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The Hunger Games, explained

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen
Mockingjay Part 1
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The beginning of the end of the Hunger Games movie franchise arrives today. Mockingjay Part-1, the first installment in the series' two-part finale, hurtles into theaters like one of Katniss Everdeen's arrows.

It's been six years since readers — and then viewers — were first introduced to the "Girl on Fire," and in that time, Katniss and the franchise have become household names.

But maybe you're just getting into The Hunger Games. That's cool — and you have some awesome books and movies to catch up with. Here are some questions you might have.

1) What are The Hunger Games books and movies?

The Hunger Games is a trilogy of young adult, dystopian novels written by Suzanne Collins, a woman previously known for writing for Nickelodeon's early '90s sitcom Clarissa Explains It All. The books envision a dystopian, futuristic United States-like country called Panem that's divided into 12 districts, with a Capitol that rules them, and the terrible game of bloodsport the Capitol makes those districts take part in.

Collins's books have been immensely popular — in 2012 Scholastic announced that 50 million copies of the books had been sold — and are now movies. The first book, The Hunger Games, was published in 2008 and was turned into a movie in 2012. The sequel, Catching Fire, was released in 2009, with a movie following last year. The final book, Mockingjay, will actually be split into two movies with the first chapter hitting theaters today.

2) What are the Hunger Games? What is a Mockingjay?

(Mockingjay Part-1)

They are the crux of Collins's book. In order to keep its stranglehold over the other districts, the Capitol enacts a life-or-death competition called the Hunger Games. Two children — one boy and one girl — from each of the 12 districts are sent into the Games, where they have brutal fights to the death. The Games finish when there's only one child left standing.

The children sent into the Games are called tributes. Tributes can either volunteer or are picked by a random draw. Collins's book explores what happens when Katniss, a girl from impoverished District 12, volunteers in her sister's place in the 74th Hunger Games.

Without giving too much away, the Mockingjay, named for a futuristic bird, is a symbol of rebellion in the third book.

3) Who is Katniss Everdeen?

(Hunger Games)

Katniss Everdeen, a.k.a. The Girl on Fire (so named for a dress she wears that appears to engulf her in flames), is the heroine and protagonist of the Hunger Games trilogy. Jennifer Lawrence plays her in the movies. The role has brought her the immense fame she now has.

4) What is Katniss Everdeen like?

Katniss is stubborn, savvy, and paranoid. She is selfless and strong.

She's also not inherently likable — and likability is key to the Games. A constant struggle for Katniss is how to make the audience watching like her, and she's aware of this. This weakness leads to her essentially putting on a show and a perosona. These aspects of the books and films make for a canny satire on celebrity culture.

5) Is the Hunger Games trilogy feminist?

Jennifer Lawrence in Catching Fire (Hunger Games: Catching Fire)

Though the most pronounced theme in The Hunger Games is a distrust of adults, authority, and the government, there's also an underlying theme of feminism woven throughout the books.

To fully understand The Hunger Games, you have to consider cultural movements that preceded it. One of the biggest was the Twilight series, Stephenie Meyer's four-part series about a girl named Bella who falls in love with a vampire who wants to spend his eternal life in high school. Bella pinning her hopes and dreams on an immortal, undead man-boy has drawn criticism for being anti-feminist.

Wrote The Guardian's David Cox:

Bella's fate isn't only dispiriting; it's also deceptive. On the whole, beguilement by a teenage bad boy, however courtly his manner, doesn't lead to eternal love; nor is self-abnegation a reliable route to bliss.

Thus, The Hunger Games series felt even more seismic than it might have otherwise. It features a love triangle, sure, but it's much less important to the book's overall story. Katniss is independent. She's a bit abrasive. And she's less interested in love.

There's also the world that Collins has created. In the Games, girls are as feared as boys and keep up with them both physically and mentally. Katniss is one of the most fearsome and tactical tributes. But she isn't the only strong female competitor. Johanna Mason (Jena Malone in the films), a major character in the second and third books, wins her games because people think she's weak and keep her around. Enobaria, a past victor, ripped someone's throat out with her teeth to win the games — a move that's as ruthless as the book describes. And there are other female champions like Mags and Wiress, who managed to win the Games in unconventional ways.

