What Can We Learn from The Hunger Games? Part 2

See Part 1.

This novel made me think. A lot. What if my name were drawn in an annual death lottery and I was released into an arena where twenty-three other people wanted me dead? What would I do?

What would you do? Would you try to kill them before they killed you? Would you fold your arms across your chest and refuse to play in the Games (and very quickly be killed)? Or would you—like little Rue—run, hide, and simply try to stay alive? Anyone who gives this chilling dilemma serious consideration can’t help but sympathize with Katniss in her plight.

Yes, The Hunger Games offers a very dark and disturbing premise most of us would rather not consider. And the premise is even more disturbing because teens—in some cases, children—are the ones doing the killing.

But all things considered, The Hunger Games is a story about war, except kids are the ones wielding battle axes. In wartime, one must often kill or be killed. One must also be willing to use deception to defeat the enemy (we see examples of this even in the Old Testament). And deception and its consequences lie at the heart of this riveting story. [Spoilers Ahead]

Take-Away Value

Yes, as I mentioned in part 1, I loved this novel and had a tough time putting it down. But then after I finished it, I thought a lot about its message—and what I found both resonated with me and disturbed me. Resonated because there’s a bit of Katniss, the self-preservationist, in all of us. Disturbed because of what she did to stay alive and what that tells us about human nature apart from God.

The story offers some true ethical dilemmas and some not so black-and-white solutions. I think there’s value in evaluating them in light of a Christian worldview. We can’t change the novel, but we can change our attitude toward it.

Some war tactics themselves (outright lying, for example) are problematic for the believer. But in the world of The Hunger Games, there is sadly no God but survival. And Katniss, no  believer in any biblical sense, is very much devoted to her god.

To give Katniss some credit, she hates what the Capitol has forced her to do. She has no desire to kill anyone, but to win she must. Or else she will die. Hence her dilemma. What is she willing to do to survive? That’s a topic worthy of deeper reflection and discussion.

The Killing 

Let’s admit it. The true shock value of this story is the killing. If all the kids were on a turkey hunt and the one who got the biggest turkey won, then the novel wouldn’t have nearly the same appeal or, might I add, the riveting plot. The gruesome prospect of being killed or having to kill (whether you want to or not) is, I think, what has captured the imagination of so many readers.

Naturally, as Christians we could look at the story’s premise and say, “Simple solution. Just choose not to fight.” Or “Choose not to participate in the Reaping.” But author Ginny Owens makes an important observation:

I have heard it said that every character in The Hunger Games has the opportunity to choose right instead of wrong, but rejects that opportunity. Even if that were a fair assessment of the book, I would argue that we can’t legitimately make that point because Panem is a fanciful world, existing only as it does in the pages of Collins’ book. And Collins didn’t write her novel in a way that always allows the characters to resist the evils of the Games—she presents ethical dilemmas from which the characters are not allowed to escape. In the world of Panem which Collins creates, the children are not allowed to refuse to fight; the districts are not allowed to refuse the Reaping (see book 2 for what happens when they resist); and the people of Panem are forced to become spectators of the Games through perpetual, ubiquitous televised footage. (http://www.davecrabb.com/2012/05/07/the-hunger-games-a-literary-analysis-from-a-christian-worldview/)

So, first, accept the fact that in the imagined “what if” of Panem there’s no way out. Not for Katniss. Not for anyone. Yet I think we can play our own “what if.” What if Katniss were a believer? How might she have responded differently? I propose a few alternatives.

Not everyone in the story responds to the Game’s the same way. Some band together like a pack of wolves and pick off the more vulnerable kids with sadistic pleasure. They obviously embody evil in the story—no question. Others, like little Rue, plan to stay alive by hiding and climbing from tree to tree. She clearly embodies innocence.

Most of the youth kill each other long before Katniss must make that most difficult “first kill.” Most of her killing is in defense of her own life or that of others. For example, when one of the boys goes after little Rue, Katniss defends her by killing him. In the court of law, she doubtless would have been exonerated.

But some of her other kills are not so black and white. When kids trap Katniss up in a tree, she has all night to decide what to do; by morning, they will certainly kill her. Early the next morning, while the kids still asleep, she saws away the limb on which she found a nest of mutated tracker jacker hornets. These are genetically engineered hornets; just a few stings can cause hallucinations. Multiple stings can cause death, and one of the girls, Glimmer, is killed. The rest safely get away.

Novelist N.D. Wilson takes Katniss to task for her behavior here:

Katniss is a victim, but so is every other innocent person thrust into these games. She should be rising above the game and defending herself (and everyone else) from the Hunger Games. Instead, she kills her fellow victims. Sure, if someone is in the act of trying to murder you, shoot them through the throat. But dropping tracker jackers on sleeping kids? Negativo. Why is she playing this game by the rules at all? The Hunger Games are the real enemy. (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2012/05/17/why-hunger-games-is-flawed-to-its-core/)

Is he being too hard on Katniss? What could a Christian Katniss have done here other than kill? The kids below are clearly asleep. Why not just climb down and try to sneak away before they wake up? Does she really need to drop killer hornets on them? Possibly not. Wouldn’t that have been a better option than committing outright murder?

One of her most disturbing kills—and here I felt Katniss definitely stepped over the line—is her committing euthanasia. One tribute, Cato, who has been mauled by mutated dogs (muttations), is close to death and suffering terribly. One of her arrows puts him out of his misery.

How might a Christian Katniss have responded? Well, for one, she had enough arrows to kill Cato, right? Why not use the arrow on another muttation? Perhaps she had enough arrows to eliminate all of them before they hurt anyone else. Second, she had pain-killing medicine that, at the very least, could have eased Cato’s suffering.

If she were a Christian, she could have prayed for Cato’s healing. Ultimately, she would have left his fate in the hands of God, the true decider of life and death. Finally: Why not witness to Cato—tell him about Christ before he must face death?

The Balance

But of course this is only a novel, and Katniss lives in a world without God. Lest readers feel I’m being too hard on her, I offer some balance by pointing out some of her acts of self-sacrifice.

How can one forget her noble, selfless deed at the beginning—of stepping forward and taking her sister’s place? She loved Prim so much that she was willing to take her place in the arena. Do we love others, even our own siblings, so much? When Peeta, the romantic interest from her district, is seriously ill, Katniss does whatever she can to help, even risking her life to get him medicine.

So clearly Katniss offers balance and would be unsympathetic if she were faultless in every respect. We like our fictional character to be flawed but not so much so that we lose respect.

Obviously, The Hunger Games offers some issues that are challenging to a Christian worldview. In part 3, we’ll look at a few more. For now I think we can agree that the novel is more than a story. It’s a complex ethical puzzle that requires careful biblical thinking to find the right path. Does Katniss make the right choices, or does the Bible offer other solutions? As we close, Ginny Owens offers some fitting words.

The Hunger Games certainly has divided us; are we taking that opportunity to engage in conversation about it? Perhaps this comes down to discipleship: Is discipling a child all about sheltering him, or is it about training—coming alongside that child and giving him knowledge about how to wield adult tools in an adult world? I certainly don’t think that everything ought to be fair game—but we should be able to encourage critical thinking, and not merely aversion. (http://www.davecrabb.com/2012/05/07/the-hunger-games-a-literary-analysis-from-a-christian-worldview/)

What do you think? How else do you think Katniss might have behaved had she been a believer?

One thought on “What Can We Learn from The Hunger Games? Part 2

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