(And then I promise I’ll let the whole thing go [probably (probably not)].)
A love triangle is usually a romantic relationship involving three people. While it can refer to two people independently romantically linked with a third, it usually implies that each of the three people has some kind of relationship to the other two.
A lot of reports accompanying the release of The Hunger Games (movie) have made reference to a “love triangle” between Katniss, friend Gale, and ally/competitor Peeta. And I get what they’re trying to do there: The top-grossing YA movies of late have involved at least some kind of three-sided romantic entanglement, whether it’s the Harry/Hermione/Ron romantic tension that kept ‘shippers rapt for a decade or the Edward/Bella/Jacob eye-rolliness that kept Twihards panting and the rest of us rooting for Tyler’s van back in Chapter 3.
But The Hunger Games isn’t a love triangle–not by the traditional definition, at least. And identifying the book as such and pushing the movie to serve as such does both the book and the fans a disservice, and that makes me sad.
Note: This post is bustin’ with SPOILERS for the book, although not so much for the movie (except to the extent that it’s, y’know, based on the book). If you don’t want the first book spoiled–or if you don’t want to see me get pissy about a YA novel–read elsewhere.
Otherwise, read on.
It’s possible that I over-think things.
It can be argued that two guys crushing on the same girl may constitute a love triangle. I don’t think it does. I think their affection isn’t a triangle until she returns at least some interest; as many people as are doubtless drooling over Bradley Cooper, ascribing to him a love duomegagon would be much. The Hunger Games triangle falls apart when Katniss isn’t a participant in her lovefest. She just always has more important things to attend to. Her romantic arc goes from having no romantic feelings at the beginning to not knowing if she has romantic feelings at the end; and from being completely oblivious about both boys’ feelings at the beginning to completely oblivious until the top of the last page.
The first time we meet Gale at the very beginning, Katniss establishes that she does not have and has never had romantic feelings for him. He’s a good hunting partner, her best friend and confidant. After their fathers died in the same mining accident, they were forced together to hunting and gathering to feed their families. When she’s selected for the Games, he’s the one she asks to make sure her family doesn’t starve. But she makes it clear to us that she has no romantic feelings for him (and hasn’t the slightest clue of his feelings for her).
Katniss’s romantic connection with Peeta is even more negligible. Peeta also came into her life soon after her father’s death, and he also contributed to her survival: When she was literally about to starve to death in the alley behind his parents’ bakery, he took a punch from his mother to be able to throw Katniss a burned loaf of bread intended for the pigs. His action allowed her to live so that she could find a way to feed her family. They’ve had no contact since then, although she continues to feel indebted to him. And when they’re both selected at the Reaping, she recognizes and feels bad for “the boy with the bread.”
During the Games, it appears (appears) that Katniss’s feelings for Peeta are changing. When Peeta announces his love for her during the first interviews, it looks (looks) like she might feel the same way. But readers get a first-person insight into her thoughts, and then Peeta gets that insight when she puts him into a wall: She thinks he made her look weak, possibly intentionally. It takes Haymitch to convince her that by publicly proclaiming his love, Peeta made her look desirable and thus more attractive to potential sponsors, who could drop gifts throughout the Games that could keep her alive.
From the moment Katniss and Peeta got on the train to the Capitol, she is functioning under the impression that he’s shady and plotting and that–like her–everything he does is an effort to gain an edge. She thinks the initial declaration of love is because of Haymitch’s coaching. She thinks he’s only staying close to her to preserve the illusion. It’s only on Haymitch’s insistence and Peeta’s pressure that Katniss finally agrees to go along with the “star-crossed lovers” angle, and she still keeps her emotional distance.
After Katniss sees Peeta allied with the Careers, helping them hunt her, she’s looking forward to seeing him dead and even to killing him herself. She has no qualms about dropping a nest full of angry, hallucinogenic hornets on him, and when he saves her life, she chalks it up to more of his act. Because she thinks he’d played her and she fell for it.
The Rule Change
But what about when the Gamemakers change the rules? Katniss says, “Peeta!” Out loud! And then she goes to find him!
Well, of course she does. He has no incentive to kill her now, so he isn’t a threat. And if she were to let him die when it’s possible for both of them to make it home, she would become a pariah in her district. Plus, running to his side plays up the whole “star-crossed lovers” strategy that will keep the sponsors on their side. And when she realizes that Peeta may have been playing that strategy all along, she realizes that he might never have been a threat, and that she could actually have an ally.
