Why Don’t We Talk More About ‘The Hunger Games” Unusual Romance Plot?

Spoiler alert: this post discusses plot points of all three Hunger Games novels.

People don’t usually describe The Hunger Games as romance books, but they are. Though the focus on war and dystopia and violence occlude the view, at the center is the drama of Katniss and her fellow tribute, Peeta Mellark. At the outset, Katniss is in love with someone else; by the end of the trilogy she’s realized that he is the only person she can be with. Peeta has the elements of the standard romance-novel fantasy-hero: he is handsome, and he is (largely) steadfast. But most importantly for Katniss, he’s the only person who knows what she’s gone through. That’s really why she retreats with him from the turning world into a fortress of domesticity in their ruined former district.

katniss
Art by kimpertinence, via mockingjay.net

I keep wondering why this is storyline remains so neglected in the films. In both of them — yes, I’ve now seen the second one — Peeta’s role is quite downplayed. Poor Josh Hutcherson, who was surely hoping for breakout stardom, has approximately five to ten lines per picture so far, most of them variations on, “I love you, Katniss.” His face is mostly arranged in sad longing, which might be about Katniss and might be more like, “Damn, am I getting screwed in this franchise.” And now, journalists are making fun of his height.

I’m not saying that I think the problem is the casting, though. I’m saying that whoever is writing these scripts is missing that there’s an emotional weight to the love story in Suzanne Collins’ otherwise sometimes quite clumsy books. I think, for example, of the moment in the first one when Katniss has just seen Peeta for the first time after exiting the arena, going onstage where she knows she has to perform the love story that’s going to save their families from persecution by President Snow:

Then there’s Peeta just a few yards away. He looks so clean and healthy and beautiful, I can hardly recognize him. But his smile is the same whether in mud or in the Capitol and when I see it, I take about three steps and fling myself into his arms. He staggers back, almost losing his balance, and that’s when I realize the slim, metal contraption in his hand is some kind of cane. He rights himself and we just cling to each other while the audience goes insane. He’s kissing me and all the time I’m thinking, Do you know? Do you know how much danger we’re in?

The ambivalence of this always struck me as interesting: is she flinging herself at him for the performance or because she can’t help herself? Throughout the books it is pretty clear that Katniss herself doesn’t know. Which I always thought felt like a new and refreshing way of describing feminine desire. In stories men are usually the ones who are granted doubts about their adoring wives and lovers. But women, too, often have that problem, often aren’t sure about what it means to love someone, and resent the loss of independence that romantic love might represent. And amongst all the young adult stuff I read in covering this aspect of the culture, The Hunger Games is fairly unique in that respect, at least in the current crop.

I am not sure why, in what passes for the critical discourse today, this aspect of the books is often left by the wayside. There is, as we all recall from the Twilight era, much appetite for ink spilled on the problems with young women’s desire. Or old women’s desire, one of the press narratives about Twilight being that people were creeped out about how it appealed to moms. Even the snickering about Fifty Shades of Grey — which, to be clear, I’m not defending on aesthetic grounds, but on the grounds of equality of smut and trash, I guess — is more evidence of how very un-shy people are about commenting

It usually, of course, helps if these sex and romance plots are bad. What I’m telling you is that I think part of the appeal of The Hunger Games lies in this story.

Another explanation, which again I am not saying is the explanation, because I am not a mind reader, is that men — because it’s still mostly men who fund movies, not to mention review movies — recognize the girl stuff here, and aren’t sure what to do with it because it does not comport with the images of feminine desire they’ve been given. Twilight was easy to write about because the woman liked a drip; Fifty Shades of Grey because it somehow doesn’t surprise men who believe that women are masochists when it comes to romantic love. Uncertainty in romance is a bit less recognizable to them, and therefore less easy to address. At least, less easy than the war, dystopia, and violence.