WHY: The Hunger Games

[there are spoilers regarding the plot. beware]
[this is also ridiculously long. no apologies.]

I don’t read much teen fiction. To be honest, I don’t lately read much fiction at all. I’m working through an ancient copy of Robin Hood in Old English, but other than that the last novel I read was actually for class–I just turned in the paper yesterday. I wanted to read The Hunger Games because the movie previews looked intriguing and I have this need to read the book before seeing the movie based on it. The timing for such a plan didn’t work out this time as I saw the movie on Spring Break before I was able to access the book. So I did the reverse of my normal and I saw the movie last Tuesday, but finished the book this morning over breakfast.

It was decent. I mean, let’s be honest, I don’t think Suzanne Collins’ strength is in her writing ability… it’s fairly simplistic. What is motivating is her plot line and the dialogue. The characters aren’t poorly developed, but you don’t get to see as much as you might want since it’s written in first person. Collins’ use of present tense was a good one. I’ve done some experimenting with present tense and it’s always fun to write in. I enjoyed reading it because it forces you to be a part of the novel, to experience what is going on just as the characters do. In a sense, it draws you  in and makes the story more real, more tangible, as you fly through the pages of simple writing and intensely fractured view of reality.

There’s been this storm of opinions about The Hunger Games. It’s ranked #5 on the list of banned books for 2010 thanks to violence and sexual content. You know what else made the list that year? Brave New World by Huxley was  #3 while Nickeled and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenriech was #8. I’ve read them both. I can’t lie, Huxley’s book was a little disturbing as a sheltered high schooler and I didn’t like it. In college, Ehrenreich’s book changed my life, my view on poverty in America. She might be one of many reasons I live in the inner city on less than $1000 a month.

But the Hunger Games… People are angry about the violence, the situational ethics, the sexual material, the brutish and flawed government presented, as well as a thousand other tiny details. Here’s where I’m going to get myself into trouble and not support my more typical conservative opinion on the media we put in our heads. Usually, I don’t like graphic media. I don’t think that we should overly engage violence in our entertainment, and I’m all about keeping certain aspects of sexuality in the bedroom, between husband and wife. I want to follow the mandate to only focus on that which is good, pure, lovely, righteous. I think that’s why Christians have flipped a lid over The Hunger Games. A game of 24 teenagers thrown into a massive arena and told to kill or be killed while the entire event is nationally televised and the nation is required to tune in? It doesn’t sound like anything pure, lovely, or righteous. But wait before you stone me when I say this:

Kids should read this book. And I mean kids: high schoolers. middle schoolers. the whole lot of them.

Just like I had to read 1984 and Brave New World.

Collins paints a realistic and sobering picture of a dystopia. It’s a world where the districts outside the capital scrape by with very little while those inside the great city wait anxiously for each year’s new edition of The Games. It’s a reality borne of previous war and strife, a rebellion which the Capital put down and constantly reminds the districts of when they reap children (tributes) for their games. I think there are a few major reasons kids should read this, and parents or adults without kids should read it alongside them–not only to help talk through things with their children, but also for their own benefit.

Situational Ethics
It’s true, there are situational ethics in the book/movie which lends itself to a problematic view of absolute moral truth. When you’re thrown into the arena, told to kill or be killed, it doesn’t leave much room for negotiation. There simply isn’t time to consider right and wrong. Not when you are being hunted by a teenager twice your size who’s been training for this event for years (even though that’s technically illegal). It makes sense that parents and others are unnerved by the perverse lack of rules governing the games. In a post-modern world where anything that makes you happy is accepted (so long as it doesn’t infringe on my rights), people want to cling to some absolute, ethical standards.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t stand up. Christians themselves accept a certain amount of situational ethics. Do I lie to the Nazis about the Jews hidden in the basement? Or do I tell the truth and get them all killed? Hm. That’s situational. That’s not a clear ethical choice, if you consider that both options are technically “wrong,” or engaging in some amount of “sin.” So you take the least of evils and you lie about the Jews and breathe a sigh of relief when you’ve saved not only your life but those who have been placed in your care.

In the Games, Katniss (the main character) says finally at the end that she doesn’t want any other tributes to die. She, by volunteering to go in her sister’s place, broke the norm of those in her district who consider the Games to be a death sentence. While in the arena, she puts on a good show for the watching world, often struggling not to openly mourn the loss of those around her. In the last few chapters, she mercifully ends Cato’s life as he is slowly being eaten alive by mutated dogs. When the end comes down to her and Peeta, the other tribute from her district, Katniss makes a choice not to kill though he is volunteering to die for her. The pair break free of the situation and the ethics found in the arena as they decide to commit suicide and end the Games without a winner. So, you see, the argument about situational ethics doesn’t hold up. This is one reason kids should read the book: to be reminded that when all the pressure of the world tells you to do something you know is wrong, you don’t have to do it. Some things aren’t worth living for.

