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Warning: As this piece discusses the trajectory of both stories, the endings of both franchises will be discussed.
The Twilight Saga and The Hunger Games are two franchises that take similar interpersonal dynamics and stretch them in vastly different ways. Both heroines are familial-minded teens who find their worlds flipped upside down by violence and danger. One finds the change stimulating, the darkness offering her a new world that quickly trumps her own reality. The other continually struggles in the midst of chaos, navigating between her innate strength and conviction, and the Powers That Be that seek to use her for their own gain.
Bella and Katniss’ worlds have been discussed at length – both how well they navigate their own circumstances and how their portrayals influence the audiences watching them. Katniss usually wins, her trajectory leading to fervent hero worship no matter how problematic said worship is. But is a heroine’s introduction all that matters? What happens when the weak character becomes the strongest, and the strong character the weakest?
The Twilight Saga
Bella is first introduced to the camera as a young and awkward-looking teen girl clutching a small cactus. She’s not particularly powerful. In fact, she seems at odds with everything – her surroundings, her family and her school. She quickly falls for the one boy who won’t give her the time of day, allured by all of his mystery and erratic behavior. She spends three books and films as a self-sacrificial lamb, first for her family, then her lover, and then her human and vampiric friends.
Bella Swan’s world changes in the final installment. Amongst all the bat-sh*t crazy twists – bed-breaking sex, vampiric insemination, blood breakfasts, bone-cracking deliveries, imprinting on the supernatural newborn baby of the woman you love – Bella becomes a hero. The confused human klutz becomes the graceful, impressively controlled vampire. She’s the anti-“newborn.” Unlike every other vampire in the series, she is never a victim to her impulses. Superstrength accompanies super-control, which are both matched with an ability to shield her mind from mental invaders – a handy trick in a world with mind-manipulating vampires.
Within a few months of turning, Bella learns to fight and even manipulate her mind shield to protect those around her. But her power isn’t only physical. Free of human frailty, she takes control over her life and becomes the protector, making contingency plans for her new, hunted daughter and an active role in the latest round of Volturi danger. And, as it seems from the many trailers for the new film, Bella gets to do some fighting, unlike Stephenie Meyer’s almost violence-free conclusion.
The Hunger Games
Strength wafts from Katniss Everdeen the minute she is introduced. She embodies a fierce resolve, a maternal instinct to provide for her loved ones, and a stunning ability with a bow and arrow. When her younger sister faces certain death, she offers herself to the Reaping, willing to give up her life (and potentially kill other kids) to keep her sister safe. She discovers a charismatic core that not only makes her a media darling, but also the figurehead for a revolution.
Yet, for all the inner strength she possesses, Katniss never really gets a break from government and societal manipulation; she’s a pawn. One side wants her to keep the masses in line, the other wants her to be the emblem of revolt. For all of her skill, she has to fight to be more than just a superficial figure who appears in the propaganda films broadcast to keep the revolt alive. She’s continually beaten and traumatized without ever gaining any semblance of control that she doesn’t forcefully take for herself (and even then, she doesn’t get to keep it).
At the end of the series (wrapped up in such a perfunctory manner that it’s practically a literary middle finger to its fans), after Katniss’ last act of rebellion, she gets to survive, but without making any decisions about how her life will play out. She doesn’t get to attend her own trial or speak in her own defense. She is exiled to her District, an area of mass genocide that preys on her psyche. She is so riddled with post-traumatic stress disorder that for a time she can’t even bring herself to bathe. Once she’s functional, Katniss finds her way back into Peeta’s arms, though she’s still emotionally unable to say the word “love.” An epilogue, which should give the hopeful reader happiness and closure, brings the affair disappointingly full circle.
She has a family with Peeta and life seems to be evolving beyond the horror of penned living and the Hunger Games. But it’s not her dream; she’s still the pawn for others’ plans. As she explains, it took 15 years of prodding until Katniss agreed to have a child – which she was vehemently opposed to after how her own life played out. As she describes getting pregnant: “When I first felt her stirring inside of me, I was consumed with a terror that felt as old as life itself. … Carrying [her second son] was a little easier, but not much.”
One Rises and One is Forever Damaged
For all the critiques against Bella’s human passivity, it’s Katniss who is ultimately passive. Of course she’d be damaged and never completely recover – that’s the sad result of the trauma the young girl faced. But Collins isn’t content with just offering her protagonist as damaged. She’s pressured for 15 years to have a child, and does so, begrudgingly, because “Peeta wanted them so badly.” We can’t critique the politics surrounding Bella’s decision to keep her child at the expense of her physical health without also investigating Katniss’ very problematic path to motherhood. She’s pressured into something she never wanted, an act that makes her feel “terror.”
The ire-producing mess of a protagonist succeeds at every turn and ultimately becomes a woman with extreme control and power, and the heroic fighter who inspired both female and male audiences is ultimately defeated and left with little agency. Katniss fails to save Prim, the motivating factor in this journey. She fails to escape the district she always dreamed of leaving. She watches most of her friends die, and she’s separated from her remaining family. She’s placed into a life and passively tries to live it to the best of her ability. In the end, the only active choice she makes is to record the stories of the people who would be forgotten otherwise. Katniss is not left with one unsoiled, problem-free comfort. Her meadow, a symbol of happiness similar to Bella and Edward’s, quite literally becomes a graveyard, and thus, a constant source of unease as she watches her children play on it, blissfully unaware.
This stems back to this year’s earlier Girls on Film discussion about the problem of hero worship in The Hunger Games. It doesn’t take a big leap to wonder if Collins isn’t trying to create a happy ending and a complete romantic journey, but to question and challenge our notions of romantic heroines and happy endings as well. Readers are dividing into Team Peeta and Team Gale; they’re treating the story with the same romantic fandom of The Twilight Saga, yet being served a completely ravaged and lost heroine with a very qualified “happy ending.”
The end doesn’t change the beginning, but it does challenge our reaction to it, and further unsettles the criticism and praise laid upon both young women. For all of Bella’s faults, she becomes powerful in the end, and for all of Katniss’ power, she’s powerless by the end – her heroic charisma suffers just like she does.
Is it better to start as a hero, or to end as one? How do we navigate our hero worship when the literary tables turn?