The Hunger Games: A Disturbing Sense of Life
November 26, 2013 | The Craft of Writing
In last month’s newsletter, I talked about a sense of life in fiction. The term “sense of life” is a shorthand way of referring to the worldview and deeper values implicit in a work of art or writing. A sense of life reflects, on some level, a writer’s or artist’s values and assessment of the human condition. Because stories are incredibly persuasive, readers can (and often do) absorb a novel’s sense of life without realizing it. That’s why astute readers ought to pay close attention to the sense of life in the fiction they read and evaluate it against their own morals. This is especially important when reading a novel, such as The Hunger Games, that reaches the wrong conclusions about such weighty issues as murder and deception.
Let me say from the outset that I have only read the first book of the series. It could be that some of the issues I raise in this essay were addressed in subsequent books in the series. If so, I will leave it to the astute reader to decide whether the red flags I raise here were eventually resolved.
The Hunger Games an immensely popular book, and for good reason. The plot is interesting. Suzanne Collins has created a compelling world. Except for occasional sentence fragments and clunky punctuation, the discriminating reader will find it easy to read.
The Hunger Games is a recent example of dystopian novels—a genre of fiction that goes at least as far back as the early twentieth century. Suzanne Collins is not the first author to grapple with an omnipotent government’s influence over the lives of citizens, nor with the idea that self-preservation can cause serious conflict. However, what gives The Hunger Games a contemporary edge is its sense of life—and this sense of life is disturbing.
The plot of The Hunger Games is this: Districts are under the control of a central government, the Capitol, which dictates how much food each district gets. It’s never enough. Except for the elite, the citizens are under-fed and many are on the verge of starvation. Each year, the Captiol holds Hunger Games. These games serve as annual punishment for a failed rebellion against the Capitol, and as a cruel reminder to the citizens that their attempt to break away from the authoritarian state is futile.
The competitors in the Hunger Games are children between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Two children are randomly selected from each of the twelve districts. Winning consists of killing every other child competitor so that only one child survives as the winner. The district from which the winning child originates will get extra rations of food in honor of the victory. Throughout the games, the battles and deaths of the children are televised to a viewing audience, but the audience’s opinion can also influence the outcome, especially if enough viewers donate food or medicine to their favorite contestants. It is therefore in the self-interest of every contestant to make a good show and appeal to the viewing audience.
The female protagonist is a 16-year-old named Katniss. At the beginning of the story, Katniss insists on taking her younger sister’s place in the Hunger Games. Katniss loves her frail little sister and wants to save her from almost certain death.
Except for this singular altruistic decision, the rest of Katniss’s major decisions are based on her own desires and survival. Katniss is strong and independent—a real survivor. The burden of caring for her family falls on her shoulders (her mother is too weak and ineffective to care for them). Katniss is so rugged, isolated, and individualistic that it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that Ayn Rand’s heroes almost look warm and fuzzy by comparison.
Here’s a telling example. Early in the story we learn that the baker’s son, Peeta, gave Katniss two loaves of bread that were to be fed to the pigs. Katniss has an instinctive mistrust of Peeta because his parents are unpleasant, and his family is one of the privileged families in the district. They have access to the kind of food that Katniss’s undernourished family can only dream about.
Peeta’s action is risky. Had he been caught giving bread to Katniss, his abusive mother would have beaten him severely. Katniss is puzzled by his act of kindness. “Why would he have done it?” she asks. “He didn’t even know me.”
Her failure to understand his kindness underscores the harsh reality of the world in which she lives. That’s fine—it’s an effective touch. Does she at least thank him? No. Why not? Because “the opportunity never seemed to present itself. And now it never will. Because we’re going to be thrown into an arena to fight to the death.”
How about thanking him during the hours when you’re together, waiting to be thrown into the arena? Better late then never. But, no, that possibility is foreclosed. Katniss admits on p. 32 that “I feel like I owe him something, and I hate owing people.”
Ingratitude is one problem with the book’s sense of life. It is a difficult flaw to overlook in real life; no less so in a major character who is supposed to be the heroine of a book. Katniss’s refusal to acknowledge a kindness done for her is not the kind of lesson I want my children to learn. I don’t want them to think that it’s okay not to say “thank you” just because you don’t like to owe people or because it makes you feel too vulnerable.
Later, when Katniss pretends to be in love with Peeta, almost every kiss and tender gesture she bestows on him is calculated to increase her chances of survival. Most of the time the kisses serve to cultivate an image for the spectators. Even when the audience isn’t watching, survival is always on her mind. On p. 323, Katniss tucks Peeta into his sleeping bag and kisses his forehead “not for the audience,” Katniss notes, but because she’s glad he’s still alive so that she doesn’t have to face the deadly Cato—another child adversary—alone. Even here, out of the eye of the camera, she values Peeta insofar as he can help her to stay alive.
