Answering Criticisms of My Review of The Hunger Games

After yesterday’s posting of my review of The Hunger Games, I’ve gotten a lot of thoughtful responses from readers. Because these responses are similar, but scattered around the Internet on Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, and my e-mail, I thought I’d try to respond to many of them here.

First of all, a great many people have expressed gratitude for the reviews. I hope that it was helpful, which is the intent behind everything I write here! I’m thankful for positive feedback.

I also greatly appreciate pushback from those who disagree with what I’ve said here. I’m certainly not here to force my own views on anyone else. I believe the conversation is worth having, and will make us all better people. With that in mind, here are a couple broad categories of disagreement that I’ve seen, and my responses to that criticism:

Katniss Was Forced to Kill

Another way of wording this sentiment would be to say that she killed only in self-defense, or to protect the lives of others. It’s a powerful argument, to be sure, and seems plausible. But is it true?

Let me start out by saying that I am in no way opposed to true self-defense. If someone attacked me or my family, I would do everything in my power — including using lethal force, if necessary — to stop them. Of course, it would be different if I were being attacked for my faith. If it’s a recant-or-die scenario, then I pray for the courage to join the great cloud of witnesses who have endured terrible suffering “so that they might rise again to a better life” (Hebrews 11:35). But protecting ourselves and our families from criminals certainly does not conflict with Christian morality.

However, in a scenario such as we see in The Hunger Games, the ethical lines can get blurred. Douglas Wilson (whose review focuses largely on this issue) explains how this happens:

“When you have the privilege of setting up all the circumstances artificially, in order to give your protagonist no real choice about whether to sin or not, it is a pretty safe bet that a whole lot of people in a relativistic country, including the Christians in it unfortunately, won’t notice.”

Relativism is so subtle! But are ethics conditional on our situation? The philosophies of the world say so, but what about the Bible? Are we given the freedom to sin if it will save our lives? Hypothetically, if you were put in a room with another person who has no quarrel or ill-will toward you, and told you must kill that person or die, would you do it? If you did, would you call it “self-defense”?

Sure, Collins has set up a scenario where kids are told they must kill one another (for no reason other than the entertainment of others), and so it appears that they must kill in self-defense, but it’s no different ethically from the scenario I just mentioned. Did Katniss make the choice that most people would make in the unlikely event they find themselves forced with the decisions she faced? Yes. Does that make it right? No. She could have refused to murder (and yes, that’s what this was — killing without cause), even at the cost of her own life.

Consider for a moment an argument common today that makes use of similar reasoning: Should abortion be allowed in the case of a rape?

This question is posed to pro-life politicians so often it’s almost cliché. It’s a classic “gotcha” question, because it plays on the sensitivities of a relativistic culture. It is usually asked in such a way that makes it seem like it would be horrible to force someone who is already the victim of a horrible crime to carry an unwanted baby that was forced upon her against her will. It’s an effective trap, because even though abortions by rape victims account for only about 1% of all abortions, those who frame the question know that once someone admits any situation in which abortion is “ethical”, there is no morally consistent way to oppose abortion at all.

In the case of a pregnancy caused by rape, there are really two victims. Killing one of them does not undo the first crime; it just adds another. Most conservative Christians agree with this position… so what changes when there are 24 victims in an Arena?

This Was No Different Than Killing In War

Several people have asked, based on what I said in my review, whether I feel that our soldiers are in conflict with Christian morality if their service requires them to kill in the line of duty. The same could probably be asked about law enforcement officers.

The answer is no. But these situations are totally unrelated.

Soldiers serving in the armed forces have properly delegated authority to “bear the sword” (Romans 13:4). I am a proponent (with some reservations) of “Just War Theory”, and believe that military service is an acceptable and honorable vocation for a Christian. I have some personal qualms with the way our military is used, but won’t get into that here. For now it should be enough to say that what the tributes were asked to do in The Hunger Games has even less to do with soldiers facing enemy combatants than it does with self-defense.

The Ending Was Just Right

Of all the objections raised, the one that had the most merit (and many very thoughtful responses) had to do with my contention that the ending was bad because it lacked any sort of redemptive theme. While I hold to that conviction, I think I might be able to do a better job of explaining what I meant… in fact, I have started outlining an additional post just to talk in more detail about endings in general. I’ll try to give you the Cliff’s Notes version here, and hopefully flesh this out better soon.

In the broadest sense of speaking, there are two types of stories: Comedy and Tragedy. Basically, a comedy depicts the rise in fortune of a sympathetic central character; a tragedy depicts the downfall of a basically good character through a tragic flaw or decision, told in a way that is meant to arouse pity and fear among the audience. Both are capable of being “good” stories, because either can be used to convey truth (“the moral of the story”).

In a comedy (i.e. – Lord of the Rings, or the Bible), we learn by identifying traits worthy of emulation in the protagonists. In a tragedy (i.e. – Hamlet, or La Boheme), we learn by observing the consequences of the protagonist’s error or tragic flaw. If there is an objective standard for morality (and I contend that there is), then it can be presented in dramatic form either positively (comedy) or negatively (tragedy). It’s sort of like seeing it as a thesis-antithesis.

Obviously, this is all (very) over-simplified, but where I see the problem is that The Hunger Games is a tragedy disguised as a comedy. Katniss is a great tragic hero, because she does want to sacrifice herself for others at first, but ultimately she ends up no better than the villains. Unfortunately, readers tend to come away from the books viewing her as a comic hero: someone who improves herself through virtuous actions. So we are left without a “moral of the story”… or worse, a wrong one.

