hated having to take lives and cause suffering.

Typically, at some point the hero realizes that they have to be the one to do whatever it is that must be done to save their world. Katniss never bought into the hype that she was the chosen one. She didn’t believe she was good enough to be a hero so while she would occasionally pretend to be one for the cameras, in her heart she always knew better. She was willing to sacrifice, willing to die, but not able to actually be the hero the country thought she was and she recognized this. All this time I’d been disappointed in Katniss when in reality the fault was my own. I’d bought into the hype.

I wanted her to be brave and fierce and all the things I thought she should be, but in the end she could only be herself. She wasn’t what I expected of a hero because she wasn’t a one dimensional shell that I could hang all my hope upon. She was a person who just wanted to survive and who, if she couldn’t do that, just wanted her loved ones to be safe. She never had any greater aspirations because she was too busy enduring all the hardships people kept saddling her with. She never got to want anything for herself because she had already been selected to be what the rebellion needed. She had no choice in the matter, but somehow she managed to survive again and again.


So no, Katniss Everdeen is no hero, but she is still an amazing protagonist whom I’m glad to have met. She taught me that female protagonists don’t have to be better than everyone else to still make an impact. They can be flawed, and occasionally selfish, and most importantly they are allowed to be scared. The movie allowed me to get outside of Katniss’ muddled thoughts and fears and really see what was going on. Only then did I realize that my insistence on Katniss being the type of hero I expected her to be put me in the same camp as the leaders of the rebellion who took a scared girl and demanded she be willing to give all of herself to further their cause. It wasn’t fair of them to ask that of her, to force that upon her and it isn’t fair of me to judge her for not living up to those standards.

Something else I took away from the movie, it’s okay not to be a hero. There is no shame in just wanting to protect your family and survive. It’s okay for a protagonist to just be a person and not the embodiment of all that is good in their world. Not everyone gets to be the strongest and toughest mofo out there, but they still deserve to have their stories told. Maybe it’s time for a new type of hero.


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