Welcome to Strange Bedfellows, a series in which we smush together unrelated literary or cultural works and see what happens! Today we’re discussing The Hunger Games and Monster.
The Hunger Games and Monster! Two of my favorite stories. I hope you know and love them as much as I do, but just in case you need a refresher:
- The Hunger Games is a young adult book series by Suzanne Collins. It follows Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl forced to compete in an annual televised death match (The Hunger Games) in order to protect her younger sister Prim. To survive, Katniss must simultaneously charm audiences and murder other children. After co-winning the Games with sometimes-love-interest Peeta Mellark, Katniss steps into the role of symbolic figurehead of a rebellion against the dystopian Panem government. In 2012, the books were made into a series of blockbuster movies starring Jennifer Lawrence.
- Monster is a 2003 film directed by Patty Jenkins (which, FYI, is instant streaming on Amazon). It’s based on the true story of Aileen (“Lee”) Wuornos, a sex worker who was executed in Florida in 2002 for killing six men. Lee is played by Charlize Theron, whose performance in the film won her an Oscar for Best Actress. Lee’s same-sex love interest, Selby Wall, is played by Christina Ricci. At various points, Lee deals with child sexual abuse, police brutality and rape.
I love these stories for centering capable, interesting, complicated women. Although Katniss and Lee both spend a lot of time and energy managing male ardor, their primary motivations are protecting the girls/women that they love: Katniss with Prim, and Lee with Selby. They’re self-possessed in the face of extreme adversity, and they do the ugly and awful things that simply need to be done in order for them to endure. Yet throughout the stories, Katniss and Lee remain human, with realistic human struggles and weaknesses.
Anyway, I’ve picked a few themes to talk about, so let’s see how they line up!
Trauma and Stress
In The Hunger Games, Katniss reveals very early on (by the third page!) that for the past five years, she’s periodically woken up screaming. She’s traumatized by her father’s death in the mines and the resulting consequences: literal starvation and being forced into the role of provider for her family after her mother falls into a crushing depression. Following the Hunger Games, Katniss is consumed by thoughts of the arena, turning scenes of the atrocities over and over in her head. She’s hypervigilant, her days turbulently marking time between the staccato of unexpected anger and the legato of mistrust and worry. At night, her restless sleep is interrupted by nightmares of the Games and anxious strategizing about how she’s going to survive whatever comes next.
Although the books have the advantage of first person narration (the story is told from Katniss’ point of view), the films do a remarkably good job. While audiences no longer hear Katniss’ interior monologues, Jennifer Lawrence writes every line across her body in plain view. Her eyes abruptly fill with tears; her breathing grows ragged; her muscles tense; her fingers scrabble along the edges of objects, searching for something to ground her, bring her back.
By the end of Katniss’ first few scenes in Mockingjay: Part 1, I felt utterly emptied. Hollow, like a mechanical pencil without lead. Every subsequent reappearance of the character’s PTSD shattered me, ground me into the carpet. I ran out of tissues, then I ran out of tears. I did not run out of the theater. Mockingjay had its flaws, but Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss’ PTSD was brilliant. I had a similar reaction to Catching Fire (full on sobbing), and I fully expect an encore performance for Mockingjay: Part 2. For the life of me, I will never understand why Lawrence was awarded an Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook and not a single Hunger Games film.
One day I’ll have to explain about my nightmares. Why they came. Why they won’t ever really go away. I’ll tell them how I survive it. I’ll tell them that on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I’m afraid it could be taken away. – Katniss Everdeen, Mockingjay
In Monster, on the other hand, Lee has had more time to process her trauma. Although we occasionally see those visceral physical reactions (example: when Selby touches Lee’s stomach in bed, she recoils and moves Selby’s hand away, belatedly saying, “I just haven’t been feeling too good lately, you know?”), the effects of trauma manifest more clearly in Lee’s decisionmaking, actions and eventual worldview.
“Wanna call me Daddy while I fuck you, huh?” a male client asks in a pivotal scene. Lee responds, “I’ll try.” She momentarily pauses, then blurts out, “Why, you like to fuck your kids?” There’s a wild look on her face. He stares. Suddenly backing off, she laughs nervously and agrees to call him Daddy. After he gives her the money and asks her to perform oral sex on him, however, she freezes. Her eyes dart back and forth, an apparent wave of nausea overtaking her. She closes her eyes, pulls her gun and shoots three rounds into his chest. He stumbles out of the car. “Fucking child molester,” she rasps. Three more shots and he’s dead. She exits the car and takes a drag on her cigarette, smoke rising before her like a ghost.
The man is not Lee’s first kill, but his death is set apart. Last time, Lee killed in a clear act of self-defense. This time, Lee faced no imminent threat. Rather, she pulled her gun out because the man’s request triggered memories of being raped by a family friend in her childhood, resulting in a pregnancy at age 12. Throughout the movie, Lee doesn’t talk about it directly except in narrative monologue — and even then, the pieces are scattered throughout the film. The closest she comes to directly discussing PTSD is when she goes to say goodbye to her friend Thomas in the bar:
Lee: Everybody just thinks I’m this bad shitty fucking person, and all I’m fucking tryin’ to do is survive, you know?
