Book Review: The Hunger Games Trilogy

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…

The Good

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 Bad

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!

21 comments on “Book Review: The Hunger Games Trilogy

  1. Enoch says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful response. I read the books quite a while ago, and while I certainly enjoyed the plot, the characters left me cold. I didn’t actually stop to consider why at the time, but what you’ve said rings true for my experience.

  2. Belinda says:

    I just wonder what your thoughts about our military are. Do you think our all of our soldiers are not Christian because they are at war ( to keep war out of our homeland) and may have to kill??? How do you explain to your teenagers about war?

    • John Gardner says:

      To give a serious answer to a silly question: I am a proponent (with some reservations) of Christian Just War theory, and do consider military service an acceptable and honorable vocation for a Christian. But soldiers fighting enemy combatants is a totally different scenario from what is depicted in The Hunger Games.

      Of course, we haven’t fought anything resembling a just (or constitutional) war in more than half a century, so the ethical decisions faced by our soldiers may have more in common with those kids told by their government to kill other innocents than we’d like to think…

      • Belinda says:

        I am sorry that you thought this was a silly question but in your review you wrote…”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)” I , as a military wife am reminded that each time soldiers are at war they are obeying our government and are sometimes forced to kill. They do this with the belief that they ARE protecting their families by keeping the enemy off of our home soil. I guess my “silly ” question to you was does this make them nonchristian. My intent wasnt to make this a military issue but will say , I am vaguely familiar with the Christian Just War Theory and I feel that each time my husband has been deployed ( Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom)the criteria for Just War was met.

        • John Gardner says:

          Perhaps “silly” wasn’t the best word choice there. The question just caught me a little off-guard because the two situations are worlds apart in my mind.

          As I answered another person’s similar question, no military action since WW2 has been authorized by Congress. By Thomas Aquinas’ criteria, a war fought without properly delegated authority is an unjust war. There are other reasons I question the justice of our military engagements as well, but the fault does not lie with the soldiers. At least, not any more than with any voting citizen that does not hold our government accountable for its unconstitutional actions.

          Sorry if my first reply sounded snarky. That wasn’t my intention, but rereading it today I realized it may have come across that way.

          • travispollard says:

            Well stated, John. As a soldier in the US Military, I believe most of our military action of the last decade has been unjustified and immoral.

  3. kokopaleo says:

    Thanks for writing this, John. I read the trilogy last summer, and I was very interested in what you had to say. I think I disagree slightly on two points. Keep in mind, it’s been a year since I read the books, so you may have to refresh my memory…

    Katniss may have felt “forced” to murder, but my recollection is that most, if not all, of her acts of violence were either self-defense (protecting herself or someone she loved from the arena elements or a person who was trying to murder them) or in the “war” scenario at the end, which I didn’t really consider “murder”. Katniss spent most of her time in the arenas, not trying to hunt down her opponents, but just trying to survive.

    I actually thought the ending was perfect, in that it didn’t provide a false redemption. To have made eveything beautiful and happy in the end would have been unrealistic, and (in my opinion) it would have seemed false. Like the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, where the quest has reached completion, but the characters must go on, damaged, that is how I saw the ending of this book. It didn’t have a Christian redemption, because it didn’t deserve one. Only Christ can bring about that kind of redemption… And if you want to read a fictional story like that, pick up Les Miserables. 🙂

    • John Gardner says:

      I’ll pick up Les Mis any day!

      And I think there’s a huge difference in the endings of Hunger Games and LOTR, which I’m currently addressing in another post, which I hope to finish later this afternoon… but it’s a Sunday so no promises.

      • kokopaleo says:

        Agreed – the endings are very different… who wants a copy-cat? I just think they are alike in that the characters have found peace in a goal accomplished, and yet must continue in life as damaged individuals. Looking forward to your next post!

  4. Carolyn Wilson says:

    I read the trilogy along with my husband and son, we all three were captivated by the books. We did discuss the book from the standpoint of “look at the horrors committed in the capital and why did it happen/why was it allowed to happen?” I think I saw Katniss as a protector/victim/victor. After reading your review, we talked about it again, in particular, the statement about sinning or dying or watching your family die. My recollection from the books (and its been awhile) is that Katniss was never the aggressor. God did not say don’t defend yourself, He said “thou shall not commit murder”, ratsach, killing without cause.
    I’m also curious about which of the four conditions you feel have not been met according to the Just War theory? As the Christian wife of a Christian soldier, it was hard for me to read your reply to the previous comment. I’m sure that wasn’t your intention and I am so thankful to live in a place where these discussions can happen. My goal is to love people to Christ by witnessing God’s love and worry sometimes that our own judgements and opinions can sometimes prove to be a stumbling block for others seeking to know Christ.

    • John Gardner says:

      Thanks for the reply! I’m going to respond to most of your comments in a separate blog post later (hopefully today), because several others have asked the same questions elsewhere. But to answer your question about Just War, we have not waged war by a properly delegated authority, which was one of Thomas Aquinas’ criteria for just war. In this country, the power to declare and wage war is granted to the Congress (see Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution), yet the last time Congress declared war was in World War II. Thus, by definition, every use of our military since then has been unconstitutional, and also violates the principles of the Just War theory.

      Even if one were to say that a President should have the unilateral authority to send our troops into combat, thus satisfying that particular criterion, I have personal reservations about our nation’s motives and purposes behind entering our undeclared “wars” (justus ad bellum) and our tactics used in those military engagements (jus in bello). But going in to that would be chasing a rabbit trail away from the subject of this post so I’ll save it for another day.

      Suffice it for now to say that I believe it is possible for Christian men and women to serve in these undeclared wars without violating their conscience.

  5. […] 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, […]

  6. John Gardner says:

    Hello, commenters. I’ve written a followup post to address these and other critiques. Hope you’ll check it out and continue the discussion!

  7. Shannon says:

    Hi, I just want to say, while I have not yet read the books, your critique and commentary, are exactly what my gut was telling me. I told my daughter to return her borrowed book, and let me review it first, the very next day, the President of our private school sent out a link to your article!

  8. […] thinking a lot over the past week about The Hunger Games (my review), and especially in preparing what will be my final post (which I hope to publish tomorrow) about […]

  9. […] wrote Sunday, I want to take a closer look at “endings” in general, and the ending of The Hunger Games specifically. I want to qualify my statement that “The Hunger Games is a tragedy disguised […]

  10. […] [Book Review] The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne CollinsBook Review: The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins — eating benderBook Review: The Hunger Games Trilogy […]

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  12. Hannah says:

    I know this is an older post, but I just have to say my two cents or I will get no sleep tonight.
    Katniss is very capilable of love at the end of Mockingjay. Sure, love and hope are difficult for her and Peeta after all they have seen and done, but as Katniss says at the end: “on bad mornings, it feels impossible to take pleasure in anything because I’m afraid it could be taken away. That’s when I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do.”
    Hope and redemption are most definitively there at the end. If this were a story without hope, Katniss would have committed suicide instead of living to struggle each day. Life will never be easy, but it most certainly be worth the struggle.

  13. […] Williams, Julie Clawson (1, 2, 3), Carissa Smith (1, 2, 3), Ethan Bartlett, Rev. Robert Barron, John Gardener, Janie B. Cheaney, Hipster Conservative, April Allbriton, Monica Selby, Kingdom Civics, Ginny […]

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