“I asked for District Twelve.”
-Cinna in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Over the weekend, a patron was telling me how she started The Hunger Games and couldn’t finish it. I told her what I often tell people, which is that not every book is for every person. Then she asked me what it was that I liked about a book that is so hopeless and dark.
I gave a kind of evasive answer, partly because the question surprised me and partly because all I could think was that I don’t find The Hunger Games hopeless, which got me to thinking about why, which led me to my favorite character, Cinna.
The Hunger Games is a story about pain–the pain of grief, the pain of people we love disappointing us, the pain of separation, and the pain of trying to survive in a difficult and sometimes indifferent world. It is heightened, of course, and there is an intense exploration of violence, of the damage it does to the victim as well as the person inflicting it. At its core, though, the questions the book really asks are about how one lives with pain and whether it is even worthwhile to keep living in a world that is so damaged. In the first book, we see a couple characters, Haymitch and Katniss’s mother, who have both all but given up on life.
Katniss doesn’t give up, and the answer to Collins’ novel is in the why.
Which brings me back to Cinna and why I love this book so much.
Katniss doesn’t give up on life because she loves people. She tries as much as she can to be cool about it, but she loves her mother and sister and Gale and his family. She loves Peeta long before they really get to know each other. She even loves Greasy Sae and that crazy old Haymitch. She grows to love her enemy, Rue. She loves her home and work and life. She loves food. Collins shows us the redemptive power of love and kindness and loyalty in a lot of ways. They are the things that sustain Katniss, but they also impact the people around her. Her mother begins to recover, Haymitch starts to try, and Peeta finds a strength that initially seemed unlikely.
And she finds an ally in Cinna, a man she only just met and is predisposed to despise.
Cinna intends from the get-go to make Katniss a winner, to draw support to her and get her through the games and make her a symbol that will ultimately change their world. He does this with a dress–not because the dress is beautiful, though it is, but because it’s a piece of art, designed to make a statement. That dress makes all the difference for Katniss, through the whole trilogy. I love that Cinna is this person who decides that this is the way he wants to change his world. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He is never even unkind. He knows what his talents are, and he figures out a way to use them fully and positively to create something that makes people stop and think.
And that is why he’s my favorite character.
Cinna and the dress aren’t the only way Collins talks about the power of art, of course. There is also Rue’s whistle, the song Katniss sings her when she’s dying, and the way Katniss covers her in flowers before the hovercraft takes her away–all things that turn out to have impact beyond the immediate and throughout the rest of the series.
All that is why I don’t find The Hunger Games hopeless. Life can be hard, almost impossible to endure at times. That’s just real. But it comforts me to be reminded of what makes it livable–love, art, even something as simple as good food. Collins posits that in the worst of times, people can choose to live well and be kind and do what’s right. That isn’t hopeless: that’s hope.