Disclaimer: I am not a perfect person. I am flawed and sinful, and often are my thoughts as well. There’s some complicated things I attempt to address and I know I fall short. So that said, these are some thoughts on The Hunger Games, written by Suzanne Collins.
One night on a sand dune in the middle of the desert, a friend of mine summarized the whole of The Hunger Games trilogy for me. People have given me a hard time about having heard the plot ahead of time, but I wanted to see if it was something I was truly interested in. When things are really popular, I generally shy away from them since most pop culture isn’t something I want to be immersed in.
I knew some of the plot already, but as Sarah explained it, I started picking up on a lot more political and ethical issues. I thought it sounded like fun to watch the movie as a ‘worldview analyst.’ I didn’t want to spend the time reading the books, but my cousin and I were planning on going to see it together and I needed another book for a short trip, so she loaned it to me to read.
My purpose is to take a look at the political and ethical issues the movie brings up, attempting to analyze them with a Christian worldview and show what’s wrong with the metaphysic of The Hunger Games. Most people, even Christians, think it’s amazing and support it (Sarah made a really good point about why it appeals to everyone: violence, romance, suspense, surprise, and even a little tenderness – something for all). I don’t recommend it, and I aim to show why I don’t and why we shouldn’t blindly rave about it. It may be well-done and riveting, but that’s no excuse for condoning something that often is contrary to the law of God.
My review is not of the movie; it’s of the first book. If you’re looking for a movie review, here are some good ones. PluggedIn addresses a lot of the content as far as language and some immorality is concerned, but doesn’t get at the worldview as much as it could/should. There are four that I felt did a much better job:
– SpeakDealLiveTruly: A good look at a lot of the issues in the movie, and how it affects us, though I am cautious of telling people absolutely not to watch it.
– Thine is the Kingdom: This review goes in depth in a lot of areas, especially concerning just war and when could be right to kill.
– Generations with Vision: If you have half an hour, Kevin Swanson and his daughter take a really good look at more of these issues, particularly self-defense (I get into this myself later, but Mr. Swanson probably does a much better job than I).
– Shadow and Glory: This is the shortest review, but most helpful for someone deciding whether or not to see it, I think. While I haven’t seen the movie yet, I would definitely conclude the same after having read the book.
Another disclaimer: I did a lot of research for this review, and I did a fair bit of it on Wikipedia. I know Wikipedia isn’t always the best source, but often it’s accurate and most of what I was looking for was a refreshment of my memory.
While I was reading, I often wondered – what was Ms. Collins’s purpose in writing The Hunger Games? I often wondered if her point was the same as the movie Rope, which takes the theories of Nietzsche and natural selection to their gruesome ends. Was Ms. Collins trying to show the end of a society obsessed with media, increasingly numbed to violence, and taken over by government? I wasn’t able to find a lot on this, so I can’t really answer that question. But I do find it interesting that someone might use a violent medium to show what’s wrong with our view of violence. What I was able to find was that her inspiration was from the Greek Myth of Theseus.
In this myth, the Athenians must send seven women and seven men to the labyrinth to face the Minotaur (parallel: tributes). Theseus volunteers himself (Katniss for Prim!) to go as a sacrifice in order to kill the Minotaur and put an end to the brutality. In some ways, this parallels Katniss’s dislike of the games – but although Katniss hates them, she does little to break the system until the very end. Both Theseus and Katniss are in part aided by people who love them. While at first glance the story of Theseus and Katniss are similar, I think they take very separate routes as the stories progress.
Seeing footage of soldiers in Iraq blended in Ms. Collins’s mind to give the beginnings of The Hunger Games, however much it departed from the original inspiration later (as an author I can say that’s a very easy thing to do).
An Analysis of the Writing
I was immediately drawn in by the style of writing, as well as the content. The book is full of vivid word pictures and clear descriptions, worked into the story so you can picture it, but it’s not tedious. Tension and emotion is well built throughout the whole thing. Ms. Collins’s thoughts are striking and the story is well-woven.
However, the writing was choppy. Often she used a period where I felt a dash or semicolon would have fit better. This gave the story a start-stop feel that did nothing but make me think of how I would have written it better (rather than the feeling of unsettledness most people say they felt).
But what was most jarring about the writing for me was that Ms. Collins writes in the present tense. It took me a few chapters to figure out why I was uncomfortable with something. I thought it was that some parts didn’t work so well in the first person, but then I realized it was present tense. Once I’d realized this, I wasn’t bothered by it so much, but I still didn’t like it.
This is what really made me want to read the books; hearing all of the different worldviews that were meshed together into the book. What was interesting to me as I researched was how people read both pro- and anti- communism themes into it. Of course, it was the people who were communist in their worldview that thought Panem’s tyranny was a product of capitalism, and people who are against socialism who felt that Panem was a communist government.