Women and girls in the Games are pillars of strength, symbols of hope. They are independent. They're not necessarily perfect — even Katniss is flawed — but they're quite an improvement from many of the works they followed.

6) Does anyone actually go hungry during the Hunger Games?

Yes. The Hunger Games live up to their name.

In her books, Collins focuses on food as a symbol of wealth and inequality. Katniss and others who live in the outer Districts starve, while the Capitol has an abundance of food. The contrast between these different situations constantly appears in the first two books and is part of the series' political allegory.

The relationship people have with food bleeds into the actual Games. Collins points out that the tributes from districts closer to the Capitol, who are used to plenty of food, have a tough time in the Games, because of the general lack of it throughout the competition. Some past winners win solely because they know how to find food, while others have lost because they ate the wrong thing, like poison berries.

7) What is a Peeta?

This is Peeta. He is not a pocket of bread. (Hunger Games: Catching Fire)

Peeta, pronounced like the pocket of bread that you fill with hummus and falafel, is a boy from District 12 who goes into the Hunger Games with Katniss. He's a baker. As you can imagine, a baker isn't the kind of person who would be good in a last-man-standing competition.

8) Why does everyone in this book have funny names?

Finnick O'Dair (Hunger Games: Catching Fire)

Collins has never explicitly explained why the characters in her books are named the way they are. But that hasn't stopped people from coming up with theories. The best theory out there belongs to Slate's Miriam Krule:

Characters from the poor, depleted districts are named after plants or other earthy items; those from the regal capital have a Roman influence … The Roman-themed names play on Collins' critique of imperialism — the nation of Panem gets its name from panem et circenses, or "bread and circuses" — while the plant names highlight the natural goodness of the books' heroes.

The names are also part of Collins's world-building. In the world of Panem, gems and precious stones come from District 1. And names for tributes from District 1 are "showy", like Glimmer, Marvel, Cashmere, and Gloss. Betee and Wiress are from District 3, a district that excels in technology, so their names reflect that.

There's also some phonetics at work. Cinna, Katniss's stylist, sounds like the word "sinner," which is how he's viewed in the eyes of the Capitol. And Peeta sounds like pita, which makes sense considering his profession.

9)What happens to tributes who win the Hunger Games?

Victors get to live and retire in a village. That might sound great — and certainly an improvement over near certain death. But there are some drawbacks.

Collins makes clear that a life of a victor is damaged. Finnick O'dair, a good-looking victor introduced in the second and third books, became tangled in a life of prostitution after the Games, for instance.

"I wasn't the only one. If a victor is considered desirable, the president gives them as a reward or allows people to buy them for an exorbitant amount of money. If you refuse, he kills someone you love. So you do it," he says in Mockingjay.

Still other victors become addicted to drugs after they win. And there's also PTSD, which affects Katniss greatly. "Winning" the Hunger Games doesn't really feel like winning at all.

10) Isn't it gross to watch movies about kids killing kids?

It's not like the kid killing is for "fun." These children are put into this terrible situation by a government that doesn't care for them. The deaths are supposed to shock and disgust readers and viewers.

When reviews started arriving for the films, in fact, there was actually a bit of controversy over the lack of violence.

"It's too bad that, like its predecessor, Catching Fire doesn't convey the full horror and injustice of each combatant's death at the moment of killing," David Edelstein wrote in New York magazine. "That's what you feel in a great war movie, whereas, in the end, The Hunger Games trilogy is just good dystopian pulp."

Critics like Edelstein argued that the movies didn't show enough violence or the terror of the Games, which ended up dulling Collins's points. It's possible the movie would have been more effective with an R-rating, which would have allowed more brutal violence.

11) How much have the movies made?

Lots. The first Hunger Games movie grossed $408,010,692 domestically. And the second movie, Catching Fire, was the top-grossing film of 2013, besting the first movie by around $16 million.

12) What are the biggest differences between the books and the novels?

