A Tribute to The Hunger Games
By Julia Bifulco
On my first day of grade seven, I made my way to my high school’s library and tried to check out Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. A girl in my English class said it was her favourite book and I was in the market for a new favourite of my own. The librarian informed me that the library’s computer system was not yet ready for students to borrow books from, but she let me take the book out anyway. She said I looked like I could be trusted to bring it back. Thus was born the obsession that absolutely consumed my teenage years: I have not been able to get enough of The Hunger Games since the age of twelve.
I ate up the trilogy within a matter of weeks, but my infatuation was insatiable. Luckily enough, the year was 2013, and the film adaptation of the second novel, Catching Fire, was set to be released in just a few months. I pestered my father until he finally downloaded the first film from the Internet for me to watch. Seeing Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss Everdeen absolutely floored me. I gathered my friends for the first showing of Catching Fire, which was being shown at ten on a Thursday night; I told everyone at school that I was going to the ‘midnight premiere,’ which was a declaration that I believed made me seem just as cool and rebellious as Katniss was. That night, I wore my hair in a low braid down my right shoulder, desperately trying to embody my heroine.
I continued to braid my hair daily for almost two years, which was pretty harmless, especially for a young girl trying to tame the mess of curls on her head for the first time. But I adopted being a fan of The Hunger Games as a personality trait, forcing everyone around me to endure hours of meaningless facts about the novels or the production of the films. My parents got the worst of it, and the number of times they thought it necessary to explain to me that Katniss was, in fact, “not a real person” is laughable. Understandably, to them, it seemed like I had formed an unhealthy connection with a book that I would never grow out of. To me, however, Katniss was more than a figment of Suzanne Collins’ imagination. She represented everything I wanted to be.
I acknowledge that Katniss, like all good literary characters, is a complex person with her own share of flaws, but as an insecure twelve-year-old (are any pre-teens secure in the first place, though?), I idolized her. She was confident in ways I could never imagine being. She was strong and driven, constantly forcing herself to face difficult situations with perseverance. I was unable to find confidence in myself, but if I lived my life with the shielding belief that I was embodying Katniss Everdeen, somehow, that all went away.
Instead of letting others get to know me organically, I created a persona as the ‘Hunger Games Girl’ in my grade (and eventually, this expanded to the ‘Book Girl,’ a title that I likely hold to this day). By what felt like some cosmic turn of luck, we studied Collins’s novel in my grade eight English class, and I was over the moon. I corrected the teacher countless times for getting minor facts wrong, (seriously, who pronounces “Cinna” as “sen-nuh” anyway?) which did nothing but annoy my classmates. One assignment asked us to write and perform an in-character monologue, and although every fibre of my being wanted to present myself to the rest of the world as Katniss, I knew that she would be the most popular option, and instead chose to portray President Snow, because I knew nobody else would. Another project was to create a travel brochure for a location in Panem, and I selected the Second Quarter Quell arena (where Haymitch was crowned victor) because I knew it was only described for about a page and a half in Catching Fire, and none of my classmates would ever think of choosing it. I was obsessed with letting everyone know that even if they enjoyed the book we were reading, nobody liked it as much as I did. Nobody else had such a deeply personal bond with Katniss. She was mine and I was not inclined to share. At the end of the year, my teacher, in an attempt to convince us to read for pleasure outside of the classroom (I was not the target audience for this lecture), argued that literature allowed readers to travel. She concluded with: “for example, none of you have ever been to Panem—well, maybe except for Julia.”
I was incredibly proud of this. I acknowledged that I was becoming nearly intolerable to those around me, but I did not care. As long as I believed I was acting the way I thought Katniss would, nothing could ever come close to hurting me. On my birthday, my friends somehow convinced my entire math class to sing to me, and they sang the words “happy birthday, dear Katniss.” I was not ever a fan of the spotlight, and I do not know whether the intention was to make fun of me, but I relished in it anyway. I have never felt safer than I did when I let myself live life as Katniss Everdeen.
