The Hunger Games

A Review of The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic Press, 2010) 

The Premise

The Hunger Games trilogy (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay) by Suzanne Collins is a current publishing phenomenon which is now a cinematic phenomenon as well. The series is set in Panem, a dystopian America in which a Capitol governs thirteen Districts, one of which was apparently destroyed after leading a failed Rebellion against the Capitol. That gave rise to the Hunger Games, a reality television experience in which every year two Tributes are randomly selected from the youngsters in each of twelve Districts in a process known as the Reaping. After Training, made beautiful and deadly (or less ugly and inept), the Tributes enter the Arena to fight to the death, played out live to the breathless audience, with regular highlights packages showing the most intense experiences, including the deaths. The process demonstrates the Capitol's absolute hold over the Districts, reminding them of the failure of the Rebellion and the utter desolation of its architects, District Thirteen. Oh, and it is great entertainment.

The Plot (alert: spoilers galore)

Katniss (Kat) Everdeen lost her father (and nearly her mother, at least emotionally and mentally) in a mining accident in District Twelve during her youth. Since then, she has been the driving force of and provider for her family. She and her friend Gale break out of the District to hunt, feeding their families and trading on the black market in a District so poor and pathetic that they have had only one victor in the Hunger Games, a now-perpetual drunk by the name of Haymitch Abernathy.

This year is the first in which Kat's twelve-year old sister Primrose (Prim) is eligible for the Reaping. She is chosen. Katniss, whose attitude to Primrose has been one of absolute protection since her father died, volunteers to replace her. The male choice is Peeta Mellark, who has had a hidden attachment of profound affection to Katniss for as long as he can remember. Haymitch is accustomed to the quick and gruesome deaths of his undernourished and incompetent charges but finds in Katniss and Peeta the possibility of genuine competitors. Katniss and Peeta also have outstanding beauticians and designers who help them to cause a real stir. When Peeta publicly declares his undying love for Katniss, the producers of the Games have a story and an angle.

Once in the Arena, Peeta and Katniss both do all they can to keep Katniss alive. Over several gory days, the Tributes are picked off, including a twelve year old girl called Rue whom Kat had allowed to team up with her because Rue reminds the older girl of her sister, Prim. Kat proves herself a true survivor, and - with Peeta first teaming up with some of the more aggressive and successful tributes as a way of protecting Kat - makes good progress. Eventually, Peeta's ruse is discovered and he is almost killed. Kat finds him because a rule change declares that, this year, if the last two Tributes standing are from the same district, they will be joint winners. 

Peeta's heart is already Kat's, and she hams up the romance for the audience. After a bloody denouement which Kat and Peeta survive, the rule change is revoked and they are expected to fight it out to the death. In a moment of unpremeditated rebellion, they enter a suicide pact using some poisonous berries, by means of which they will deprive the Capitol of any victor. The ruse secures the survival of both, and Katniss and Peeta return to the acclaim of their district and the celebration of the Capitol.

At least, that is what happens outwardly. Kat's anguished brutality and occasional tenderness in the arena, together with that suicidal rush of blood to the head, make her the figurehead of the underground rebellion in the Capitol and the Districts. And so Kat and Peeta are instructed by the chilling President Snow to use their victory tour to ensure that unrest is calmed rather than energised. But things go from bad to worse, and, in order to still the rising storm, the next games - the Quarter Quell celebrated every 25 years - have a twist: the Tributes are survivors from previous Games, and in District Twelve there are only three, so Kat and Peeta re-enter the Arena. It becomes clear that Kat is the target, and everything necessary will be done to unsettle and destroy her.

More gruesome mayhem follows, but on this occasion several Tributes team up with Kat to keep her and Peeta alive (there is also a ruse this time that Kat is pregnant with Peeta's child). Finally, a nearly-broken Kat and some of her band of brothers escape the Arena while Peeta and others are captured by the Capitol.

Now the rebellion is reborn. It turns out that the Capitol and District Thirteen - maker of weapons of mass destruction - have been in a nuclear stalemate since the rebellion failed. In this stalemate - effectively Mutually Assured Destruction - District Thirteen has turned into a highly-regimented society pushing a rebellion which has, with Kat as the figurehead in the form of a mockingjay (a mutated bird which has been a mark of dissent and her symbol from the beginning), broken out in most districts.

