When we first meet Katniss and Peeta's mentor Haymitch Abernathy in The Hunger Games (both the first book and the first film), he's a mess.
We learn that it's been 24 years since he won his own Hunger Games, and in his time as a mentor for District 12 tributes since, none of them have returned as victors. Haymitch has completely surrendered himself to drinking, and he certainly doesn't inspire much hope in Katniss and Peeta, who are about to enter the Games themselves and need his guidance.
At first, it seems hard to believe that Haymitch could've ever previously won the bloodbath at all. But in the second book (Catching Fire), Katniss and Peeta — who are called back into the Games, this time for the third Quarter Quell — watch an old tape of Haymitch's Games.
Haymitch's Games were the 50th, and the second Quarter Quell. (Quick refresher: Quells are basically glorified versions of the Games every 25 years.) For Haymitch's Quell, the number of players doubled to 48.
Here's how a young and handsome 16-year-old Haymitch won his Games.
How did Haymitch win the Hunger Games?
As the 50th Games begin, the players are lifted up via tube into the arena. Immediately, most of the players are taken aback by the gorgeous meadow before them, and all they can do is stare in awe.
But while these other players are distracted, Haymitch uses this time to grab what he can from the golden Cornucopia in the middle of the meadow, and he high-tails it out of there.
On one side, there is a distant mountain; on the other side, there are woods. Haymitch heads for the woods.
Four days in, after a volcano erupts in the arena, the remaining 13 tributes who haven't been killed yet find themselves all confined to the woods. Haymitch encounters a group of Careers. (Refresher: Careers are the kids who've trained all their lives for Games, usually coming from the wealthier districts 1, 2, and 4.)
Haymitch quickly kills two out of the three Careers. The third one disarms Haymitch and is about to slit his throat when suddenly the Career drops to the ground, killed by a dart.
Haymitch turns to see that Maysilee Donner, a fellow District 12 tribute, has saved him. Maysilee suggests that they'd work better as an alliance. Haymitch agrees.
The two continue on and work together, salvaging rainwater and fighting off attacks. Maysilee asks Haymitch why he's so determined to keep going in one direction, specifically toward the end of the arena. He says it's because "maybe there's something we can use."
When they reach the end of the arena, they find themselves at a cliff that overlooks jagged rocks. At this point, Maysilee sees no point in continuing the alliance, and she takes off on her own. Before she leaves, she tells him she "[doesn't] want it to come down to you and me."
While walking by the edge of the cliff, Haymitch accidentally knocks a pebble over its side — only to find that the pebble bounces right back from the abyss. It's clearly a force field. Haymitch seemingly has a lightbulb moment at this.
But the moment is ruined when he overhears Maysilee screaming from afar. He rushes over to find that she's been attacked by "candy pink birds" who have pierced her neck with their long beaks. Haymitch holds her while she dies.
Eventually, it comes down to just Haymitch vs. a girl from District 1, who is stronger than he is and just as quick. Their vicious fight leads to what look to be potentially fatal wounds for both. But when the girl lobs her ax in the direction of a debilitated Haymitch, he collapses to the ground by the cliff, dodging the flying weapon. The ax flies over the cliff, only to bounce right back — and straight into the girl's head, killing her.
Of course, it wasn't all happily ever after for Haymitch after he became the victor.
We later come to learn in the third book, Mockingjay, that the Capitol and President Snow were displeased that Haymitch had used their own devices (in this case, the force field) to his advantage. They believed it made them look like fools.
To punish Haymitch for his actions, President Snow ordered the deaths of Haymitch's mom, younger brother, and girlfriend.
Though the films don't delve too much into Haymitch's backstory, the books give the reader a greater understanding of what led Haymitch to become the broken shell of a man who Katniss and Peeta met at the beginning of their own journey.
We also see how his survival story is so connected to Katniss and Peeta's own story, as Katniss and Peeta similarly win their own Games by making fools out of the Capitol and President Snow, when they initially resolve to eat poisoned berries so that there is no winner. (Katniss and Peeta were not aware of Haymitch's backstory at that point.)
Katniss also uses the arena's force field at the end of Catching Fire to help her survive her own Quarter Quell, just as she had seen Haymitch do while watching the tapes of his Quarter Quell earlier in the book.
Throughout the series, Haymitch becomes a key character in Katniss and Peeta's lives and in the rebellion against the Capitol. His journey is a complicated one, but it's part of why he's such a fan-favorite character in the franchise.