As time went on, as aforementioned, I simply became the ‘Book Girl,’ as instead of incessantly talking about The Hunger Games, I broadened my horizons to include various Young Adult series. (Shoutout to you, Cassandra Clare!) I then learned what the word “escapism” meant, and my actions began to make sense to me. Art is often used as an easily-accessible hiding place from reality, and that is exactly what The Hunger Games was for me. After leaving elementary school, where I spent my years anxiously basing my self-worth on academic validation, I was overwhelmed by the amount of other overachievers that I met in my new school. Instead of coming to terms with my inability (and, honestly, lack of energy, and therefore desire) to continue to be the ‘Smart Girl,’ I hid behind this incredibly brave and heroic character. Katniss’s personality had conveniently already been designed for me; all I had to do was pull it on like a safety blanket (or tie my hair in a safety braid).
I read the trilogy maybe four or five times in its entirety during my high school years, which is not actually that many times given that it was my absolute favourite, but again, I was very busy reading every other YA series under the sun. When I began CEGEP, where I studied Literature, (surprise!) I was faced with major déja vu. I was once again asked to name my favourite book, and just before I could gush about how dear mine was to me, my professor said, “And do not name something like Harry Potter or any books about a girl with a bow and arrow.” Needless to say, I was crushed, and in that moment forced myself to grow up. I had long since stopped needing to hide behind Katniss’s confidence—having found my own—and this moment let me truly acknowledge that I could finally put her on the bottom shelf of my bookcase.
In May of 2020, Suzanne Collins released a prequel novel to The Hunger Games entitled The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. I purchased it online during a quarantine-driven book-buying frenzy and it arrived that June. (along with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice—I was really trying to maintain the ‘Adult Literature Student’ title that I had given myself) but I was in no rush to read it. I joked to a friend that I was my twelve-year-old self again because of the rate at which I was devouring books, unable to go a few hours without reading because I was so upset by the outside world that I once again felt the need to escape to fictional ones. My seemingly-harmless comment became less of a joke and more of a reality: I was once more reverting to my escapist tendencies.
It was only when I was lying in bed one night that I felt an overwhelming urge to reenter Collins’s world: I put my earbuds in and played “The Hanging Tree” on loop. I did this for a while and then watched the trailers for all four of the film adaptations, which ended in a fit of tears that seemed to sneak up on me. My connection to Katniss Everdeen, apparently, had never left me. The next morning, I grabbed my copy of The Hunger Games from 2013 (which still smelled the same) off of the bottom shelf of my bookcase and began to read obsessively. I finished the series (including the prequel) in two days, and then turned to the films once again. I do not remember the last time I had ventured to Panem, but this trip was just as memorable as the first one. I felt like I was being greeted by an old friend, but I was suddenly noticing so many new things about her: everything I had innocently neglected for the past seven years. I cannot give an honest review of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, because despite my growth as a reader, I am forever biased when it comes to the world of The Hunger Games. Maybe the book is horrible—maybe Collins never should have written it! It is very likely that the novel is a cash-grab. But I do not care. All I know is that it allowed me to delve further into the world of my beloved Katniss. One thing is certain: I have matured time and again as a book lover, and this is proven by my immediate understanding of the reference to William Wordsworth’s “Lucy Gray” in the novel. (Which I was more than proud of, thank you very much.)
For context, “The Hanging Tree” is playing as I write this. I do not know what the future holds for me and Katniss. I think the next step is for me to purchase a Mockingjay pin from Etsy, because as much memorabilia as I collected, I never found one in stores (I did not have a credit card in 2013, so my options were limited). I actively choose to ignore the fact that, at twenty years old, I am far older than Katniss is in the novels; the consideration of this fact for longer than approximately six seconds will undoubtedly send me spiralling into an age-related crisis. Regardless, I cannot express how grateful I am to Suzanne Collins for creating Katniss. She is a constant secure presence in my life that is never lacking but always welcome, nonetheless. There is nothing I would like more in the world than to be able to thank Katniss herself, but I suppose I cannot, because like my parents always said: she is fictional. Regardless, I will forever credit my teenage development, as well as many reasons that I am the woman that I am today, to Katniss. For now, though, maybe I should revisit the braid. It was a solid hair-style.