Hunger Games: The dog that didn’t bark

Like millions of other Americans, I have read “The Hunger Games” trilogy. I also queued up with much of the world’s population and trekked off to the theater, with a bit of trepidation (violent movies are not my thing), to see the first movie in this new mega-franchise.

In addition to that I have, for the past week or two, been watching the newspapers and wires for the inevitable Gospel According to The Hunger Games stories. I am not talking about essays or reviews. I’m talking about news feature stories.

I’m still waiting.

So is Godbeat veteran Jeffrey Weiss, writing at RealClearReligion.com (as opposed to writing in the non-existent religion pages of The Dallas Morning News). I have held off writing about his essay for quite some time now, since I wanted to see if anything new appeared in the mainstream press.

Well, I haven’t seen anything. Thus, let me say this — What. Weiss. Said.

Yes, this is not a news story. I know that. Instead, it’s an essay by a religion-news professional about the lack of a religion-news story. In other words, it’s an essay about a religion ghost.

The importance of religion in the wildly popular “Hunger Games” books and new movie is a lot like the barking of a dog in the Sherlock Holmes story “Silver Blaze.”

Holmes directs a police inspector’s attention to “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” “The dog did nothing in the night-time.” “That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

The dog, of course, did not bark.

To adopt a familiar phrase, it appears that there is a God-shaped hole in this tragic trilogy by Susan Collins, this apocalyptic vision that appears to be utterly devoid of doctrines about the end times.

So is this simply a humanistic thriller, one rooted in existentialism and nothing else?

Weiss asks all the right and, indeed, obvious questions:

So what about religion? There isn’t any. Not a prayer. Not an oath. The word “god” does not so much as appear in any of the books. Nobody even says “oh my gosh.” There’s no ritual that isn’t totally grounded in some materialistic purpose. Not a hint of serious superstition. Unless I missed it, there’s not a remotely idiomatic reference to the supernatural. …

Based on her source material, she could have used religion as a positive or a negative. Here in the real world, people have turned to various kids of religion in the darkest moments of history. Victims of the Nazis prayed in the death camps. On the other hand, religion has been a tool of oppression in much of real history, too. From the imposed state faith of the ancient Roman Empire to the Catholic Inquisition to the Muslim theocrats of our own era, faith has been used by despots whose histories parallel some of the villains of Collins’ story.

It’s hard for me to imagine a real human future where either use of religion vanishes without a trace. But for her own reasons, Collins went in neither direction. It’s a curious incident, a dog that should have barked.

Now, I know that there are plenty of religious writers out there opining on religious themes in “The Hunger Games” for their religious readers. That really isn’t the issue.

In that crowd, I would point interested readers toward my Orthodox friend John Granger — the senior voice behind HogwartsProfessor.com — who has also taken on the task of seeking ancient roots in the storytelling of Collins. He’s the pro on these matters and has become a voice in the mainstream.

There are also writers who, lacking evidence of the divine in these books, simply broaden the meaning of “faith” to the point that, well, we are dealing with the whole “spiritual, but not religion” thing. Take this, from author Diana Butler Bass, writing at The Washington Post:

No religion in “The Hunger Games”? The story eschews religions that glory in crusades, jihads, nationalism, militarism, and imperialism. In Panem, there is no place for religion that supports injustice. The enslaved neither want nor need such a religion. Banished are religions that celebrate bloodlust. There is too much of that already.

Yet “The Hunger Games” celebrates faith — faith in family, faith in friendship, faith in song, faith in justice. “The Hunger Games” proclaims that beyond the fences of fear built to enslave, control, and guard, there is joy, beauty, and wonder. In the end, there is true freedom, and the hard-earned hope that human beings can create a better world based not in sacrificial violence but in sacrificial love.

This rather misses the point of the essay by Weiss. He wonders why there has been so little discussion of the absence of God in the world of “The Hunger Games,” as opposed to a lack of religious images. That’s a different issue.

The God-shaped hole is the dog that isn’t barking — in the books, the movies and now the mainstream press. I agree with Weiss that this is the missing story.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Thanks! I will quibble only this small bit with your analysis: The hole is not simply God-shaped. Religion as an institution and as a near-universal historical cultural artifact is broader than any particular kind of faith. And can be reflected in fiction in all kinds of ways. Recall the mention of church bells in another dystopia: 1984.

