In preparation for the movie Catching Fire, I reread The Hunger Games trilogy. Problems with Mockingjay's pacing aside, I walked away from this reading (fourth for the first two books, third for the third) with a much greater appreciation for the series and what Suzanne Collins was trying to say.
There will be spoilers for all three books and the first two movies. You have been warned.
I loved Catching Fire as a book and as a movie. I felt the movie was a huge improvement over the first (and I loved the first), adding more depth to the locations, plot lines, and characters. The weakest part of the movie was the romantic entanglements of Katniss, Peeta, and Gale. I also felt it was the weakest part of all three books, but having now gone back and read them again, I realize that despite being weak, the relationships were also the most important.
There's a wonderful essay about how Peeta is the typical on-screen girlfriend in the movies. Katniss is always having to drag him out of trouble, she's always having to save him. Suzanne Collins managed to completely reverse the gender roles in this series without causing a fuss. But the real reason Peeta and Gale are important, is because of the choice they represent.
Throughout the books, Peeta is the rational one. He's the voice of reason. He is unconditional love, always thinking about others first. Gale is a revolutionary. He wants a better world, not just for Katniss and himself, but for everyone. He is cold, calculating, and brave. Katniss herself is mostly reactionary. She is also brave and will do what it takes to protect her self and her family, but instead of thinking ahead, she mostly reacts to situations that occur.
In the first and second books, Gale is attractive to Katniss because he represents a mirror to Katniss. He is strong, she is strong, he cares about family, she cares about family, they'd both go to any lengths to protect the ones they care about. They are the same. Gale represents the stereotypical masculine traits. Peeta, on the other hand, seems to care only about Katniss. He would do anything for her. He doesn't have any relationships outside of Katniss, doesn't seem to care about his family. When Katniss looks at Peeta, she doesn't see anything of herself in him. He is persuasive, likable, cool-headed, and likes to bake.
It's when we reach the third book that the differences really crystalize. Gale becomes the person who creates weapons capable of and whose intent is to kill innocent people. Peeta becomes the only person Katniss desires to impress. Because he is brainwashed, he spews hate at Katniss, but rather than view Peeta's ramblings as delusions, Katniss sees the truth in them. She sees how she uses Peeta for her own ends, how she manipulates him. She sees how President Snow has taken a pure, good-hearted person and corrupted him. At this point, Katniss sees in Gale the person she is on the road to becoming, and in Peeta, the person she wants to be.
The choice isn't between two boys, it's between the kind of adult Katniss wants to become, about the kind of life she wants to lead. She could easily go with Gale and become a fiery revolutionary, a weapons-maker, a killer, but she doesn't want that. In her heart, she's not like that. She doesn't want to be capable of devising a plan that kills thousands under a mountain or kills children. Instead, she chooses Peeta. She chooses to be with Peeta because she is a better person with him. He brings out the qualities in her that she admires in him.
In the end, the love story in The Hunger Games trilogy isn't about choosing which boy is dreamier, it's about Katniss finally choosing for herself the kind of person she wants to be. It's about choosing to let go of the past, of the hatred, of the games themselves, and look toward the future. Maybe it's not a future Katniss will ever be capable of living in, but she knows that with Peeta, both she and her children will have a chance at a better world.