The communists saw their goals in the working class rebelling against the oppressive rulers. As one article pointed out, though, the districts aren’t involved in capitalistic enterprises, but are giving what they earn to the government. What the communist doesn’t want to admit is that Panem is the end of their ideologies – and this is clear in the parallels with Communist countries: Famine. A murderous regime. The black market. The state controlling the media.
There are also hints to Roman rule: the very name of the country, Panem, means “bread.” The most common phrase known with this word in it is “panem et circenses,” meaning “bread and games.” But rather than games being used to show further control of the people as happened in Panem, the Romans used bread and games to appease the masses.
So how do we classify Panem? The most common word being used is “dystopian.” Dystopian societies are tyrannical and oppressive. They’re often represented as police states where the government has unlimited power over citizens. Wikipedia reminds us that war is often a precursor to a dystopian society, as citizens become more dependent on the government. This is clear in the way Italian fascists used chaos to further their rule.
In this novel about futuristic America, we see hints of fascism and communism, set against people like Peeta who are very clear that they don’t want to be controlled by them. I’m not going to go into a whole discussion here about communism, fascism, etc., but I will footnote some resources if you’re interested in further reading on these subjects. The reason there’s such a mix of fascist and communist thought, even though they’re very different in their goals, is because they basically lead to the same place. Communism is seeking a classless society, but in the process the “more equal than others” have to lead them and end up creating a totalitarian, oppressive regime – but “it’s only transitory.” Fascism, on the other hand, desires the state to be the top of everything. So while they have different goals, they often end up in the same place – and an example of this place taken to its ends… is Panem (though not all totalitarian regimes have Hunger Games in the sense of making it an official slaughter, it just happens – think of the millions killed by Stalin and Lenin).
The issues of ethics brought up by The Hunger Games have probably brought the most controversy in Christian circles. Some of these are smaller and easier to address, others are quite complex. There are four simpler issues. I’m going to look at them from a Christian perspective, though Katniss and others in the Hunger Games have no profession of faith in God, but I want to help Christians look at this biblically.
- Katniss is highly involved in the equivalent of the Black Market. Rather than seeking to be subject to the higher authorities, Katniss is breaking the law by trading contrary to the laws Panem has set up. In this case, her choice to disobey is not an issue of obeying God rather than men, as it might be in later circumstances. The wrongness of the black market is covered by her motive, helping her family, but that doesn’t change the fact that she’s breaking the law and also enabling others to do so. I’m reminded of hearing stories of families who stopped tithing because they were having trouble making ends meet – and then they had an even harder time. This isn’t meant as a superstitious comment but just that there is blessing for obedience – though it may not always be that clear and direct.
- Katniss is anti-children. She mentions multiple times how she has little interest in marriage since she doesn’t want children. The good of this thought is that children are kept in the context of marriage and as a proper and good fruit of marriage. I understand Katniss’s comments, considering the times in which they live. Bringing children into a world where they may “have to” kill others while they’re teenagers or starve to death isn’t a nice thought. But that doesn’t change the scripture’s Truth that children are a blessing. I think of what John Piper once said, too – “the children I bring into this world are not going to make burdens but lift burdens.”
- “May the odds be forever in your favor,” is a term Hunger Games fans are all familiar with. The worldview of the games is that everything is up to chance. But at the same time, Katniss realizes that they’re in the hands of the Gamemakers, who control the atmosphere around them. This could parallel a sovereign God, but it’s often outweighed by things like good luck charms and references to “the odds” as if they’re supernatural – almost like the force or luck.
- Gender differences are my final short ethics point. Outside of the arena, the difference between men and women is clear. They have different duties and the women wear dresses and look feminine from the descriptions (aside from the inappropriate costumes mentioned, but even there the difference between men and women is clear). But inside, the playing field is leveled at first glance. Girls and guys have an equal shot at it. It’s becoming more and more feminist, and even moreso as we see how the guys are brutes (like Cato) or weak (like Peeta at some moments) and Katniss overrides them (think of when Katniss uses the sleeping medicine for Peeta). The end message? The modern male is useless… and the girl outsmarts or kills them all.
While those are important issues, I think many Christians understand the problems with them. But it seems that almost everyone is ignoring the biggest issue of all: that of killing and self-defense.
All Who Hate Me Love Death
Panem is filled with a culture of death (parallel America today?). Even people like Katniss who say they hate the games watch them. The games fill everyone’s thoughts and lives to the point where they’re always thinking about them and the death involved. And they do nothing about it. But if the inverse of Proverbs 8 is true and all who love death hate wisdom… do we really want to be ‘spending time’ and learning from these people?
