Warning: like almost all my reviews, there are spoilers here. And it’s long.
My friend Mel recommended that I read the Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. She thought I would like the books and find some interesting connections between the story and my harangues against American-style consumerism. Frighteningly, Mel was right.
First, let me admit it’s real enjoyable to be part of a worldwide book craze again. That said, the Hunger Games is not Harry Potter. Harry Potter was more epic and brilliant. The Hunger Games has qualities of an epic hero story, to be sure, but its power isn’t that it utilizes the timeless plot of good against evil. The impact of the Hunger Games comes from the fact that, though bordering on the absurd, the story is eerily familiar.
In that way Collins calls to mind authors like Graham Greene and Walker Percy, whose plots are so fanciful that they keep you turning pages, but make you slow down with each page turn because of the growing sensation that you’re getting closer to an uncomfortable reality. The Hunger Games isn’t literature at the level of The Power and the Glory or Love in Ruins. But it is cultural commentary on a plane similar to those books and books like them. And that makes the Hunger Games dangerous. It’s dangerous to get close too reality.
The Hunger Games is about privileged people who take advantage of other people. Privileged people who prioritize their own entertainment and self-pleasure over the dignity and well-being of others. And it is about the reaction of the oppressed.
Take just one of endless examples from the books, the character Finnick. He’s from one of the impoverished “Districts” that serve the opulence of the “Capital.” Finnick has worked his way up from seemingly impossible circumstances. There is no way that a child born in a District can have any kind of privileged life -- unless he or she wins a Hunger Games. Finnick did. Now he’s a star in the eyes of the Capital people. A crown jewel of their amusement. So much so, the Capital government wants to keep using him for entertainment and forces him into a life of high-priced prostitution in the service of the Capital’s most powerful individuals. But Finnick’s celebrity is precarious. He is always one yawn away from becoming uninteresting in the eyes of the Capital people or one slip up away from a threat to the Capital’s government. He’s quite literally denuded of all his clothes and all his human dignity. All for the amusement of the people and the power plays of the Capital.
Seems absurd, right? A young person not born into privilege becomes the plaything of the powerful and because of that role becomes a celebrity and entertainment for the masses but only for a time because the people get bored and move on to be entertained by the next scandalous celebrity. Ridiculous. Unthinkable. Monica Lewinsky. Ashley Dupre. Collins has to making this stuff up.
The extreme nature of the picture that Collins creates of the Capital people is the most uncomfortable aspect of these books. They are people who are constantly after entertainment. They live to be amused. They alter their bodies with tattoos and surgeries. The consume endless portions of food. They buy endless things in search of satisfaction. Beware. These people are really creepy. And if you read these books they will sound way too familiar for your liking. I recommend the books, the exercise of reading and seeing. But proceed at your own risk. You may want desperately to not be a part of a culture that is debased -- not the culture in the Capital and not the culture too often in our real life communities.
Two final reactions come to mind. First, is it right to let children (in our case, our eleven-year old daughter) read the Hunger Games? A youth will learn about: extreme and senseless violence as entertainment, political oppression and evil derived from unchecked power, unbridled sexuality, and more. I’m reminded of a talk I had with a Christian author and literature professor. We were discussing Walker Percy’s explicitly sexual and violent novels and whether it’s a good idea to read them. He pointed out that the Bible is pretty explicit. And he made an appropriate distinction between a story that is graphic so as to arouse base desires and a story that is graphic in order to kindle thoughtfulness and ultimately virtue. Percy and the Bible, he argued, kindle thoughtfulness and encourage virtue. This is not always an easy line to draw. The Hunger Games, I think, fit into the thoughtfulness and virtue end of explicit literature. But I will say this. I did not feel uncomfortable with my daughter reading these books. In fact, I feel considerably more comfortable with her reading these books than if she were to watch, say, the over-sexualized ads during the Super Bowl or the violence-as-entertainment news or some human-dignity-stripping reality TV series. That said, you probably want to read these books first and evaluate their appropriateness for your son or daughter. It will require a level of maturity to read them.
My second reaction is my criticism of Collins’s series. In the entire series, amidst unthinkable tragedy, never once is there even a hint of the soul or the afterlife. There is not even a superior “I know better than to believe in God” nod in the direction of the religious. Nothing. Of course, as a Christian, I am bias on this point. But really? Despite tens of thousands of years of human civilization believing in the soul and seeking spiritual comfort when life gets difficult. Not one mention of one person -- even a foolish person -- who has any kind of spiritual sensibility? Though I could be wrong, I don’t get the impression that Collins left religion out as a commentary: “This is what humanity can become without religion.” Perhaps that’s what she did. It didn’t feel like that was going on though. Thus, despite what I felt like was a great ending that promoted a healthy view of recovery from tragedy, it was a graceless finish and so incomplete. For only by grace, as we’ve seen in the aftermath of too many genocides in our real world, can survivors pick up the pieces and continue to live.