Thomas: I know. I know what you do for a living. It doesn’t bother me. I know you didn’t dial it up on a goddamn telephone. That’s where you landed. That’s what you had to do. What you’re feeling right now is just guilt, over something you had absolutely no control over. You know how many of us came back from the war? And almost killed ourselves because we felt exactly the same thing you do, right now.
Thomas: Yeah. And they’ll never get it. They’ll never get it now, they never got it then, and they sure as hell won’t get fucking circumstance!
Lee: Fuck, man, circumstance, that’s exactly it, that’s exactly it. You know I feel like I never even had a fucking choice.
Thomas: You never did. But you gotta live. You gotta live.
To me, this exchange captures a central takeaway of the film: that Lee was driven to kill people by Bad Life Circumstances. Like Katniss, Lee has extremely limited options and makes choices based around her own survival. Maybe we wouldn’t make the same choices Lee did, but keep in mind that her perception of the world is deeply colored by PTSD, which tells her that she’s in immediate danger even when she is not. I don’t bring that up as an excuse (murder is bad!), but it does make sense to me as an explanation.
Suicide and Symbolic Death
Of course, Lee doesn’t “gotta live.” Two minutes into the film, we see her sitting hunched over beneath a highway bridge, pistol in her right hand, crumpled cash in her left, tears on her face and sheets of rain falling all around. “I was gonna do it,” she recalls later in the film. “The only reason I didn’t was a five dollar bill. I knew I’d probably given some asshole a blowjob for it, so it really started to piss me off that if I killed myself without spending it, well then I basically sucked him off for free. So I made a deal. I said “God, I gotta spend this five bucks, but when it’s gone, so am I. So if you’ve got something for me in this life, you’d better bring it on.”
Instead of killing herself, she walks into a gay bar and meets Selby. They get drunk together, and Selby saves Lee’s life that night by inviting her home with her. For the rest of their relationship, Lee is fiercely protective of Selby. She does everything in her power to shelter Selby, both literally and figuratively.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss also attempts suicide. The movie diverges slightly in the details, but in the book, once Peeta and Katniss have defeated their last standing competitor, announcer Claudius Templesmith changes the rules of the game to allow only one winner. Katniss raises her bow reflexively, but Peeta drops his knife. He asks her to kill him.
“I can’t,” I say. “I won’t.”
“Do it. Before they send those mutts back or something. I don’t want to die like Cato,” he says.
“Then you shoot me,” I say furiously, shoving the weapons back at him. “You shoot me and go home and live with it!” And as I say it, I know death right here, right now would be the easier of the two.
Desperate to find a way out, Katniss pulls a handful of poison berries from her pouch. She and Peeta agree to eat them together, denying the Games of their victor by committing double suicide. They count to three and lift their hands… but right as the berries pass their lips, Templesmith interrupts them, once again, to declare them both winners. They spew the berries out — by no means safe, but still, tremulously, alive.
I’m drawn to these narratives because I like my stories the way I like my chocolate: super dark and frequently salty. Perhaps I enjoy these types of stories because they make the turbulence in my own life seem tame in comparison. Or maybe I’m just weird and twisty inside because my life is super boring and I morbidly crave a vicarious source of life-and-death excitement. Who knows! I can tell you that I find these near misses with suicide very interesting from a literary perspective, particularly in the ways they symbolically differ in terms of narrative significance.
Katniss’ story in The Hunger Games follows the heroine’s journey. By this, I don’t just mean that she’s a heroine who goes on a journey, although she does do that; I’m talking about the narrative structure. In literature, the heroine’s journey is a storytelling model much like the hero’s journey, except that instead of taking a male perspective as default, this archetype is intentionally built to accommodate the different choices and values that often animate women’s lives. Here’s a fantastic explanation by LC James if you want to learn more, but the TL;DR summary is essentially a cyclical narrative that follows a character battling internal demons instead of (or in addition to) external ones. The journey follows a protagonist questioning authority; gaining the courage to stand up for herself; facing her symbolic death; and being reborn as a complete being.
At the start of the first book, Katniss is scraping by in District 12, surviving but not thriving. She has very little control over the direction of her life, but she has coping mechanisms (namely: hunting in the woods with a partner, and keeping her head down). When Prim is chosen as a tribute, Katniss steps forward instead, embarking on the journey which ultimately ends in her taking down the Capital. But first, she gathers a team of helpers (Haymitch, Effie, Cinna, Peeta) and undergoes a series of trials (the procession; the interview; the performance for the judges; obtaining a bow inside the Games; making her first kill; etc.). Throughout these, she grows in confidence and hones the skills she needs. By the time Cato dies, it seems like Katniss might be victorious… and then Templesmith’s voice comes on over the speaker. She embraces her own death (bringing Peeta along for the ride), and comes out the other side of it in a much stronger position: co-winner of the 79th annual Hunger Games, a beloved public figure and inspiring symbol for a great many people. This is a classic heroine’s journey, and Katniss’ attempted suicide marks the climactic “death before rebirth” step.