Many people don’t seem to think the killing in the Hunger Games is a big deal. She’s not exactly murdering anyone; it’s a game, right? But it’s more complex than that. If someone is attacking you, do you kill them? What about if you know ahead of time – should you preemptively strike? What about if they’re attacking your family? Your country? Should you do nothing to stop them? Should you kill them?
Throw in a character you care about and it gets even messier. Ms. Collins gets her readers caring about Katniss from the start. After all, the book is from Katniss’s point of view, so we know her better than anyone else. And then she goes and saves her sister from the evils of the Hunger Games, and everyone thinks she’s the hero and supports her all the way. She talks about how horrible the games and the government are, struggles to provide for her family, and at first, doesn’t kill. She makes comments about stopping them, but does nothing, unlike Telemachus who sacrificed his life to stop similar games in Rome.
Katniss seems good. She’s not as bad as the rest of the culture who are steeled against and amused by death. Yet as the games draw nearer, it seemed to me that more than being against the immorality of the games, she was fearful. She’s not really against the games – she’s watched them her whole life, and hasn’t done anything to stop them. Once in the system of training for the games, she goes along with the flow (for the most part. Interactions with Peeta are a different story).
For the first part of the games, Katniss hides. She doesn’t kill, just tries to stay alive. But then her enemies camp out at the base of the tree she’s sleeping in. She sees a mutant wasps’ nest and drops it on them. She knew it would kill some of them. You can shrug it off as self-defense, and it was, but does that make it right? Mr. Swanson addressed this dilemma by bringing up David and Saul. Saul had trapped David in a cave, and David could have killed Saul, but he didn’t. Of course, David’s reasoning was that Saul was the Lord’s anointed and so David wouldn’t raise his hand against the authority the Lord had set up. But even so – just because someone is seeking your life doesn’t make it right to kill them. We may not all be anointed rulers, but we are all in the image of God and so life is precious.
After this incident, Katniss is able to pick up her weapon of choice: a bow and arrow. She’s no longer innocent in her thoughts, but the blame falls on the weapon, not herself (warning: secular humanist ideology! “Evil comes from your surroundings.”).
Katniss teams up with a younger, smaller girl. They seek to get rid of their enemies by blowing up the food supply. They succeed, but the young girl dies, and Katniss kills a boy to ‘protect’ the already dying girl.
Now Katniss is angry and doesn’t have qualms about killing or stepping on others (even Peeta) to win. Her other killing is judged a “mercy killing,” though I didn’t see that as her motive, and could not be condoned even if it was. If we allow mercy killings, we allow abortions and euthanasia and judge life not by its inherent preciousness but by circumstances. Life becomes something we can throw away at will instead of understanding its sanctity in the creation and image of God.
But she killed for self-defense and to provide for her family, you might say. Is that an acceptable excuse? Her family was safe, according to the baker and Gale – even if they wouldn’t have been, to break God’s law in order to provide for her family doesn’t make it right. We would not condone her stealing food to help her family, yet we say it’s alright for her to kill to provide for them.
How about for self-defense? Thomas Watson wrote that it’s better to be wronged than to do wrong. It is not sin for you if you are killed. It isn’t sin if your family is killed. Doing wrong to stop a wrong does not make your wrong right. However, you would have blood on your hands if you do nothing to stop it (i.e., if you don’t call the police, threaten, lock your doors, negotiate, etc. Or, even let them steal from you.).
Katniss’s actions are one thing – she’s a fictional character in a fictional setting. But that still doesn’t make it alright to support her or her actions or cheer her on as if she’d done nothing wrong.
My goal with the rest of this review is not to bash Katniss, but to help people see what’s really happening here, so they can understand the situation better. I’m talking about killing in the name of self-defense. I don’t mean military, since they are under the government, who is given the sword (that doesn’t excuse civilian targets, but that’s another topic).
That aside, is it ever right to kill someone on the grounds of self-defense?
First of all, the Christian is not the nation of Israel to be the judgment of God on unholy nations. We are not the government whose duty it is to punish wrong behavior. Ours is to glorify God and obey Him.
The sole place I see in scripture for violence beyond judgment is protecting the innocent. If you see someone being attacked, do something. But stop at protecting the innocent, not killing. Our goal is to protect the innocent, not harm the offender. Seek to make peace, love your enemies, and save lives. Get the government involved – call the police before you rush in, so they can arrive and help. Our death is not on the same basis as Christ’s, so I don’t think we need to die without resisting. But I don’t think we should kill in most circumstances either. Faramir explains the place of war and killing eloquently in the Lord of the Rings. “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”
Our goal is not to preserve our lives, but to obey and glorify God. Killing because the government tells you to (or to win!) doesn’t make it right. To break God’s law is worse than dying.
