With the books topping bestseller lists for the last few years and the movie poised to take the world by storm, it is hard to avoid the cultural phenomenon that The Hunger Games series has become. But some Christians are uneasy with the popularity of a story so steeped in violence. Many worry that this tale of a dystopian world where a totalitarian government asserts its control by forcing children to compete in an annual televised fight to the death might encourage youths to engage in similar acts of violence. Some parents have even attempted to ban the book from school libraries and started online campaigns telling Christian parents to not allow their children to read the series.
There is no denying that The Hunger Games deals explicitly with violence, but, far from glorifying violence, the series reveals how damaging such dehumanizing acts can be for both victims and perpetrators of violence. In our culture, violence is rarely dealt with in such baldly honest ways, as the realities of war are seldom portrayed in the media while action movies and video games use violence merely to entertain. The Hunger Games, in contrast, serves as a harsh critique against those who allow themselves to be entertained by violence while ignoring the humanity of those being hurt. At the same time it does not sugarcoat the realities of war, poverty, and oppression. Violence is pervasive in The Hunger Games, but so is the devastating truth that engaging in violence destroys one's soul.
In The Hunger Games, the impoverished and oppressed country of Panem is ruled by a wealthy and powerful Capitol, which treats its citizens like animals instead of human beings deserving of dignity and respect. The people of Panem are fenced into districts to toil for the wealthy Capitol, and each year two children are selected from each district as Tributes for the Hunger Games. The Tributes are then scrubbed, plucked, and dressed in order to be paraded around the Capitol before they are herded into stockyards in preparation for their slaughter in the Games.
When Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her sister's place as Tribute in the Games, she is encouraged to adopt this same dehumanizing attitude toward the other Tributes. Before heading to the Games where she must either kill the other children or be killed herself, her friend Gale tries to reassure her by telling her she is a good hunter. When she replies that she has never killed a person before, he replies, "How different can it be, really?" His question disturbs her as she realizes, "The awful thing is that if I can forget they're people, it will be no different at all." When Katniss is forced to kill another boy in the arena, his image continually returns to her mind. She recalls her conversation with Gale about the difference between killing animals and people, and realizes that it is "Amazingly similar in execution. A bow pulled, an arrow shot. Entirely different in the aftermath." She tries to repress what she did to the boy and only conceive of him as a monster, but burying the pain of the violence she committed only wounds her soul more.
Throughout the series Katniss tries to ignore that pain and is even complicit in further acts of violence herself as she attempts to overthrow the oppressive Capitol. But denying the humanity of others—casting them as the enemy to be defeated by whatever means necessary—is not healthy for her or for the country. The rebellion that rightly seeks to overthrow the oppressive Capitol is shown to use tactics just as evil as those of the Capitol itself. Violence, even justified violence, only begets more violence, not the life-affirming hope the country actually needs. Participating in the horrors of war takes Katniss to the brink of emotional and mental collapse before she realizes that the only way to survive is by affirming love and not rage. She still works to end the oppression that treats people like animals, but no longer resorts to similarly dehumanizing tactics in order to do so.
Much like Jesus' teaching not to seek revenge on those who have wronged us, but to be peacemakers instead, the true message of The Hunger Games is that violence is not the answer. By boldly portraying the ways violence destroys relationships, communities, and people's souls, The Hunger Games reveals a truth not often found in our culture. The true horror of violence has to be exposed in order to reveal that it is never glorious and that there are better ways to live. In a world that is often infatuated with violence, we can easily ignore Jesus' call to be peacemakers and to affirm life by loving all of our neighbors. Far from being a book for Christians to fear or reject, The Hunger Games is a tale that can remind believers of this Christlike way of life.