Comedy and Tragedy in The Hunger Games

Building on what I 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 as a comedy“, and will then compare the endings of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy to the ending of another trilogy: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Some Historical Background

“Poets not only lie, but lie in an ugly fashion.” ~ Plato

One of the most valuable parts of the heritage of Western Civilization is “The Great Conversation”; the dialogue from generation to generation about the greatest ideas that have influenced the culture and narrative of the Western world for thousands of years. When we debate the value of cultural artifacts today, we benefit from the fact that these discussions have been going on for a long time. There really is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

So when we talk about the “worth” of a fictional story, we are engaging in a conversation held among such great philosophers as Plato and Aristotle. Plato, for instance, in his Republic, contends that poetry is incapable of conveying truth, because it relies on imitation (mimesis) of reality rather than something tangible. He thought that poets, artists, and actors were dangerous (and thus banned from his ideal Republic), because they were able to persuade audiences through rhetoric and appeals to emotion rather than by presenting something “real”. We can assume he’d think the same about novels, though that particular form of artistic expression originated a thousand years after Plato died.

Plato’s most famous student, however, could hardly disagree more strongly! In Poetics, Aristotle agrees that art is imitation, but argues that this is a benefit, rather than a danger, to society. And whereas Plato thought that tragedies were especially bad — because audiences become empathetic toward characters and thus might want to imitate the poor decisions made by the tragic hero — Aristotle argued that good tragedies were among the best ways to instruct an audience and provide moral insight. In order for a tragedy to be “good”, though, it had to meet certain criteria.

In a “good” tragedy, we are supposed to empathize with the hero. The protagonist should be a likable character who is basically good. That way, when he/she falls, it produces a sense of pity and fear that helps to purify the audience (catharsis). We see the consequences of the hero’s flaw or poor decision (hamartia, which is also the word for “sin” in Biblical Greek) and learn to avoid it.

In case you hadn’t figured it out yet, I side with Aristotle in this particular debate!

Comedy & Tragedy: The Basics

“For never was a story of more woe than this of Juliet and her Romeo.” ~ Escalus, Prince of Verona

Today, the word “comedy” has come to be associated with things that are funny, but that wasn’t the original meaning. At its most basic, a comedy is a story where a likable character ends up better than he started. It has a predictable set of plot conventions and expectations, including, of course, a happy ending. A tragedy is the opposite: the central character (who we also like and empathize with) has a fall from grace due to a character flaw or a poor decision.

Typically, a comedy involves a common, ordinary central character with whom we can relate, who faces and overcomes a set of challenges and winds up improved in some way. Take, for instance, the Pevensie children from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. They are ordinary kids, who are bored after being displaced from the city to the country during WWII. (Who can’t relate to being bored at the home of a distant relative?) After exploring the house, they find the wardrobe portal to another world, become Kings & Queens, and defeat the White Queen, restoring peace to Narnia. Upon their return to the “real” world, they are once again “ordinary”, but they have been changed for the better by their experiences in Narnia. It’s a great example of comedy.

A tragedy, on the other hand, typically involves a central character occupying a lofty position – the better from which to fall! See some of Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes: Hamlet (Prince of Denmark), MacBeth (King of Scotland), and Romeo & Juliet (children of prominent upper class families). Audiences quickly and easily empathize with these characters, so we feel their demise more acutely. The closing lines of each of those plays reminds audiences of the circumstances that led to the fall, thus satisfying Aristotle’s criteria for a “good” tragedy.

Is Hunger Games Comedy or Tragedy?

“It is better to suffer wrong than to do it, and happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust.” ~ Samuel Johnson

So is The Hunger Games a comedy or a tragedy… or something else? Let’s take a look.

In the beginning, the story is certainly set up like a comedy. Katniss is an ordinary girl from the backward coal mining district. Readers begin to empathize with her and identify with her struggles from the very first pages. When her little sister is selected to participate in the games and Katniss volunteers to serve as tribute in her place, all the pieces are in place for a comic story.

As the trilogy progresses, Collins makes use of the same type of plot conventions and expectations that we are used to encountering in comedies. We are privy to Katniss’ inner struggle and ethical dilemmas, and find ourselves hoping for – and emotionally invested in – her success. By the end of the series, Katniss has overcome the odds, risen to a position of influence, and helped to overthrow a corrupt government. Again, in many ways, this feels like a comedy.

But on closer inspection, has Katniss really risen above the hopelessness of the world in which she grew up?

As I read the books, I was struck almost from the outset by Katniss’ inability to trust or love others (with the exception of her sister). For the sake of argument, let’s call this her hamartia; her tragic flaw. We see this in the forest outside District 12 in the opening of the first book as she considers her relationship with Gale (one primarily of pragmatic convenience, though she does consider him a friend), and refers to Prim as “the only person I’m certain I love” (Hunger Gamesp. 10). This inability to trust becomes the driving plot element throughout the entire trilogy.

When she first enters the Game, we see that this flaw leads her to trust no one, and to be willing to kill anyone. Despite her “conflicting emotions” (HG, p. 157) about Peeta — which are still primarily about what is best for her — her defense mechanism of distrust quickly appears as we read her thoughts toward her would-be ally: “I will eagerly watch the night skies for signs of his death, if I don’t kill him first myself” (HG, p. 162). While it could be argued that to some level she does overcome this and trust (and even love) Peeta, I think the end of the trilogy leaves questions about whether she is ever able to love and trust him fully. Meanwhile, she’s also lost trust in her best friend Gale.