Under the plotting of President Coin of District Thirteen, the moment has come for the districts to take on the Capitol again. Kat agrees to become the face of the rebellion (in return for the security of some of her friends - including Peeta who, tortured and chemically induced, has become a mouthpiece of sorts for the Capitol - and the right personally to kill Snow). Kat's mother and sister, Prim, with Gale - who apparently has also loved Kat for some time - and a few others, survived the vengeful firebombing of District Twelve ordered by President Snow and are back on the scene. 

Katniss - beautified and uniformed again - is sent into carefully-selected warzones where her natural aggression and survival instincts make her a hero to the rebellion. Peeta is rescued, but his torture makes him connect Katniss with everything he most loathes, and the boy who loved her unconditionally is now determined to destroy her . . . unless love and a comprehensive deconditioning programme can conquer all.

The assault on the Capitol begins. Its defences make it one massive Arena for the attacking forces. Katniss, Gale - and eventually, Peeta, still not fully recovered but sent in by the scheming President Coin (who hopes that this will rid her of Katniss, her now-defunct but still-troublesome figurehead) - are part of an elite group of sharpshooters. They try to throw off their celebrity status and set off to kill Snow. They reach Snow's mansion, where he has a human shield of children. Parachutes with canisters like those used to drop gifts into the Arena drop on to the children; a number explode. Rebellion medics rush in to help, including Primrose, Kat's sister whom she has spent the entire trilogy trying to protect. Kat recognises the strategy, although she cannot decide whether it is the Capitol's last brutal hurrah or a devious means by District Thirteen of securing greater support for the purges that will follow. She rushes to save Prim as the remaining canisters explode. Prim dies and Kat is almost consumed by the flames.

Barely surviving, the face of the rebellion again comes face-to-face with the captured Snow. It is decided that the children of the Capitol's leaders should take part in an allegedly-final Hunger Games, while Kat is given the honour of being Snow's official executioner. With the ex-President tied to a stake with his trademark white rose over his heart and Kat's trusty bow in her hand, she instead shoots the scheming Coin. Snow dies anyway. Kat and a substantially-recovered Peeta retire to their old home where they eventually begin to raise a family of children who, in this brave new world, play on the mass graveyard of District Twelve watched over by parents who cannot be rid of the horrors they have witnessed.

The Storytelling

Suzanne Collins is a competent author. The books are engagingly-written and well-paced, with simple but colourful language, a fairly sure grasp of character and a number of clever twists, all told with the voice of their protagonist. The story engages the minds and hearts of readers without bamboozling the young adult audience raised on a diet of reality television. 

The themes of birds and flames are woven throughout, as are the classical-imperial overtones. The names of the Capitol characters, the whole system of government with the panem et circenses motif running alongside, and the gladiatorial aspect of arena combat for distraction and entertainment connect with a popular idea of what Rome might have been.The trajectory of each book and of the trilogy is compelling. Hordes of teenagers clearly resonate with the characters. There is enough high-octane violence and emotion to keep the most benumbed teenager connected. Collins is prepared to be merciless with our reading hopes when it serves her purposes.

The dystopian vision is well realised. The moral issues (see below) are clearly presented and well articulated. You are not reading great works of art, but these are effectively written volumes, and have caught the mood of a substantial element of a generation.

However, as we race toward the climax of the third book, I expected resolution, perhaps even redemption. Instead, the closing pages of the last volume were disappointing and sub-standard relative to what came before. From Kat's near-death onwards, the writing and the plotting become sludgy. It may be intended to represent Kat's brokenness of mind and body, but I wondered if Collins ran out of ideas or energy. Gale, captured shortly before the conclusion, is suddenly discovered to have escaped with a couple of bullet wounds, and gets a fancy job elsewhere. Peeta, whose aversion to Kat is a key plot device all the way through volume three, just gets better. Kat's mother, whose collapse after her father's death was a prime generator of Kat's character, easily buries her grief in work after the death of her beloved Prim. Maybe I am romantic enough to hope for resolution or redemption, but the loose ends are not tied up with any kind of neatness.

The Protagonist

Katniss Everdeen's admirers may have the hero this generation deserves. She is - and recognises herself to be - an unpalatable but pitiable heroine. Deprived of real parental care, raised in extreme poverty, old beyond her years, thrust into an intensely violent environment, the portrait raises a degree of compassion. We are not really invited to assess her, but rather to support her. But she is not the most likeable of individuals.

We meet her as a loner, angry at her mother and the world at large. She is a victim of circumstance, and she fights back. There is something of a sense of duty to her family (with disdain for her weak mother), and an animal attachment to her younger sister, but even her sacrifice of herself seems more an expression of anger than love. We acknowledge that no one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for her friends. But that is not what Katniss does: she is determined to live at any cost, determined to bring down as many people as possible in the act of surviving - a spirit that is increasingly manifest as the story unfolds.

