The Hunger Games: What Counts as Ethical in a World Where Kids Kill Each Other on TV?

In the postapocalyptic America (renamed “Panem”) of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, children and teens are compelled to fight each other to the death on national television. Except for the first-person female narrator and the hint of a love triangle, The Hunger Games bears little resemblance to everyone’s favorite sparkly vampire clan, yet Collins’s trilogy for young adults—The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay—has been hailed as the next Twilight because of not only its significant popularity among young readers, but its appeal for adults as well. As I did for Twlight a few years ago, I’ll be writing a reflection on each book as I read my way through the series, charting the ethical dilemmas of Katniss Everdeen as they unfold.

I’m generally a sucker for the postapocalyptic, so I’m not sure why it’s taken me two years to get around to starting The Hunger Games, but I’m glad I have. The novel’s set-up—Panem consists of a wealthy Capitol that rules the twelve former rebel Districts with a rod of iron—is not breathtakingly original (see: Firefly), but it’s still compelling. In addition to the numbing poverty in which the Capitol keeps the Districts, it demands from each two “tributes”—a boy and a girl, between the ages of twelve and eighteen—to fight each year in the Hunger Games. Out of the twenty-four, the last one alive is declared the victor. Collins has cited the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur among her source material, but clearly reality shows like Survivor have been an inspiration too, since the Games are televised, and the tributes’ chances of success can be increased if they are audience-pleasing enough to attract sponsors. The Hunger Games aren’t merely a competition of brains and brawn—beauty and personality matter too.

Katniss Everdeen lands herself in the Games when her younger sister’s name is drawn and she volunteers to take her place. Katniss, since the death of her father, has been supporting her family by hunting game in the woods, so her skill with bow and arrow is her greatest asset going into the Games. In the area of on-screen charisma, though, she is woefully lacking in comparison to Peeta Mellark (yes, he has one of the stupidest names ever given to a character), the boy tribute from her District. Peeta is so instinctively talented in winning an audience with his candid demeanor that even Katniss never knows whether to believe what he says in front of the camera or not. Katniss, on the other hand, is reluctant to share the things that matter to her with the Capitol audience that she despises.

Katniss’s struggle with trying to win over viewers without betraying herself is one of the more interesting aspects of The Hunger Games to me, perhaps since I teach rhetoric. How does a person appeal to an audience while staying true to his or her beliefs and values—and, if those beliefs and values actually end up shifting slightly in the process, is that necessarily a bad thing? (Obviously, these questions have relevance for evangelism, too.) The Hunger Games, to its credit, doesn’t give a simple answer; throughout the course of the novel, however, it seems that sincerity and crowd-pleasing are not mutually exclusive categories. Various characters do put on an act for the camera, but sometimes that act becomes reality. In other words, it’s not just a matter of whether a character’s words or actions are true to him- or herself—those words and actions, once performed, have the power to shape the self, at least to some degree. That’s a far more complex notion of identity than is found in most young adult entertainment.

Then there’s the question of whether one “wins” through actually winning the Games or by refusing to play by the Games’ cutthroat rules, by literally losing but showing oneself the moral victor. Katniss wants to show up the Capitol by proving that someone from one of the lowliest, most backward Districts (District 12, we learn, is what used to be Appalachia) can actually win the Games; however, she also fears that if, in order to win, she becomes a monster, then the Capitol wins. Here, too, I was powerfully reminded of various models of the Christian’s relationship to culture. Does a person serve as a better witness to Christ by rising to the top levels of politics, media, and business, striving for excellence—to impress and to affect the world for Christ’s sake? Or does one better represent Christ by refusing to play according to the world’s rules or according to its definition of success, seeking even martyrdom before power? For Katniss, as for the Christian, the answer isn’t easy.

I was a little disappointed that Collins has shied away from placing Katniss in some of the more wrenching ethical dilemmas that she would likely face during the course of the Games, but perhaps she’s saving some of these for later volumes in the trilogy, so that we can see some further character development. As a whole, The Hunger Games is well-paced—that is to say, hard to stop reading or listening to (incidentally, this was the first book I’ve “checked out” as an e-audiobook from my library, and I listened to it in the car over the course of a couple of weeks). There were moments when, having reached a tear-inducing or gut-punchingly horrific moment just as I arrived at the gym or at my doctor’s office, I had to take a moment to regain normal-person-unaffected-by-good-book composure.

