The Hunger Games by Suzanne Colllins was a smashing success, inspiring a plethora of dystopian young adult novels, none of which are remotely as gripping in my opinion. For Hunger Games is undeniably a well-told story with captivating characters. Collins uses the first person present tense: an unusual choice, but unexpectedly successful in drawing in the reader and providing a memorable voice for the heroine, Katniss.
To fill you in on the plot, Hunger Games is the story of Katniss Everdeen, a teenager who is chosen as a “tribute” or contestant in a mandatory “game” (fight to the death) between 16 children imposed as a punishment on the 12 districts of post-nuclear war Panem by its authoritarian government, the Capitol. The first book focuses on the two tributes from District 12, Katniss and Peeta’s, preparations, the game, and its aftermath. Book Two, Catching Fire, brings Katniss and Peeta back for another round of the games, and introduces a new plot line about Rebels working to overthrow the Capitol. Book Three, Mockingjay, describes Katniss’ uneasy alliance with the rebels, ostensibly to overthrow the Capitol, but in reality to get revenge on those she holds responsible for destroying her life.
There are a good number of problems with these books on a philosophical and moral level, some serious, so this is a series which it is important to discuss with your teenagers and encourage them to read with analytical attention. A first theme to have them watch for is the attitude towards religion. Or rather, the lack of any attitude towards religion. In fact, make that no mention of religion or God at all. For Panem apparently came to exist in a vacuum in which no one even thinks of a creator or supreme being, even to curse him. This complete and intentional refusal to even allow the characters to mention any religious sensibility is a glaring moral problem with the series, but honestly I also think one can see a theme here that a world that has no religion and no recognition of God is a harsh, barbaric world. Little wonder that one ends up with the horror of the Hunger Games when mankind is making up its own morality based on no objective moral standards. The real wonder is that Katniss, Peeta, and others actually do show loyalty, kindness, and compassion. In my opinion, despite an obvious attempt to remove God from the picture, Collins’ portrayal of good and bad characters and default to natural law morality still reflects the reality of God.
Another problematic theme in this series is revenge. Katniss cares deeply about friends and family, and spends much of the later books motivated by her desire for revenge on those who harmed her loved ones. Collins sometimes even portrays her desire for revenge as a somewhat laudable motivation. The question for Collins is not whether revenge is the answer, but who is ultimately responsible for the pain and suffering and deserving of death. Not should one take revenge, but upon whom should one wreak vengeance? Katniss, deeply damaged by her experiences, declares she wants the Hunger Games played out again by the Capitol children as a punishment. Readers need to realize that her desire for vengeance is disordered, again pointing back to the problems with removing God and eternity from the worldview. A fitting companion book to read is The Count of Monte Cristo, which has a powerful theme about revenge not ultimately bringing fulfillment or happiness.
Unsurprisingly given the lack of any belief in God or afterlife, suicide receives a troubling treatment in the Hunger Games. In the climatic final scene of the Hunger Games in the first book, Katniss and Peeta defy the Capitol by threatening to kill themselves rather than kill each other. This solution is cleverly designed by the author to portray suicide as a noble course of action in certain circumstances. Of course, as Catholics we know that suicide is never acceptable, and a discerning reader can point out that there were other options for Katniss and Peeta. For instance, they could have simply refused to fight at all and let themselves be killed by the mutant dogs that had been attacking them. Defying the Capitol did not need to involve a suicide threat.
One final negative influence I will point out is the theme that adults are incapable or unreliable. Almost without exception, the adults in the story disappoint Katniss and thrust her into taking an adult role herself. Her mother suffers from severe depression and her father is dead, so she is the head of her family from the age of 12. Her mentor for the games is a drunkard. The authority figures in the Capitol are the sick individuals who ordered the Games. The head of the Rebels proves to be as heartless and scheming as the Capitol rulers. Collins places Katniss into a world where every adult fails her, forcing her into the role of heroine and Rebel figurehead as a sixteen year old. The real wonder is that Katniss seems to understand intuitively how to be a leader given her complete dearth of positive role models.
