Warning: If you haven’t read all three of the books in the Hunger Games trilogy and plan on reading them, you’re going to want to cover your eyes. Spoilers ahead.
I recently blogged about the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy. If you haven’t read that post, I’d suggest starting there. Here’s a quick overview: Panem (formerly North America) has been divided into 13 districts and is dominated by an oppressive regime. The evil empire randomly chooses two teenagers from each district and forces them to fight to the death in the coliseum—I mean, arena. In the first book, Katniss and Peeta (the lucky winners from District 12) defy the capitol by refusing to kill one another in the arena.
In my first Hunger Games post I discussed author Suzanne Collins’ treatment of human dignity. In the face of a completely dehumanizing situation, the reader is forced to wrestle with the value of humanity. In the second and third books, this struggle to affirm human dignity takes on new dimensions.
For most of books 2 and 3, Katniss, Peeta, and other major characters are driven by the desire for revenge. Though they are still trying to survive, they begin to think about fighting back against the oppressive regime. In book three, the rebels launch a full assault on the capitol. On the one hand, the rebels are fighting to see the oppression end. But on the other hand, many of the rebels—and especially the hero, Katniss—are motivated by revenge.
As they come closer to achieving their goal, questions of right and wrong disappear. At one point, as the rebel forces develop atrocious weapons that prey upon their victims’ sense of compassion, Katniss says, “I guess there isn’t a rule book for what might be unacceptable to do to another human being” (Mockingjay, 184). Of course, every major religion and ethical system has a clearly communicated understanding of “what might be unacceptable to do to another human being.”
The question becomes: To what extent can we disregard human dignity in order to preserve human dignity?
When everything is said and done, Katniss, having endured horrific atrocities, seems to have given up on humanity: “I no longer feel any allegiance to these monsters called human beings, despise being one myself” (Mockingjay, 377).
Here is where we see the genius of Collins’ books. Her characters are forced to make sense out of mankind at its most destructive. This is something that every generation of soldiers has faced in real life, and it’s the reason so many are physically, emotionally, and psychologically scarred. To a lesser extent, it’s a reality that we all have to make sense of. What do we make of a world in which people mistreat one another so horribly?
Collins does not leave us with an answer to this question. But this is not a flaw in her books. One of the most powerful features of the arts is that it allows us to “grapple with our own problems from a safe distance” (a phrase I’m borrowing from Leland Ryken). In some ways, the effect of The Hunger Games would be reduced if Collins had begun preaching at the end her book. Rather than relieving the tension by telling the reader what to make of it all, Collins leaves us to decide for ourselves. How can we live in a world where human dignity is so frequently trampled upon?
On the last page of the book, Collins has her main character, Katniss, relate an exercise that she works through every time she despairs that every pleasure she has in life will be taken away: “I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do.” Collins is certainly not suggesting that this makes everything all right, but it seems to be the best that the scarred Katniss can do.
Here is where the gospel meets The Hunger Games in a beautiful way. People do indeed perform acts of goodness from time to time, but this in no way shapes the value of humanity. Man has value because he has been created by God as a unique and dignified creature. He bears the very image of God. Man’s value is derived from God, not his actions. The Hunger Games effectively leads us to despise human depravity and the oppression that so often stains the human experience, but ultimately there is only one solution to this dilemma. That solution became one of us, gave His life under the heavy hand of an oppressive regime, and then conquered it all by rising from the grave. This solution alone can offer us dignity in the midst of depravity.
I loved these books and I’m glad you posted about them! I enjoy your reviews/theological applications of them. I haven’t had the chance to discuss these much with others so I’m excited you have provided an opportunity. I don’t have my copies handy for quotes but I recall towards the end of Mockingjay thinking that Collins was also pointing out how today’s oppressed become tomorrow’s oppressors (i.e. the oppressed usually just want a reshuffling of the cards this time with them calling the shots and able to wield power rather than a new *way* of relating to our enemies and those that threaten our security/existence). I want to get your thoughts on this sociological phenomena (that I presume Collins to be narrating) that, more often than not, the human tendency is to become formed into the image of their oppressor(s) and how this formation ironically takes place in the effort of the oppressed to not only escape their current oppression but also to ensure the oppression isn’t repeated to them or anyone else (e.g. if we institute a “final” Hunger Games…).
Also, Katniss is appalled at how similar the rebellion mindset and tactics are with the Capitol’s. So I also can’t help but wonder if Collins means this to be a political critique of American war policy and actions (given her father’s time in the Air Force as stated inspiration for the story). Whether she means it or not, it certainly can be taken in that way. Thoughts on that?
Great thoughts, Andrew!
Yeah, I would be shocked if Collins didn’t mean for her books to cause us to look more deeply at foreign policy. But as you said, even if she didn’t, the books provide a wonderful opportunity to do just that.
On the whole “oppressed becoming the oppressor” thing, right at the end of the book Plutarch tells Katniss, “Now we’re in that sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated. But collective thinking is usually short-lived. We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction.”
And like you said, the fact that the rebels decided to institute their own hunger games in order to teach a lesson gets Katniss to wonder if replacing one tyrant with another will really solve the problem. I really like the way the books end because it demonstrates that the problem is not in one bad leader. It’s not people like Saddam or Bin Laden who ruin our world (though they play a bigger role than most), it’s all of us. The problem is human nature. I think Collins points this way, and rightfully so.
Nice quote! I appreciate how you highlighted the fact that the series “demonstrates that the problem is not in one bad leader. It’s not people like Saddam or Bin Laden who ruin our world (though they play a bigger role than most), it’s all of us. The problem is human nature.” because it questions the assumption used repeatedly during the USA’s “war on terror” and the joy expressed in Saddam’s hanging, Bin Laden’s assassination, and the hope associated with the election of Obama (etc. etc.). The removal of one (or many!) tyrannical murderer(s) or the inauguration of the “right” president isn’t going to remove the evil within us all nor will it install “rightness” in ourselves.