With the rise in popularity of the Hunger Games, there have been many critiques of the books by Christian people. Some have been thoughtful and careful; many have been uninformed and reactionary. Ginny Owens is a friend who is a graduate student in English at Wayne State University. She is a good, clear thinker. She recently wrote a critique of the Hunger Games from a literary-critical perspective, stemming from a Christian worldview. She discusses a number of important matters regarding content/endorsement, evaluating objectionable elements, etc. I’m grateful that she agreed to allow me to post it here. It’s a bit long, but I’d encourage taking the time to read the review. Not only is it helpful in evaluating the overall merit of the Hunger Games trilogy, but it serves as helpful reminders about how a Christian should approach literature generally.
Over the last several weeks Christians’ responses to The Hunger Games have abounded on blogs and Facebook, and in comments to articles and reviews. Some of the criticism has been balanced, but a lot of what I’ve seen has evidenced gaps in its critical thinking. The purpose of this note is to offer a literary critical perspective. What I hope to offer here primarily is a set of tools a literary critic uses (or should use), designed to help us analyze a piece of literature from a critical standpoint. I’ll also apply some of those tools to The Hunger Games itself.
Let me briefly explain what I mean by critical—I do not mean nit-picking. Literary criticism occurs when we become critics that analyze a piece of literature—pick apart its characters, scrutinize the world created for those characters, consider what the characters say and do, and why. In essence, we look at what the author has presented to us and we begin to ask questions.
Before I entered a degree program in English literature, I tended to assume that content equaled endorsement. In other words, I assumed that what was in the book was there because the author wanted to satisfy the demands of the audience, or because the author approved of the content in some fashion—otherwise, why else would it be on the page? But now I know better. Content does not equal endorsement, and that’s where literary analysis becomes so, well, critical.
So, here’s literary criticism 101: Literary analysis does not happen when we cobble together a list of “whats.” That’s book report stuff—who did what when and where. It’s not the “whats” that are essential; it’s the “why.” Literary analysis begins when you start to ask and then answer questions, the most important of which is “why.” Why is the “what” there? Why is it important—what significance does it have—not to the plot, but to the point of the book?
The untrained reader, when asked “what is this book about?” will usually respond with a summary of plot details. However, literary analysis begins when the answer to that question is a thing—a single noun, or a phrase that functions as an object of a preposition. This book is about….”censorship,” “selfish love,” “the evils of colonization,” “the horror of war,” “society’s attraction to violence as entertainment.”
So let’s assemble some “whats” from the book The Hunger Games: teen against teen violence that includes savage killing; a female protagonist who makes some shocking choices and is placed in shocking situations; a divided society, one half living in luxury and power, addicted both to frivolous entertainment and to creating that entertainment at the expense of other people’s lives, and the other half of that society living in bondage and poverty, victims of the Capitol’s oppressive schemes; a society rife with Roman analogues (the names of the tributes from the Capitol-fed districts—such as Cato—Seneca and Plutarch the Game Makers, the Capitol itself, the Games themselves); a collection of child gladiators, forced into the Games on pain of death (for themselves and their families) if they resist.
It’s a dark list. But we can’t stop at collecting the “whats.” We must ask why they are there, or we fail to critically engage the text. We also jeopardize our ability to be discerning readers. It seems that one of the elements of The Hunger Games that draws so much attention—and rightly so—is violence, depicted at times so graphically in the book. So let’s talk about violence for a minute, but not as a “what.” Why is it there? How does Collins use violence in her book? To what end does she incorporate it so excruciatingly vividly throughout the trilogy?
To help answer that question, I want to look 400 years backward in literary history, to Shakespeare. Early in his career he wrote a revenge tragedy infamous for being his most violently bloody play: Titus Andronicus. At least 12 characters die on stage; there are beheadings, mutilations, rapes, mercy killings, run of the mill murders, human sacrifice, and cannibalism. The question though is why is it so bloody? Last semester I spent 25 pages arguing that Shakespeare deliberately uses violence in order to make a statement about morality. Titus is flawed because he appeals to Roman standards of morality (yes, we have another ancient Rome connection here) instead of transcendent, absolute standards of morality. Because he fails to align himself to the proper moral standard, he and many other characters meet a tragic end. Titus is no hero, and that is by design. The moral tone of the play is positive because the violence is not endorsed, but rather revealed to be a terrible outcome of Titus’ wrong choices.
