Aside from being mega-hot, bestselling fiction and film, there are actually quite a few similarities between J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, both on the surface and deep within their structural and thematic cores. These similarities might account for the reason fans of one series often become fans of the other, and also why these books are worthy of study as literature and not to be dismissed as merely “children’s stories” (as if children’s stories weren’t some of the most profound works ever written…but that’s another essay). Hogwarts Professor John Granger has examined some of these similarities at his blog site, including the literary alchemy of both works, their ring composition, and underlying morality. But there’s still a lot of ground to cover. This series of essays will compare Harry Potter and the Hunger Games in three areas:
- Part I. Harry, Katniss & the mythic Hero’s Journey;
- Part II. Hogwarts, Panem & the Dystopian Literary tradition; and
- Part III. Blood Sport in Panem & Hogwarts.
OK. Onto Part I.—
The Hero’s Journey. As Robin Parrish points out in a piece for Forever Geek, Harry Potter, “The Boy Who Lived” and Katniss Everdeen, “The Girl on Fire” are both set on the course of the mythic “hero’s journey”, a basic pattern that can be found in ancient narratives and modern storytelling from cultures around the world. American mythologist Joseph Campbell called this the human “monomyth” and described it in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). The hero’s journey can be divided into as many as 17 stages, but for simplicity’s sake, we’ll only summarize Harry’s and Katniss’ journeys here.
The journey begins with a “Call to Adventure”, where a hero is selected to go forth on a quest, often involving the rescue of someone or something, a fight against the forces of evil, or to retrieve some precious object. In ancient epics the hero was often a great warrior (like Beowulf or Hercules) but modern tastes have re-cast the hero as the humble everyman unaware of his or her destiny until receiving the “call” (like Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins). Along the quest, the hero encounters a powerful mentor and several helpers who impart advice and give material aid. For mentor, think Obi Wan Kenobi or Glenda the Good Witch. For helpers, think Han Solo and Chewbacca, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman and the Cowardly Lion. The hero then crosses the “Threshold” of the world he or she has known and ventures into an unknown and dangerous realm where several trials await. Eventually, the hero descends into the “Belly of the Whale”, if not a literal whale’s stomach (like the Biblical Jonah), then a metaphorical one: perhaps the dark Underworld (Hercules), a cavern (Bilbo Baggins), or a trash compacter within the enemy’s space fortress (Luke Skywalker). This is the hero’s lowest point, and his or her emergence from the deep marks not only the turning point of the story, but also the hero’s transformation. Upon the successful completion of the challenges and temptations – often including defeating the “Big Bad” (as Buffy the Vampire Slayer did each season), the hero returns to the “upper” world and goes back to his or her familiar starting place, bringing a boon (gifts) of wealth, health, or abundance. Bilbo returned with gold and a magic ring. Dorothy brought back the Wicked Witch’s broom.
Both Harry and Katniss begin as the humblest of humble heroes. Harry is the unwanted orphan forced to live in a cupboard beneath the stairs, while the fatherless (and as good as motherless) Katniss ekes out a living for her family in the impoverished District 12 of Panem. As Hogwarts Professor John Granger notes, “Orphans have been great story fodder, obviously, especially orphans-in-a-jam, from Oliver Twist to Harry Potter, because you have [to] be pretty bent-out-of-shape not to be rooting for the kid with no parents.”
Harry’s call to adventure is his invitation to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, for him a hitherto unknown world of magic and danger. When he crosses the threshold into the Wizarding World, Harry learns he is not an unwanted orphan but the heralded “Boy Who Lived”, the only survivor of a deadly attack by a Dark Lord. Along the way Harry is given aid by his mentor, Albus Dumbledore, as well as from helpers such as Hermione and Ron, Remus Lupin and Sirius Black. In each volume, Harry faces several smaller trials before he descends into the “Belly of the Whale”, often making a literal journey underground, for instance beneath Hogwarts to find the Sorcerer’s Stone or the Chamber of Secrets, or deep into the Ministry of Magic or Gringott’s Bank vaults.
Katniss Everdeen is called to adventure when she volunteers to take her younger sister’s place in the annual Hunger Games. She crosses the threshold from the known to the unknown world when she arrives at the Capitol, transitioning between the two realms – as Harry does – on an extraordinary train ride. Katniss also has mentors and helpers, including the previous Games’ winner Haymitch, her stylist Cinna, and fellow tributes Peeta and Rue. In the first volume of the trilogy, Katniss first must defeat her fellow tributes as well as the hostile environment of the arena. She also descends into the “Belly of the Whale” when she spends some time in a cave with the injured Peeta. This marks the turning point for her: she no longer struggles just to survive, but determines to get Peeta through the Games as well as defy the all-powerful Gamemakers.
Defeating the “Big Bad” is the ultimate trial for the hero. Just as Luke Skywalker must defeat the Emperor Palpatine, and Dorothy Gale must defeat the Wicked Witch, Harry must ultimately defeat the Dark Lord Voldemort, although in each volume of the series he faces a different enemy who is a stepping stone toward his final battle. For Katniss Everdeen, defeating her fellow tributes is not the final trial. To effect lasting change for her people, she must ultimately bring down President Snow and the government. Over the years, Harry retrieves various boons, such as the Sorcerer’s Stone, the Tri-Wizard Cup and the Horcruxes. Katniss’ victory in her first Hunger Games allows her to return home with needed food for her family and the people of her district.
As Parrish points out, “Much like the Harry Potter books, each of the three Hunger Games books unfolds over the course of a year’s time,” which allows each hero to make a full revolution of the hero’s journey in each volume. So Harry descends and returns seven times over the seven years of his story, while Katniss descends and returns three times. They each also make an over-arching super-journey which covers the entire series. Harry’s over-arching quest is to defeat Lord Voldemort, while Katniss must bring an end to the Hunger Games and topple the oppressive regime of President Snow. It’s easy to see the structure of the hero’s journey embedded in these two series even with this brief comparison.
It’s fascinating that this story structure has been used time and again in cultures as diverse as ancient Greece and the futuristic empires of outer space. The hero’s journey resonates with human beings of all times and places. It’s exciting, and it’s satisfying. The next time you find yourself routing for a hero in a movie or book, pause a moment to see if the creators have modeled their plot on the hero’s journey.
In Part II of this series, we’ll examine how Harry Potter and the Hunger Games both tap into another literary tradition: the Dystopia.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces . Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008. Print.
Granger, John. “Unlocking ‘The Hunger Games’: The Surface, Moral, Allegorical, and Sublime Meanings.” The Hogwarts Professor. hogwartsprofessor.com. 22 Feb. 2010. Web.
“Hero’s Journey” image. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 18 November 2009. Web.
Parrish, Robin. “9 Reasons The Hunger Games Is the New Harry Potter.” Forever Geek. forevergeek.com. 12 March 2012. Web.