Part Thoreau, Part Princess

How The Hunger Games combines the wilderness survival tale with the Cinderella story—and subverts them both.

side-by-side images of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) with Everdeen.

The Hunger Games challenges familiar coming-of-age tropes

Murray Close/Lions Gate Entertainment.

See all of Slate’s coverage of The Hunger Games here.

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games became a big hit in part by being many things to many people. Some fans take it as an allegory of high school, others as a critique of modern celebrity, and others still as a love story, since the tough capable heroine Katniss must ultimately choose between two young men. The novel and its sequels also play a particularly neat trick with two archetypal storylines which, before these books, seemed incompatible: They are at once a wilderness story—a narrative of rough nature and plucky survival—and a Cinderella story, in which a girl who never dressed up before becomes an object of romantic fantasy for the projections of fascinated adults.

If you’ve spent the last year reading nothing but Tolstoy and Musil, you may not know that The Hunger Games and its two sequels take place in a future country called Panem, a totalitarian regime with a prosperous, decadent Capitol and 12 districts over which the Capitol rules. Each year the Capitol displays its power and cruelty in a televised spectacle called the Hunger Games: Two teens from each district, most selected by drawing lots, compete in a specially designed arena until only one teen remains alive. The books follow Katniss Everdeen, a poor girl from an impoverished coal-mining district, after she volunteers to take part in the Hunger Games in order to save her sister. The games themselves, and the lead-up to them, occupy the first book.

The Hunger Games is part of a long tradition of fiction and nonfiction in which young people discover themselves by surviving on their own—learning what’s safe to eat, how to find shelter, how to avoid mortal danger. Thoreau’s Walden and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe stand behind such stories, which in modern times include Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet. In most of these stories, survival is an indicator of moral virtue: Children and teens who make do in the woods also learn about their true selves. These children and teens are usually boys, or else tomboys; O’Dell’s Katana, who makes her own arrows, violates tribal rules in order to do so.

In contrast to such tales is the Cinderella story, which portrays a girl’s emergence into womanhood by dressing up and becoming visibly beautiful, in what the cultural critic Ilana Nash calls a “chrysalis moment.” Fairy tales offer many such stories; novels and films about tomboys—think Gidget or Pretty in Pink—offer more. Such stories bring girls into society, rather than removing young people from it; they can be stories about moral peril, as well as stories about the right way to grow up.

The Hunger Games surely belongs to the genre of stories about kids who learn to survive in the wild. Almost the first thing we learn about Katniss is that she’s a crack shot with a bow; her wilderness skills let her feed herself and her family. Gale, Katniss’s hunting and scavenging companion, proposes that the two of them “Run off. Live in the woods. You and I, we could make it.”

If Collins’ heroine needed only her prowess in shooting and foraging to make it through the games, The Hunger Games might be an adventure, but it would not be much of a story. Competitors in the games depend on their abilities to find and make weaponry, to find and hoard food—but they also depend on the sympathy of viewers, who can pay to send helpful things (like food) on parachutes into the otherwise sealed arena. Contestants’ popularity with a TV audience—as with the reality TV of our own world—can also affect what the adults who run the games do: whom they imperil, and whom they protect. In order to make it in the arena, Katniss will need the skills to inspire that audience, with her looks and demeanor before the games, and with her conduct during them.

Katniss picks up those skills from people who at first seem contemptible or disreputable: the drunken, apparently self-interested Haymitch; the cosmetologists Venia and Octavia; and the mincing “stylist” Cinna, who fashions for Katniss “what will either be the most sensational or the deadliest costume,” a dress of “reflective precious gems” whose “slightest movements gives the impression that I am engulfed in tongues of fire.” Like Katniss and Gale, Cinna and his peers exercise specialized, difficult, and, in these circumstances, useful skills: “The team works on me until late afternoon,” Katniss explains, “turning my skin to glowing satin, stenciling patterns on my arms, painting flame designs on my twenty perfect nails.”

Katniss must not only look sublime, but must act so as to win the audience over: “It’s all a big show. It’s all how you’re perceived,” Haymitch says. He arranges for her to be seen as “a heartbreaker,” someone who can make “boys back home fall longingly at your feet.” Haymitch’s scheme involves persuading the TV audience that Katniss and Peeta, the other contestant from Katniss’ district, had fallen in love back home. If the scheme works, the Capitol—bowing to TV ratings—could allow them both to survive: “our ‘romance’ must be so popular with the audience that condemning it would jeopardize the success of the Games.” Katniss and Peeta finally have to convince a televised audience that they are Panem’s answer to Juliet and Romeo: If they fail, at least one of them will die.

Ilana Nash objects to chrysalis moments, to Cinderella stories—and for good feminist reasons. A story in which girls acquire their true identities by dressing up, acting pretty, and falling in love is also a story in which girls’ destinies must involve being desired by men: You become who you are by getting the boys to like you. That’s a morally dubious vision, and one at odds with the wilderness survival story, where no one else cares how you look.

The way Collins welds these two kinds of story together speaks to why the trilogy works so well; it also speaks to why the trilogy gets under the skin of some adult readers. In the books and the movies that Nash criticizes, the girls who consent to try on their pretty dresses thus become themselves—once they get the boy, they don’t want to go back to the way they used to be. In Collins’ books, however, the makeup and costume are only there for the cameras; the love story is a tactic long before it turns into anything else. Looking pretty, catching spectators’ eyes, making an audience ooh and aah, following a romantic script convincingly: These are skills, just as shooting a hunting bow is a skill, and Katniss needs every one.

No wonder, then, that one of the few obtrusive, recurring symbols in this fast-moving book is the mockingjay, the mutant bird with the power to “recreate songs”: The mockingjay stands not only for flight, but for the power of performance, of dissimulation, the power that may lead Katniss, eventually, to her freedom. Even being good, being kind—as in the subplot involving Rue (and here I don’t want to give the story away)—also turns out to matter as a performance.

Some readers object to the violence in Collins’ books—and they are, of course, violent, though the violence never lacks moral cost. Adults who want to find something disturbing in the books might focus instead on what makes them most realistic, which is also what leaves them wonderfully out of place in the world of young adult writing—and American nature writing to boot—where, traditionally, adventure leads to authenticity. For Katniss, the skills required for feminine sociability, for looking good, and the skills of the wilderness—shooting and tracking and climbing and running—may come easily or require effort, depending on her particular aptitude. But they are, ultimately, just that: skills, acquired out of practical necessity, with no intrinsic links to goodness, to authenticity, or to maturity (whatever that might mean in Collins’ difficult world). You may not grow up and learn who you really are until your adventure is over; in the meantime, you must pick up whatever skills—knowing which berries are poisonous, or learning how to wear a dress of living flame—will help you survive.

See all of Slate’s coverage of The Hunger Games here.