Each year, the Panem government forces twelve surrounding districts to surrender a boy and a girl as 'tributes', so that they may compete in a televised fight to the death. Not only does this ritual serve as entertainment for the ruling wealthy, but it also quells any thought of rebellion among the oppressed workers.
The story's protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, is portrayed as a hero, if an imperfect one. Having volunteered for the Hunger Games in order to save her sister Primrose from almost certain death, Katniss for the most part does as the ruling class would require: she appears on their television screens as entertainment, she competes for wealthy sponsors and she eventually does participate in the games themselves, taking several lives in the process.
Is it right to view Katniss as a hero? Do we want our children to idolise this character? I would argue that, in fact, Ms. Everdeen can teach the viewer some very valuable lessons.
Firstly, and most obviously, she personifies the principle of self-sacrifice. In a world where children are randomly taken from their families while their parents stand passively by, Katniss bucks the trend. When her sister Prim is selected to participate in the games, Katniss steps forward without hesitation to take her place, even knowing that she is in all likelihood signing her own death warrant.
This selfless streak is revealed later in the film as well, when Ms. Everdeen again risks her own life in order to procure medicine for her friend Peeta.
While the movie fails to show it in depth, the book clearly outlines the manner in which Katniss has assumed responsibility for the wellbeing of her family. With her father dead and her mother paralysed by grief, Katniss takes it upon herself to feed and clothe her sister. She even places her name in the draw for the Hunger Games many more times than required in return for the food that her family needs. Responsibility is a quality that all children should be taught to admire.
One could argue that the protagonist's character is nevertheless sullied by the fact that she agrees to participate in the games at all. She does personally kill three other teenagers. But it should be noted that she, along with a number of other children, refuse to actively hunt their peers. The plot is deliberately orchestrated so that any kills by these characters are conducted in the context of defence, rather than attack. Katniss befriends and protects several of the more vulnerable children, even as they are technically supposed to be fighting to the death.
The competitors are all clearly classed as either 'good' or 'bad' characters. The 'bad' children are aggressive, and the 'good' kids passive. Cold-blooded murder is portrayed in a horrific light. The 'bad' characters focus their energies on combat, while the 'good' children make use of survival skills.
Finally, there is a defining moment towards the end of the film in which Katniss defies the ruling elite, foreshadowing an inevitable rebellion by the districts against the abominable regime. It is made abundantly clear that the existing state of Katniss' world is reprehensible, and that the Hunger Games themselves are an evil exercise.
Is "The Hunger Games" a dark movie, at least by the standards of its genre? Yes. Is Katniss Everdeen a perfect role model? No. But this fictional world has a greater story to tell yet, with a sharper underlying tale of morality. And the hero will inevitably develop further.
It should be said that there is nothing wrong with an imperfect hero. Katniss has a wide range of truly admirable qualities: selflessness, courage, determination, humility, responsibility, compassion, love and undoubtedly many more. She shows the audience that even in a dark, twisted world without much hope to speak of, a mere frightened girl can change the course of history.
But Katniss Everdeen is human. She has faults, doubts and moments of weakness. She is a protagonist with whom our children can identify, and her story is all the more potent for it.