The biggest difference is that the book is written from a first-person perspective and peppered with Katniss's inner monologues. There are no voiceovers in the movies, which means it's up to Jennifer Lawrence to convey Katniss's confusion, paranoia, and conflicting feelings.

The other big change from the books actually surfaced during Lawrence's casting. The books don't mention Katniss's ethnicity, but hinted that she has olive skin and dark hair. Indeed, Katniss could very well be multiracial. The casting of Lawrence, blonde and blue-eyed, initially caused a furor. But the actress's portrayal of the character has been generally been lauded.

13) Is there a Hunger Games theme song?

There are a couple. In the movie, there is a four-note whistle that becomes prominent as a signal that everything is okay.

As for official songs, Taylor Swift created a moody, somber track called "Safe and Sound" for the first album:

Lorde takes over the reins in Mockingjay, with a more vindictive, booming song called "Yellow Flicker Beat":

14) How is the film dealing with the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman?

(Mockingjay Part-1)

Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played an important supporting character in Catching Fire, died during the filming of the final two movies. Production was halted as producers decided between rewriting the script to change Hoffman's role or creating a CGI image of Hoffman to act out his remaining parts.

Director Francis Lawrence told HuffPo Live that Hoffman's remaining scenes were rewritten:

He had two scenes with dialogue that were left, and we decided we didn't want to try any kind of digital trickery with him, so we rewrote his scenes and gave his dialogue to other actors. So there was one scene from Part 1 and one scene from Part 2, so we shot both movies back to back.

15) What is the lasting impact of The Hunger Games?

Katniss Everdeen and everything she stands for —independence, ferocity, kicking ass — are pop culture fixtures. Collins's story about a girl coming into her own and finding her worth ended up inspiring many.

The Hunger Games has also impacted the young adult genre. While there are still books being written with girls and young women who resemble Twilight's Bella, there are even more characters who resemble Katniss. Look no further than the dystopian young adult Divergent series, or the Beautiful Creatures series. Both were wildly successful, as was a movie based on the first Divergent book.

The success of The Hunger Games also changed the way movie executives thought about young adult and female audiences. Its huge box office draw shattered the myth that no one would want to see a movie with female leads. But it also had a more immediate effect.

After The Hunger Games dominated the box office, a bevy of young adult movie adaptations were greenlit and produced (see: Divergent, Beautiful Creatures, City of Bones). Studios wanted to tap into that market, but none of those movies came close to cashing in the way the Hunger Games did, though Divergent was quite successful.

16) What details can I use to help me seem superior to my friends by arguing that the books were better?

The symbolism of big government and feminism might be low-hanging fruit, considering how much the movies utilize those themes. What the movies ignore is how important food is in the novel.

Peeta throws a loaf of bread at Katniss, showing that he loves her. Katniss shares food with Rue to show that she cares. Katniss's concept of currency is in the squirrels she hunts. The Capitol feeds the tributes exorbitantly before sending them off to their deaths. And Katniss and Peeta share a "lamb stew" that is never reflected in the movies.

"Guys, I really liked the movie. But I found it curious that for a movie with Hunger in the title, it never really stressed the importance of food like Collins does in the book," is something you could say. But be warned, this might make you look like a pretentious jerk — unless that's what you're going for.

17) Hypothetically, how do I survive a Hunger Games scenario?

If you're athletic, it helps to be good at throwing knives. Cashmere and Gloss, the brother-sister victors from District 1, and Clove, the fifth-place finisher in the first book, all got pretty far thanks to excellent knife-throwing skills.

Going off the fuzzy data (though there are 74 victors, the book doesn't go into detail into how each winner won and skips over a few), throwing knives (two winners, one fifth-place finisher) is a better choice than a bow and arrow (one winner, one idiot who died getting stung by genetically modified bees), trident (one winner), or battle axe (one winner).

If you're fragile but really smart, just get really good at starving (one winner). Or, even better, learn how to camouflage yourself (three winners).

If you're neither, just hope the world never descends into a politically resonant dystopia. And if it does, hope you're never picked.

Mockingjay Part-1 opens on Friday.

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