What Can We Learn from The Hunger Games? Part 1

The Hunger GamesRight away, I want to be clear that just because I’m reviewing this novel (I haven’t seen the movie) doesn’t mean I would recommend it to everyone. I do believe discerning adults can benefit by reading the novel and considering its message in light of a Christian worldview. But I would hesitate to recommend it to my almost-twelve-year-old daughter, Laura. I will explain why.

What Is the Novel About?

In the future nation of Panem, which has displaced the current North America, a “boy” and “girl” (ages twelve to eighteen) from each of the poor twelve districts are chosen by annual lottery to participate in the live-televised Hunger Games. In this competition the youth, called “tributes,” must battle each other to the death while imprisoned in an outdoor arena of many acres until only one person survives. The winner becomes rich.

The Games, really a twisted reality TV show, provide sadistic entertainment for wealthy residents of the Capitol, the government district, while punishing the outlying poorer districts due to a past act of rebellion. In the world of The Hunger Games, government is depicted as universally evil. Gamekeepers control the arena, sometimes forcing together tributes who might otherwise hide using fire, rain, explosions, and mutated hornets and dogs.

On Reaping Day, when young Primrose Everdeen of coal-mining District 12 is chosen, her sixteen-year-old sister, Katniss, steps forward to take her place. Katniss’s father died in a coal mining accident, and she has been taking care of her sister and grief-stricken AWOL mother ever since, often by illegally hunting beyond the village’s borders. The male tribute from District 12, Peeta Mellark, once gave Katniss a loaf of bread when her family was starving. He also has a crush on her.

He reveals this crush during the televised interviews before the Games, when Katniss and Peeta are groomed and coached to make the best impression on TV viewers. Appeal is necessary for gaining Game sponsors, which can be critical during the competition due to their ability to send gifts (food, water, or medicine) to tributes in the arena by parachute.

One of the biggest themes in the novel is manipulation, and Katniss assumes Peeta fabricated the crush to appeal to viewers and sponsors. Yet the declaration is puzzling to Katniss (and readers). Once she and Peeta are in the arena, won’t he be trying to kill her?

[Spoiler Alert] Tomboy Katniss must participate in the Games and, if possible, survive (and thereby win). Since this is the first book in a trilogy, it’s a safe bet that Katniss survives. She wins through the use of manipulation (playing up a pretend romance, for example), lies, sabotage, and her skills with hunting and bow and arrow.

She also becomes allies with two other tributes and reveals sacrificial love that balances her other qualities of impulsiveness, self-absorption, and sometimes callousness. All the time, she hates what the government—the Capitol—has forced her to do. The novel ends with her ultimate act of defiance and its consequences, which create the plot for book two, Catching Fire.

Thankfully, most of the other teens kill each other off before Katniss, who is an experienced hunter, must make her “first kill” of a human. And in most cases she kills only in defense—when her life or the life of someone else is at stake. One important exception is a brief but troubling scene of euthanasia (to be discussed in the next installment).

The novel’s rather grim premise reminds me of the reality TV series Survivor  (on steroids) and “The Lottery,” a short story by Shirley Jackson, in which a town’s residents stone the person whose name is drawn by lottery. The story also has hints of The Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Reportedly, the Greek myth of Theseus served as much of the novel’s inspiration.

Overall Impression

The Hunger Games is a wonderfully written, captivating YA sci-fi novel I had a very difficult time putting down (I read it twice). Collins is a master wordsmith, and her plotting and characterizations are masterful and well executed.

But the unsettling themes she tackles in her universe—not to mention the violence level, though it is restrained—may be disturbing to some readers. This is definitely not Nancy Drew; I would hesitate to recommend the novel to anyone under sixteen (and only then with parental involvement).

The novel raises a number of ethical issues that demand careful evaluation based on Bible truth. A Christian young person may not be able to sort these out on his or her own and may need the guidance of a godly parent or pastor. Maybe you’ve already identified some of the issues: fear of the future, distrust of government, teen romance, pitting the wealthy against the poor, whether adults can be trusted, an overemphasis on perception and appearance, government surveillance, doing what will appeal instead of what is right, mercy killing, doing whatever is necessary for a good outcome (pragmatism), the Christian’s view of warfare, and the list goes on.

