The Hunger Games details the adventure of Katniss Everdeen, who is forced to engage in a fight-to-the-death tournament against other children. The novel takes place in Panem, a dystopic country built on what was once North America. In a world of limited resources, the despotic government run by the Capitol keeps its citizens in line by separating them into Districts and reinforcing severe class separations. But their strongest tool to promote disunion and to discourage rebellion is the Hunger Games: a yearly event where two tributes from each district are pitted against each other for the country to watch on television.
Katniss lives with her mother and younger sister Prim in District 12, the poorest of the districts. Ever since her father's death, she has been the family provider, hunting illegally in the woods outside the district with her friend Gale. The novel begins on the day of the "reaping," when each District must select two tributes, one male and one female, to represent them in the Hunger Games. When Prim is selected as the female tribute, Katniss offers herself as volunteer and is allowed to serve as tribute alongside Peeta, a middle class boy from the district.
The remainder of Part One of the novel follows the children as they are both trained for the brutal games and groomed to portray a certain image for the audience. She forces herself into a stoic determination to win, a philosophy made difficult by the kindly Peeta. The relationship is made even more fraught when Peeta confesses during a live interview that he has a crush on Katniss. Though she fears making emotional connections that could compromise her desire to win, she agrees to portray the image of a unified front, an idea proposed by their sponsor Haymitch.
The Games are held in an arena in a forested area. When they begin, Katniss rushes away from the excitement of the initial bloodbath and uses her hunting/survival skills to develop a strategy. She sleeps in trees and hunts game. Each night, faces of the dead are broadcast into the sky. As she stays hidden, she learns that Peeta has allied himself with the "Career Tributes," those tributes from the richer districts who train their entire lives for the Games.
Meanwhile, the Gamemakers, those who design the Games, continue to manipulate the surroundings in order to keep the Games entertaining. After a severe burn following a firestorm, Katniss is trapped in a tree above the Careers. That night, she makes contact with Rue, the youngest tribute, who Katniss associates with Prim. Rue is up a nearby tree and suggests she defeat the Careers by dropping a wasp nest on them. She does so, in the process getting stung herself but also scattering the Careers and gaining for herself a bow, her strongest weapon. The wasp stings produce hallucinations, which slow her down and almost cost her her life, until Peeta helps her to escape. She is understandably confused.
Katniss and Rue form an alliance and make a plan to destroy the supplies that are keeping the Careers powerful. Rue sets fires to distract them while Katniss pieces together that they are protecting their supplies with landmines reappropriated from a Gamemaker design. When she uses the mines to explode the supplies, she is blown backwards and knocked out of commission for a few days. She returns just in time to see Rue killed by another tribute, who then quickly becomes Katniss's first kill. As a small act of rebellion against the Capitol, which expects the tributes to dehumanize one another, Katniss sings to Rue and decorates her corpse with flowers before the body is fetched by the Capitol.
The Gamemakers announce that the rules have changed, and that the two tributes from a district can serve as co-victors. She then finds Peeta, who was cut badly after helping Katniss escape the Careers. She does her best to help him recover, but it isn't until Haymitch sends her a gift following a kiss she shares with him that she understands that playing up the romance angle could pay off.
They spend days growing closer in a cave, but Katniss lacks the skill to cure Peeta's wound. When the Gamemakers announce that a "feast" will be held to draw the tributes together for crucial supplies, she tricks Peeta and heads to the feast. In trying to get her gift, which she assumes is anti-infection medicine for Peeta, she is almost killed by a Career, but saved by the other tribute from Rue's district. Having heard of Katniss's kindness towards Rue, the tribute lets her live.
The medicine cures Peeta, and they spend more time growing closer in the cave. Once the Gamemakers dry up their water supplies, they prepare themselves and head out to face Cato, the only other surviving tribute. But their main challenge turns out not to be Cato, but several wolf-man creatures unleashed by the Gamemakers, creatures reanimated from the corpses of dead tributes. Katniss and Peeta escape by climbing to higher ground, while the other tribute falls and is tortured by the creatures. Finally, Katniss kills the tribute with her arrow out of mercy.
They have won the Games, but the Gamemakers rescind the rule about dual victors. Peeta and Katniss threaten to commit dual suicide, which would ruin the Games, and they are hence awarded a dual victory.
They are fetched by the Capitol representatives, and separated for a long period of recovery. When they are brought out to the audience again, Haymitch warns Katniss that she needs to overplay the lovers angle as a defense for her threat to commit suicide, which the Capitol considers an act of rebellion. Over the period of fanfare that follows, she takes his advice, which makes Peeta, who actually does love her, very happy.
When all is done, they head back to District 12, and Katniss lets slip along the way that her affection was always for the cameras. Though not the entire truth, she is torn between her old identity as a poor hunter, and the more complex one she shaped through the Games. Peeta is heartbroken, but understands they must maintain an image as they prepare to present themselves to their district.