As promised, Flashback/Backslide has returned with the followup to Part 1. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, where I offered my brief review of the second installment in The Hunger Games movie franchise. Now I’d like to tackle a topic in which I’ve been interested for some time. What fascinates me about The Hunger Games is the place it takes among recent fantasy series and the relative ease Katniss & Co. have taken the mantle from Harry Potter & Co. The real-life timelines of the movies never fails to surprise me with The Hunger Games (2012) hitting theaters only eight months after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (2011), with about fourteen months between the book release dates. Collectively, the two series have captured our attention since 2001’s release of Harry Potter and the Philorcerer’s Stone which is pretty much as far back as my memory reaches.
While the two series are ostensibly different, investigating how they are similar provides us with an interesting case study and helps us learn more about each individually. In this cursory breakdown, I hope to walk through the two series, pointing out areas where they are similar and how these similarities impact the stories and their popularity.
PANEM vs THE WIZARDING WORLD
Much of why Harry Potter and The Hunger Games have been so successful are the painstaking efforts Suzanne Collins and J.K. Rowling take to flesh out their fantastic worlds. Harry Potter has one of the most developed and elaborate fantasy realms of recent memory (or at least the most developed world with comparable popularity. Certainly, numerous examples of detailed fantasy universes from the last 10-20 years exist, and pages could be written on them, but it is hard to argue that Harry Potter has attained a unique level of popularity). Ask your nearest Harry Potter fan about the series and they’re likely to rattle off an exhausting list of spells, charms, creatures and other magical creations. While it may be fair to say that much of what is in Rowling’s books is seen in magic related works elsewhere (some kids forget that Rowling didn’t invent wizards), Rowling uses these bricks to build an expansive world likely to rival any constructed in the future. The world crafted by Collins differs from Rowling’s in many ways, most superficially involving the lack of magic and other strictly fantastic elements. But Collins doesn’t leave out the absurd or lack in her expansion of Panem.
Both Panem and the world of Harry Potter live in the shadow of a past tragedy. The tragedy of The Hunger Games is not the unspecified apocalypse that led to the nation itself but the government’s destruction of the 13th district in the so-called Dark Days that take place prior to the events of the first book. In the series, the fear generated by the obliteration of the 13th district hovers over all the weaker districts and leads to the Hunger Games themselves, an event central to the society. The wizards in Rowling’s world similarly live under a net of fear woven in this case from Voldemort’s rise and fall. Even when the evidence supporting his return mounts, they can not bring themselves to believe their worst nightmares have been realized. While Panem and the Wizarding World differ in many ways, this base in fear due to events taking place prior to the start of both series immediately align a group attitude among their respective denizens.
Interestingly, the weight of fear seems heavier in Panem, even though the Dark Days take place decades before the events of the first Hunger Games book and Voldemort’s reign of terror ends just a decade or so before that series begins. I expect that this statement will draw the ire of more than a handful of Potter fans but I believe the difference is important in characterizing the two series. For one, the actual Hunger Games, the last-child-standing blood bath we know so well, is a yearly reminder of the failed rebellion. In addition to the actual event, the characters constantly evade adding additional entries into the Reaping which would increase their chances of entering the Hunger Games arena. The second reason the fear gradient is important between the two series is due to their inherent stories. The Hunger Games is essentially the story of a rebellion, in this case a second rebellion, against an oppressive regime and their methods. Conversely, Harry Potter begins ten years after Voldemort’s fall and the characters have reestablished equilibrium in the shadow of this terror. A similar Hunger Games equivalent would be if the first rebellion of Panem had successfully overthrown the Capitol, the Hunger Games equivalent to Voldemort’s ambitions. Instead, the Wizarding World begins the series in relative peace which strains then shatters as the series progresses. Fear circling around Voldemort persists (no character is even willing to utter his name), but the wizards and witches enjoy a deserved, yet tenuous, sigh of relief at the onset of the series. Lastly, and here I may draw ire from fans of The Hunger Games, the fear is heavier in this newer series partially due to scope of the two works. The Hunger Games deals more exclusively with this central focus. Each of the first two movies spend the vast majority of their time dealing with the events of each Hunger Games and the toiling and scheming of the heroes against the Capitol. In contrast, Harry Potter expands its scope further than just the efforts against Voldemort. Much of our reading and viewing is spent with Harry, Ron, Herione, and Neville as they learn spells, play Quidditch, quarrel with Snape and in general focus their efforts and young wizard angst elsewhere. In many ways the Wizarding World is more expansive with a richer plot, allowing for readers to joyfully lose themselves in dozens of subplots and character arcs.
