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20 November 2015

In Katniss Everdeen, young people have found a heroine worth following

The Hunger Games is inspiring a generation to rise up, but in the knowledge that true revolutions don’t start until the killing stops.

By India Bourke

“Tonight, turn your weapons to the Capitol,” says Katniss Everdeen, heroine of the Hunger Games. “Turn your weapons to Snow.” So opens the trailer for Mockingjay Part 2, the final film in the hit franchise. Amid a firestorm of shootouts and sexual tension, Katniss, dressed in black and wielding her explosive arrows, stands ready to lead an army against the tyrannical President Snow.

It’s an image as old as storytelling: the glamorous warrior confronting injustice. And it’s one young readers have embraced with new energy since the books launched seven years ago. From the Occupy Movement to student protestors in Thailand, activists all over the world have found inspiration in Katniss’s defiant struggle. In Ferguson, civil rights protestors graffitied words from the book onto a local landmark: “If we burn, you burn with us.”

Many have rightly celebrated the story’s ability to inspire young people to challenge oppression. Donald Sutherland, the actor who plays President Snow, even drew a comparison with The Battle of Algiers, a film about Algeria’s fight for independence from the French. “Hopefully [young audiences] will see this film and the next film and the next film and then maybe organise. Stand up,” he said in an interview in 2013.

Yet the trailer’s focus on a zeal for vengeance is only half the story, and risks missing the author’s even more powerful point. It is only in repeatedly questioning the use of violence that Katniss becomes a hero worth following.

Battles, blasts, and man-eating, mutant lizards are nicotine to the imagination (and box office tills),but the real tension stems from Katniss’s struggle to fathom how the act of killing, which she does with increasing ease, can ever be lived with.

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Large parts of the books depict our reluctant heroine’s tortured psyche. We see her sobbing on her love-interests’ shoulders or hallucinating in a succession of hospital beds. From the start, she rejects the hero-status thrust upon her, first as a “Champion” in Snow’s tournaments, then as a figurehead for the rebel army. “I never wanted any of this, I never wanted to be in the Games,” she says. “I just wanted to save Peeta and keep my sister alive.”

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Ultimately, however, her choice is not between the establishment and the rebels, but between those (on both sides) who see the threat of violence as a necessary condition of peace, and idealists who reject that logic.

Katniss must face some of military history’s most troubling questions: is it morally defensible to bomb a military base containing civilians? Can targeting innocents be justified if it brings a swift end to war?

In searching for answers, Katniss becomes so immersed in the act of ethical calculation that she extends it to her love life. Her choice between Gale and Peeta is no sentimental, hormone-fuelled, tussle between sexy vampire or hunky werewolf,. but one between two opposing strategies for survival: the hunter or the baker; the taker or the giver of life.

It’s not a process that makes for a traditionally happy ending. As Gale notes: “Katniss will pick who she can’t survive without.” And that’s exactly what she does – except that she doesn’t just pick for herself. She picks the man whose attitude to violence she thinks will best safeguard humanity.

Because she questions everything, Katniss presents at the least the hope of escaping conflict’s vicious circle – one which all too often sees freedom fighters risk committing atrocities themselves, whether they are Coin’s fictional rebels or Algeria’s National Liberation Front.

An aversion to violence, whatever its justification, is at the heart of author Suzanne Collins’ vision. The daughter of a Vietnam war veteran, Collins’ childhood was spent touring Europe’s battlefields, learning how her grandfather was gassed in the First World War and her uncle wounded in the Second. When Katniss observes her children “who don’t know they play on a graveyard”, Collins is issuing a reminder to us all.

It’s a reminder this generation is perhaps most open to hearing – not just as consumers of ever-more violent films and games, but also as the victims of political violence itself.

In Katniss Everdeen, young people have found a heroine worth following. If Harry Potter was the “Boy Who Lived”, then Katniss, ultimately, becomes the “Girl Who Refuses to Kill”.