Because of some of those horrifying moments in The Hunger Games, I probably wouldn’t recommend it to readers under the age of twelve—or to squeamish older readers, though most of the violence does occur off-screen, so to speak. Speaking of screens, The Hunger Games movie is in development, and there’s a lot of speculation about whether the film can show kid-on-kid brutality and still slide in with a PG-13 rating. The book, at least, never struck me as wallowing in gore. I’m looking forward to reading the other two volumes of the trilogy, and I hope they live up to the promise of the first installment.

About Carrisa Smith
  • http://www.pofgblog.com Joseph

    A friend of mine was just telling my wife and me about these books. She loved them, but found much more difficulty than you explaining what they were about to us. I’m intrigued enough to check them out from the library for sure…

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    This reminds me of the Japanese film “Battle Royale”, in which the government enforces discipline by sending a random junior high class to a deserted island and forces them to kill each other off until there’s one survivor. The film’s not the for the squeamish — it doesn’t shy away from the violence and bloodshed — but there’s a surprising amount of depth given its exploitative-sounding premise and it works really well as a darkly humorous piece of satire.

  • http://spoonfulofhahne.com Seth T. Hahne

    I also immediately thought of Battle Royale, which though occasionally over-the-top gruesome, was still compelling enough for my wife who won’t watch gruesome things to sit entranced for the film’s entirety. Battle Royale was big in Japan, was adapted from a novel, and in turn spawned a ridiculous manga series. (For those who’ve seen it, I raise a rock-fist for the hackers.)

    Your review also conjured Vonnegut’s Mother Night, whose morale is obvious but plausible: We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

    Also: I never gave the book a look because I thought it was about werewolves and so I thought it was a trite response of bandwagoneering on the Bella/Edward train. Postapocaplypse however whets my tawdry appetite.

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    Battle Royale also spawned a horrible, horrible sequel movie that you should avoid at all costs if you enjoyed the first movie in the slightest.

  • Kristi

    I’ve read the trilogy and dearly love these books! Great article- I think they were recently challenged (can’t remember where) because of the child-on-child violence. The book this series brought to my mind was Stephen King’s The Long Walk, written under his pseudonym, Richard Bachman, back in the 70′s, I think. Creepy stuff!

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    I just finished the first book this weekend and then hungrily picked up the second because I was so pulled in. Its interesting because I too checked out the audio book first because I often listen to books on mp3 on the way to and from work/soccer practice–I find that these types of fast paced narratives are easy to enjoy in audio form. However, with Catching Fire, I was so drawn in that I couldn’t stand the pacing of the audio book and finally picked up the eBook (I don’t have an eBook reader, I have just been using the Nook PC app) so that I could read it at a faster pace.

    Anyway, I have been pleasantly surprised by these books so far. I agree that the most fascinating part is how the tributes, Katniss and Peeta struggle to maintain their identity. I find myself at times frustrated with their decisions, but they feel very real to me–the decisions they make are certainly understandable in light of the circumstances.

    So far, I have also been encouraged by the way that Collins has handled the love triangle–its not, to me, something that drives the book, and the manner in which Katniss narrates the book, its almost as if romance is something she feels guilty exploring in light of the reality of the games. I think Collins has done a good job of capturing the complex emotional trial an ordeal such as the hunger games would be for a 16 year old girl. I don’t always like what Katniss does, but I respect her and I empathize with her and I loathe the capitol for what they are doing to a 16 year old girl.

    Anyway, that was more than I intended to say, but I look forward to reading your post on Catching Fire!

  • Peter Bartlett

    Just finished this book and I really loved it.

    What I appreciated the most was the author’s ability to create a very real character. Katniss had a lot of depth to her emotions and thoughts, and everything she did made sense within the context of the character created.

    I have recently also been reading Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera. That series is fun in the same way an action movie is. Stuff is happening all the time and it is cool, but the main character is always in control. He has an extremely limited and simple emotional range. He outsmarts his opponents and pulls off amazing feats, then moves on to the next one. Books like that are fun but as soon as I am done reading I forget about it. Books like the Hunger Games linger with me because it feels like I was reading about a real person.


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