Last week I finally got around to reading The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. I am by nature skeptical of much new popular fiction, but had heard lots of mixed reviews and wanted to check them out for myself.
This series had a strange effect on me; while the books were definite page-turners (I read all three in a weekend), I read them with a nearly constant sense of agitation. In the end, I was sorely disappointed in them, and perhaps even a little angry. Let me try to explain…
Suzanne Collins is a gifted writer. It’s terribly difficult to write a story in first person perspective. To be successful (as Collins most assuredly is here), an author must convince readers that we are inside a character’s head. In The Hunger Games, readers know Katniss Everdeen’s every thought. She’s believable. We can identify with her struggles. And the way she is presented by the author, we really want to sympathize with her (which is part of the problem, but we’ll get to that later).
The story is pretty unique, which is quite an accomplishment in itself. Sure, there’s nothing original about a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future, but the children of failed rebels forced to fight in Roman gladiatorial-style “games” (anybody else notice that all the citizens of the Capitol have Latin names?) with all the glitz and drama of Reality Television? Definitely haven’t heard that one before!
From the first page, the action and suspense are gripping, which accounts for much of the books’ popular appeal. Collins writes with enough detail to make the fictional world come to life, but not enough to slow the story down. If you have the luxury of allotting more than a few minutes at a time to read, the pacing can easily get your adrenaline pumping, which provides the same sort of addictive carnal pleasure you might get from jogging or mountain climbing or playing Russian roulette.
The danger in such pacing is that we can be tempted to uncritically accept false premises in a world created by an all-knowing, all-powerful author. To borrow liberally from Socrates, however: “The unexamined book is not worth reading.” So let’s examine a few things that are assumed to be true in Suzanne Collins’ Panem (be warned, there will be spoilers).
Survival is the Virtue That Trumps All Others
In The Hunger Games, readers are meant to empathize with Katniss. She is presented to us sympathetically, so that we have a vested interest in her survival. As a result, many readers – including a great many Christians – find themselves justifying acts that in any other circumstance (say, in the real world, where God’s Law is revealed in nature and written on human hearts) would be unconscionable.
Think about it: In what real-world scenario would we ever condone the cold-blooded murder of a child (or an adult for that matter)? Yet this is exactly what the protagonists of this tale do on multiple occasions. Does it really matter if Katniss, Peeta, and others were “forced” to murder, whether for their own survival or the survival of others?
Am I off the hook for my own sin if the government or anyone else tells me that I must either sin or die… or watch my family die? No, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). God forbid I’m ever faced with that choice, but if I am, I must follow my Savior in his suffering and death, knowing that I will also follow him in his resurrection. Christians have been martyred in exactly this way for 2000 years, and in many parts of the world, these kinds of choices are a daily reality for followers of Christ right now. That is what true virtue looks like.
In the beginning of the trilogy, Katniss essentially sacrifices herself to save her little sister from certain death. This is noble, and provides the setup for the classic theme of sacrifice and redemption that is an element in every great story. In the end, though, Katniss is driven not by true, sacrificial love, but merely by her own instincts to survive and protect her family. She is no better than an animal, which fits in fine with a naturalistic worldview, but should give Christians pause. And it leads us to the next point…
There Is No Such Thing As Redemption
Almost all the way through the trilogy, I held out hope that Collins was going to finally get around to the redemption that seemed always to be just out of reach, but it never got there. It was sort of like ending a piece of music with an unresolved Dominant chord. I was left hanging.
One thing Collins does get right is that there is no one righteous. With the possible exception of Primrose, everyone is wicked. The protagonists (whom we are led to like) lie, cheat, and kill just as much as those we are led to hate. That’s pretty much how real life works, too, only in God’s world we have a Redeemer. We don’t have to stay wicked. In Collins’ world, evil is a universal, unavoidable, and unchangeable fact of life. How depressing.
There is no redemption for Katniss. She ends up as bitter, heartless, and incapable of love as any of her rivals. She even fails to protect the person she set out to save from the beginning.
There is no redemption for Panem. Though there is a regime change, there is no policy change. Though there is excitement among much of the populace accompanying the change in leadership, there is little promise of reversing the nation’s self-destruction and moral decay (sound familiar?).
The Source of My Frustration
My real problem with The Hunger Games is not the lack of Christian morality or a redemption narrative. I’m certainly not going to tell you that you shouldn’t read them. In fact, I would argue that these are books that should be read – by those who have the ability to read them with discernment.
No, the problem is how many teens and pre-teens I see reading these books in the halls of our church, and how few parents are reading with them. Friends, this is a dangerous and irresponsible dereliction of duty. If your kids have read or are reading them, grab a copy now and don’t stop reading until you’ve caught up… and talk to them about what they’ve read.
Many parents seem lulled into a false sense of security because there is “no bad language or sex” in them. That’s true, but ignores the fact that what it does include is vastly more important and potentially destructive. Ideas have consequences; even more so when those ideas are accepted uncritically through the use of assumptive language. Most kids aren’t equipped to pick up on those things.
That said, the series is not without some merit as a teaching tool (though with so many GREAT books in the literary canon, it’s a real shame to read something like this to the exclusion of books with much greater merit). If you do read these books with your kids, here are some themes you might use to broach a meaningful conversation with them:
- What would a world without a Redeemer look like? “If… we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:19)
- Situational ethics: Is morality relative? What would you do in a situation like this? (for a great review of The Hunger Games from this perspective, see Douglas Wilson)
- Dystopia can be very effective when read as such, but Katniss and the rest of the protagonists must be seen as tragically flawed characters, not virtuous heroes. Kids don’t pick up on that difference without guidance. Unfortunately, neither do many adults…
I hope you’ve found this review fair and instructive. I’d love to hear from others who have read the books, particularly from parents and teachers who are reading them with your children and/or students. What thoughts did you have? What have you heard from younger readers in your conversations about the books?
*EDIT* — I’ve written 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!