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.