Katniss Everdeen has had a very good 2012, and deservedly so. The heroine of The Hunger Games series, Suzanne Collins’s highly popular trilogy of young adult novels (2008-10), already had a devoted fan base as the year began, but she exploded into a genuine pop-culture phenomenon with the March release of the film version of the first volume. Now Katniss is not only beloved by millions of teen girls—and a few boys (her film avatar, after all, is Jennifer Lawrence)—she’s also fodder for serious social commentary. American journalist Hanna Rosin, in an interview about her book The End of Men and the Rise of Women, paused while discussing the profound socio-economic changes unfolding in her country, from the erosion of traditional marriage to women’s increasing confidence and even aggression, to call Katniss an iconic figure. “She’s a classic aggressive male provider: unpleasant, self-sufficient, a total protector of her family. Those are all things that we associate with men. Twenty years ago, Katniss would have been a bizarre and unacceptable character, and now she seems completely natural.”
There’s no denying Katniss hit the zeitgeist right in the sweet spot. She’s the 16-year-old daughter of a dead coal miner who keeps her mother and beloved 12-year-old sister Primrose fed by her skill at archery (and poaching). They live in near-future Panem, an authoritarian state risen from the ashes of ecological catastrophe: worsening climate, rising sea levels and resource wars. The residents of the ruling Capitol, living in high-tech splendour, tyrannize the hardscrabble provincials, forcing each of 12 outlying districts to annually send a male child and a female child, aged 12-18, to fight in the televised Hunger Games until only one remains alive.
Teenagers put in an arena to literally kill each other for the amusement of grown-ups is as savage a satire of reality TV and high school as can be imagined. (For adolescent girls, who live in a social milieu potentially even more vicious than that of boys, the appeal is obvious.) But if The Hunger Games is a pitch-perfect dystopia for our era of superstorms and economic uncertainty, it’s merely riding a wave of such storylines. Current YA fiction is dominated by dystopias, both the classic form, featuring harshly repressive societies, and post-apocalyptic scenes of chaos, all with climatic catastrophe as their root cause. The characters in the most popular series are far more often female than in past adventure stories, and the girls all have kick-ass potential, even if Katniss—who can fire an arrow through a songbird at 200 m—kicks harder than most.
Nor did it hurt the film’s appeal that the actress who portrays Katniss is one of the most acclaimed of her generation. Lawrence bestrides the action-drama divide like few of her male peers. In November, she was the subject of serious Oscar buzz for her role in the upcoming Silver Linings Playbook, just as she was heading off to Hawaii to film Collins’s second volume, Catching Fire.
Being in tune with the times, however, pales against the fact that Katniss is a hugely compelling, if not always likeable, character thrashing about in a story coloured by an enticingly uncertain romance. Focused on protecting her sister, Katniss is blithely unaware of the feelings of not one but two of her male acquaintances. When she does learn how they feel, she realizes that how she responds, more than how she feels, may well affect whether she lives or dies. It’s enough to make fans want “to argue with her; you know, grab her and ask her what she thinks she’s doing,” said one, only half-jokingly, during the feverish lead-up to the movie. It was the same impulse, the 18-year-old added, that she would have toward any friend making rash decisions under pressure.
When fans feel like that, symbolism scarcely matters at all.