On page 298, there is a stirring of romantic feeling on her part for Peeta, but it is short-lived, never really ignites, and fizzles at the end of the book in a tangle of confusion, complicated by her feelings for her old hunting partner Gale.
Katniss’s feigned affection for Peeta is a problem with the book’s sense of life. The book strongly implies that it’s okay to use and deceive people when your own survival is at stake. Maybe it is okay in certain extreme situations, although there is a long moral tradition in Western ethics that says it is wrong to sacrifice innocent lives for one’s own survival.
What if life isn’t at stake, but a good grade in a class is? Is it okay for a student to use her feminine wiles to get a male classmate to help her pass an exam or get a crucial job interview? Well, why not? A young woman who has absorbed the lessons of The Hunger Games (namely, that survival trumps honesty) might very well decide that her desire for a good grade or a job interview is a higher value than being honest about her feelings toward a man who can help her achieve those goals.
What about the morality of murder? The Hunger Games is rife with the murder of children at the hands of other children—that’s the whole point of the games.
The opening of Chapter 18 describes Katniss murdering a boy from District 1 by shooting an arrow into his neck.
There is no remorse on Katniss’s part—in fact, there’s hardly any thought for what she’s just done, because she’s too busy trying to comfort her friend Rue (another Hunger Games competitor) who is at death’s door. After Rue dies in Katniss’s arms, Katniss’s thoughts return to the boy she killed. Katniss didn’t hate the boy, she tells us, she hates the Capitol for “doing this to all of us.” But this last emotion is sort of a throw-away line; her hatred of the Capitol never seems to a driving motivation at any point in the book.
Worse, the enormity of her act—the taking of another life—remains an abstraction, a necessary, unfortunate occurrence that she doesn’t care to dwell on.
The book draws the comparison between killing a boy and killing an animal in the forest. On p. 243, she hears her friend Gale’s voice asking exactly that question: “‘How different can it be, really?’” Answer: “Amazingly similar in the execution.” Katniss realizes that “somewhere [the boy’s] family is weeping for him . . . maybe he had a girlfriend who really believed he’d come back.” But the fact that she killed an innocent boy never becomes emotionally real for Kat. Her real rage and sadness erupts when she dwells on losing Rue—and by dwelling on that loss she is able to “banish the boy from [her] mind” (p. 243). Her real rage seems to always be reserved for losing things that personally matter to her, whether it’s her own life or the life of those she knows—never the lives of strangers.
That’s why her act of rebellion against the Capitol—decorating (that is, sanctifying) the corpse of Rue with wildflowers—centers solely on the one dead person she personally values. The boy whom she shot is simply left there. Wouldn’t have been an even greater act of rebellion against the Capitol to have decorated both corpses? Wouldn’t it have sent a message to the Capitol that even though they put her in the savage position of kill-or-be-killed, she had enough humanity to sanctify the corpse of the boy, just as she sanctified Rue’s corpse?
This leads me to yet another problem with the book’s sense of life. There is no indication that human life has any intrinsic worth. People matter to Katniss only insofar as she values them. Nameless strangers—such as the boy from District 1—are not intrinsically valuable to her despite the fact that they’re human. That’s why Katniss decorates Rue’s corpse, but not that of the boy from District 1. That’s why the rhetorical question about killing a boy and killing an animal as being “amazingly similar in the execution” gets asked, but never satisfactorily answered in a way that gets to the essential moral issues at the heart of her actions.
The sense of life regarding human worth and self-preservation in The Hunger Games is not something I want my kids to absorb. I don’t want them to think that the taking of the human life is so “amazingly similar in the execution” to hunting animals that both are equally trivial or equally tragic. I want my children to learn that human life has intrinsic value apart from the subjective assessment of others, and that eating meat is not the equivalent of murder.
The disturbing thing about Katniss—and with the sense of life that suffuses the book—is that there doesn’t seem to be any higher redeeming moral sense in her actions. There is only self-preservation, and a self-centered outrage when those people she values are taken from her. Even her personal growth in learning to value another—as in the case with Peeta—seems to vacillate between cynical posing for the spectators, or a cold calculation that he is useful because he can help her survive. Like the boy from District 1, Peeta has no intrinsic value for Katniss. It’s true that Katniss is an interesting character with a lot of admirable qualities. But in the final analysis, doesn’t her self-centeredness, calculated deceptions, and lack of conscience point to a sociopathic personality? For these reasons, she’s not the kind of heroine I’d want young people to emulate.