As far as obedience to God is concerned, one thing to consider here is what the consequences would be. If you’re the only one the killer is after – do what you can to lawfully stop them, but don’t kill them (learn how to knock someone out, for example). If they’re going to attack your family afterwards – protect your family (that’s a reason for Israel’s defense in Nehemiah 4). That doesn’t mean ‘kill them’ but it doesn’t completely rule it out, either. It’s complicated and almost impossible to assess except on a case-by-case basis. I don’t think a Christian should take offensive action, but I do think we have biblical basis for defending our families and countries.
Would I have a gun in my house (and do I think it’s a constitutional right)? Yes. Would I hesitate to use it? Yes. Would I shoot at someone breaking in to harm us? I don’t know. Would I attempt other ways first? Most definitely.
Remember the sanctity of life. Remember that staying alive isn’t your goal: God’s glory is. This is why so many Christians went so willingly to death in another Arena. They would not break God’s law, and so they died, many without fighting back. This was especially right since fighting back would not have gained them anything, whereas their deaths brought glory to God.
Katniss’s killing wasn’t in obedience to God or for the glory of God (though if someone says they’re killing for the glory of God you ought to question them a lot). She killed for revenge on Rue. She killed as “mercy killing.” And she killed as self-defense at a time when there were other options – though I think the wasps is the trickiest issue. The goal for her was to win, to survive, not the glory of Christ. This isn’t something I want to support, or something Christians should.
I know this, especially context of the Hunger Games, is confusing and complex. The whole foundation of the Hunger Games makes this an even more complicated issue. It’s already an unbiblical place of killing. The laws of God make no sense plugged into that situation, since there’s no higher law brought into the Hunger Games. The question of protecting her family hides the bigger issue of the government’s disregard for justice and sanctity of life. We can analyze Katniss’s actions and discuss them but when we disagree with them, we need to ask what a better course of action would have been, so as to avoid the circumstances that would bring us to the dilemma of whether or not to kill.
What should Katniss have done? Should she have stood still, spread her arms wide, and let them kill her? I think her actions at the beginning of the Games were the best course of action: hide.
But I think she could have done a lot more. Ezra comments:
“There was something much bigger than her family at stake in the Hunger games. There was the government’s utter disregard for justice and for the sanctity of human life. Rather than face these evils, she gave up opportunities to speak against them in order to have a chance at returning to her family. This is why I do not see her as noble: she is in the same class as people who did not speak out against Nazis or turned in their Jewish neighbors in order to preserve their own families, or Hutu who turned on their Tutsi neighbors to avoid being killed themselves in Rwanda. A fallen person in a fallen world, without the light of Christ in her heart to cause her to take a more noble path.”
Oh, you may find parallels to Christ, but redemption is always the story in every tale. But in the Hunger Games, most of what I felt was a lack of redemption when there could have been.
She probably would have died, but that doesn’t matter if she was doing right – someone sinning against you doesn’t make it right for you to sin. She should have resisted. She was in a place to speak out against the Hunger Games, but she didn’t. She just went along with it, not trying to break the system until the very end.
She could have sought to remain hidden until the end (though when it was just her and one other left, she’d have to decide or be killed).
She could have refused to go along with the plan (though Panem would probably have killed her very quickly).
She could have spoken out against it in all the interviews she had, convinced people to resist the games and shed light on its immorality. This, too, would probably have cost her her life – but doesn’t that just go to show how a hidden, perhaps unintentional, message of The Hunger Games is to save your life rather than do what’s right?
Katniss was in a position to change a lot with regard to the Hunger Games, but instead, she did very little. She didn’t speak up against what she thought was wrong, but went along with it, counting her life and the lives of her family more important than the truth.
Perhaps another reason the Hunger Games is so popular is because it resounds so much with each of us. We’re flawed, too. We want to protect our families, provide for them, and protect ourselves as well. We get upset at injustice. But when it all boils down, we’re often just as wrong in our actions as Katniss.
I read the Hunger Games in order to analyze it. When choosing whether or not to read a book, I draw the line with whether or not it would cause me to stumble (hence I don’t read Twilight) not what’s morally wrong. In fact, I often like reading things I disagree with because it gives me opportunity to refute it. But, like with Downton, I’m stopping after the first book, because from what I’ve heard it only gets worse and don’t want to entangle myself in that.
But would I say a Christian should not read or watch the Hunger Games? No. However, we have to be careful to know ourselves and know how it would affect us before we venture to read it, and take captive the thoughts in it.
 Proverbs 8
 In City of God, Augustine addresses this with regard to Christian women being mistreated when Rome fell. Should they have allowed themselves to be disgraced, or killed themselves? His answer is that suicide is not acceptable in any circumstances – and concludes the same as Watson: It is better to be wronged than to do wrong.