We see an extreme self-centeredness in her character. She maintains the romantic fiction with Peeta because it increases their chances of survival. She acts it well, persuading him temporarily that she might return his feelings. But when the end comes, she is ready to kill him and herself to spite the Gamemakers and the Capitol. Later on, she occasionally berates herself: "I was wallowing around . . . thinking only of myself, he was here, thinking only of me."

When the men vying for her affections ask one another which one she is likely to pick, they agree that she will pick the one she thinks she cannot survive without. When assessed for her role in the Rebel armed forces, pressure is deliberately exerted at her weakest point. She is canny enough to discern what that is: an inability to follow orders. So she follows the order that allows her to get into the army, and promptly begins to do her own thing again.

There is not so much a lack of self-awareness as an excess of self-centredness. Her needs, duties, hatreds, and ends drive her on. Deeds of kindness seem primarily an expression of sentiment or nihilism, self-regard, or self-preservation, not of principle. I am not suggesting that she is entirely without redeeming features, nor that she is the worst of the bunch (and this is necessary, as we shall see), but she is far from the best.

In Katniss Everdeen we see something animalistic, what some would call a product of her utterly miserable environment. She is human nature, red in tooth and claw. This young woman is a survivor, and will lie, cheat and steal to survive and win. She has learned that this is the way to live. She will kill to survive, even herself (not as contradictory as it sounds). She has learned selfishness. But before we are tempted to excuse such selfishness on the grounds of circumstance and situation, consider the overall moral tone of these volumes.

The Morality

Politically, we have the classic horseshoe spectrum of totalitarianism. Do you want the pampered fascism of Snow or the unflinching communism of Coin? As Katniss herself comes to recognise, for either side the ends invariably justify the means. Toward the end of Mockingjay, an ex-Gamemaker and rebel leader is asked if he is preparing for another war. "Oh, not now. Now we're in that sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated," he says. "But collective thinking is usually short-lived. We're fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction. Although who knows? Maybe this will be it . . . . This time it sticks. Maybe we are witnessing the evolution of the human race. Think about that." The collective Darwinian overtones, tying in with Kat's individual survival instincts, are hard to overlook. This rather odd statement apart, there seems to be little expectation of authority.

That plays out in the personal sphere. Katniss has a deep aversion to authority of any kind. There are a few murky positives that might conceivably be dragged out, but - to be honest - it very often feels like an exercise in straw-clutching. For example, there are no overtly blasphemous words in the book (but then, I don't think God is in this world). Though the heartless romance is described, it is never more than a ruse. There are no descriptions of sexual activity, although Kat and Peeta's platonic closeness allows that fiction of the pregnancy. We are alerted to the prostitution of previous victors for political purposes. You might contend that though not portraying and commending full-orbed purity, at least it does not portray and encourage full-orbed iniquity. (I am not suggesting that this is an acceptable logic; Philippians 4.8 militates against that.)

But consider the overt violence of the books. Though modern media may tell and show us worse, and many teenagers have access to it, we might discuss these books and films forgetting that this is about the slaughter of children by one another as a means of entertainment and to the ends of political domination. Although I will reserve detail for the comparison between the books and the film, explicit descriptions of suffering and death litter the pages. As you are carried along reading, it is necessary to pause and consider the sustained, oppressive, mutual brutality and cruelty within and without the Arena.

As we read we might be sucked into some of the underlying assumptions, the awareness that this is a world in which you have to kill or be killed. Deeds in themselves reprehensible seem excusable because of the circumstances in which they are being carried out. Collins does a crafty job of mitigating Kat's acts of selfishness, anger and murder by locating them in situations in which everyone else is doing something worse. Kat is good because others are bad. We could try to defend some actions because they are carried out in self-defence or defence of others, but the premises have been accepted.

As Kat's anger and antagonism grow, first toward the Capitol and all it stands for, and then District Thirteen and what it is and could become, this conceit develops. Kat is lost in a world in which the ends justify the means. Because she does not take that to the extreme that some do, she may seem justified in her actions. Katniss feels the impact of this process, confessing that "I no longer feel any allegiance to these monsters called human beings, despise ["despite"?] being one myself." We should heed this confession. Many in the Hunger Games are monsters of some sort, creating or complicit in the world which allows such things to take place; others just die quickly.

