Hungry

Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games, Scholastic, 2008, 374 pages.  Catching Fire, Scholastic, 2009, 391 pages.  Mockingjay, 2010, 387 pages.  Age/interest level: 14-up.

READER ADVISORY: This review contains a major spoiler about the last volume in the series–warning ahead!

At some time in the distant future, our great and free society has collapsed.  The reasons are obscure: a series of natural disasters, severe draughts, famine, and devastating wars over limited resources.  The result is Panem: 13 districts controlled by The Capitol, which is located somewhere in the Rockies.

Seventy-four years before our story begins, the districts staged an uprising which was brutally put down.  As continued punishment and warning, the Capitol stages its annual “Hunger Games,” in which 24 contestants–one boy and one girl from each district–fight to the death in a controlled environment.  The games are more than punishment; they are also entertainment.  Think of it as the ultimate reality show, broadcast through all districts with a thriving industry built around packaging and betting on the contestants.

When Katniss Everdeen’s little sister is chosen as the girl tribute from District 12, Katniss unhesitatingly volunteers to takes her place.  The male tribute is Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son, with whom she’s barely exchanged a word.  Amid pomp and circumstance they travel by high-speed rail to the Capitol where they are “styled” and celebrated and fattened for slaughter.  But what Katniss thinks will be a fairly straightforward ordeal of kill-or-be-killed turns out to be much more complex than that.

As the protagonist, Katniss has to win, but her path to victory is full of riveting twists and turns.  Her relationship to Peeta is the emotional engine of the story, thrown into high gear when he claims on national TV to be in love with her.  Is he, or is that a ploy to win sponsors?  Is their mentor Haymitch Abernathy just a shameless drunk, or is he playing his own game?  The contestants make strategic alliances in the arena, which of course will break down—but when?  The clash of reality-show artifice and sudden bloody death is jarring, and keeps the reader guessing all the way to the end.  The pacing is flawless: each volume of the series consists of three parts divided into nine chapters each, with just enough down time to catch your breath before running head-on into the next crisis. The balance between character and action is near-perfect: just enough character development to spur the plot, which in turn shapes the characters.  It’s no wonder the three volumes of the series were the first, second, and third top-sellers last year, across all genres.

When the story releases its grip on you long enough to let you think about it, certain elements don’t add up.  For instance, District 12 is the coal-mining center: Appalachia.  An area that now comprises all or part of five states and millions of square miles but appears to be reduced to one small town, population 8000.  Wouldn’t Panem need a slightly larger mining operation to power its other districts, much more the Capitol itself, where residents live in luxury reminiscent of declining Rome?  As in that ancient empire, the elites maintain control with skimpy bread and the annual circus, which puts the regions against each other.  But the games are so brutal and capricious, with the deck shamelessly stacked, that resentment should have overcome rivalry long ago.  And a few (not many) plot twists seem dictated more by the need for something to happen at the end of the chapter than by the demands of the story itself.

But two things struck me on my second reading.  For one, there is no hint of any religious consciousness.  Not even the occasional swear word.  This seems unusual for dystopian fiction, where ultimate values take center stage, if only to clarify that God has failed.  In this world, there’s no church, no prayer, no spirit, no afterlife—not even remnants of half-baked paganism.  It’s not anti-religious; it simply imagines a future in which religion does not exist.

This may be more true to the author’s worldview than human nature.  Humanity seems to have a built-in spiritual dimension that has outlasted all predictions of its demise.  The Enlightenment couldn’t reason it away, Darwin could not dislodge it, Mao and Stalin could not stamp it out—in fact, it flourishes best when times are worst.  The decadence of the Capitol bears some resemblance to the practical atheism of contemporary culture, where “spirituality” is a fashion statement.  But religion is absent even in the destitute provinces of Panem, where it’s needed most.

Instead, the state is God.  When a contestant dies in the arena, a hovercraft appears and lifts the body as though by a divine hand.  Later, his or her picture appears in the sky for a fleeting moment before darkness returns, and the soul—if there is such a thing—is consigned to oblivion.  The Capitol assumes powers of manipulation and coercion that would have made Mao and Stalin swoon with envy: it can turn water to blood, dictate the weather in the Games arena, spy on multitudes through its omnipresent cameras, invade minds and alter memories.  Further, unlike most totalitarian systems, the Capitol does all this with no pretense at common good.  The games are openly billed as punishment and coercion.  This god is all wrath.

And yet (striking factor #2), this world is intensely moral, at least for those whose ethical radar has not been disconnected.  Katniss is always doubting her motives, upbraiding herself for insincerity or cowardice or selfishness.  Her north star is her family, particularly her sister Primrose.  Peeta’s moral compass is within: “I don’t want them to change me in [the arena].  Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.”  Peeta has an integrity that Katniss doesn’t; he’s sure of something good and true, and doesn’t seem as violently self-doubting.  As long as he stays out the hands of the omnipotent state.

