Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games is easily dismissed as a bad book, the type of junk-thriller that captivates audiences with mere sensationalism and little else. Nonetheless, its internal logic clearly captivates millions of readers and viewers, and that alone demands an account of the book’s resonances, its movement, something that philosopher D.Z. Phillips called “possibilities of sense”, a shorthand for what it is about a work or idea that so enthralls its devotees. With many pulp bestsellers, simple appeals to violence, clichéd romance, or tense but tired plotlines fuel the mass appeal. Collins both plays into these bestseller stereotypes while simultaneously protesting them, and the juxtaposition of violence and classical virtue is an enveloping conflict of the book.
The first consideration for the book (and not an original one) is its mythological character. It lacks the moral ambiguity, the existential complexity, and depth of thematic exploration that define so much of modern literature but, for all that, it carries a profundity in its ideas which make it similar to the simple yet enduring stories of Greek mythology. An unlikely heroine volunteers from the poorest part of the country (c.f. Nazareth) as a blood tribute. She’s then catapulted onto the global stage, endures a number of different tests, receives gifts (“boons” in classic lit theory) and helpers, and participates in a raw contest pitting different skills, character types, and even philosophies against each other in a manner reminiscent of Golding’s epic Locke-Hobbes battle in Lord of the Flies. We are drawn to it, and yet its compulsion, its urgency, cuts far more deeply than the simple brutality of many thrillers or the simple eroticism of books like 50 Shades of Grey. Indeed, its style smacks of Artemis or Atalanta myths, and Katniss’s many tests follow archetypes of human experience that are resurrected upon the page.
First of these tropes is sacrifice, which plays out beautifully in the book. Katniss volunteers in the place of her younger sister Prim, a beautiful yet hapless girl who compels her to join the games and whose welfare provides Katniss with the ability to keep on through the tests that await her. Like many of the ancient heroes, Katniss is incapable of the task herself, but she must be compelled, aided, empowered by a love which moves beyond itself and subordinates her to the welfare of the beloved – her mother and sister. As the games begin, she’s tempted by the Cornucopia, a vast stash of weapons and supplies that draws most of the contestants into an early, thrilling fight – and an early death. Again, this is a classic literary trope: seeking after power prematurely causes an early downfall (c.f. Icarus myth, Eden). It’s clichéd to a point, but the trope of temptation by easy power has endured so well throughout literature precisely because of its expressive power for the human condition. Unable to resist the siren song on her own, Katniss is aided by a combination of her weakness, advice from a helper, and ek-static love (in this case, philos) that allow her to take the more prudent, moderate way. Later, she must escape a pack of the strongest contestants in the Games by angering a deadly, genetically-modified wasp nest – for the third time already, she has been helped to sacrifice her short-term wellness for the way of littleness, pain, moderation. In all of these ways, The Hunger Games reprises Greek virtue motifs that have been captivating audiences for millennia.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
-T.S. Eliot, “East Coker”
Perhaps the book’s most distinctive theme is voyeurism – the Games are held for the brutish entertainment of Panem’s thousands of inhabitants, and especially for the barbaric, reprehensible taste of its ruling upper class. We join with Katniss in hating, absolutely hating, this voyeurism in using a fight to the death among teenagers as a form of entertainment. And yet…the book’s a bestseller for some very clear, unsettling reasons. The Gamemakers, who cruelly devise the arena for the Games and a number of traps (wildfire, aforementioned wasps, etc), are merely a stand-in for the author. The Game itself, as well as its innumerable horrors, all come courtesy of the author, as she’s the one tormenting her young, vulnerable characters.
In making this easy parallel, we implicate ourselves a viewers, much in the way Tarantino attempted in Inglourious Basterds. The cold-blooded Nazis watch a sniping spree at the cinema for entertainment as we, the viewer, watch a bloodbath far more brutal and cheer at the Nazis’ demise. The double voyeurism of The Hunger Games operates in a similar way, implicating readers for their enjoyment of the very plotline which made the book a bestseller.
And yet, we are privy to Katniss’s thoughts in a way the Capitol isn’t, and the increased distance we have as readers gives us room for critique. To summarize, the book’s crucial achievement is the dialectic Collins creates between our voyeuristic enjoyment of the violence, on the one hand, and the book’s sharply defined, mythic embrace of virtue on the other. On the negative side, this means the book can appeal commercially to both our base violence and our self-righteousness. Yet still, the dialectic deepens into something more hopeful, more Christian even, than simple self-indictment, or reminding us of “our and Adam’s curse.”
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
-Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”
In recalling our cursed attraction to violence, our conscience bucks against that attraction, and we rebel. “Godly sorrow worketh repentance”, indeed, and our revulsion at the Gamemakers’ and our own violent voyeurism pushes us farther into Katniss’s protest against the Games, which is precisely its Greek dimension of virtue morality (2 Cor 7:10). In drawing us into the voyeurism, it recalls the sinfulness that attracts us to such novels in the first place and, therefore, quickens our desire for Katniss’s sacrificial element, her ‘aestheticization of weakness’ (J.J. Sullivan). It moralizes precisely because it satisfies our love of sensationalism and then, in allowing us to identify with a rebellion against this sensibility, (only slightly and temporarily!) gives reprieve from our tormented cycle of loving violence. If this is a stretch, I’m content to say that offering us this violence to reject it does more harm than good – it’s certain, for instance, that few people felt the intended revulsion from Tarantino’s Basterds. And it’s equally plausible that the Collins never intended this movement in the first place and yet, nonetheless, it’s there in her book as it is in all successful literature: virtue and indictment, existing side-by-side.
As a final note, we must consider that violence is always partisan: that is to say, we enjoy Games’ violence because of our attraction to and identification with Katniss, whom we desire to be the winner. Similarly, between our hatred of the other character’s physical violence and the voyeuristic violence of the Gamemakers, Collins consistently directs us, throughout the book, to channel our own frustrations toward the Gamemakers. The ending accomplishes this brilliantly – even the winners of the Games, though free from physical violence, can only maintain that freedom by continuing to play into the prison of their aesthetic – Katniss and Peeta must remain, on the surface, two lovers to satisfy the continuing voyeurism of the Citadel’s narcissistic obsession with their own power and the nation’s demand for the plotline to play out in the romantic way they had hoped. At this point, one can almost feel the author beating on the constraints of her bestseller form: the expectation of a proper romantic, sensationalist storyline leaves her characters in chains. The life of the characters, and the novel, threatens to burst both the Games’ and the American pulp fiction genre’s conventions apart. The way that Collins stretches these conventions isn’t by deviating from them in the plot (if she had, it wouldn’t have been a bestseller), but rather it’s by pushing toward an enveloping conflict, in the ending, between our expectations as readers (and people!) and the free, spontaneous way in which life actually plays out.
The Hunger Games indulges our voyeurism while protesting it, and pulling us into the protest. It attempts to show virtue thriving despite the merciless demands for violence which all permeates all life in the arena – and “under the sun” (Eccl 2:11). In our desperate desire for Katniss to prevail in the physical war of all against all, we’re drawn up into a second movement of hoping that virtue prevails over voyeurism, freedom against expectations. The book doesn’t free us from contemporary bestseller fiction’s too-frequent demands for violence but, in emerging us full-scale into the murky waters of both physical violence and the violence of our own hearts, it brings godly sorrow in a death of sorts – a baptism of the lowbrow, if you will. Check back in the next few weeks for book two of the trilogy. Until then – may the odds be ever in your favor!
For more on dystopias and Hunger Games theology, see Bryan J.’s Hungry for Love: Dystopia, Genesis 4, and the Hunger Games