We see the manifestation of this tragic flaw most acutely in two instances near the climax of the third book. In the first, Katniss breaks into the home of a civilian in the Capitol, and encounters its unarmed resident. “Without hesitation, I shoot her through the heart,” our heroin says (Mockingjay, p. 314). Later, after the Capitol is successfully overthrown, Katniss casts the deciding vote that will subject the children of the former oppressors to compete in their own Hunger Games (MJ, p. 370); the districts get their revenge. Katniss, despite her many real virtues, has been turned into a ruthless and effective killing machine by her tragic flaw.

She’s a survivor: no doubt about that. In a world totally devoid of religion (such as Panem), survival is the only thing that really matters. That’s naturalism in a nutshell. But when we impose the ethical standards of the Author of Creation, we see that Katniss has failed morally. Despite this, her survival is trumpeted as a virtue in itself, which was the point I was trying to get at in my original review.

A Lesson in Contrast

“Evil labours with vast power and perpetual success — in vain: preparing always only the soil for unexpected good to sprout in.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

Let’s end by comparing the ending of The Hunger Games with the ending of a truly great comedic trilogy: The Lord of the Rings.

Frodo, like Katniss, rises from a humble beginning to become the figurehead of a war against an evil oppressor. He also has many moral failings along his journey, and nearly succumbs to the power of the Ring in the heart of Mount Doom. In fact, were it not for Gollum (alive only because earlier in his journey Frodo had shown mercy), Frodo may well have fallen just as Isildur fell.

As a few readers have pointed out in comments on my earlier posts, there are many similarities in the endings. Frodo, like Katniss, returns to his home after completing his mission, only to find it ravaged by evil despite his efforts. His journey has left him damaged, and he is unable to truly enjoy life in the Shire anymore.

So what makes one story a comedy while the other is a tragedy? The answer lies in the sense of hope (or lack thereof) found in the final pages.

The root of Frodo’s discontent is the realization that the Shire is not his real home. Though he is able to rejoice with his friends and neighbors in their happiness, he can no longer be at peace in what C.S. Lewis might have called the “Shadowlands” of Middle Earth. In the end, he is able to set sail from the Grey Havens to enter the eternal rest of Valinor; a picture of the eternal rest that awaits faithful Christians at the end of a life marred by sin in a world that is not our true home.

Katniss, on the other hand, is eventually able to get on with life, and return to a sense of normalcy. In fact, she even seems to be able to love at last. But the fact that “the promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses; that it can be good again” (MJ, p. 388) is symbolized by a dandelion does not leave one with the sense that this is a hope that springs eternal.

We also see a marked difference in the way the future is portrayed by other characters. When Sam sees Gandalf for the first time after he and Frodo have destroyed the ring, watch his reaction:

At last he gasped: “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

“A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land…

[And Sam] laughed aloud with sheer delight, and he stood up and cried, “O great glory and splendor! And all my wishes have come true!”

Contrast this vision of joy (in the midst of hardship) and hope for the future with the words of Plutarch, the former Gamemaster now promoted to Secretary of Communitations, as he looks to the future of Panem under the new regime (MJ, p. 379):

“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, Katniss.”

“What?” I ask.

“The time it sticks. Maybe we are witnessing the evolution of the human race. Think about that.” And then he asks me if I’d like to perform on a new singing program he’s launching in a few weeks.

Whereas Tolkien gives us a picture of a world still suffering the effects of sin, but with the promise of restoration, Collins shows us a world in which sin continues unchecked. The free peoples of Middle Earth continue in their fight against evil with the possibility of real victory and a foretaste of the ultimate triumph of good. The only hope for humanity in Panem is that perhaps it will evolve into something different and better.

Closing Remarks

To come back to where we started today, let us consider one more reason why Aristotle was right to teach that we can learn much from both comedy and tragedy. The standard by which we “discern… what is good, acceptable, and perfect” (Romans 12:2) is the glory of God. Only that which glorifies God is truly good.

In the real world, God always gets his glory. It is manifested in the lives of all who are created in his image, though in different ways. In the case of redeemed sinners, God gets glory in the mercy and grace of salvation. In the case of those who reject the Gospel, God gets glory in the righteous judgment of sin.

In a good story, there is always a clear contrast between good and evil. In a comedy, good triumphs. In a tragedy, sin has consequences. Both are pictures of ways that God is glorified.

Any time evil wins, it’s a bad story. And while other readers of The Hunger Games may walk away with more optimism than I have about the love and hope at the end of the story (the necessary final ingredients of a comedy), the fact remains that many of the “virtues” lauded throughout the book are not really virtues at all. Sin is not dealt with, and the lesson is not learned.

And that is tragic.

5 comments on “Comedy and Tragedy in The Hunger Games

  1. […] 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 […]

  2. Sara says:

    Great article. Thanks

  3. I too enjoyed the article, though I am one who is missing out having never experienced Lord of the Rings. (Except the time I tried to watch it and fell asleep). I hope to share your article or ideas from it with my 14 year old niece who got me into The Hunger Games. Thanks

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