The colors predominant in the descriptions of the settings of The Hunger Gamesare more than descriptive details; they also convey the novel’s themes by vividly contrasting the different places in which characters live. The first setting readers encounter is District 12, and in particular the Seam, home to Katniss and the mining community. The miners—men and women—are hunched from their work and perpetually grimy with the coal dust embedded in “their broken nails, the lines of their sunken faces.” The Seam has “black cinder streets” and “gray squat houses”; readers later learn that many homes lack heat and running water—conditions that promote dust and ash build-up. Other District 12 settings include the Hob, the black market housed in an old coal warehouse, where coal dust has permanently coated the floors, and the square—the district’s brightest spot, but one that “can be pleasant” when the weather is good but is still spare and basic. The grays and blacks of Katniss’s home communicate the sameness of daily life, the lack of hope for a (literally and figuratively) brighter future, and the beaten-down spirits of the people. When Effie Trinket, District 12’s liaison, takes the stage with her “scary white grin, pinkish hair, and spring green suit,” her garish colors nearly glow against the contrasting grays.
Other settings have contrasting colors, such as the woods, rich with greens and browns of vegetation, the blue of the lake, and the colorful flash of bird wings. Katniss associates the woods with the time she spent with her father, with his love and the skills he taught her, and with freedom. They are a place of escape and peace, and they lie, significantly, beyond the barbed wire fence. But the setting that provides the greatest contrast, and the most meaningful color metaphor other than the grays of the district, is the Capitol. Katniss and Peeta first glimpse the city from the train, and she is struck by “the magnificence of the glistening buildings in a rainbow of hues.” The people, too, are colorful, with “bizarre hair and painted faces.” Readers later learn that Capitol citizens not only dress in bright colors but go so far as to dye their skin. Venia, for example, has skin “a pale shade of pea green,” while Flavius has “orange corkscrew locks” and wears an excessive amount of purple lipstick. So bright are the colors, and so accustomed Katniss is to the muted palette of her home, that she finds them “artificial, the pinks too deep, the greens too bright, the yellows painful to the eyes.” The colors—diverse and profligate—convey the decadence of the Capitol and the indifference to the districts’ plights of people who “have never missed a meal.” The colors also contribute to the spectacle of the Games, as stylists and prep teams dress their tributes up like living dolls for the audience’s delight.
Fire and Flame
Cinna’s brilliance as a stylist is his ability to transform clothes and accessories into metaphors and matters even more in the second novel of the trilogy, Catching Fire, but plays an important role in The Hunger Games as well. Cinna and his counterpart Portia, Peeta’s stylist, make a decision to reject the colors that have traditionally been associated with District 12—the very grays and blacks that, in the setting of the Seam, symbolize hopelessness and despair of change. (“One year,” Katniss recalls, “our tributes were stark naked and covered with black powder to represent coal dust.”) Cinna makes the imaginative leap from coal, District 12’s product, to the fire that coal feeds to create “the most sensational or the deadliest costume” and creates “the girl on fire.” Before the opening ceremonies, most of the stylists are gushing over Cinna and Portia’s work, and Portia herself is “giddy”; but Cinna seems “a bit weary.” Readers sense that more is at stake for Cinna than whether his costumes are a hit. But the flames that seem to engulf Peeta and Katniss impress the audience and, more important, cause “a flicker of hope” in Katniss. His dress for the interviews further associates Katniss with fire; bejeweled, it makes Katniss appear “engulfed in tongues of flame” and “as radiant as the sun.” These associations help develop her character. Katniss, for all her coolness toward Gale and near iciness toward Peeta, Haymitch, and Effie, is burning with anger and hatred for the Capitol. Readers see this anger, for instance, when she performs for the Gamemakers, who are too distracted by lunch to pay attention to her, the last of the 24 tributes to perform. Furious, Katniss feels her “face burning” with anger as she shoots the arrow in their direction, and later, Haymitch comments that the Gamemakers “need some players with some heat.” Katniss acts of defiance in the arena also demonstrate her fiery nature; she tries to quell it, but in fact, as the title of the second novel in the trilogy suggests, she is catching fire and inspiring others to do the same—to let their anger against the contrastingly name President Snow flare up and consume the Capitol.