SPOILER PARAGRAPH!

In Mockingjay, the last volume of the series, all illusions fall.  The Capitol will fall as well: that’s the good news.  The bad news is that the revolution reveals itself to be almost as brutal as the regime it set out to depose, and Katniss, the invaluable symbol of revolt, can’t wash the blood from her own hands.  It’s better than the old days, but with no standard to determine what “better” really means, all we have to look forward to is another slide into darkness.

Kids looking for answers will not find them here–and that’s not necessarily bad.  The purpose of fiction, I’ve heard, is not to provide answers but to ask the right questions.  That’s a task that the Hunger Games series accomplishes only in part.  There’s a frenzy of questions: What’s real? What’s right? What’s good?  These are all legitimate, yet the way they are asked throws doubt on the very premise: Is there such a thing as real, right, or good?

In many interviews, Suzanne Collins has stated the theme of the series in rather unsatisfying terms: it’s anti-war, anti-manipulation, anti-violence.  Some conservative reviewers see it as anti-big-government as well.  I think we can all agree that war, violence, and totalitarianism are bad things.  But the real war is within.  Katniss Everdeen vindicates, even personifies the scriptural proposition that “There is none righteous; no, not one.”  “We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction,” says a character in Mockingjay.  So, is there any hope?

Not really.  While it’s easy to say what The Hunger Games is against, what it’s for is not so obvious.  “I don’t want them to . . . turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not,” vows Peeta, while Katniss worries that the games will turn her into the monster she really is.  But with no intuition or doctrine of anything that transcends their immediate world, one monster is ultimately as good as another.

The immense popularity of these books is not only wide but deep; there’s obviously more to their appeal than a heart-pounding plot.  Might it be that, even after decades of self-esteem training, young readers know on a subconscious level that they’re not that good?  Do they only admire Katniss’s strength and determination, or do they also identify with her struggle?

The main question Christian parents are asking is, Should I let my kids read The Hunger Games?  I would give a qualified Yes.  The violence can be disturbing to sensitive readers, but the books are remarkably free of bad language and sex.  (Even implausibly so—in Catching Fire, Peeta and Katniss sleep together several times but don’t “do anything.”  Um . . . I would advise against that, kids.)  Christian readers can put the books down with a sense of relief that there is a remedy for our violent condition, but to fully accepting the story’s premises, without hope for anything better, could only lead to despair.  I wouldn’t give it to a teen who was prone to depression.  Unless I could be there when she finally turns last page, and say, “So now you know the problem.  Do you want to hear the solution?”

  • Worldview/moral value: 3.5
  • Literary value: 4

A broader look at the dystopia fad in YA literature is available in a .pdf download here.  And here’s my review of a dystopian series I think is a lot better though not near as popular.  Plus, check back soon for more Hunger Games coverage.  We’ll be discussing the story with young adults and engaging their insights over the next two weeks.

         

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24 Responses to Hungry

  1. Emily March 27, 2012 at 5:05 am #

    Here’s my take, Kevin. I don’t think soldiers need to feel sinful doing their work. Certainly God is the great warrior. But it’s also clear in the Bible that death of any kind–and war is just widespread death–isn’t God’s divine will. It is His sovereign will, but it’s a result of our sin, not the ideal. Death, whether in war or any other context, is the greatest evil mankind has brought on itself, and death both literally and metaphorically is what we wait to be finally redeemed from. A just war that preserves good and defeats evil can be happy in some aspects. But even Christ wept for Jerusalem who would not turn to Him and be healed–the same city that would crucify Him. How much more ought we who are sinful and plagued with pride and murderous thoughts be sorrowful for the pain and suffering even of God’s enemies.

  2. Kevin March 26, 2012 at 8:31 pm #

    Janie, I appreciate your gracious spirit, but I must disagree again. War is not just a necessary evil, it is sometimes (though granted not many times) a positive good. Romans 13 speaks of those that bear the sword as ministers of God, “an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.” When we wade into conflict battling evil, we can do so with happy hearts. If the alternative to war is that evil may flourish, then hand me my sword. There is Gospel truth in calling evil what it is and being willing to do battle with it wherever it may be found in defense of what is good and right and noble and just. Choosing wisely is the harder part. Again, I appreciate your grace and skillful analysis, but simply “tolerating” war falls short of the mark.

