The book begins with Katniss Everdeen, the protagonist, and describes her daily life in District 12. She is 16 years old, but is tough and self-reliant and takes care of her mother and her sister. She is a great hunter and often hunts with her best friend Gale in the woods outside District 12 which is illegal but necessary as she is the one who has fed her family since her father died years ago.
It is the day of “The Reaping” which is the ceremony to choose who will participate in this year’s Hunger Games. At the ceremony the mayor explains the history of the Games, an annual tradition that started after the governments of North America collapsed and formed Panem, which is divided into 12 Districts and the Capitol. There was a civil war between the districts and the Capitol; which the Capitol won and instituted the Games as entertainment and as a warning against further rebellion. To punish the districts each district must produce two tributes, a boy and a girl, who will fight and kill each other until only the winner remains.
The only living District 12 winner is Haymitch Abernathy who is brought up on stage. He is obviously drunk and vomits on stage. The audience is told that this person will be the tribute’s coach before and during the Games. The female tribute is chosen and it is Katniss’ 12 year old sister Primrose. Katniss, knowing that Prim would never survive, volunteers in her place. The male tribute picked is Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son who once showed Katniss great kindness and snuck her bread when she was starving after her father died. Katniss is conflicted because she may have to kill Peeta and she genuinely likes and admires him.
The tributes say goodbye to their loved ones and board the train to the Capitol, where they are able to convince Haymitch to stay sober enough to coach them properly. They meet the rest of their team; which consist of Effie, their escort, who helps them with their publicity and coaches them on how to act, and their team of stylists, including their head stylist Cinna.
At the Capitol they prepare and dress for the Opening Ceremonies where Cinna dresses them in beautiful outfits lit with synthetic flames. Cinna proclaims Katniss ‘the girl on fire.’ They draw a lot of attention and are an audience favourite especially since they are holding hands and showing their support to each other, which is rare in the Games.
They start group training with the other district’s tributes the next day and learn survival skills until they are brought before the Gamemakers who score them on their abilities out of twelve. Katniss shoots an arrow into a suckling pig near the Gamemakers after being ignored initially. This leads to shock, as well as scoring 11 out of 12 due to her archery skills and attitude. Meanwhile, Peeta scores an eight out of twelve.
The next day the tributes are interviewed by Caesar Flickerman who is a television host. Peeta announces in his interview that he has always had a crush on Katniss, which Katniss sees as a ploy to help them win more sponsors. The sponsors will send needed items to the tributes throughout the game so it is important to impress them as much as possible as it can mean the difference between life and death. Haymitch convinces Katniss to go along with pretending to be romantically involved with Peeta as it may give them the edge they need to survive.
The tributes are brought to the arena and the Games start. Katniss focuses on finding a water source first and stays on her own as most of the other tributes start fighting each other for the supplies left by the Gamemakers in the Cornucopia (a statue of a cornucopia in the centre of the arena). Many of the twenty-four tributes die that first day. Katniss is on her own for a few days and realizes that Peeta has teamed up with the Career Tributes, who are the tributes from the wealthy districts that volunteer for the Games and have trained for them all their lives.
She makes her camp in a far end of the arena but is attacked by a wall of fire and fireballs being shot at her by the Gamemakers, which drives her closer to the center of the arena. That night, she gets cornered in a tree by the Career Tributes. They can’t reach her so they decided to wait her out below. She notices a young girl from District 11 named Rue in the tree across from her and Rue points out a tracker jacker (a highly-aggressive, deadly breed of bee) nest. Katniss cuts the branch holding the nest, which drops on the Career Tributes below. Two of the tributes die from the stings and the rest run for safety.