    Other fictional tales include characters who may address tangentially issues that religion traditionally takes on — What happens when we die? — even if the answers offered are not remotely religious.

    Collins has none of it.

    Lack of God could have been incidental. Lack of anything like religion — or *any* of its inevitable penumbra of effects and uses — must have been intentional. And seems notable, to me. Like you, I am surprised at the lack of other writers noting it.

  • http://www.davidmquinn.com David Quinn

    I also noticed the absence of God and any sort of religion in the story. I wrote my thoughts about it a few weeks ago.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    God is in the book in the same way it is in “The Lord of the Rings”: implicitly in the actions of the protagonists.

    The protagonist comes from a coal mining area that resembles parts of Appalachia (where I once worked), where religion is deep and pious, but not “in your face”. (i.e. the coalminers might have a “bathtub madonna” in their yards like my next door neighbor but they aren’t “religious” as the press caricatures people of faith.) So I don’t especially find the omission surprising.

    Another question: Here, the publisher is one that supplies books for school, and published Harry Potter. Did the author, like Tolkien, leave God out because the secular publishing media and schools would reject the book for this reason?

    Collins has worked for years in children’s television and has other fantasy novels, so I suspect she is just used to writing “secular”, since these genres traditionally leave out religion for fear of antagonizing the left or right.

    that is the real “ghost” here.

  • sari

    Did the author, like Tolkien, leave God out because the secular publishing media and schools would reject the book for this reason?

    Unlikely, since Lois Lowry’s The Giver and its sequels are published and promoted by Scholastic Books, as is Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. They also publish Judy Blume’s more controversial novels.

    Scholastic publishes the Hunger Games.

  • Maureen

    Actually, LOTR has quite a bit of God and God’s supernatural servants explicit in it, albeit in a hinting way. Things are happening because they were meant to happen, and not by the Enemy. We hear a great deal about Elbereth, and the customs of the men of Gondor at meals, and the Eagles, and various other things connected to the Powers, including that Gandalf serves the Secret Fire. There are even more hints for those who read the Silmarillion. So you need to read LOTR again!

    Moving along… it seems pretty clear that The Hunger Games universe is without God for the same reason that Anne McCaffrey’s Pern characters have no religion at all — because the writer wants a godless culture, one without the complications or personal issues of writing about religion. The god of the Hunger Games universe is personal survival or the survival of one’s own loved ones. Everybody else can burn, which is why Katniss gloomily but unceasingly kills everybody not a loved one who’s in her way, throughout the trilogy.

    That this strikes people as religious and heroic just goes to show how much worse a lot of other books are. People want heroism so much that they’ll insert it themselves, given any encouragement. It’s like the books you read when you’re a kid, which you remember including all kinds of scenes that aren’t in the book at all when you revisit it as an adult.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Maureen is right. LOTR is filled with the supernatural and clear references to some kind of controlling power. And if you read the supporting material Tolkien produced, it’s even more clear. It does not have organized religion, as we would recognize it. But there’s plenty of content that has intentional religious overtones. My favorite example is Gandalf’s statement to Frodo:

    “I can put it no plainer than by saying that Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, and not by its maker. In which case you also were meant to have it. And that may be an encouraging thought.”

    Meant by who or what? Excellent question.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Oh, and as for Pern, here’s a snippet from an interview McCaffery did in 2004, looks like:

    “However, if one listens to childhood teachings, God is everywhere so there should be no question in any mind that he is also on Pern. Thus, there is a heaven to which worthy souls go. So, without mentioning any denomination of organized religion, I figured that both Moreta and Leri deserved respite after their trials… and that’s where “Beyond Between” is.”

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    It’s hard for me to imagine a real human future where either use of religion vanishes without a trace.

    Doesn’t seem any more psychologically improbable than, say, the societal and personal characterization in the “Left Behind” series, though.

    Sure, the world of the Hunger Games is – ahem – unlikely. (The lack of religion is far from the only reason.) But in an environment with increasing numbers of ‘nones’, is its presence surprising?

