Taking the middle road: Moral confusion in The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009), Mockingjay (2010)
Note: This review does not condemn The Hunger Games as an evil or inappropriate trilogy, but merely seeks to point out where the series “missed the mark” in building a culture of life. This review focuses on the book trilogy The Hunger Games, not the series of films, and contains spoilers necessary to the discussion of the story.
Suzanne Collins’ fast-paced trilogy The Hunger Games takes place in Panem, a post-apocalyptic society constructed of 12 districts kept in check by fear of President Snow and his government. Children are indoctrinated in school to believe that Panem’s peaceful survival is due to the yearly Hunger Games, where 24 children fight each other to the death in a specially constructed arena. Only one survivor is allowed each year and is declared the victor.
At first glance, The Hunger Games trilogy appears to be pro-life. The society that condones children killing each other deserves to be stopped. Of course it is evil! However, the trilogy evolves into a story that recognizes the need to be free from oppression rather than the need to stop the killing of the innocent. While The Hunger Games correctly denounces the killing of the innocent as a grave evil, the moral ambiguity of the characters and their decisions prevents the novel from fully supporting the culture of life.
Katniss Everdeen is a complex main character whose initial motivation for entering the Hunger Games in the first book is to save her sister from being chosen. Katniss’ self-sacrificial nature is portrayed when she takes her sister’s place in the games, but by the end of the series Katniss becomes understandably jaded, moody, addicted to drugs, and closed to the possibility of marriage and family life. Katniss doesn’t want children of her own because she doesn’t want them to undergo the same horrors that she did even though the games have been abolished.
Initially, Katniss believes she is making the right choice to save the people whom she loves, but as the story continues, Katniss succumbs to despair and hopelessness caused by her severe psychological distress. Her experiences do not create a culture of life, but rather convince her that life is not worth living, even after the Hunger Games have been abolished and the corrupt government dispelled. She clings to the one hope that Peeta will live to create a future, but Katniss herself has been living in the culture of death for so long that she has no will to live or flourish.
Peeta Mellark from District 12 understands the human bond of solidarity. During the Hunger Games in the first novel, Peeta does not practice with the weapons in the training center, but instead learns how to camouflage himself in the woods. Peeta’s overwhelming love and protection of Katniss are his defining qualities throughout the trilogy, but even he cannot escape the throes of the culture of death. Although Peeta is the most pro-life character in the trilogy, he succumbs to the evil of society after his tortuous drug treatments from which there is supposedly no hope of recovery. Peeta’s openness to life in the epilogue redeems his character for the culture of life, but not without the uncertainty that he could easily lapse back into the culture of death.
Gale Hawthorne is Katniss’ childhood friend from District 12, but unlike Peeta and Katniss, Gale remains virtually untouched by the culture of death for most of the trilogy, staying behind in District 12 and unselfishly taking care of his family. When Gale joins the rebel forces, his motivations change. In the beginning and middle of the story, Gale gladly accepts pain and suffering out of love for Katniss, but by the third book Gale and Katniss form a death pact by which one will kill the other if they are taken captive by the enemy. They would rather give up the gift of life than end up as torture victims for the government.
Needless to say, neither of them fulfills the pact, but the fact that Gale agrees to Katniss’ suicide plan shows his acceptance of the culture of death. Katniss also suspects Gale of developing an idea of a parachute bomb strike, which kills her sister Prim. While Gale performs many heroic actions on behalf of others and unselfishly risks his life throughout the story, by the end of the trilogy he has become tainted by his experience with the culture of death and cannot find his way out.
The characters of The Hunger Games are not open to life, but merely open to survival. There are very few characters from the trilogy who give up their lives in complete self-sacrifice for the good of others. Some of the characters blindly follow the culture of death only to discover that by the end of the story, they cannot disentangle themselves from its snares. The characters’ response to the culture of death is not to fight it or build a culture of life, but rather to succumb to its allure or cooperate with it. By the end of the story they have become so entrenched in the culture of death that it has become almost impossible to overcome it. In this way, even the good characters in the trilogy bear a striking resemblance to the modern-day pro-lifer who believes abortion is wrong but does not do anything about it, thus ostensibly assisting the culture of death by inaction.
“Wait, aren’t there some pro-life themes in the series?”