Several people have left comments to the effect (though maybe not in so many words) that this really was a comedy, and that Katniss and Panem are better off at the end than they were in the beginning. It’s a fair argument. Like I said, I’ll try to flesh this out later, because it’s really fascinating to me! *UPDATE* Done

Better For Kids to Read This Than Nothing

I’ve also seen several people saying they are glad their kids are reading this, because they usually don’t want to read anything at all. Surely we can see the problem with this criteria? It assumes that reading anything is better than reading nothing, which I suppose is based on the idea that the act of reading itself is good, regardless of content. But nobody really believes this!

Teachers often complain that boys don’t want to read. If the above premise were true, we could just hand out copies of Penthouse magazine and we’d be doing them a favor. Obviously, this is an extreme example, but it proves that, at some level, there is content most of us deem “bad”. So the question then becomes: where do we draw the line? If some reading is “bad”, what reading is “good”? All literature is not created equal.

Note that I’m not saying that The Hunger Games is necessarily “bad” literature. But I do think it is extremely important that we as parents and teachers are at minimum aware of what our kids are reading, and able to discern the quality of its content. Also, I am not willing to concede that kids won’t read “great” literature… and I certainly wouldn’t place Collins’ books in that category.

Fiction Is Just Meant to Be Enjoyed

Why bother taking this much time to analyze fiction? Isn’t it just meant to be enjoyed?

I thought this way once, but Nancy Pearcey made a great point in Saving Leonardo when she wrote that conservatives lost the culture war by focusing on politics while liberals were focusing on teaching literature in the Universities. Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, and many others all believed that their fiction writing had WAY more influence on their readers than their nonfiction. Judging by the fact that I’ve never sparked this much debate in my reviews of nonfiction, I think they’re on to something.

There’s nothing I love more than being able to sit and read a good book for the sheer enjoyment of it. But that begs the question: How do we discern what is a “good” book? I can’t do that without either reading it critically, or reading the critique of others whose discernment I trust.

I don’t sit down and read a book with the sole purpose of picking it apart. Critical thinking, critical reading, and book reviewing are skills that must be learned and developed like any other. With time and practice, this type of reading is now my default setting. It doesn’t lessen my enjoyment; it enhances it!

By the way, a great resource that has been helpful in this regard is The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment by Tim Challies (along with books by Nancy Pearcey, Francis Schaeffer, and others). Culture Making by Andy Crouch is particularly useful for refining one’s approach to popular culture.

Now: If you don’t trust my discernment, I’m really okay with that. And feel free to send whatever criticism you may have my way. I can take it, I promise! My goal with these reviews (and my blog in general) is to help others think. So far, I think I’ve accomplished at least that much.

Thanks for reading! I welcome your comments.

6 comments on “Answering Criticisms of My Review of The Hunger Games

  1. [...] a followup post to address several criticisms people have had of this review. I hope you’ll check it out and add to the discussion! Rate this: Share this:FacebookTwitterEmailMoreDiggRedditStumbleUponLike [...]

  2. Lesley Wilson says:

    Dear John,
    I really enjoyed your review of the Hunger Games. I did not agree with all of it however I do agree that the book draws out a moral dilema that will make chilren of some ages, those too young to read this material, confused about God’s biblical commandment on killing. Teenagers and adults can read these books and easily discern that the killing in this fiction is in conflict with God’s word. I think the age of the reader is the real issue here not the content. I grew up reading Nancy Drew and was reading Agatha Christie by the 5th grade and was reading at a college level before 8th grade. I detested Harlequin books or anything that resembled one, but ate up Steinbeck, Dickens, Lewis and many other great writers. I also had my brain candy that I still read today. Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt, were the first murder\romance books I read and I was in the 5th grade. They did not contain any sex or extreme violence but neither did Nancy Drew. I read the Hunger Games and did find the violence unnerving but I think it is supposed to make our moral compass twinge. It is supposed to make us outraged that a society would allow this to happen, not champion it on! The whole time I was reading it I kept praying, Lord never let this happen to us! Never let this become reality. I can only hope the teens that read it did also. It makes for good conversation in youth group as well to discuss morals with our youth and talk about what God says is right. The writer of this book may have had no intention of glorifying God but I think God can be anyway if youth leaders will get involved with this series and use it as a tool to reach the youth and teach God’s perspective on this fictional story by saying what if it really happened what would God want you to do? If our kids are going to be exposed and they are, get ahead of them and be prepared with the Word of God. You see as much as I read fiction, I read God’s word even more, it’s my passion and I believe God can take anything the world puts out and turn it into a learning tool that will teach His love and compassion. Thanks for your review and for letting me leave my thoughts.

    • Shannon says:

      You said it right and I think the reviewer was making this point as well. It is the age of the reader that is of concern. Myself, my husband and our 5th grade daughter where/are reading and comprehending on a college level in 5/6th grade. I read a bunch of trash and it really does have an affect on a developing brain. I am trying to be much more aware of what my daughter reads and trying to “feed” her brain more age appropriate, yet still stimulating materials, a hard task to be sure as our reading genre’s are not exactly the same. A great book for me is not necessarily a great book for a 10-11 year old.
      Ultimately it comes down to read, enjoy, discuss, or read, and save for your child later when they are mature enough to handle to underling issues.
      I think that reviews like this are great for those of us who didn’t really want to read the book, but had concerns especially with all the pear pressure to let the kids read it.
      In fact I just may let my daughter read the reviews and talk about them!

  3. jen98f says:

    Great reviews Joy! I agree with all of your points and appreciate your honesty.

  4. [...] has a post on how the book and movie differed.I’ve read some responses to the story which are negative, some which say that it is “no worse” than other violent stories kids are exposed to, [...]

  5. [...] on what I wrote Sunday, I want to take a closer look at “endings” in general, and the ending of The Hunger [...]

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