Throughout the novel, food in general takes on metaphorical weight. In District 12, food is precious not only for meals but for barter. In the first chapter, Prim makes a special goat cheese for Katniss on reaping day, and Katniss and Gale feast on it and fresh “bakery bread, not the flat, dense loaves we make from our grain rations,” because of the occasion. They gather berries and catch fish—reaping day calls for a special meal of comfort food. So all food carries meaning—of survival, generosity, hope—in the novel, but bread in particular functions metaphorically. For example, Peeta is “the boy with the bread,” and his gift of slightly burned bread marks a turning point for Katniss, who had almost decided to hide herself, give up the fight against starvation, and die.
When she and Peeta first eat on the train, Katniss is astonished at the amount of food on the table, including a “basket of rolls” that “would keep my family going for a week.” Bread is, culturally, “the staff of life”—a sustaining food, no matter what form it takes from one culture’s diet to another’s, so its presence in many forms at Capitol meals stands for the Capitol’s wealth, while the bread of the districts—coarse, flat, but dear—represents the constant threat of starvation, a threat engineered by the Capitol to weaken the districts.
A particularly important use of bread as metaphor occurs after Rue’s death. Her district’s citizens had, at great expense and sacrifice, arranged for a loaf of bread to be delivered to her by parachute. After Rue’s death and Katniss’s defiant adornment of her body, the District 11 people allow their precious gift to pass to her: bread “made of dark ration grain and shaped in a crescent. Sprinkled with seeds. . . . still warm.” The bread comforts Katniss and tastes of home, and more than that, it connects her to Rue’s people and reinforces in her a hatred for how the Capitol pits the tributes against each other and isolates the districts from one another.
Flowers and Plants
It is notable that several major characters in The Hunger Games are named for plants and flowers. Katniss’s name comes from a tall water plant with “leaves like arrowheads” (appropriate, since Katniss is an archer) and white petals. Better yet, its tubers are edible—her father teases, “As long you can find yourself, you’ll never starve.” Prim’s full name is Primrose, and even her hideous, bad-tempered cat is named after a flower—Buttercup. Perhaps, in the gray streets of the Seam, their parents looked past the tall fence to the meadow and gave their daughters names that evoke beauty. In the lullaby that Katniss sings for the dying Rue, she sings, “Here the daisies guard you from every harm,” and after Rue dies, Katniss gathers wildflowers and lays them so that they hide the terrible wound and adorn Rue’s face and hair. Each mention and use of these flowers and plants conveys beauty amid privation and death, a sense of normalcy even in the horror of the arena.
Other plants in the novel both literally and figuratively correspond to life and death. On the day after Peeta threw the bread to Katniss, she saw, through a schoolroom window, a dandelion—the first that spring—and remembers her father teaching her to gather dandelion leaves for salad. From then on, she says, Peeta, “the bread that gave me hope,” and the spring dandelion that “reminded me that I was not doomed,” are linked in her mind. She recalls the dandelion, a bright spot of yellow among the coal-dusty streets, at points in the novel when her hope flags.
The dandelion’s polar opposite is of course nightlock, a plant that bears a berry so deadly that, as Katniss’s father warned her once, she must never eat, or she’ll “be dead before they reach your stomach.” Foxface, so starved that she is near death, eats them and dies; Katniss is panicked at the thought that Peeta may have eaten them, too. Their very name conveys the finality and efficacy of their toxin. Yet the nightlock berries become, by the end of the novel, a symbol of defiance as well (and this association is more fully developed in the second novel, Catching Fire). When Katniss suggests that she and Peeta eat the berries, denying the games a victor, the berries stand for her willingness—and Peeta’s—to wrest control of their lives or deaths, if that’s what is required, from the Capitol. Her gambit is effective; the “frantic voice” of the games announcer cries out, “Stop! Stop!” to prevent her from swallowing the nightlock. In a smaller sense, Katniss has won this round against the Capitol; in a larger sense, the nightlock berries are like a tiny wound in the Capitol’s body politic that will fester and spread and eventually be the death of the Capitol’s power.