Despite the moral ambiguity of the series, there are actually a few “pro-life moments” shared among the characters that show the dignity and value of the human person. These, however, instead of supporting a life-affirming message, only succeed in making the series even more ambiguous. Here are two examples of scenes that do support the culture of life:
In The Hunger Games, Katniss goes back into harm’s way to obtain medicine to save Peeta. In this self-sacrificing act, Katniss risks her life to help Peeta recover, even though she realizes that in order for him to survive the Hunger Games he must kill her. Katniss also spares the life of Rue from District 11 and they work together to survive. When Rue is killed by another tribute, Katniss covers her body in flowers to show her innocence and purity in such a cruel and violent arena. Katniss’ acts of self-sacrifice and love are rewarded with another tribute sparing her life.
In Mockingjay, Katniss agrees to film propaganda spots to help unify the rebellion after she witnesses the destruction of District 12 and the devastating bombing of an overcrowded hospital. The hope in the faces of the wounded inspires Katniss to fight back against oppression and give her some sense of the duty she has to protect the sacredness of every human being’s life.
However, Katniss’ continued exposure to the culture of death traps her there, desensitizes her to violence, and makes her determined to take her own life when she is no longer needed by the government or the rebel forces. While these two scenes portray a strong pro-life message that is present throughout the three novels, the overwhelming and unnecessary portrayal of evil and violence overtaking the good places The Hunger Games on a precarious “middle road” that neither accepts nor rejects the culture of death. The pro-life message is lost in a tangle of mixed messages and forced decisions, which could have had different outcomes. The Hunger Games becomes morally ambiguous when it introduces the concept of a double standard—that respect for life and destruction of life can go hand in hand without a moral conflict.
Suicide is portrayed as a self-sacrifice, rather than a grave moral evil. The characters who commit suicide do so ostensibly to save the lives of the people in their group, as is the case with Mags in Catching Fire when she runs into the deadly fog so that her friends can run faster without carrying her on their backs. Mags’ self-sacrificial attitude is commendable, but the situation in which she gives her life is morally ambiguous because although Mags saves her friends through her suicide, at the same time, she violates a grave moral law by rejecting God’s gift of life. Throughout the series, Katniss also considers giving up her life to save Peeta, but often she turns to the act of suicide rather than death by self-defense, or death in the midst of heroic protection.
Dying to protect an innocent life is a good thing, but not when you have to take your own life in order to make that sacrifice. Countless saints, such as Saint Maximilian Kolbe, offered up their lives in place of others. In St. Maximilian’s case at the Nazi death camp Auschwitz, he did not offer up his life in an act of suicide, but rather, his intention was to save the life of his fellow prisoner by taking the man’s place in the starvation chamber.
St. Maximilian’s sacrifice was a gift of life. He then used the opportunity to uplift the other men in the starvation bunker and to comfort them as best he could in their final moments. St. Maximilian’s sacrifice helped prepare him and those with him for the gift of eternal life. He placed his life in God’s hands, and even though he was in the starvation chamber for many days, the Nazis put him to death by lethal injection because he was the last of his comrades alive in the bunker.
“But isn’t this series about how killing children is wrong?”
Not really. While this theme comprises a portion of the books, the trilogy is more about the power the state and entertainment industry wield over the masses than it is about how the life of every human being is precious and deserving of protection, no matter the cost. Some may interpret these books as pro-life. As stated earlier, the trilogy as a whole does have some very powerful, life-affirming moments. These moments are just not enough for this series to give overwhelming support for the culture of life over the culture of death.
One of the recurring faults of modern fiction is the need to explore various viewpoints of morality without coming to a solid conclusion on the definition of good and evil. Some bad characters perform generous or self-sacrificing acts, while some of the heroes commit atrocities, leaving the reader to consider for himself what is the meaning of good and evil.
For the well-grounded student, such a book provides excellent discussion material. When discussing The Hunger Games, teachers and parents should ask their students to clarify the moral boundaries of the story in order to come to an understanding of where the heroes fall short. Examine where a story supports the culture of life and where it supports the culture of death. By sharpening the literary lens and by becoming thinkers instead of merely consumers of fiction, students will be able to identify moral inconsistencies for themselves outside of the classroom.
The Hunger Games does understand the value of every human being, but does not go far enough in the lives and actions of the characters to defend life. The trilogy provides a realistic, yet morally ambiguous response to the problem of oppression and death of the innocent. While The Hunger Games trilogy might explore complex issues and reach many pro-life conclusions, the moral ambiguity of the societal rules that govern the main characters does not build a true culture of life, but rather cultivates a source of moral uncertainty for the reader. By taking the middle of the road approach to morality, The Hunger Games trilogy does not implicitly glorify the culture of death, but leaves readers with a hopelessness that the culture of death cannot be completely overcome.