So far you might suggest that this is a portrayal of total depravity working itself out. True enough, though remember that total depravity (the Scriptural teaching that we are sinful in every part of our humanity) is not the same as absolute depravity (the complete and unrestrained expression of that sinful nature). The old dear next door is as much a sinner by nature as a violent murderer, although we recognise a significant difference in the degree and extent of the expression of that nature.

However, The Hunger Games goes awry in its assumptions about responses to these circumstances. The ethics of the Hunger Games are both situational and relativistic. People make ethical choices based on the demands of the situation rather than abiding principles. We overlook or excuse those choices because others are making far worse choices. In other words, a dystopian warrior's got to do what a dystopian warrior's got to do, and - besides - you should see what some of the other dystopian warriors get up to.

Remember the story told of Tertullian, approached by a converted silversmith seeking vindication for his trade of making idolatrous images and therefore supporting himself financially. "What can I do?" asked the man in conclusion, "I must live." "Must you?" asked Tertullian.

How would a dystopian warrior seek vindication for his actions? How would a rebel fighter seek vindication for his cruelties? "I must live." Must you?

A sinful world is no surprise, but what is assumed, and sometimes exalted, is an antagonism to any authority, apart from the authority of self, which makes every person a slave to the situation in which they are found, leaving our only excuse for cruel and criminal acts the line that they are less cruel and less criminal than those against whom we are contending.

The Film

Now to the film. The approach of the filmmakers - as with any competent filmmaking - is powerful. As the speeches, thuds and groans accompanied by a moving score have their effect, the audience is manipulated just as the fictional Capitol audience in the film itself. All on cue, there is the moment of deep concern, the silent tear, the sharp intake of breath, the earnest grief, the muted cheer, the pregnant pause, the bitten knuckle, the sudden relief.

As our heroine Kat is introduced we are drawn in, rooting for her. We effectively become her sponsors. We observe her transformation, and are impressed by her beauty and fortitude; we respond to the amorality of the Capitol by cheering on her defiance. There is no doubt that the material has been condensed, but a sense of things is cleverly conveyed using the tools of this medium. However, nowhere is the streamlining process more evident than with regard to the violence. There are scenes in the book, which - had they been played out in all their gory glory on the screen - would doubtless have rendered the film an adult-only offering. 

Two examples spring quickly to mind. Perhaps feeling that the sight of an older boy standing over a twelve-year old girl trapped in a net and thrusting a spear deep into her stomach ("buried up to the shaft," according to the book) before taking an arrow through the neck himself and halving "the brief remainder of his life by yanking out the arrow and drowning in his own blood" would be a little beyond the acceptable, in the film Rue is first cut free from the net and is standing free before a slim javelin (rather than a bladed spear) hits her in the stomach, and we see the spreading of a little blood. The swift death of her assailant is remote, airbrushed. 

Again, the death of Cato, the brutal thug of District One and the last man standing apart from Katniss and Peeta, is relatively anodyne by comparison with the book. In the film he is slaughtered by 'muttations,' brutal and perhaps genetically enhanced dogs, In the book the psychological horror is enhanced by portraying them as a sort of genetically-modified werewolf, having the characteristics of the vanquished Tributes and with their numbers on their collars. As Katniss, Peeta and Cato struggle against one another and the mutts at the climax, with the wounded Peeta slowly turning blue as he is strangled by Cato, Peeta finally manages to paint with his own blood a target on one of the few parts of Cato that is unarmoured. Kat's arrow sends him into the pack of mutts, where - armoured from neck to wrist to ankle - he fights on for an hour before being overpowered . . . but not dead. As the hours of night pass, the mutts do what they can on the exposed flesh of the tortured Cato before dawn breaks to reveal what is left of him, still breathing. As you read, notice the excuse that we are invited to accept:
. . . the raw hunk of meat that used to be my enemy makes a sound, and I know where his mouth is. And I think the word he's trying to say is please. Pity, not vengeance, sends my arrow flying into his skull.
In the film, this drawn-out and appalling death takes barely a few moments, the relative lack of gruesomeness perhaps allowing us to conclude that this is actually quite a relief, relatively tame, compared to what might have been. As so often, the imagination can do its work far more effectively than the mere receptive faculty. In the darkened hush of the theatre, how readily and sustainedly do we maintain the distance between fiction and reality? What of that willing suspension of disbelief that is encouraged by the powerful tide of words, images, sounds?

The audience is encouraged to enter this world. You are watching a version of the story which has its own powers and subtleties, which carries its own message and has its own effect.