In Monster, Lee’s almost-suicide does not make her stronger. It doesn’t make her much of anything, really! She’s desperate and has few options before, and she’s desperate and has few options after. The plot trajectory doesn’t map particularly well to popular Western structures (probably because it’s based on true events, and real life is messy), but one way we can think about it is through the lens of kishōtenketsu.
Kishōtenketsu is a conflict-less plotting style that boils down to the following:
- Introduce the status quo.
- Develop the status quo’s world.
- Introduce a surprising element.
- Bring about conclusion of element’s change on the status quo
Looking at Lee’s story, we have:
- Lee lives a world where she has little agency, and the people around her abuse her/allow her to be abused.
- Lee enters into sex work. This gives her some power, but she still doesn’t have agency.
- Lee meets Selby, glimpsing a world that stands in stark contrast with her own. In an attempt to protect Selby from the harsh reality Lee has always known, Lee takes on the role of provider.
- Selby glimpses Lee’s world, a stark contrast to her own. She can’t handle it, and her actions lead to Lee’s arrest. In a final denial of agency/act of abuse, Lee is executed.
Within this framework, Lee’s almost-suicide is totally insignificant. Again, she has very little agency to change the trajectory of her life. Even when she tries to change professions and make money in a way that doesn’t involve sex work or killing people, the options available to her are extremely limited.
Class and Social Expectations
The bleakest part of Monster was, for me, watching middle class people repeatedly turn up their noses at Lee. It happens consistently throughout the film, from the bartender’s smirking greeting (“Ma’am, our services are for paying patrons only.”), to Donna’s scolding of Selby (“She might’ve stole something. You cannot bring people like that here.”), to the montage of interviewers callously condescending to Lee (“You don’t get to say, ‘You know what? Now I think I’d like to have what everybody else has worked their entire life for.’ It doesn’t work that way.”). No one has ever expected her to amount to anything, and no one is willing to take a chance on her.
In stark contrast, expectations are ridiculously high for Katniss Everdeen. When Katniss is only 16, practically everyone in Panem has an opinion on both her love life and whether she should or should not lead a full-on government overthrow. Even before that, though, Lee and Katniss’ experiences diverge in important ways. Like Lee, Katniss begins providing for family members at a very young age (Lee using the proceeds from her sex work beginning at age 12, Katniss using her hunting and gathering skills at age 11). But while Lee is kicked out of the house for her stewardship, Katniss is celebrated. Her family members are grateful; community members encourage her by purchasing her goods at favorable prices; a hunting buddy appears and together they form a partnership. “Team Katniss” could fill an arena, so to speak, whereas “Team Aileen” is more or less non-existent.
When Lee experiences class conflict, it’s usually because she’s at the bottom of the heap and is being denied access to something she wants or needs. Because of the unique situation Katniss is in, her experiences are a bit more complex. When she’s granted access to the way the other half lives, she finds their practices alternately appealing and off-putting. When Katniss is on the train to the Capitol for the first time, she marvels at the abundance of food and what it represents:
What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by?
That first night, she stuffs herself until she can’t eat anymore; only later does she learn to pace herself. When Caesar asks her what has impressed her most about the Capitol, her answer is “the lamb stew.” Weeks later, during the Victory Tour in Catching Fire, Katniss is still impressed by the food but no longer has an appetite for it. When her prep team notices she isn’t eating, they offer her emetics. Katniss withdraws in disgust:
All I can think of is the emaciated bodies of the children that used to occupy our kitchen table in the Seam as my mother prescribed what the parents couldn’t give. More food. Now that we’re rich, she’ll send some home with them, but only the very desperate will accept anything, and sometimes not even then. Meanwhile here in the Capitol they’re vomiting for the pleasure of filling their bellies again and again. Not from some illness of body or mind, not from spoiled food. It’s what everyone does at a party. Expected. Part of the fun.
In spite of her personal feelings, Katniss accepts most offers of help. Beyond obviously strategic moves (taking the bread Peeta threw her when she was starving; letting the prep team change her look so she’s more attractive to sponsors), she lets people help in smaller ways too (allowing the redheaded Avox to wipe blood off of her; accepting Peeta’s jacket when they’re up on the roof). “Kind people have a way of working themselves inside me, rooting there,” she reflects at one point. When Katniss says in the closing lines of Mockingjay that she keeps a list in her head of every act of goodness she’s seen someone do, I imagine it’s a fairly long list. If Lee were to make such a list, I expect it would be much shorter.
It is this difference, I think, that finally does Lee in at the end. Because Katniss has had many positive interpersonal interactions, she’s able to accept help from others with relative ease. Lee, however, has not had those experiences; if I had her history, I don’t know if I’d be able to trust anyone at all. She does on occasion (for example, she accepts a sandwich from her friend Thomas, although she does say she’ll pay for it when she has the money), but at the last critical decision point, she turns down an offer of help that (possibly) could have prevented her from meeting such an untimely end.
What do you think? Any requests for future Strange Bedfellows?