As far as objectionable content, I noticed one profane use of the word hell. There is also some teen kissing and cuddling (another reason why I wouldn’t yet let my oldest daughter read it). While I realize the kissing and cuddling play an important role in the plot’s manipulation theme (I’ll explain this more in the next installment), they go against my Christian worldview. I believe romantic physical contact should be reserved for marriage.

In Conclusion

As a reader, I found the novel to be gripping, and I’ve thought much about its message. As a novelist, I can certainly appreciate the storytelling quality. After all, plots work best when much is at stake, and stakes don’t get much higher than possibly losing one’s life.

But overall, I have mixed feelings about the novel. It’s possible to enjoy the novel as an adventure story and overlook its bigger ethical questions. Some have glossed over the novel’s moral issues and praise it as simply an adventure novel about a victorious underdog. While I enjoyed the read, I found enough moral ambiguity to give me pause. I wouldn’t be able to recommend the novel without reservation.

If you are a parent whose children are reading these novels, I strongly recommend your active involvement. Ideas play a critical role in the development of your kids’ minds.

In Part 2, I plan to explore the novel’s themes and ethical implications.

Have you read The Hunger Games? If so, what did you think? Is the novel just good, clean fun? Or do you also see complex moral issues at stake?

6 thoughts on “What Can We Learn from The Hunger Games? Part 1

  1. Zoe Scrivener

    Thank you for this! I’ve been waffling about whether or not to read the trilogy for a while now, and it’s so nice to see it analyzed from a conservative Christian perspective. I look forward to the other installments. 🙂

  2. Greg

    I thought it had redeeming value though those themes are subtle. The shallowness of the society in the capital city was so well presented and there are lots of teaching moments there. I had no real problems with the book but I will say the further you go into the trilogy, the more it falls apart. Probably could have stopped after book 2 and I would have been happier.

  3. Adam Blumer

    Thanks, Greg. I don’t personally have a problem; I’m not offended. But I can see how impressionable teens could read things another way and find Katniss a character to emulate. She has good qualities and some that are not so good. As long as teens are discerning and parents are them to help them think through the issues so they aren’t tempted to give in to wrong thinking, I don’t have a problem with it. The book could definitely evoke teachable moments.

  4. Adam Blumer

    Like I said, I think there’s definitely value for adults to read the series. I would be more cautious with teens and tweens who may need help thinking through the moral issues the story presents. That’s where I definitely think parents and pastors should be involved.

  5. richelle @ "our wright"-ing pad

    my two oldest children read the book before i did and wanted to see the movie. i do trust both of them and their ability to discern the good and the bad, and I stopped previewing and screening everything that the two of them read quite awhile ago. the talk about the movie, however, of course had my next two that i might consider old enough to read it chomping at the bit. so i read the series and frankly, thoroughly enjoyed it. i also had no issues with my next teen and tween reading the books because i was familiar with the story and could talk with them about what they were reading.

    perhaps, however, my perspective is a bit different. as missionaries, our children are not exposed to nearly as many of the differing thoughts, perspectives, world views and moral ambiguities that kids growing up in N America or Europe might be – although they do have exposure to some very different ones. We’ve found reading/discussing and discipling as we go through books like the Hunger Games or watch some of the different television series we can get to be valuable tools. We’d much rather our children’s exposure to these types of ideas come from us, where we can discuss it and help them develop their own response.

    That said, having these types of discussions with teens can be a fine balance because I don’t want my kids to agree with me just to get the talk done and over and they can be on their merry way again. I have to be willing to enter into dialogue with them about what they think, even if they think/understand differently and make sure that I keep that avenue for talk and discussion open. They have to know that I don’t expect them to parrot and believe everything I think to be true and that they are safe and accepted even when our perspectives disagree. The point of these discussions is not for them to believe exactly as I do, but rather to learn to think critically about the different ideas the world with throw at them, to learn how to evaluate those ideas based on their understanding of Biblical truth, and to discern how God would have them to respond. As we’re discipling them, we need to trust God to continue the good work He’s begun in their hearts.

  6. Adam Blumer

    Thanks! It’s true that not all teens are at the same place. I have a niece, for example, who is very mature and can easily see through the wrong messages in books. But I’m not sure every teen I know is as discerning. For them, I hope they get some oversight from a parent or youth pastor. There is certainly much to admire in the books; it’s the other messages I think folks should be aware of and filter through their worldview.

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