And so, movie-goer, congratulations. You just watched the slightly anodyne, pre-watershed, edited highlights package of the seventy-fourth Hunger Games. You're not quite ready for the full version, but you will be soon. And weren't you entertained? And aren't you ready for the next one?

The Irony

So, here we are, discussing and dissecting The Hunger Games. Only, of course, it's not real. We're just being . . . entertained. It is our entertainment, even while we are shocked by it (or pretend to be). The fact that it is fiction does not separate us far from the premises upon which the story is founded. In bookstores and cinemas, little Katnisses and Peetas are sitting around drinking in a very realistic depiction of a brutally violent reality television programme, identifying with the protagonists who have - in the film at least - been prettied up in their appearance and character for purposes of this cinematic banquet, rooting for our trained killers in opposition to all the other trained killers.

A further irony is that Katniss Everdeens are not merely the products of such a society, but the producers of it. The situational and relativistic ethics which play out in the book are the very ones that we are accepting in entering into this world and playing by its rules. The fear is not that we might reach a situation in which something like this might happen, but that we are already crafting the very situation in which such things are bound to happen.

The Conclusion

Should we expect that someone who is not - as far as I am aware - a professing Christian will write for us a Christian tract, and then judge her because she fails to do so? That would not be fair. But should we overlook the deliberate or incidental educational aspect of avid reading and potential and actual emulation that we see in many who enjoy this book? Should we forget that we are reading or watching a sermon? Certainly not.

And that is the problem. These books are sermons. They are sermons because almost everything is in the world of The Hunger Games, more or less. The primary question is, "To whose voice are we listening?" We do not live in a neutral environment, and culture is not neutral. These books are teaching us to think and feel, or confirming what has already been taught and felt. These, like all books, teach us to view the world in a certain way, to think and react in a certain way.

Should we, then, have the liberty to assess the tone, content and presuppositions of the book from a Christian perspective, and then read or not read it as our instructed consciences dictate? Absolutely. I am not suggesting that the dilemmas and ironies of this book will be lost on everyone, or that we are all being sucked in. But those dilemmas and ironies may very well be lost on children and most teenagers, not least as portrayed on the screen rather than the page.They are especially likely to be lost on those who already share the presuppositions that govern the world and the lives of the characters in The Hunger Games universe.

For some, the sheer bloodiness and cruelty of what is portrayed will be more than sufficient reason to keep the books and the film at arm's length. I have, I hope, given you enough to indicate that every parent should know what they are doing if they put these books, or allow them to be put, into the hands of their children. For others, the underlying tone and content will simply confirm their instincts against what is portrayed. Others, perhaps, will be tempted to throw one's hands up and say, "Well, it accurately reveals the mess that mankind is in," and leave it at that.

But there may be some who are already reading or have already watched, some who will wish to make their own decisions or perhaps who will not hear any counsels. There may be parents who now know what their little darlings have been enjoying in their spare time and who need to respond. Is it the end of the world? Without suggesting that the ingestion of all this is desirable, I would suggest not.

A lie is no less a lie because you know it is a lie, but at least it need not be a lie which you will believe. Parents with younger children and those with older children and others who are reading, watching and assessing for themselves, need to do so with great discernment: I hope I have given you enough to make an assessment, not least in the light of Philippians 4.8. For some, that means simply not picking up the books at all. For others, it means putting them back down again. For some, it may mean processing what they have read or are reading, understanding that they are being taught something, that they are hearing a sermon, that they are listening to a voice that would have them see, feel, think and react in a certain way, in accordance with certain assumptions and presuppositions.

And we must understand that and set it in the context of the truth and respond to it with the truth. We must learn to read between the lines and understand what is taking place and why, and to interpret it accurately ourselves, and not to let such things interpret the world for us. We need to discern the realities unwittingly portrayed and the lies thoughtlessly told and the deceits carelessly disseminated. By doing so , we defend ourselves against them and respond to them, not with the confusion of relativism and the bewilderment of situational ethics, but with the abiding truth. 

We need to learn to live in this world, and the hype about The Hunger Games trilogy and films may even prove an arena in which we and our young people can be trained for the battle which we face, one that is not won with the weapons of carnal warfare, but with those which are mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor 10.4-5), a fight that is won not with lies and violence, but with truth and righteousness.

Jeremy Walker is a pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church in Crawley, UK. He and his longsuffering wife, Alissa, are parents to three delightful children. Jeremy is co-author of A Portrait of Paul and author of The Broken Hearted Evangelist and also blogs at The Wanderer.