The conceptual similarities between Suzanne Collins’s “The Hunger Games” series and Stephenie Meyer’s “The Twilight Saga” series are slim – and anyone who tells you otherwise is delusional, illiterate, and incapable of complex thoughts related to literary exploration. However, while their content does differ, their initial appeal to a YA audience, the insistence of declaring “teams” for romantic paramours, and their large-scale cinematic adaptations do beg for some discussion about their surface similarities, and how those will translate into stuff like audience appeal and ultimate impact on readers and viewers.
While I find “Twilight” to be the infinitely weaker and less compelling of the two properties, I’m not some sort of blind “Twilight” hater – I’ve read all the books and seen all the movies, and I get why it’s appealing to all sorts of readers and watchers, particularly those looking to consume something that provides escape – but I also think that there is far better material out there for public consumption. Smarter, wiser, more applicable to the real world, and more compelling material – like “The Hunger Games.”
Let’s put it this way – if I had a fifteen-year-old daughter, I’d want her to read “The Hunger Games,” and here’s why.
“The Hunger Games” Stands Without the “Team” Mentality
“The Twilight Saga” is rooted in its central romance(s). These are not books or movies about strong, independent, bold characters – it’s a series about how obsessive love can make one weak, and how that’s not only a bad thing, it’s something to turn away from. Bella, Edward, and Jacob are all slaves to love, a trope in the series that even applies to supporting characters (werewolves “imprinting” on unsuspecting humans, leaving them unable to ever love another, for example). The appeal of “Twilight” has much to do with the force of first love – or, at least, what people perceive as the force of first love. All-consuming, all-desiring, fated in an otherworldly manner, Bella and Edward’s love is the central theme and conflict of the series.
It doesn’t matter to either one of them the havoc their affection can wreak on others, from innocent bystanders to their own family, they must be together. When they’re not together, Bella is unable to function as a human being (remember the first half of “New Moon”?), and her pain eventually reaches the point that she can no longer be human. So, well, Team Edward, right? That’s what Bella wants? Right?
Sorry, Team Jacob. Despite the fact that Bella never actually engages with Jacob in a wholly romantic manner or that she pointedly chooses Edward every chance she gets or even that she goes ahead and (spoiler alert?) births a baby who appears to have been conceived principally to love Jacob, the “team” mentality of both “Twilight” and its fans stays strong. And while Katniss Everdeen also has two suitors to choose from, choosing sides isn’t central to the story – because it’s not central to her character.
Bella doesn’t exist without Edward and Jacob battling for her mortal soul – there’s literally no reason for the books to exist without that conflict. And while the battles fought in the final Twilight story have further-reaching consequences and involvement than just a boring old love triangle, every thing that has pushed us to that point is thanks to romantic entanglements. Imagine “Twilight” without Edward or Jacob. You can’t. Because it would not exist. Imagine “The Hunger Games” without its hard-won romances. You can. Surely, some of the emotion is deflated from certain parts of the story, but what the books are ultimately about are Katniss Everdeen and the world of Panem. Katniss is a fully formed human being who remains independent even without the definition of Peeta Mellark or Gale Hawthorne pining for her.
Fans of “The Hunger Games” do, however, have their own teams (I’m Team Peeta myself), but in reality, what everyone should be is Team Katniss or, as fellow critic James Rocchi tossed off in a tweet a few weeks back, Team She Is Herself. Katniss is a strong, independent, admirable woman who exists far beyond her dueling romances, whereas Bella is absolutely defined by her more tender desires and the two beasts who fight for them.
Katniss Is Driven By Forces Beyond Her Control And She Beats Them
Both Bella and Katniss must leave their families at crucial points in their stories, and the differences both of them leaving their lives is twofold – the reasons why they leave and what they expect to get out of said leaving. Katniss does not have a choice to leave her home and family – Bella does. As central to the first book in the series (our focus for this discussion) Katniss is forced to leave District 12, Prim, Gale, and her mother because of powers far beyond her control – the Games themselves, the Capitol at large, and the system that’s been in place since before she was born all make her not leaving impossible. Again, Katniss does not have a choice, and that’s a central element of the first two books in the series.
Bella, however, does have a choice. While I suspect that should Bella herself weigh in on the topic, she’d tell us that she didn’t, that she was compelled by a fated, otherworldly love that left her unable to live without Edward. That’s bunk. No healthy relationship involves one party leaving family, friends, and home and also changing the very make-up of their existence for another partner. I’m sorry, Edward, it’s not your fault that you’re a vampire, but come the hell on. Bella does have a choice, and she makes it and carries it out completely (and then Meyer hedges her bets and allows Bella’s old life to merge with her new one pretty quickly, but that’s a topic for another day).