THE GIRL ON FIRE VS THE BOY WHO LIVED
At the center of both franchises we find a likable and complex main hero. Harry and Katniss are the unlikely chosen ones, the focus of both the reader and the characters in their worlds. In the story lines of each series, our heroes serve as a lightning rod for their following, Harry in the fight against Voldemort and Katniss against the Capitol. While the authors allow us an intimate view into each character’s hearts and motivations, their following largely knows them as an anonymous hero, seen only through incessant media coverage. Each character is more a symbol for their people than an actual spokesman and each has a literal symbol they are known by, Harry the scar and Katniss the Mockingjay. But Harry and Katniss are more like Marvel heroes than DC heroes. Both are uncomfortable with their role and tend to shy away from the limelight, yet aren’t afraid to step in when they know they are needed (eg. Katniss stopping the whipping of Gale). They are reluctant but gifted, each in their own ways.
Katniss and Harry spend a lot of time being angsty for long stretches of the series. Harry spends much of Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix (I may be getting the specific book wrong) being somewhat whiny (sorry Harry) and asking “Why won’t Dumbledore tell me what is going on?” over and over again. He is left in the dark, just like Katniss in the second installment of her series. Katniss senses that the others hide the whole truth from her and detects their resentment of her popularity and importance. Like Harry, Katniss senses this resentment and compounds it with the feeling that she is left out of the loop further fueling the angst and resentment she herself feels. But Katniss’ angst never hits that of Harry, who reaches almost Peter Parker in Spiderman 3 levels. Later she, like Harry, finds out that the others are working in the background and can’t explain the whole story until a more appropriate time.
THE VICTORS vs THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX
Harry and Katniss each have a posse. Harry has Ron, Hermoine and the Order of the Phoenix, a group of strong wizards working in secret for the people. Katniss has Peeta, Finnick, Wiress, and Beetee in the games and Gale, Woody Harrelson, and others as her Order or the Phoenix of sorts which work in secret for the people. Each has an agent working directly under the archenemy’s nose (anyone familiar with the two series will know the mole working with President Snow and Voldemort, but on the off chance anyone still doesn’t know, I’ll leave the names out). While Katniss and Harry each have exceptional talents, like Katniss’ skill with the bow and Harry’s Parseltongue/Occlumency/Patronus/etc, the members of their inner circle also have unique talents. Surrounding Katniss are Peeta the baker skilled in camoflauge, Wiress and Beetee from the technology district who are extremely intelligent and adept in electronics, Finnick the skilled District 4 Victor who wields a Trident and enjoys extreme popularity in the Capitol, and the psychotic axe murderer Johanna Mason. In Harry’s corner are the extremely loyal and capable Ron, the intelligent and brave Hermione and the rest of the Order including the metamorphmagus Tonks, her werewolf husband Remus Lupin, the animagi Sirius Black and Minerva McGonagall, the super auror with a mad eye Alastor Moody, the mischievous Weasley twins, and of course Dumbledore who you may remember as that old professor with a great big bushy beard.
I’ve always been a fan of ensemble groups with multiple members each with unique and complementing abilities/talents. That’s what makes the X-Men, The Justice League and the Avengers so entertaining. But in the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series, the characters all have the same inherent “power-level” (as in the humans in The Hunger Games are all humans), but they each have their own niche within their worlds. Sadly, a comparison can be made to (give me a second to build up some strength…) The Twilight Saga (don’t freak out! just hear me out). In those books/films, the characters hail from Team Edward/Vampire and Team Jacob/Werewolf but specific characters have unique abilities within their camps. Amongs the vampires, Alice Cullen is gifted with premonitions, Jane Volturi can inflict pain with her mind, and Aro Volturi can read people’s minds through physical contact. Side Note: You may have noticed that I left out any discussion of Twilight when I discussed the transition from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games as the next popular fantasy series. Well, you’re right. I did. For many reasons. For the sake of fairness I will say that The Hunger Games and Harry Potter have a more explored and layered story line and have reached a higher and broader level of popularity (with a lower level of hate) than Twilight, thus allowing for my exclusion.
Similar comparisons between these two exceedingly popular series abound. Some of the above descriptions may seem trivial (most heroes have a posse after all) and others false, but likely we can all agree that The Hunger Games has seamlessly taken the baton from Harry Potter as the most popular fantasy series running now. Divergent may sneak some of the spotlight away from Katniss and Friends but her dominance seems cemented for now. If you have any other ideas about how the two series compare, please share them in the comments below!
Thanks for reading!
P.S. I don’t want to get into Divergent too much here, but similarities between the Divergent series and The Hunger Games and Harry Potter are easily found as well. A few quick thoughts: Divergent vs. Harry Potter = Division into factions/houses based on personality traits; young reluctant brave hero; awkward young love. Divergent vs. The Hunger Games = Division of characters into factions/districts; young reluctant, brave female hero; awkward young love; evil government regime; post-apocalyptic dystopia; Finnick and Four (the connection is probably obvious to the reader, but in case it isn’t clear: These are two of the more attractive men in Hollywood). There are more connections but I’ll save them for another day. Maybe when Divergent is the top dog in the fantasy world, if that day ever comes.