Now while I clearly do not wholeheartedly embrace the Hunger Games as a moral tale, I do think there are some worthwhile positive themes that cancel the negative and make this series acceptable reading material. A first positive moral in this series is the theme that violence is bad. There is an odd dichotomy between the amount of violence described in the series, and the theme that violence is wrong: that violence is never the answer. In the first book, Katniss finds herself forced into scenarios where she must kill or be killed, but what sets her apart from most other players in the Games is her attitude that the violence and killing is wrong. Katniss sees killing human beings as horrible, and through her perspective so does the reader. This positive message about violence does become murkier as the series progresses, with the third book particularly devolving towards more gratuitously described violence and a damaged Katniss starting to become numb. I do think that Collins’ conclusion of the series with Katniss portrayed as a troubled, haunted woman who cannot move past the violence and trauma she has witnessed and endured is accurate and an important point to emphasize.
The overarching redeeming theme in the Hunger Games series is the positive message that human beings are persons to be valued, not objects to be used. Katniss’ charisma comes from her ability to see the people she meets as human, her compassion for them, her humanization of those she meets. The moments that everyone in the entire country loves her, such as her flower burial of a murdered 12 year old in the arena, are the moments when she combats dehumanization and makes everyone see the dignity of each person. Similarly, Peeta, the “good” character, is first seen as such for his kindness to Katniss and other people, even trying ones. His goodness is that he treats Katniss as a person from childhood onward. In contrast, the other character in the love triangle, Katniss’ friend Gale, loses her to Peeta because she cannot bear that he begins to treat people like animals. Likewise, the evil Capitol devalues human life, sentencing children to a sick game of slaughtering one another. The goodness or badness of persons and entities in the Hunger Games series is closely tied to their recognition or dehumanization of human persons.
Another theme that makes Hunger Games beautiful and memorable is that even in a brutal, dehumanizing totalitarian regime, people find the courage to help one another, treat each other as human beings, and resist, even if only by their silence. Several poignant scenes involve a protest where an entire District refuses to cheer, or offers a silent salute to Katniss’ human dignity-affirming actions. The message that evil flourishes when good people do nothing is strongly affirmed. All that it takes to begin to overthrow the Capitol’s power is a couple teenagers who refuse to kill one another. Their small resistance leads to silent protests, then to full out revolution.
The Hunger Games Trilogy teeters on the brink between truly worthwhile literature and sensational young adult fiction. The three books in the series vary greatly in coherency, theme, and merit. The first book, The Hunger Games, is the best in my opinion, and certainly worthy of having a high schooler read and discuss or write a paper on. Yes, there are some moral problems with the series, but with a little guidance, high schoolers can recognize the bad, take away the good themes, and enjoy a creative story.
Ideas for discussion questions or book report topics:
1. Does the author intentionally never mention God or religion? Is that a realistic picture of human nature: are people religious by nature? Despite attempting to remove God from the picture, does the author still acknowledge the natural law by creating good and bad characters? Does the author’s Godless world seem to need God?
2.Apply three of Peter Kreeft’s arguments for God’s existence to the world of Panem.
3. Are there any positive adult role models in Katniss’ life? Why would the author create a book where all the adults are deeply flawed? Does this play on a common teenagers’ assumption that they are wiser than adults?
4. Is violence portrayed as negative or positive? Killing? How well does Katniss recover from her ordeal? Peeta?
5. What are the moments Katniss most touches the world of Panem? Why do her compassionate, personhood-affirming actions resonate so strongly? Is it in contrast to the view of human dignity the Capitol takes?
6. How do people resist the Capitol regime? What does Catniss do (give examples) that is a catalyst for people waking up and refusing to allow the brutality of the Hunger Games any longer?