Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games
Katniss Everdeen is a hero. It seems too obvious to mention. So successful has this character been in book and film form, so universal and ubiquitous has her effect been, that this blog might seem redundant. But leaving aside her personal influence on me – I’m a big fan, the kind of fan who collects dolls and first editions – she’s really a much more complex character than many “strong female” archetypes. Yes, she is strong and smart and gutsy but it is the root nature of that heroism that is worthy of note.
For a trilogy about a revolution, Katniss begins with no interest in starting one. That was never her intention. She was angry about lots of things, but the focus of that rage lay elsewhere. She was angry with her mother’s mental collapse, rather than explicitly angry at the system that allowed her father’s death. She has no love for the Hunger Games, but her only wish is to run away from it.
All Katniss wants to do is protect her sister, her de facto child. She doesn’t volunteer as Tribute with a view to winning or surviving. She believes that she is ending her life to save Prim’s. She isn’t aware of the power of her single-mindedness, or that her skill with the bow is a potential game-changer. The Tributes from District 12 die every single year – with one exception in 74 years, long before Katniss was born. Not for nothing is Haymitch an alcoholic mess. He’s helped send forty-six children to their deaths.
It isn’t that she doesn’t have a rebellious streak. The arrow aimed at the judges during training is a huge overreaction to being ignored. It isn’t a piece of calculation to up her score, although that is its effect. She snaps, as she does outside the hospital in District 8 before delivering a plot defining speech. But this anger is swiftly channelled into a will to survive. To get back to Prim.
She doesn’t begin to hate the Capitol, I mean really loathe its raison d’etre, until Rue is killed. Again, it’s her instinct to nurture – a traditionally “feminine” trait – that leads her to risk a loss. Rue is a surrogate for Prim and the Tribute’s murder is her sister’s death writ large. The funeral flowers are a direct act of rebellion, a funeral rite that interrupts the process of the games – her body cannot be collected while Katniss is there. This isn’t to bring down the Capitol, it’s to reassert some humanity. That, of course, is what makes it so dangerous. It’s interesting that the film chooses that moment to show a riot in District 11, the moment that she herself has crossed the Rubicon and become a threat.
The very second that she believes that both she and Peter can be saved she seeks him out, even though that makes her more vulnerable. She risks death again to get his medicine. Even the final moment with the nightlock, the moment that is the beginning of the end of Snow and the Capitol, does not come from a place of rebellion. She is not willing to kill, or have Peter die for her and he will not do the killing. The trick with the berries is just a way of saving both of them. The act of defiance that it represents is incidental.
When she meets the revolution – District 13 and its conspirators – she is suspicious from the off. For a start, it failed to protect all those she cared for. She suspects that, like every rebellion since the dawn of man, it will end in bloodshed and she’s right.
She only agrees to become the Mockingjay in return for promises of safety and rescue for those same people…and her sister’s cat.
The horrible irony by the end is that despite beginning the journey to save her sister, Prim dies as a result of rebel action. It isn’t that the Capitol – the Nazis or the Empire or whoever – shouldn’t be resisted, it’s just that warfare without compassion is temptingly effective and its cost cannot be calculated. Prioritising the ends, no matter the means, just proves President Snow right. This is a reality about conflict that is as true of World War Two as it is of the rebellion against the Capitol.
Katniss is a hero that changes her world because she cares, because she has an instinct to nurture. The skill with the bow, the determination, the righteous anger – attributes that could be described as male or masculine – are secondary. It is compassion that is the root of everything she does. It is why she is powerful.
Her final act – killing Coin – comes from that same place. She gives everything up at that moment, she can expect nothing but death. But there will be no more Hunger Games. The children of Panem, all of them, will be safe. It is the same deal that she made at the very start.