The phrase “star-crossed lovers” originally comes from the Shakespeare play Romeo & Juliet, a tragedy about two teenagers from rival families who fall in love. Romeo and Juliet are doomed from start to finish. He’s a Montague and she’s a Capulet. Their families hate each other so much that they’re constantly having sword fights and killing each other in the streets. At the start of the play, it’s gotten so bad that the Prince of Verona declares that anyone caught fighting in the streets will be banished from the city.
So, when Romeo and Juliet meet at a fancy ball and fall in love without knowing that each other is from the rival family, they’re in deep trouble. Everyone is against them. Of course, they’re young and romantic, so the impossible situation only makes them more madly in love, but you know this is never going to end well. And it doesn’t.
The kind-hearted Friar Laurence tries to help. He marries them in secret. Soon after that, Romeo accidently gets involved in a street fight where another Montague and another Capulet get killed, and Romeo is banished from the city. The friar comes up with a plan. He gets a potion what drop Juliet into such a deep sleep that everyone will think she’s dead. Once they put her supposedly dead body into the family crypt, he’ll come get her and take her out the city to meet Romeo. The young lovers can then move somewhere else where nobody knows them and they can live happily ever after.
But not so fast. The friar gets delayed and can’t get word to Romeo about the plan. Romeo, like everybody else, thinks Juliet is actually dead. He goes to the crypt, finds her body, and says some romantic stuff about how he can’t live without her. He drinks poison and dies next to her.
But then, Juliet wakes up and finds Romeo lying dead next to her. She figures out the plan went wrong. She says some romantic stuff about how she can’t live without him and kisses him passionately, trying to to get enough poison off his lips so she can die too. That doesn’t work, so she takes his dagger and stabs herself in the heart and dies.
The friar finally shows up and sees what’s happened. He comes clean and tells everybody about the secret marriage and the getaway plan. The Prince sees this as poetic justice and says he won’t punish anyone because everybody’s already been punished. So instead of a wedding, the rival families get to have a joint funeral for their two kids. Everybody cries.
And, hence the phrase “star-crossed lovers.” Like many of Shakespeare’s clever turns of phrase, this one has passed into popular usage and pops up here and there to this day as a kind of shorthand way of talking about a doomed love affair.
Near the middle of “The Hunger Games” (2012), former champion and now designated Mentor to Katniss and Peeta, Haymitch finally decides to be more than a jaded, surly drunk and actually help his charges survive the current games. In this new phase, Haymitch not only provides the District 12 duo much needed medical supplies, but he also develops the all-important “star-crossed lovers” narrative that will eventually allow them to survive the games.
The authorities run these annual “hunger games” as a regular reminder of their consolidated political and military power over the citizens of the districts, but they also broadcast this battle royale as the ultimate entertainment – reality TV to the death – with fame and riches promised to each year’s lone survivor. Cynical as he is, Haymitch realizes that the producers of the hunger games want to present high drama to their viewers. This narrative he invents about Katniss and Peeta as “star-crossed lovers” fits that bill perfectly. It overcomes what must seem like deadly drudgery to more than just Haymitch. After all, these are the 74th annual games. Viewers can’t expect many surprises this point. After all, how many times in a row can you be delighted at watching terrified teenagers slaughter each other?
This spun narrative of Katniss and Peeta as “star-crossed lovers” appeals to the authorities because it works as a catalyst to infuse the games with new interest. Haymitch even persuades the producers to suspend the normal rules of permitting only one winner each year in the dramatic spirit of allowing these supposed lovebirds a chance to triumph together.
However, once this moment of double victory arrives, the authorities think better of their generous mercy. They change the rules yet again, decreeing that only one may survive after all. Forcing one young lover to suddenly murder the other holds a dual purpose for the authorities. Not only does it reassert their absolute and arbitrary power over life and death (and even love) for their subjects, but it also provides one last, surprising thrill to the bloodthirsty mob of spectators.
Looking at the movie as a “hero’s journey” for Katniss, we recognize this moment as the characteristic final test of worthiness that all heroes must pass. So, we are gratified when gives Peeta a handful of poisonous nightlock berries and suggests that they eat them together as a final act of defiance against the authoritarian state. We expected this. We know this will be the moment of the hero’s ultimate triumph. (Even if she dies.)
Interestingly, using poison to die together and escape the cruel world that has always been against them would echo the deaths of the original “star-crossed lovers” Romeo and Juliet, though that story is a tragedy not a hero’s quest like this.
But, now in the movie, at this very last moment, the voice-over announcer of the hunger games broadcast breaks the spell. The cries out, “Stop!” The decree is reversed yet again. Katniss and Peeta can live. Their love can save them both.
People cheer. Hearts swell. The music rises.
And yet, if we pause to think about what has just happened, we can’t help but realize that love-story narrative the authorities want to push here is basically false.
Katniss and Peeta are not madly in love. With the encouragement of Haymitch, they have merely been pretending to have a romance in order to garner sympathy from sponsors and spectators. They are willing to die together, yes, but for entirely different reasons. Reasons that the authorities cannot allow.
Imagine for a moment what would happen if Katniss and Peeta did eat those berries and kill themselves together on national television. Carried out, this tragic double suicide would serve as a heroic act of defiant self-sacrifice, making them celebrity martyrs for the growing rebellion in the districts.
Instead, the authorities must pretend the story of these “star-crossed lovers” results in a happy ending where “love conquers all.”
But we recognize this story is actually a hero’s quest, one where the authoritarian state is the villain who must be defeated.