The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games are a tragedy.  (As a spoiler alert, if you haven’t read them, then don’t keep reading). They are a harsh look at what happens to people when they think they must make war on one another.  Perhaps the best summary of the thesis of the Hunger Games comes from Hermann Goring’s famous quote from the Nuremberg interviews:

“Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship….  All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

Goring was onto something: there is little difference in the end between people on both sides who become intent on killing one another.  And Collins’ book makes one thing clear: it is not that hard to convince people that this is what they must do.

In the end the books are a tragedy because just about everyone is corrupted.  All of the leaders, both of the Capitol and of the Rebellion are evil.  Gale, Katniss’ best friend is transformed into the image of those he hates.  He becomes the new murderer, a Peacekeeper himself, just like Coin and most of the other rebels, even though he had been scourged to an inch of his life by a Peacekeeper.  Plutarch just switches sides, but he continues to be a Game Master, playing with lives that do not matter.  

What is so sad is that Collins is right on.  Many have already pointed out the prophetic nature of Goring’s quote for American foreign policy.  Enough people have been told they hate their country for not supporting war, whether in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.  Gale is the perfect image of consequentialism. If these books were used in a morality classroom — which would be a pretty good idea — Gale would be the consequentialist.  Everything is justified because of the atrocities that have been committed against his people, and any means, including the killing of innocents, is justified.

Peeta represents the other end of things: the one who recognizes more clearly early on that how one acts affects who one is and becomes.  He is the most Thomistic, recognizing the distinction between actioand factio, between acting and doing, between intransitive and transitive acts.  For Gale all acts are transitive.  For Peeta they are intransitive, and he doesn’t want to become just another version of the Capitol killers, albeit on the opposite side.

Katniss resides in the middle, unsure of whether she believes in intrinsically evil actions or whether the ends ultimately justify the means.  The reaction to these books will be interesting.  It almost makes me wish I was back teaching in high school.  I can see many siding with Gale.  Others with Katniss.  Very few with Peeta, just as very few students I taught had issues with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan.

The Hunger Games, with their tragic ending, end up redeeming the sloppy sentimental romance that pervades them early on.  In the end, it is hard not to recognize that they are a biting indictment of a society that has become comfortable with bloodshed and with ignoring the murky roots of its own morality.

4 Responses to The Hunger Games

  1. Martha M says:

    I find it difficult to believe, Nathan, that you actually read these books. Or, rather, that you read them with anything like an open mind. It seems more like someone told you what they were about and you read them looking for things to back up pre-conceived ideas of the issues discussed. It’s also possible, however, that you’re just trying too hard to be insighful and so you’re missing what’s actually there.

    I’m not saying there aren’t elements of what you mention. Certainly there are indictments of growing used to bloodshed and vengefulness. However, the overall arc of the books examines more specifically the question of when and how an individual (moving on to a society) decides to throw off tyranny.

    It is a sad fact that most people aren’t moved to do anything about the opression of others, even if it occurs in our own society. Gale, whose vengefulness eventually consumes him, recognizes before Katniss that there is a possibility of rousing the Districts to overthrow the Capitol. Katniss is probably the most reluctant of the three young main characters to get on board with the idea that they need to do something to change how the Capitol views and treats the Districts. She is all of us, struggling with the balance of protecting her own life and the lives of those she loves against potentially freeing all of Panem from the opression they have lived under for at least the last three generations. Peeta, while more gentle in some ways, is still willing to jump in and help out, even after the torture he underwent at the hands of the Capitol. He is, basically, the hero we all hope to be and know we probably fall far short of.

    In the last decade, I can’t say how often I’ve wondered about why people who live in oppressed societies don’t do something about it and overthrow their governments. After reading these books and witnessing the steps that have been taken in recent years that can so easily lead to the curbing of our own freedoms, it is easier to understand. The incremental nature opression can assume, the ease with which people grow used to new circumstances, our desire to be safe outweighing our desire for freedom, all add up to allowing tyranny to happen. And once it is in place, the overwhelming odds against being able to rouse people enough to do something about it and the threat to your own life makes it suddenly understandable.

