Not literally, of course. But to my mind, the lovely muddy yellow cat represents Katniss in a very real way.
He’s mentioned on the very first page, standing guard over Prim as she sleeps. Not a plot point, not really light relief but he’s definitely subtext. In the third book, the subtext becomes overt, and it’s clear that Suzanne Collins planned it that way the whole time.
What Buttercup does right at the start of The Hunger Games is let us know right away that Katniss, our wonderful heroine, isn’t perfect, or romantic in any way. She tried to drown Buttercup, after all, because she didn’t want to have to feed him, only letting him live when Prim cries for his life. “Entrails. No hissing”; Katniss thinks that this is the high point of the relationship between Buttercup and her.
The first film is just as explicit at this stage: “I’ll still cook you”, is all Katniss says to Buttercup, as she walks past to go hunting. Buttercup is “the world’s ugliest cat”, and although the cat in HG1 isn’t the right colour, it’s not ugly, the poor thing. The first time I watched it, by the way, I had the sound quite low, and I thought she said, “I’ll kill you”. That works too, judging by their expressions.
Having watched the Special Features on the 2 disc version of The Hunger Games, I’m really puzzled that such an elementary mistake was made, in casting a cat of the wrong colour. I mean, the name is a clue as well. Most of the animals on the film were provided by Jungle Exotics, who don’t seem to have provided the cat, they list that they supplied birds, dogs and insects, but no cat. So it’s not their fault! They have a great website, and if they did tours round their 60 acre facility, I’d definitely sign up for one.
Anyway, back to Hunger Games. Of course, Katniss’ nickname is “Catnip” – which cats love. I don’t think Katniss knows how much she’s loved, and that comes out again and again in the rest of the book too. That informs everything she is, and everything she does: losing her father in the mine explosion when she was only 11, at which her mother slipped into a dark depression that lasted months, when Katniss and her little sister Prim almost died of starvation and Katniss herself was the one to figure out how to feed them. These things would leave their mark on any of us, and Suzanne Collins shows those emotional scars on Katniss very clearly. They match Buttercup’s looks, actually, all scarred and mashed.
And as Katniss falls asleep on the train that’s taking her towards The Hunger Games, Buttercup is almost the last thing she thinks of before she falls asleep: “scruffy old Buttercup”, watching over Prim, ready to nose into her arms to comfort her until she sleeps.
Prim is able to love openly: she loves Buttercup, and she loves her goat; but Katniss can’t love in the same way, not at the opening of the first novel. She loves Prim, and this is all we see for now of Buttercup and of Prim herself, because this has been the day of The Reaping, and Katniss has volunteered, to save 12 year old Prim.
The next time Buttercup turns up is at the very end, when Katniss first wakes up after being declared one of the winners of the 74th Hunger Games: “Home! Prim and my mother! Gale! Even the thought of Prim’s scruffy old cat makes me smile. Soon I will be home!”. It’s a poignant interlude, especially as we know that Katniss has so much more that she has to face.
Buttercup will stand by her.
Photo credit: thank you to Grey Geezer, who released Katzenminze-06 via Wikimedia for other web users.