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Column: Katniss Everdeen is the hero 'Potter' fans want

By John Nitowski
On March 12, 2013

  • Puppeteer John Bell speaks in the UConn Co-op Thursday night. Bell recently authored a book on the history and performance of puppets.

I'm not a big fan of "popular literature." I don't read something because everyone else has read it. When "Harry Potter" was first introduced to me (way back in fifth grade) I had no desire to read it. Today, I still have no desire. Even after seeing the movies, they're nice. They're pretty. I think they have great direction and decent casting. But the movies are enough. I don't feel like I have the time or energy to expend on "Harry Potter." But last week I watched "The Hunger Games" and suddenly felt an overwhelming need to run to my local library and pick up a copy. What? Why?
When "The Hunger Games" first became popular (last summer when the movie was coming out and it was "the" new thing to read) I rolled my eyes and told people to leave me alone, I have big boy books to read (my reading list last summer concerned ancient Chinese literature and the Secret History of the Mongols, for any one interested). But now I feel guilty for pigeon-holing Suzanne Collins. And like any good English Major, I deconstructed "The Hunger Games" to figure out what makes it different from "Harry Potter."
Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist of "The Hunger Games," is relatable, Harry Potter is only half-so. Here's what I mean: how many of you are The Chosen One? How many of you have been chased down by a dark wizard because of a prophecy given while your mother was pregnant? No? No one? For a while before the Seventh Book there was speculation that the prophecy from "HP and the Order of the Phoenix" was actually about Neville Longbottom, and that ultimately, Neville was going to be The Chosen One. What a twist! I became the most avid supporter of this theory (despite not reading the books), and in fact, if that had been the case, I would have probably gone back and read them. Think of the implications: Harry spends seven years thinking he's working up to some destiny, fighting magical Hitler who is so focused on killing him, he can't realize that the true threat is being raised in herbology and playing with a prehensile cactus at the back of the class. But spoiler alert, it doesn't happen. Harry Potter is a special little flower and that's the story.
Real life isn't really like that. Sure, real life doesn't have wizards and wands either. But part of what makes "Harry Potter" so marketable is the fact that it has something we all understand (tests, professors, relationship difficulties, family problems) and mixes it with something we all desire (the ability to teleport, to do laundry with the flick of a wand, to torture people indefinitely). The universe of "Harry Potter" is basically our universe with all its problems (racism, but magic), combined with something we all want (magic wands).
Suzanne Collins, on the other hand, didn't write "Katniss Everdeen and the Hunger Games." She wrote "The Hunger Games." Katniss' survival is never assured. What do we think about all those other students at Hogwarts? Extras. In "The Hunger Games," Katniss never wanted to or expects to be the big hero. She just wants to get home, to protect and feed her family. The movie doesn't start with, "Hey Katniss, big things here, you're actually super special and we all need you to defeat big bad 100% evil thing!"
No, it begins with her little sister being selected for near-certain death. For the love of her sister (something that is empathetic, if not sympathetic) she rushes forward and volunteers in Primrose's place. Panem, a dystopic future world shockingly reflects the current United States in our entertainment (exploiting personal tragedies for television) and our economics (poverty stricken coal miners of West Virginia while the major cities live in exquisite luxury) and presents an every man that shivers, and cries, and bleeds just like us.
Harry is a special flower living in a truly fantastic universe. That's the meaning of "fantasy:" a world where everything goes right. Harry appears to suffer, but he wins. He achieves a prophesied victory. He's The Chosen One. What reader can compare with that? But Katniss is you and me. She is utterly mortal in an persistent struggle for survival in an increasingly harsh world. Katniss is us. And that's why I'd rather read "The Hunger Games."


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