    I hope, Nathan, that you will reconsider parts of your interpretation of this series. Some of the things you missed in your review are pretty important to the meaning of the books overall, and I would hate for people who have not read the books to read your first couple of sentences and decide to put them off. I haven’t covered everything that’s there, either, and I don’t intend to. Just to offer a counterpoint on the thing I think is most important about this series.

  2. Martha,

    I first want to comment that I actually quite enjoyed the trilogy. I had never really heard about them and wanted to make sure to read them before the movie came out, since that’s sort of a general policy of mine.

    That said, your response definitely proves the point that interpretation can differ, and even differ dramatically. I basically took the series to be a dystopia. Dystopias, such as 1984 and Brave New World often reflect on the apparent power of the individual that proves to be just that: apparent. In the end, the status quo continues to reign. I took this to be maybe a post-modern dystopia: the individual seems to have power, but that proves mostly illusory. In the end, human nature proves too strong.

    I think that’s why I like the series so much. It is all about original sin, at least to me. Over and over Collins asserts the weakness of human nature. The naivety of modernism is over, at least in these books. No one system is much better than the other. The rebels are just as bad as Panem. Gale, who started out with good intentions, becomes evil and cruel. Plutarch’s quote at the end of the third book summed it up for me, something about people still being close enough to the events that they will yell that nothing like this can ever happen again. But it will. And he’s right. History will repeat itself.

    In the face of the dystopia caused by original sin, only one reality can be trusted, and that is grace. Grace does not feature in this series, but I think it really lends itself to a Christian reading, because Suzanne Collins does not offer any purely human way out of the human condition. Morality is ambiguous in the series, as is everything else.

    That’s why I think the series is a tragedy, and that’s why I liked it so much.

    • Martha M says:

      Having not read 1984 or Brave New World I cannot comment on the conclusions drawn by those books. I suspect, however, that you and I would have very different interpretations of them, as well. Either that, or I would not like them. I did not take from your original post that you liked the series. For myself, I do not like stories that are devoid of hope, which is what you seem to suggest of The Hunger Games trilogy. It doesn’t mean that I need everything to be roses and happy endings, just that there are seeds of hope present by the conclusion of the story.

      I think that’s what’s missing, for me, in your explanation of the state in which humanity finds itself as a result of original sin. We hear in the liturgy during this season that original sin is a “happy fault” because of what it allowed to take root. That seed did not find fulfillment until Mary gave her consent to the Holy Spirit and conceived our Lord, but it was there from the beginning. If that were not the case, how would any relationship (including covenants) between humanity and God be possible? It’s not as though only human beings since the time of Christ have been moral people.

      This isn’t to say that grace isn’t fundamentally important to humanity, but I see grace in the Hunger Games. I see it in Peeta’s desire to be just and kind; I see it in the Capitol people who know the government is corrupt and will not stand by (thinking more of Cinna here than Plutarch); I see it in Prim’s compassion and Katniss’s realization that she had an obligation to help the Districts gain what freedom they could. None of the characters is a completely outstanding example of what we should strive for in our own lives, but they are people doing the best they can in a desperate situation.

      Maybe I’m too naive or optimistic about the potential of human beings, but it’s genuine to my personality. Supernatural grace isn’t available to humanity minus a relationship with Christ and His Church, but there’s a natural grace we’ve been given by God that allows us to find our way home. This is what I see in The Hunger Games novels.

      As an aside, you might enjoy a book I read last year called “Unwind”, by Neal Schlesserman (or something along those lines). I don’t usually recommend it to people because it depressed me so much, but you might find something of value there. I mean that sincerely, by the way, not in any way sarcastic. I can understand your take on The Hunger Games, I just can’t adopt it for my own.

  3. stuartneaca291 says:

    Over the weekend, I made time to see the movie at the behest of my 16 yr old nephew. Not a bad film, though I didn’t think much of it from the trailers. I’m not familiar with the book, and it sounded like the Running Man from the 80s. Not certain if I will blog about the movie. But I’d like to see a sequel. However, when it comes to reading the book, well, the jury is still out.

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