Author Suzanne Collins describes a dystopian future where the remains of the United States have fallen under the oppressive control of The Capitol which rules the twelve districts of Panem from which it obtains resources to finance its lavish lifestyle. To maintain control, the Capitol hosts annual Hunger Games where they select two tributes from the children of each district to fight to the death in an arena for the entertainment of the nation. The Hunger Games tells the story of Katniss Everdeen from District 12. She volunteers as a tribute in the place of her sister and fights in the games, eventually emerging victorious alongside her fellow tribute, Peeta Mellark. Their victory becomes a powerful symbol of rebellion against the Capitol and has the potential to unite the districts in revolution.
The villain of The Hunger Games is the Capitol and its blood-scented ruler President Snow. Before entering the games Peeta says, “Only I keep wishing I could think of a way…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.” And later, after the death of a tribute Katniss contemplates, “I want to do something, right here, right now, to shame them, to make them accountable, to show the Capitol that whatever they do or force us to do there is a part of every tribute they can’t own. That Rue was more than a piece in their Games. And so am I.” The Hunger Games series seems poised to tread familiar territory – a group of unlikely, semi-reluctant freedom fighters are out to overthrow oppression; see Star Wars, Harry Potter, Braveheart, etc.
Yet Collins is a different kind of author and The Hunger Games is a different kind of story. Collins’ grew up with war. Her grandfather was gassed in World War I and her uncle received wounds in World War II. When she was 6, her father left to fight in Vietnam and she struggled with his absence. Upon returning, he endured nightmares that lasted his whole life. Her family moved around with the military, spending time at West Point and Brussels. Her father took every opportunity to educate her about the realities of war. A family trip to a castle which she imagined would be “fairy-tale magical” became a lesson on fortresses. She says, “My dad’s holding me back from the tour to show me where they poured the boiling oil, where the arrow slits are. And then you’re just like, wait a minute! This isn’t what I had in mind.”
Collins’ inspiration for the Hunger Games came one night while flipping television channels between reality television and Iraq war coverage. Concerned about the desensitizing effect of television on younger viewers, she decided to write a series that would educate teens about the realities of war – like her father did for her. She says, “If we wait too long, what kind of expectation can we have? We think we’re sheltering them but what we’re doing is putting them at a disadvantage.” She rejects any attempt to morph her books into an allegory for the struggles of adolescence, saying, “I don’t write about adolescence. I write about war for adolescents.”
Enter The Hunger Games. The world created by Collins is devoid of anything transcendent. There are no churches, no mosques, no temples, and no religious beliefs of any kind. Religious names have disappeared; Michael, Mohammed, and Mary are replaced with Primrose, Peeta, and Plutarch. There is no expectation of life after death or any purpose beyond the daily struggles of existence. Katniss’ initial exchange of herself for her sister is noble but she fights in the arena simply to survive. She helps others along the way so she can live with herself should she escape. Neither she nor anyone else is fighting for love, truth, justice, liberty, goodness, or any other transcendent quality. Even the desire for freedom is grounded in dislike of the Capitol’s oppression, not any belief about the right of humanity to be free. The general motivation of those who oppose the Capitol seems simply to be: Capitol bad, anything else better. When Katniss asks what people want to replace the Capitol with, she is told a republic with elected representatives because it worked in the history books. A far cry from Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” or the bold declaration of inalienable rights each human is endowed with by their Creator that inspired the first American republic.
For all its cruelty and vanity, The Capitol is an inadequate enemy for Collins. The real enemy of The Hunger Games is war. That is why Panem lacks anything transcendent. Love, justice, liberty, religion, etc. are not worth fighting for because the ultimate problem is the fight itself. As the series continues this is why each character in the story becomes morally compromised; war dirties us all. This is why the body count rises exponentially; war spares no one. This may be why many readers left the final book of the series “Mockingjay” feeling disheartened. As the top reviewer on Amazon states, “When I first closed the book last night, I felt shattered, empty, and drained.”
This is not Harry Potter’s fight for love which, though it claims many lives, ends with love victorious and the world a better place. Readers and viewers alike will wrestle with the question: Is the world of The Hunger Games a better place after Katniss’ efforts or has the enemy of war ultimately won?
There is much to commend about The Hunger Games. Collins creates a fascinating world with compelling characters and a narrative that sucks the reader in and refuses to let go. It also pushes back against the glorification of violence and the emptiness of the media in our culture. Katniss herself has good qualities; she sacrifices herself for her sister, serves others (if occasionally for selfish motives), takes responsibility for her family, faces adversity with courage, and possesses unique talents and abilities.
Yet Katniss is a hero without conviction. She is largely motivated by survival, anger, and pragmatism and is not guided by any purpose, truth or standard beyond herself. She exists in a world that lacks any meaning or higher cause worthy of sacrifice. Should war and conflict be vanquished in Panem, will the people have anything to live for besides a higher standard of living?
The gospel story is different. It features a hero who believed so strongly in love and justice that he died a violent death so both could triumph. He gave us a world full of meaning, lives with incredible purpose, and a cause that makes every sacrifice worthwhile. Yes, there will be war, conflict, and struggle. But when the author of the gospel is finished writing the story of this world, we will not be disheartened but will have inexpressible joy that goes on forever.