Since she volunteered as tribute in Suzanne Collins' "The Hunger Games" in 2008, Katniss Everdeen has been called many things.
And this month, amid the release of the franchise's third film — "Mockingjay, Part 1" — fans will see the girl on fire take the mantle of the reluctant rebel in a movement she didn't intend to start.
In possibly the darkest film of the "Hunger Games" series, the public's focus may shift from a discussionover the series' gender dynamics and Katniss' role as a feminist action figure to something at the heart of Collins' trilogy: What it means to live with terrorism.
“A child, or an adult, reading the books might come away with an insight not only into his or her inner life but into history and politics and the wars we are fighting now," The New Yorker's Amy Davidson wrote.
Up until this point in the movie series, Katniss has been forced into action against the totalitarian Capitol that tried to make her a killer in the games. In "Mockingjay," Katniss wrestles with the consequences of her decisions, which may or may not qualify as terrorism.
"One person’s terrorism is another person’s rebellion," said Harvard psychiatrist and author Dr. Steven Schlozman. "I'm not endorsing it, but what Katniss does is stage her own rebellion. The terrorism is there, but they're not going to call it that because the rulers are clearly unjust."
Terrorism expert and University of Massachusetts Lowell security professor Dr. James Forest hasn't read "The Hunger Games" trilogy or seen the movies, but he's concerned that some of Katniss' actions could glorify the lives of rebels and terrorists among young viewers.
"The bottom line is, being a terrorist sucks. If we accept the justification of these groups without taking into account what’s motivating the violence, we lose sight of that nuance. And I would definitely fault Hollywood for that," Forest said. "It sounds like this series portrays the rebellion as justified. But we see very similar rationales and justifications in groups like ISIS."
University of Oklahoma English professor Crag Hill disagrees, arguing that there's nothing glamorous in Katniss' fate. In her role as a pawn first in the games and later in the rebellion on the pages of "Mockingjay," Katniss finds herself straddling the line between hesitant insurgent and symbol of the uprising that will leave her undone in many ways.
"If someone thinks 'The Hunger Games' glorifies Katniss' actions, they haven't read the last book. She will be suffering the consequences of her actions for the rest of her life," Hill said. "If she's a hero, she's a hero in great pain."
It's possible that Collins was intentional in making the reader debate Katniss' fate as either a victim of circumstance, a rebel or a terrorist, since most Americans don't have a clear handle on what makes an insurgence movement different from a terrorist enclave in the first place, Forest said.
"Most people think of terrorists as these wild-eyed, crazy-haired individuals whose attacks are solely based on blood thirst. That’s actually not accurate," Forest said. "Most of these groups try hard to justify their violence as necessary, rational, and they appeal to all kinds of supporters."
What makes someone a terrorist, Forest said, is using violence to coerce action or simply frighten the general population. Considering that most rebellions don't end peacefully, the distinction can be hard to make at first. As an example, Forest points to Boko Haram, the Nigeria-based terrorist group responsible for the kidnapping of 300 schoolgirls this summer.
"The (Nigerian) government is borderline illegitimate and the way they've dealt with Boko Haram has been counterproductive," Forest said. "But Boko Haram are attacking civilians, kidnapping — things that have no place in what would be considered justified."
Forest says he hopes that at the very least, books like The Hunger Games trilogy can serve as a way for kids to start thinking about terrorism and what it means to be a good citizen.
"I hope that novels like this could spark some interest in groups who confront illegitimate governments and why some governments are attacked while others are not," Forest said. "There's a lot you can derive from this that's positive in terms of responsible citizenship."
But if defining terrorism is about perspective, Hill thinks young readers are unlikely to get that perspective on their own, or outside the classroom.
"It's incumbent on a teacher to call Katniss a terrorist," Hill said. "Let’s call Katniss a terrorist and then look at it and see what else she could do. When we're having drone bombings of terrorists, we need to raise those questions and the classroom is the only place that’s really happening."
Hill says "The Hunger Games" is a perfect springboard for the generation that will need a better understanding than current society has about terrorism and modern warfare.
"My entire life we've used military action and it hasn't worked. It’s the youth of today who, 50 years from now, are going to figure out another way to do it and the way to start that is to get them understanding all sides of it," Hill said. "That doesn’t mean accepting ISIS’ purpose, but most people don’t even know what ISIS is. How can we go about solving the problem with one without even understanding who the other is?"
Processing new warfare
To Louisiana State University English professor Steve Bickmore, dystopian young-adult novels like "The Hunger Games" help kids frame events on the world stage in a way that's manageable. So much of that, he says, is about negotiating the complexities behind them.
"If we'd lost the Revolutionary War," he said, "our heroes would have been considered terrorists — they were terrorists against the (English) reign. History is written by the winners."
Understanding the nuance of war and conflict while it's happening is the role of storytelling, Schlozman said. Exploring issues in story form — the way "Animal Farm," for example, was an allegory for the Russian Revolution — helps people make sense of them.
"This is the way humans have long dealt with the issues around us," Schlozman said. "Because we evolved to be ready to know everything we need to know by age 15, the theory is you develop pattern recognition early on. Stories engage the brain to look at things differently."
Especially for kids entering their teens, Schlozman says exploring different points of view is crucial.
"If you ask a middle-school child if, when someone explodes a bomb at the end of the books, does that make them a terrorist, that's tough to understand," Schlozman said. "But around 10th grade, our brains allow us to hold opposing ideas at the same time and that's when we start coming to our own conclusions."
Since the War on Terror itself is only 13 years old, it makes sense that "The Hunger Games" leaves its heroin in a sort of moral limbo — not enough time has passed for society to put conflicts into the full perspective that history will. That, Schlozman said, makes "The Hunger Games" perfectly timed to help youth start processing current ideas about terrorism through the eyes of a heroin roughly their age.
"Stories doing this isn't new. What's new is the exposure to graphicness of terrorism, the willingness to show video of a beheading," Schlozman said. "We've been at war for as long as my daughter has been alive. To me, that means kids need these stories even more."
The quandary of how to deal with terrorism could be what Collins was trying to help young generations grasp with Katniss. Her heroin's choices in the final book are ethically gray and largely motivated out of fear of an institutionalized brand of terrorism more than patriotism or a clear sense of what the outcome will be.
In short, she fights and kills because she must protect what's most dear to her without always knowing the consequences — a powerful metaphor in a world where warfare is often conducted from afar with weapons that certainly spare soldiers' lives, but whose ethical use is debatable.
"I never wanted any of this," Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) says in the "Mockingjay" trailer.
"Miss Everdeen," replies President Snow (Donald Sutherland), "it's the things we love most that destroy us."