There is yet another feature of The Hunger Games that reveals disturbing sense of life: Adults are not admirable, and they offer nothing of value to the children who are the center of the story. They are weak and ineffective (e.g., Katniss’s mother, who is never given a speaking role or even a name). The adults who do have names and speaking roles (such as Haymitch, Effie, and Cinna) are not particularly noteworthy. They’re cogs in the Capitol’s machine, perpetuating the oppressive system.
Both of these factors—the casual treatment of children killing children, and the absence of adults—create a logical explanation for a character such as Katniss whose highest value is self-preservation. If you were in a world where the state was all-powerful, and adults were ineffective, wouldn’t you do everything to mask your vulnerabilities? Wouldn’t you become jaded, cynical, hard, and extremely self-centered, as Katniss is?
Perhaps. But let’s look at another dystopian novel whose main characters are all children: Lord of the Flies by William Golding, published in 1954. An airplane full of British schoolboys crashes onto a tropical island. All the adults are killed, and the boys must fend for themselves. They have to make decisions that may spell the difference between life and death: namely, how to keep a signal fire going at all times to alert rescuers, and how to manage their lives on the island.
The fact that there are no grown-ups to tell them what to do is something that weighs on all of their minds, for better and for worse. Some of the boys, such as Ralph and Piggy, attempt to emulate the law-and-order adult world from home. They come up with parliamentary rules for conducting their meetings, they appoint a leader, decide where they should relieve themselves so they don’t contaminate their living space, and they work out a system for taking turns to tend the signal fire.
Some of the boys revel in the fact that there are no grown-ups, and decide to “go savage.” They move to another part of the island and spend their time hunting wild boar. Their life of violence and anarchy is hardly self-contained; eventually, they become a direct threat to any boy who is not a part of their group, as the law-and-order Ralph finds out in the final pages of the story when he is being hunted by his former schoolmates. The redemption at the end of the novel comes in the form of an adult—a British Navy officer who saves Ralph from imminent death at the hands of his peers.
You could argue that the boys in Lord of the Flies came from an upbringing that gave them a sense of law and order that they could fall back on—an upbringing that Katniss in The Hunger Games has never experienced. But in some ways, this makes my point. Some of the (protagonist) boys in Lord of the Flies attempt to put into practice the laws—adult laws—that will help them survive. Those (antagonist) boys who reject adult laws become a threat. For Katniss, the only “laws” she has to fall back on are the survival skills she learned from her illegal poaching excursions with Gale. (It also makes the perceptive reader wonder how Peeta developed the moral sensitivity to give bread to a starving human rather than to a pig. The book never gives explicit answers, except to imply that he did it because he had a secret crush on Katniss and wanted to win her over. But his goodness seems to go deeper than mere calculated seduction.)
In Lord of the Flies, killing—even the killing of wild boars—is not treated as a casual necessity as it is in The Hunger Games. It is treated as a momentous action that goes beyond mere survival. On p. 31 of Lord of the Flies, Ralph hesitates and loses the opportunity to slaughter a piglet. Why hadn’t he done it? “They [the other boys] knew very well why he hadn’t: because of the enormity of the knife descending and cutting into living flesh, because of the unbearable blood.”
Lord of the Flies further explores the connection between the ability to kill animals, and the all-too-easy transition into killing humans when there is no check (whether social, religious or personal) on unbridled violence. Golding’s message is that civilization is in fact fragile, and that the impulse of humans is to revert into violent, anarchistic hedonism is always lurking beneath the surface—and when it erupts, it is a bad thing.
In The Hunger Games, there is no enormity, no transcendence, no moral assessment. There is just the hardscrabble fact of survival. The best one can hope for is to eke out some kind of an existence—even if that means killing another human being—without getting yourself killed.
The Hunger Games showcases a distinctly modern sense of life: the invincibility of the totalitarian state, the elevation of youth to heroic status simply because it is youth, self-centeredness as a guide to actions, the lack of admirable adults, the absence of wisdom. All of these things parallel disturbing developments in our own world.
Our young people are taught that self-esteem is more important than character development. Feelings and desire reign supreme. Religion and rules of a civil society are denigrated by our secular intellectual class as foolish mythology, or as cynical constructs of the “upper class” designed to “oppress” the “underclass.” Dependence on an increasingly powerful state is regarded as a good thing.
It’s not surprising, then, that the world of The Hunger Games mirrors many of the troubling developments we see around us. Katniss’s attitude and actions are all too familiar. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t pass moral judgment on any of it, which is too bad. Young people would benefit by reading a compelling book that critiques self-centeredness, concludes that murder is wrong, deems that killing a boy is not the same as killing an animal, and judges a female harshly for using a male for her own selfish ends. Then again, not wanting to be “judgmental” is another feature of our society, so it’s not surprising that the book reflects this. In short, the sense of life that suffuses The Hunger Games is not one I would want the next generation to internalize.