But just what does Katniss expect to get out of her leaving? Well, in being forced to leave so that she can participate in a televised battle to the death, she doesn’t expect much. But despite the odds not being “ever in her favor,” Katniss is fueled by a desire to win (not just to win, but to survive) so that she can get home to her family and, when circumstances change, she’s also driven by the belief that she can also save Peeta and deliver him home as well. Pardon my French, but those are some pretty fucking awesome expectations. What does Bella desire from her total life abandonment? That she can become a mythical beast and live with her boring boyfriend forever. Great. Really top-notch stuff. Very inspirational.
And while both Bella and Katniss get things they want out of their leaving – Bella gets to be a vampire, Katniss gets to go home – Katniss’s perceived resolution is much more satisfying and compelling. Despite stacked odds and an evil system, she has persevered and won (though her win is obviously tinged with pain, regret, and suffering), and she has accomplished something bigger and better than herself.
Bella simply triumphs over a specific and ultimately short-lived pain that she’s asked for, and asked for with only selfish intentions. Her victory is only worth celebrating if you’re convinced that the culmination of an abusive and immature relationship is worth celebrating.
The Hunger Games Presents A Bigger World and Worldview With Real World Applications
The world of “Twilight” is, ostensibly, our current world with a secret underworld that Bella happens to discover through Edward and Jacob. It’s not a particularly original or imaginative world creation, and the fact that the vast majority of the series’ action (save for jaunts to Italy and the honeymoon on Isle Esme) takes place in a tiny town in Washington makes the whole story feel small. Smaller still? While Bella, Edward, and Jacob’s entanglements eventually lead to a big ol’ battle between vampires and werewolves, the impact on the rest of the world is, well, nil. What’s the worst that could happen? The Cullens and the wolves lose and the Volturi continue on with status quo that, again, effects in an incredibly limited segment of the population? Snooze. Small world, small worldview, little real world application.
But “The Hunger Games”? It’s much larger. Collins’s series presents a big, original (relative to “Twilight”; even I don’t think Collins has flipped the switch on Dystopian futures), fully-formed, imaginative, and well-crafted world that comes with its very own worldview (read: bleak). While one of my major problems with the series is that we never learn about the rest of the world (though it’s safe to assume that most everything else has been wiped out, or at least reduced to a state without the sort of technology needed to reach other lands – i.e. even something as basic as boats), there is still more than enough detail in what we do learn about.
Collins has imagined a future that feels real and possible, as hard to take as that may be, and one that is ruled by the influence of current things – reality television in particular. Could what happens in “The Hunger Games” happen before what happens in “Twilight”? Yes, and that’s infinitely more terrifying and more engaging. Love stories are all well and good, but the reach of Bella and Edward is slim at best – Katniss, the Capitol, and the Games consume whole continents.
The Concept of Bucking Societal Norms and Starting Revolutions
Let’s break this down – Bella’s big break from typical societal norms is that she becomes a vampire for love. While that’s certainly a big change for Bella, it doesn’t matter much to anyone else. Her turn does eventually effect others, leading to that big battle between the “good” vampires and werewolves against all those evil vampires, but again, what does that mean for everyone else on the planet? Not much. Bella and Edward start a revolution of sorts by marrying and conceiving of a half human/half vampire child who surpasses even her talented vampire family, but that doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot to the vast majority of the world – you know, the humans. Sure, they bring down the Volturri, but again, who cares?
On the other side of the coin, Katniss has spent most of her life busting through what’s expected of her – leading her family, leaving District 12 to hunt and gather, volunteering in place of her sister Prim, and eventually helping to usher in a revolution that changes all of Panem. While Katniss’s revolutionary activity is but just a piece of the whole puzzle, and she’s initially seen as just a figurehead of the movement, she eventually blossoms into one of its most important leaders – both intellectually and physically.
Her final act during battle in “Mockingjay” is perhaps the biggest revolutionary act in all of “The Hunger Games” – and it’s one that changes the lives of every man, woman, and child in Panem – and for the better.
Katniss Everdeen Is A Better Hero Than Bella Swan – Hands Down
Let’s see here – Katniss doesn’t need a man to complete her identity, she’s capable of saving herself from forces far beyond her control, she’s honed real-world skills that can feed and protect her, she finds true love without having to compromise herself and her ideals, and she kickstarts a revolution that aims to better the lives of most of the people who live in her country. And Bella falls in love with a mythical monster and abandons her life, loved ones, and identity to be with him. But, hey, her vampire transformation process goes by swiftly because she’s got special mind powers! You make the choice.
Of course, I expect to hear quite a bit of feedback in the comments from Twilight and Hunger Games fans alike, so have at it.