I’ll state the obvious. You’ve heard of the Hunger Games. You may have read the book or seen the movie, but more likely, you’ve seen your friends rating and raving about it on facebook. You might even have friends who, in a thrill of glee over the movie’s release, adapted their profile picture to look like an ID card from District 12 itself! And all the hype is for good reason: It’s a well written book with an intriguing plot and a well-timed procession of action. But is there more to this book than just a good story? And what about those of us who hold ourselves to the conviction of Philipians 4:8? “Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or worthy of praise; dwell on these things.”
The Hunger Games seems to be the newest in a line of wildly popular young-adult fiction series that began with Harry Potter, and then turned to Twilight. Suzanne Collins clearly knows what she’s doing. She’s been writing all her life as a television script writer. You might recognize her in the credits of Nickelodeon’s Clarissa Explains it All. And her first book series, The Underland Chronicles, though not as popular as The Hunger Games were New York Times best sellers in their own right. There is no question in regards to her professionalism as a writer.
The Hunger Games is the story of Katniss Everdeen, a stoic and brave young woman who volunteers herself as a tribute to the Hunger Games in place of her younger sister. Set in a dystopian future, the nation of Panem, which has taken the place of the destroyed United States of America, requires each of its twelve districts to provide a male and female tribute every year to fight to the death in a nationally televised event called the Hunger Games. Much of the action of the book focuses upon her climbing the ranks to eventually win the tournament.
Stop reading here if you wish not to know any key events in the narrative.
While reading this book I had mixed feelings. I loved the writing and found myself drawn into the story. I finished it in about 3 days and I’m not the type to read an entire book in just a couple sittings. But all the while I found myself asking what, if anything, Suzanne Collins was getting at. I’m an overall fan of art for art’s sake–simply for beauty–but I also believe that art flows from the depth of who we are, and we are creatures capable of both wonder and foulness. I think it’s important to prevent that foulness from running unrestrained because it can use the power of art to destroy peoples’ lives.
What I found with the Hunger Games was that it pit simple, identifiable people into an impossible situation. A situation in which they were expected to loose themselves and behave in an animalistic way. The most compelling parts of the book were the times when the characters defied all odds, such as Peeta’s starlit contemplations about dying as himself and not as some creature the Capitol would have him be. And of course he shows us just that in his selfless and, at times, Christlike protection of Katniss at the cost of his own peril. And of course the grand finale of the book, when Peeta and Katniss challenged the Capitol by nearly poisoning themselves to leave the game makers without a victor. My favorite scene is when a mournful Katniss dresses the slain Rue’s body in flowers, an effort to show some shred of decency in an otherwise barbaric game.
Still, the overall tone of the book was one of defeat. Listlessness. There is only so much the characters could do because the evil Capitol was simply too big, too powerful, and there is no escape from its clutches. I was having a conversation with an artist friend of mine earlier today, who was able to put it in better words than I could: It came primarily from a place of hopelessness, not hope. Perhaps I owe the second and third books a read before I slam my gavel in final judgement, but for now it seems to me that this book is more about the dangers of the darkness of humanity, which is greater than any light. From the hopeless Avox girl, to Katnisses unescapable predicament. Even the genetically engineered wolves in the end seemed for a moment to be an entirely random plot device and a poor choice, but I eventually came to see them as a symbol of evil’s power to unleash its own twisted Deus Ex Machina whenever it pleased.
This book is certainly commendable, an example of excellent writing, and worthy of some praise, but I question the impact it may have on its audience. Remember, it is written for children in junior high. It is a violent book, but my greatest concern is not its violence. My pastor often says, “we are made for love and war.” In this he means love for our fellow man and our God, and war against the forces of darkness. So, I think there are times when a depiction of violence is appropriate in media. Certainly, this book pits us against evil. We are on the right side, that’s to be sure. But is our side winning? Certainly, Ms. Collins is allowed to write a book in which the bad guys win. There is value in that, for she stands with George Orwell and calls out in a prophetic voice to warn us: “This is what we’re capable of!”
Ultimately, I would say this book is by no means anything that should be shunned. But it should be read in the mood of vigilant thinking, a wrestling with our values, and a discretion about with whom we to share this book.
Join me again for The Hunger Games, Part 2, when I will review the movie adaptation of the book.