When she is patching him up and he starts being close and affectionate, she’s reminded about their star-crossed love. Thus the first kiss, which for her holds no romance but does result in soup. She gets the message: Lovin’ for gifts. Personal stories for narcotics. But she has to keep reminding herself that they’re expected to act like they’re in love. When they’re starving, it’s intimate conversation and another kiss. And while it gives her a “stirring in her chest”–YA-speak for “in her loins”–and makes her start to wonder if she has feelings for him and wonder what Gale is thinking back home, all is quickly forgotten with the appearance of a big basket of food.
Katniss could have lived without Peeta. Her gratitude to him notwithstanding, she’d lived with him as a peripheral figure in her life for five years and would likely be able to continue living without him there at all. If someone else killed him during the Games, she would go home broken but alive. Her berry solution works because the boy she’s become close to doesn’t have to die, she doesn’t have to be the one to kill him, and she gets to tell the Capitol where to shove it–which is what she’s wanted pretty much the entire time. Most important is that Katniss knows the Gamemakers would never let them kill themselves. She knows their first priority will be to make sure they have at least one victor. Her sacrifice is a non-sacrifice, because she knows the Capitol will never let her make it.
After the Games, Haymitch warns her that she has to keep up the love charade because the Capitol is angry with her. She doesn’t have time to sort out her feelings for Peeta–what she really felt, what she’d been faking, what she’d faked that had become real–because she has a role to play. When Peeta ultimately discovers that Katniss has just been following instructions the entire time, he’s devastated–and Katniss is just trying to figure out what feelings she has for Peeta and/or Gale (if any) and why she feels guilty. If love triangle implies that she’d have divided affections or have to choose between two loves, Katniss doesn’t entirely know if she has affections at all. All she’s sure about is confusion and the fear that if she can’t continue playing her role convincingly, her district will suffer.
Why it matters
Katniss Everdeen is an strong female character–and strong in the sense of actually being strong, rather than the designation of “strong” that writers and filmmakers assign to their female characters to make themselves look less sexist. Katniss actually is brave, smart, competent, and mature beyond her years. It would be great if she had time to stop and feel romantic feelings, but she doesn’t. She’s pragmatic. She has responsibilities. And on top of that, she has no taste for romance and children in a world where any kid she had would end up in front of the Justice Building waiting to get reaped. The love that drives her is a different kind of love. And while romantic love is a perfectly reasonable motivator, it’s also a classic staple in YA novels. Girls need examples of heroines who are driven by compassion, respect, defiance, and even self-interest–other real things that motivate real people.
Katniss Everdeen, the Girl Who Loved: Katniss loves her mother, in the way we sometimes still love people who betray and disappoint us. She loves Prim like a sister loves a sister, and even a bit like a mother loves a daughter. She loves Gale like a best friend. Her compassion draws her to Rue, a little girl who reminds her of Prim and is a bit of a badass in her own right (and that compassion ultimately saves her when Thresh chose to spare her life). I don’t know that she loves Peeta (and neither does she, which is kind of the point), but she definitely cares about him. So many different kinds of love, even without having to bring the romantic kind into it. So why bring the romantic kind into it? Is it necessary to collect a full set, or are we just worried that the character of Katniss won’t be fully relatable without the promise of a lovestruck happily-ever-after? (All of you who have read Mockingjay are laughing right now.)
Katniss Everdeen, the Girl Who Did What She Had To: Although it shows up more in the next two books (which I won’t spoil here), Katniss unconsciously uses people to reach her goals. She’s able to survive in the arena–and keep Peeta alive–by manipulating the sponsors via her embroidered relationship with Peeta. It establishes a character trait. She’s focused and calculating, having spent so long struggling for her very survival–she doesn’t have time to ruminate about love when lives are at stake–and she tends to project that onto other people. Of course, those aren’t terribly admirable traits. But they do the job to keep her–and other people–alive, and they’re legitimate flaws (rather than being adorably clumsy or loving too much) in an admirable but imperfect character.
Katniss Everdeen, the Girl Who Rebelled: Katniss’s rebellion is a central aspect of the first book, in order to set up further development through the last two books. Her story is peppered through with little and big middle fingers to the Capitol: when she and Peeta hold hands while riding in the chariots. When she shoots the apple out of the pig’s mouth in the training room. When she sings Rue to sleep and then covers her body with flowers and salutes her. And the final one in the story, the last and biggest one, is threatening to eat the berries with Peeta. She knows she can defy the Capitol and force them to accept two victors, thus undermining the entire purpose and history of the Hunger Games. Mold that last gesture into something about risking her life to save the man she loves, and you soft-pedal her rebellious nature. Dampen that, and the final book has nothing to drive it. Remove her from the driver’s seat, and Katniss Everdeen joins the bloated ranks of YA characters who are ready to die for true love.
Team Katniss, y’all.