  3. Janie March 26, 2012 at 6:31 pm #

    Kevin,
    I hear you, and I believe in Augustine theory of the just war. It’s still bad, but sometimes it’s better than the alternative. I think Suzanna Collins is being a little disingenuous–though not deliberately–when she says she wants these books to help kids and parents talk about things like war. The books don’t actually depict a “war” situation just because they’re violent. Violence would probably be the only way to overthrow the evil government she’s depicted. But without Christ, or at least some sort of transcendent law, the replacement would eventually be no better than the original.

  4. Kevin March 26, 2012 at 9:44 am #

    As a veteran myself, I would disagree with your assessment that we can all agree that war is a bad thing. Doing battle with evil is virtuous – though I concur that conflict is rarely that black and white. Careful with blanket statements.

  5. Betty Van Donselaar March 24, 2012 at 9:56 am #

    I very much appreciated Leah’s remarks on March 14. I have never read the books but after a teacher recommended them to our 5th grade granddaughter, I began an extensive search about the contents and read many reviews by other readers. What I found was so disturbing that I have no desire to have the details from the books and the images of violence in my head! My daughter was able to return the book to the school before our granddaughter began reading it. I cannot help but believe that the books – and even more so, the movie – will desensitize children to violence, but I am not finding many Christians who agree with me. So, thanks, Leah for your thoughts! I wish I could talk with you directly concerning this as I feel we are “on the same page”.

  6. Emily March 19, 2012 at 9:21 pm #

    Here’s another review, from a young reader who nearly became one of our interns this year: https://catsinboxes.wordpress.com/2012/03/18/thoughts-on-the-hunger-games/

  7. Janie March 19, 2012 at 7:59 pm #

    Kacie: Thanks for the link! We were hoping other bloggers would join our analysis. I was wondering about Peeta myself–surely he would show some cracks somewhere (unless being a whiz at cake decorating qualifies as a “crack”). You’re right about K’s relationship with both guys–she can’t let herself truly love either of them. Partly her fault and partly the dysfunctional society she lives in.

  8. Kacie March 19, 2012 at 9:49 am #

    No one good…. except Peeta. The entire series, he is remarkably flawless. Weak, but flawless.

    It’s a fascinating series to analyze. I blogged about the romance and relationships and what it says about the change of the role of women in society. http://papuagirlindallas.blogspot.com/2012/03/gender-and-sexuality-in-hunger-games.html

  9. Janie March 15, 2012 at 5:25 am #

    Abigail: Thanks! I fixed it.

    Henry: I agree that there’s entirely too much of the masculine heroine in books for YA’s and younger. HG doesn’t necessarily support that as an ideal, though. If Katniss were forced to wear dresses and learn needlepoint while longing to practice kick-boxing (and there have been plenty of books like that) I would agree with you, but she’s the de facto head of her all-female family (her father was killed in the mine) and hunts because it’s the only way they can get enough to eat. She’s taught herself to be tough because of the environment she lives in, which does nothing to encourage male-female distinctiveness. The books are (probably inadvertently) quite clear that she’s lost a great deal by it: gentleness, trust, joy. In the arena she wins by her wits and archery skills, not brute force. It’s the Capitol that forces girls and boys to compete together. The books can be seen (in very small part) as a warning about what happens when godly roles are abandoned.

    Leah: The publisher recommends these books for ages 14 and up. That’s my general recommendation, too.

    Marlo: Emily gets to pre-screen the movie–stay tuned!

  10. Abigail March 14, 2012 at 8:11 pm #

    The spoiler is in the paragraph beginning “In Mockingjay, the last volume of the series,” yes? If so, I believe that is actually paragraph 10.

    Considering how easy it would be for a reader to miscount that far down into an essay, perhaps it would be most helpful to have a small warning like “[spoiler paragraph]” inserted just before the appropriate paragraph.

    Thank you for the thoughtful review. I enjoyed the series, but you are correct that there are some worldview issues to be aware of.

  11. Leah March 14, 2012 at 7:04 pm #

    I cant believe anyone thinks that these books are appropriate for children. I read them in about a week, and by the end I was sick to the stomach. The kind of violence that is strewn throughout is disturbing, and allowing a child to feed on something like this is just downright irresponsible! Parents dont think for a moment that you will draw your child closer to Christ when they have been enveloped by the madness of books like this.

  12. Andrew March 14, 2012 at 4:31 pm #

    You’ve articulated my frustrations with the plot resolution (or lack thereof) in “Catching Fire.” Aside from Collins’ epic failure in providing a satisfying ending to the series’ love triangle, the regime change at the capitol was frustrating, to say the least. But ultimately, I love the series. It proves (once again) that technical precision and writing style will get you published, but getting readers to sympathize with a story’s characters and plot development will get you on the best seller’s list.

