Some Christian reviewers have praised The Hunger Games because it describes good versus evil without moral ambiguity. I would have to disagree. There’s more gray than black and white in this novel (see Part 2 for my discussion of killing in the story).
Katniss is also a very gray character. She has good qualities (self-sacrifice), but she does some bad things too (euthanasia). She is likable, but she doesn’t always do the right thing—which, by the way, is typically of what makes for a memorable character. Readers don’t like a character who is too perfect. Katniss is flawed, but is she too flawed?
To be fair, Katniss doesn’t act like a believer for the very reason that she isn’t one. She doesn’t know any better. But I do think there is value in considering her situation and evaluating what a believer might do if he or she were forced to wear her shoes.
Exhibitionism and Manipulation
As I mentioned before, I both enjoyed the novel and found it troubling. Why troubling? Because of the repetition of two major themes in the story: exhibitionism and manipulation (which go hand in hand in the story).
When I say “exhibitionism,” I’m referring to the second definition at Websters.com: “the act or practice of behaving so as to attract attention to oneself.” Katniss knows her every move, her every grimace, is broadcast via camera for all of Pandem to see (it’s like a voyeuristic Facebook). She often “performs” for the camera, coating almost everything she does with a deceptive, manipulative veneer.
I found this aspect of the story to be distasteful because it only magnified the lie Katniss was living in the arena. She allowed the Games to control her reactions and thereby steal her self-respect, honesty, and dignity. She could live, but she couldn’t be honest and pure at the same time. She couldn’t be true to herself, and in that respect, she was as guilty as the Capitol in playing along with the ultimate deception for the sake of pleasing viewers.
N.D. Wilson again offers his thoughts:
If you really wanted your Katniss to threaten this tyrannical system like many great men and women have threatened many tyrants throughout the ages, what would you have her do? . . . She needs to stop giving a rip about her own survival (the most dangerous men and women always forget themselves). She needs to refuse to be a piece in the game. Imagine millions of people watching her disarm some boy who was trying to murder her, and then cutting out his locator, hiding him, and keeping him alive. Every time she defied the order to kill, she would earn the true loyalty of the spared kid’s district. And she would start being a legitimate political threat. (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/trevinwax/2012/05/17/why-hunger-games-is-flawed-to-its-core/)
If only N.D. had written the novel . . . Not only must Katniss kill to survive; she must also lie. Again and again. By the end of the novel, the reader has lost count of her lies. Yet, because of these lies, she lives (so does that make it okay?). Hence the moral dilemma and the meal of pragmatism the author serves readers.
As long as readers remember this is only a story and identify pragmatism for what it is (not something to be embraced in the real world), then perhaps they won’t allow such thinking to influence their real lives. The problem is, so many young adults read these novels. Are they discerning enough to see the difference and not fall for what the story teaches (that it’s okay to do bad things to achieve a good outcome)?
Kisses to Survive
[Spoiler Alert] This manipulation/deception theme leads to an even bigger ethical quandary. At the beginning of the story, Peeta, a boy from Katniss’s district, admits he has a crush on her. Twice in the arena he helps Katniss—to her surprise (aren’t they supposed to be trying to kill each other?).
Later, the Capitol changes the Game rules, allowing two tributes from the same district to survive instead of one. This must mean viewers like the “romance” so much that Gamekeepers have decided to make the most of it.
Katniss realizes that if she works with Peeta and plays up the romance, maybe they can both survive. She takes advantage of his genuine romantic feelings for her, hoping to increase the odds of their survival. This means flirting, hugging, touching, and kissing. Again, the reader must answer the question: how low should one stoop to stay alive? Is it right to play with Peeta’s true feelings for her for the sake of survival?
Again, we see Katniss giving in to pragmatism. Pretend you love him so you can survive. Give away your kisses. Otherwise you’ll die. Do you see Katniss’s difficult situation?
What should a Christian do in this situation? Imagine living your life as if it were a reality TV show and realizing you can survive but only if you keep pleasing viewers. Only if you kiss and flirt with someone you don’t love. What an impossible way to live. But if you had no choice, what would you do? How low would you be willing to go?
The situation becomes even more morally complex. When Peeta becomes seriously ill, Katniss realizes her romantic deception can save his life—in the form of gifts that descend by parachute from one of her Game sponsors. To save Peeta’s life, the romance must escalate. Hence more kissing and cuddling. If she plays up the romance, she ensures more gifts from sponsors and the possible medicine to save Peeta’s life. Another ethical quandary.
Again, what is the right answer for the Christian in this situation? If you were Katniss, would you pretend to be in love with someone (lie) so you could get the medicine to save his or her life? In some ways, this dilemma reflects that of the biblical character Rahab, who lied to protect the Jewish spies. The Bible clearly praises Rahab for her faith but not for her lie.
But if you were faced with the option of lying or knowing someone would be killed, what would you do? I admit it. This moral dilemma is the toughest one in the book.
Let’s go back to Katniss’s being part of a reality TV show and pleasing readers with a pretend romance. What if viewers had demanded more than cuddling and a few kisses. What if viewers had wanted premarital sex?
Now, thankfully the novel doesn’t tread into this territory, but this is a question worth pondering. Again, if your life or that of someone else were at stake, and you could control the outcome based on your actions, what would you be willing to do so you and others could live?
In Katniss’s case, killing is justified. So is lying. So why not fornication? In the world of The Hunger Games, where does one draw the line without a moral compass?
The final act of manipulation occurs after the Gamekeepers announce that the former rule change has been revoked. Only one person can be victor of the Games. Katniss and Peeta realize one of them must die if one is to be the victor. Or do they have another choice? Yes, they do. Katniss recommends that they both eat poison berries in a daring suicide pact performed in defiance of the Capitol.
Of course, those who have read the novel know the ending. And once again manipulation pays off, and again pragmatism wins the day.
In the end, this novel, though delivering a gripping plot in which the underdog must succeed, is really about deception and manipulation. About pragmatism—doing whatever is necessary to bring about a good ending. In the end, the story forces readers to ask difficult questions. If I found myself in The Hunger Games arena, how low would I be willing to stoop to live?
Would I be willing to kill? To lie? To take advantage of someone else’s feelings? To participate in mercy killing? To commit suicide?
These aren’t fun questions—and, I would argue, not for children—but they are important ones worth considering. In the end, Katniss learns the hard way that deception and manipulation come at a price. She may be alive, but she faces complex problems (a setup for book 2) due to her choices.
We can thank God we do not live in Pandem and pray that our country never becomes like such a terrible place.
What about you? What if you were in Katniss’s situation? How low would you be willing to stoop to save someone’s life?
- Are Free Kindle (or Nook) Books Coming to an End?
- What Novelists Can Learn from a Coffeemaker