  • Brigid

    I believe God is absent in the book as a warning to us: only in a world without God could the Hunger Games happen. Think about it-the great ‘evil Empires’ fiction and non fiction all try to remove God from the people. Lesson-God’s presence and living in faith can lead people to prevent worlds like Panem happening in our world.

  • http://abitmoredetail.wordpress.com Randy McDonald

    Signalling out religion as an instance of a cultural phenomenon that did not survive to the time frame of Panem misses the success of Panem’s founders in wiping out historical knowledge generally. There’s apparently no memory of the United States, even though Panem is located on American territory, and there’s no mention of the world outside of Panem.

  • Laurie

    As an aside, there isn’t a single Christian name in the whole series either. No, John, Mary or Peter anywhere. Collins went to nature or ancient Rome to get character names.

  • http://abitmoredetail.wordpress.com Randy McDonald

    Maureen:

    “Moving along… it seems pretty clear that The Hunger Games universe is without God for the same reason that Anne McCaffrey’s Pern characters have no religion at all — because the writer wants a godless culture, one without the complications or personal issues of writing about religion.”

    I’d suggest that Collins has a different motivation. She describes in _The Hunger Games_ a culture that lacks any sense of any different possibilities: no differences in the past, no differences overseas, no social networks or anything to fall back on for Katniss, at least. _There are no other possibilities_, not even for succor.

    Think of _The Hunger Games_ as a novel describing a nearly completely isolated woman’s struggles in a very hostile world where alternatives just aren’t available. How do you cope? That’s what it’s about.

  • Kamal

    Laurie, I also noticed that there are almost no Christian names in the entire universe. I think Peeta’s probably the only exception; his name is spelled the way a lot of native English-speakers outside of America pronounce “Peter”.

    I’m not sure what to make of it, though. Presumably that was a conscious decision; someone from the West doesn’t accidentally write a book with so many characters and give only one of them a semi-’normal’ name. But the world of The Hunger Games is remarkable for its lack of depth, so I wouldn’t make any more of its lack of religion than I would of its lack of reference to the outside world or of anything else Collins apparently didn’t bother thinking much about.

  • http://www.liveshotcam.com Glenn Damato

    I can explain this. Like all totalitarian regimes, Panem has outlawed religion. They have replaced religion with the worship of The State as gods – and that includes the worship of the representatives of the State as minor gods. This is no different than the ideal sought by the Soviet Union, and the People’s Republic of China: a new and “better” breed of humanity without religion or superstition, left with NOTHING to worship except the State, no source of hope except the State, and no source of goodness or justice except the State.

  • Katia K

    As for Christian names, I noticed quite a few. (Yes, I realise this is a minor quibble on the topic at hand, but it bears mentioning.)

    There is the aforementioned Peeta, whose name I thought was a diminutive of Peter. (Not pita!) As he is the male hero throughout the story who goes through a phase of denial, I thought that name to be particularly apt. Also, in District 12 there are Madge and Maysilee (both names that are diminutives of Christian names like Marjorie and Mary) and I think some other minor characters.

    Further afield, there are Annie and Johanna, which are as Christian as you can get without being called Joshua. There are lots of people whose names could have been diminutives of Christian names (Finnick comes to mind — I’d have guessed it to be a version of Finnian or Phinaeus or even Phillip). Also, most of the characters are known by surnames or nicknames. We don’t know what a lot of their actual names were. Finally, a lot of the ancient Roman names became Christian names, so some of them do double-duty.

    I noticed that there was a lack of religion in this trilogy, but chalked it up to the fact that the author didn’t want to push any more buttons than she already had. The topic of children being forced to kill children in an arena has been unsettling enough for some readers and audiences.

    Personally, I think that Christianity would not have survived a state like Panem openly. The Capitol would not tolerate obedience to another ruler (Christ), so Christians would have been persecuted and driven underground. I do think that ordinary people still believed in an afterlife and some of Christianity’s more vague qualities. I would guess that Mrs Everdeen believes that her husband and daughter are in Heaven, for example.

    I just don’t think that Suzanne Collins wanted to open the can of worms that religion is in North America. Kudos to her for writing such a brilliant trilogy while still evading it.