There are several instances of nudity in the book. These are not perverse, they are carefully crafted. During the week before the Games, Katniss and the other tributes spend time in the Capital, training and interviewing on television. They are scored on their abilities, they are the consideration of gamblers, they vie for sponsors, etc. In all this, Katniss is repeatedly dressed in various costumes, her hair is done, her face disappears under makeup, she is instructed how to act and talk, and somewhere in the mess of costumes and acting, she loses her humanity. It is not as though Katniss herself forgets humanity, but rather she becomes an object to the people around her. Those in the Capital do not see a young woman who provides for her family at home. They see only a subject to be manipulated and wagered on. When they are in the arena, it is sometimes as though the tributes forget themselves and forget that the others around them are also humans. Instead, they are only prey–as Peeta will refer to himself and Katniss when Cato hunts them. They are objects of slaughter by their fellow man, for the entertainment of those who in the Capital, who are entirely devoid of reality.

It’s important to read things like this and be reminded that “they” are always humans too. We’re in the midst of two wars. Our men, our women are still overseas–or have you forgotten? We’re facing another deployment in my family. Maybe this time the military will actually tell us where he is sent. But the thing I come back to, time and again, are the people who are already over “there.” The Afghanis, the Iraqis, and the thousand of others whose lives we are involved in without ever claiming responsibility. They are human too, they have value and worth in the eyes of God. Do we remember that? Or do we simply dehumanize them so they are easier to kill? So that they are simply objects to bet on? It’s easy to do that when there is distance, when we look at them as something to be modified, molded into our cultural likeness. It’s what the people in the Capital do. They hold Katniss and the others at arms length–able to engage them and their stories enough to make the Games interesting and entertaining; always pushing them far enough away so their deaths don’t quite matter. Our children should know better. You don’t do this with other humans, no matter the past rebellions, or the class divisions. Because people do not become animals when you throw them into the arena, no matter how they act. The imago die may be distorted but it is not erased.

The book and movie both acknowledge that the main point of the Hunger Games is to keep the various districts under control. But those in the Capital do not always remember the war in the same way the Districts do. For them, the Hunger Games are cause for celebration. There are parades and parties that last late into the nights. Do you see what is wrong with this? These people are celebrating the entertainment that they find in watching teenagers kill each other. I’ve started to read Amusing Ourselves to Death . It’s a brilliant expose of what is going wrong in America when we only want to be entertained, rather than required to think. The first chapter compares 1984 where we are overcome by something outside of us (i.e.: Big Brother) and A Brave New World where we are overcome by that which is inside us. His argument is that we are being destroyed by the second.

I think that the Hunger Games is a simplistic version of this argument for my generation (or the generation behind me). Collins’ shows how wrong it is to watch people kill each other as though it’s only a show. It’s a startling discourse on our obsession with entertainment without thought. For the educated, it harkens back to the battle of the Minatour when 7 boys and 7 girls were sacrificed for the city of Athens; more historically it is a science fiction version of The Games in ancient Rome when we reveled in the blood of the gladiators and slaves eaten by half starved lions. You see, this isn’t a new thing. It’s just reinvented, cleaned up with more technology and brighter colours (and noticeably less sand). It’s a question for us:

will we become the Capital?
Thirsty for entertainment to the point of throwing children to their deaths for our amusement?

or will we stand and fight when such a time comes?
Will we remember to think for ourselves and remember the value of human life?
Will we stand up to the government, as Christians,

as humans?


or crumble into oblivion? stupefied by our own refusal to engage?


4 responses

  1. Thanks for a thorough, conscientious review of the book. I have chosen not to read it, not because it is banned but because I have a hard time with dystopian literature in general. I appreciate having a sense of the novel’s depth now, thanks to your post.

    • I’m excited to really read it this summer instead of just the cursory skim I gave it while at my friend’s condo. Any other book recommends for my summer? 🙂

  2. Thanks, I appreciate your comment! I’m curious why you steer clear of dystopian literature? I don’t know if I should have implied that The Hunger Games is primarily or entirely dystopian; but it certainly presents a society that portrays certain elements of a dystopia.

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