The 99%: The (Class) Difference Between “The Boy Who Lived” and “The Girl on Fire,” Part Two
This is the second of two posts comparing the use of class difference in the Harry Potter and The Hunger Games series. Part one focused on Harry; today will focus on Katniss. Also, spoiler alert.
Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games is a story of survival. Quite literally, it’s about physical survival while being hunted, but there’s more than that: there’s strength when faced with loss, creativity when faced with limited options, and resiliency when faced with continued hardship. Katniss Everdeen does whatever it takes to survive. She charms those with the power to help her, she allies herself with those with the power to protect her—she even, occasionally, begs from those with the power to save her.
While Katniss begs, borrows, steals, and kills her way through the series, we, as the reader, don’t know how much we can or should trust her. She’s a much more ambiguous hero than Harry Potter; we’re never quite sure how manipulative she’s being, or whether or not her actions are actually justified. This is because Katniss’s actions are largely a response to her own oppression, while Harry’s aren’t.
Harry is the hero of his story because of something he unknowingly did as a baby, simply by surviving. There’s a sense of destiny and prophecy being fulfilled as he fights Voldemort. Katniss, in contrast, becomes the hero through her own bravery, elicited by the literal luck of the draw. It’s a role she buys into in stages, and has thrust upon her in some ways—and it’s frequently unclear the extent to which she’s a figurehead being used by people with real power, and the extent to which she’s truly inspiring and leading. All of this makes Harry more lovable than Katniss, but less relatable. Real life heroes aren’t born as such; they become that way. Whatever growth Harry goes through (and it’s a lot), he still is, first and foremost, the Boy Who Lived, through no intention of his own. Katniss, instead, is the Girl on Fire, a role she deliberately chooses to fulfill. I think this difference is a reflection of her upward mobility, her rise from oppression to freedom.
Ultimately, though, The Hunger Games isn’t just a story of survival; it’s a story of popular uprising and revolution. When we first meet Katniss, she’s a starving young woman, forced to break the law to feed her family after her father dies working in unsafe conditions. Her community of District 12 is kept in ignorance from the goings on in other districts because the media are controlled by the wealthy, remote, elite Capitol. Yes, Panem is a futuristic dystopia. But lack of food, lack of respect for workers, and concentrated power and control of the media? Those things are real. (Of course, then in The Hunger Games, the poorer districts are forced to send young people to fight to the death. This part is fictional—unless you count the heavy military recruiting in lower income communities. I’ll let you decide.)
The Hunger Games trilogy was first published in September 2008, the same month our economy began collapsing before our eyes and the first TARP relief was passed. Are we surprised these books found such resonance for adults, as well as teens?
Generally, though: why compare Harry Potter and The Hunger Games at all? I’ve not initiated this comparison to say that one is superior to the other; each series is completely endearing and wholly addicting in its own way. I’ve brought them together to look at the different ways these series teach lessons to young people about social class, privilege, character, and the growth of heroes. Harry and Katniss are very different heroes because they live in very different worlds. But if I had to guess whether most people felt their world more closely resembled the private boarding school with clear-cut lines between good and evil, or the dystopic district with frustrated and struggling neighbors, I’d say there’s a real reason Katniss’s mythology has captured audiences as thoroughly as Harry did in his more prosperous heyday.
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