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Imagine a dark world in which most of North America is destroyed and what remains is ruled by a totalitarian regime that represses any urge toward uprising by pitting children to fight against each other to the death. That is the premise of Suzanne Collin’s best-selling novel-turned-film, The Hunger Games, the first of a trilogy. Both the novel and the film have been highly popular among middle- and high-school students, as the plot delves into the world of tyranny and the mind of a heroine who is motivated by her survival instinct and her desire to help those in need, even at her own peril.
Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has grown accustomed to oppression in District 12 of Panem, the post-apocalyptic remains of North America. Big Brother, which governs from the Capitol, has ensured that the people in the 12 districts that comprise Panem have just enough resources to survive, but no more than that, forcing Katniss to develop her own resourcefulness. Left without a father, who perished in a mine explosion, Katniss must take charge of her family, caring for both her mother and younger sister, as her mother retreats into her own world of misery, scarcely surfacing long enough to care for her children.
The history of Panem is a frightening one. What was once North America has succumbed to a number of disasters – ranging from droughts and storms to fires and brutal, unending wars – leaving in its wake just 13 districts, ruled by a “shining Capitol,” which was to assure peace and prosperity for its people. When it became clear that the Capitol was not fulfilling its utopian promises, however, the people in the districts rose up. All 13 districts were defeated, and one was obliterated altogether.
As punishment for the so-called “Dark Days” – the days of the uprising – the regime imposes the Hunger Games on the people of the remaining 12 districts through the Treaty of Treason. Once a year, each district is forced to provide one girl and one boy, between the ages of 12 and 18, picked at random. These young people, called the "Tributes," are imprisoned in an outdoor arena where they are to fight each other to the death, using weapons and the land’s resources. The last Tribute left standing is the victor, and the district from which that Tribute comes is rewarded the following year with more resources than are typically rationed by the regime.
Both the novel and the film begin with the "Day of Reaping," a term coined for the day of the year in which the Tributes are picked. Katniss is fairly certain that her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields), whom Katniss adores more than anyone else, is safe from being selected, as she is just 12 and therefore her name has appeared in the selection jar only once. The number of times a child’s name appears in the jar depends on one’s age, and whether or not they are willing to enter their names more than once for increased rations. As protective as Katniss is of her sister, she would never permit her to enter her name additional times for more rations. Katniss has fully accepted the heavy burden of feeding her family, and dares not place that weight on her sister or her fragile mother.
When, despite the odds, Prim is chosen, Katniss courageously makes the sacrifice and takes her sister’s place as Tribute.
As if the realization that her life will likely end in a brutal death within the next few days was not difficult enough, Katniss is disconcerted to learn that her fellow Tribute from District 12 is none other than Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a boy with whom Katniss has had a brief but complicated history. It will be difficult for Katniss to set that aside and view Peeta as just another obstacle to be conquered in order to win the Hunger Games and return home to her family.
Katniss, though fully capable and impressive in her warrior-like ability to survive, must compete against some worthy contenders. And in some cases, she must decide whether her need to survive is enough to overcome her nurturing nature which seems to have no place in the Hunger Games.
Will Katniss be the victor and bring pride, as well as increased resources, to the people of District 12? That’s for the readers and moviegoers to know, but for those on the fence, it’s worth noting that both the novel and the film are well worth the time to find out.
Much of the excitement of Hunger Games rests in the games themselves, which comprise the second half of both novel and film. It is here where one facet of Katniss’ heroism is clear. She evolves into a virtual warrior, with remarkable agility and resourcefulness, as well as prowess with bow and arrow.