  13. Shannon March 14, 2012 at 11:48 am #

    Yay! I found you! (Thanks to http://www.ChrisBrauns.com for linking to you.) I’ve been looking for a long time for a site that reviews the stuff my kids are reading from a Christian perspective. I so appreciate your spiritual gift of discernment (as evidenced in this post) shared so generously with other Believers for the common good of the Church.

    My kids and I are listening to book #3 as we work a puzzle (correction: I work the puzzle and they watch me/eat snacks/listen). You’ve given me some great conversation starters.

    Thanks again… I’ll be back!

  14. Henry March 14, 2012 at 10:22 am #

    Dear Janie,

    Thank you for your review, but I believe there is one quite serious issue you have not warned your readers about.

    This book (and the film from it) seems to feed the belief that girls should try and be tough like boys and compete with them.

    Aside from being unrealistic this kind of pop-feminism inculcates values into our daughters (and sons) that prohibit the flourishing of godly manhood and womanhood. Girls are encouraged to be like boys, and boys are taught it is fine to treat girls like other boys.

    Ultimately the fruit in boys is a lack of respect for women – their wives will likely not be treated with much courtesy or chivalry. And girls will likely accept the notion that they should aspire to compete with men – careerism, disdain for motherhood and a reluctance to submit to any man will be the fruit.

    Past generations would be appalled at such a distortion of appropriate boundaries between the sexes. I hope this recent article by Doug Wilson would serve as a helpful corrective:

    http://www.dougwils.com/Some-Hard-Words-for-Fathers/a-little-rooster-of-a-brother.html

    Kind Regards,

  15. Janie March 14, 2012 at 6:24 am #

    Kae: Hmm, a little oversight there. The value scale is one to five.

  16. Leslie Wyatt March 14, 2012 at 6:04 am #

    Janie, as always, I appreciate your ability to distill the elements of a story into their essence. Thanks, too, for reading the books “everyone else” is reading, because today’s kids hear about them, and lobby for them. As a conservative parent, sometimes it’s tempting to steer the kids toward less controversial, (and often, less compelling) reads in quest of safety, when that may not be the best way to equip these pre-adults for a world in which they must ultimatelymake all the decisions and do their own alaysis of issues, just as we ourselves are doing.

    One series I’d be interested in hearing you address is by Angie Sage– Physic, Flyte, etc.

  17. Kae March 14, 2012 at 5:51 am #

    What is your value scale? 1 to 10? 1 to 5? I couldn’t find it anywhere on your website….

  18. Steven March 13, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

    My son wanted to read these books, so we both downloaded them to our Nooks. I have used the final conflict between President Coin’s (the leader of the rebellion from District 13) legalism and President Snow’s (the leader of the Capitol) licentiousness to point to Paul on the Aeropagus in Acts 17. The conflict between the Epicureans and the Stoics, to me, seems like that knife edge we walk daily, much like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress (which we are also reading together) walking the narrow and strait road. The battle between the Capitol and District 13 have been going on since the beginning of time

  19. Jess March 13, 2012 at 10:37 am #

    Aha! I read the first book and wasn’t interested in reading the other two, for a few reasons that I couldn’t fully express (not being disturbed by violence and darkness themselves, but by something else that I couldn’t exactly put my finger on), although I did write a review a while back for the girls in my writing club. But what I couldn’t say, you nailed in paragraphs 10-12.

    While I’m not a fan myself, I don’t usually have a huge problem with other people reading these, but I got angry once when I saw a ten-year-old reading them, and thought about how her parents probably didn’t even have the sense to talk her through them. It seems to me like a lot of people just hand their kids books and walk away, maybe happy that they’re reading at least, but oblivious of the possible danger. There are kids (a few of my friends in particular) who can extract goodness and meaning from the Hunger Games books, and there are kids like me who get a bit fed up with them and throw them away. But there are many, many kids who don’t have either form of moral direction built up inside of them yet and maybe never will, and their parents don’t give them any help whatsoever. It’s sad.

  20. Kim March 13, 2012 at 9:34 am #

    I would like to read the series a second time because the first time I just fully enjoyed them without much thought to whether my kids should/could read them (though the surprising lack of sex & language did not escape my notice), but there are no copies available at our library now, of course. Thanks for the review. I always appreciate your insights!

  21. Marlo March 13, 2012 at 4:39 am #

    I agree that this is a compelling series. I read them last year because my 5th grader wanted to read them, and I devoured them within a week. Like you I was surprised by the lack of language and sex, but because of the subject matter (and the sleeping thogether), I wanted him to wait. He’s reading them now and is flying through them. I appreciate your insight into the themes and situations surrounding the book. My son has been asking me questions now, such as, “Mom, do you trust politicians?” He has picked up on the (unintended?) theme of the danger of big government. Now, I just need to preview the movie.

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