So how does Collins use violence? Normally-adjusted people do not read The Hunger Games and come away rooting for the Capitol. Why not? Because it inflicts horrible things upon the districts it holds in bondage. Collins uses violence to make us despise the Games and the Capitol that enforces them. How about this: Is Collins using the violence in the books to say something about our society? To suggest perhaps that our addiction to certain kinds of video games bears a similarity to Panem’s attraction to violence? Is she saying anything about war and how it affects peoples’ lives? What about reality TV? Is Collins indicting contemporary American culture, pointing to Panem’s capitol and its frivolity, its body painting, its Epicureanism, its addiction to the spectacle of the Games, its insatiable thirst for “reality entertainment” that invades their lives 24 hours a day, its willingness to sacrifice 23 children (and later, adults) for the sake of entertainment—is Collins pointing to these things and gesturing to the not-so-distant American future? Has Collins essentially collected a sampling of what our culture is attracted to and revealed the end point of its logical maturation? Consider those rhetorical questions.
Am I saying that violence can be present in a story in order to do something other than endorse violence? Absolutely and emphatically, yes. (If you don’t believe me, read the book of Judges—concubine chopped into 12 pieces and delivered to the 12 tribes, anyone?)
Here’s another point to consider: What is Collins doing with the ethical dilemmas she presents in her books? 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. The second and third books of the trilogy are largely about what happens when people begin to fight back against the Capitol (if you say that the characters in the book choose not to resist I must wonder if you’ve read the entire trilogy, or even looked quite fairly at the first book).
But those are all “whats.” And so the question we really ought to be asking is why Collins creates a world in which it is not always possible to refuse evil and choose good. The point is not that Collins creates a government that will crush its people into submission. The point is why does she do so? What is she hoping to accomplish through constructing her story this way? And how does that link to what she’s saying about our society? Why has she created a world in which children are forced to participate in the Games and people are forced to watch? You see, Collins didn’t create a world in which Katniss can be the kind of hero we want. By the end of the trilogy, the survivors are shells of who they once were, partly because of the choices they made along the way, and partly because of effects of the—can I say war?—against the Capitol and its horrors. The world of the novels simply does not allow the kind of heroism some people are looking for. But we can’t stop at that observation. We must ask why Collins creates her fanciful world this way—what point is she making?
I could go on. I could talk about the importance of looking at which characters get what action—Cinna, Peeta, Gale, President Snow; I could point to Cinna’s choice to rebel against the Capitol in Catching Fire and the awful consequences he faces; I could point to specific lines, such as when Peeta says “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not” (141); I could talk about the importance of first-person narration, and how our understanding of Panem and the Games and the possibility of resistance is limited by how much Katniss knows at any given time; I could discuss how situational ethics are employed but perhaps not praised because of the fact that the characters who operate by this ethical code don’t end up very happy. But I’ll leave you to piece those together.
To be honest, I fear that we as Christians can tend to jump all over certain things simply because they’re popular. I read these books in December of 2009—the first two had already been on the best seller list for a while, and the final book was to be released in August 2010. Where was the outcry then? If these books are so dangerous, why wasn’t there an uproar in 2008?
Well, I know why. The movie. Okay, so let’s talk about the movie—but let’s keep that discussion separate from the discussion about the book, because they are two very different things. I understand why people advocate caution about the movie—it’s more difficult to critically engage a movie, you can’t step away and think about it and then come back, and it forces a visualization of images upon you. But should we bundle the books (which are for young adults, I might add) together with warning statements about the movie? Perhaps the wiser thing is not to knock the books just because the movie is taking America by storm.
I keep referring to “the books,” and that is because really in order to offer a valid critique ofThe Hunger Games trilogy, someone must read more than just the first book (and it goes without saying that reading none of the books ought to disqualify someone all together from offering a critique). They were written as a trilogy, and must be understood as such. To do otherwise is to evaluate an impartial product, made impartial by that person’s own faulty choice.
So I’d like to add my voice to those others that are advocating discernment, but I’d like to hope that we can engage these books as pieces of literature, an engagement which requires a certain set of critical tools. I hope that parents see The Hunger Games as an excellent opportunity to teach teenagers how to be discerning readers, a skill they will need as they grow up in this world. I hope that young adult readers learn how to exercise discernment as they read not only this trilogy, but also other books they will encounter later on. It has been said that something is interesting because it divides us—that thing creates conversation because of disagreement. 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.
Dr. Ron Horton, former head of the English department and current head of the Philosophy department at Bob Jones University, wrote a short guide entitled “Objectionable Elements: the Biblical Approach.” Dr. Horton is one of the most godly men I know, and he also possesses one of the most discerning, critical minds I have encountered. Perhaps this is a good time to revisit his 27 page booklet, available here.
Also, anyone interested in doing some further reading on The Hunger Games might consider The Hunger Games and Philosophy: A Critique of Pure Treason, edited by George A. Dunn, Nicolas Michaud, and William Irwin. The book contains a collection of essays written on the trilogy, including “The Joy of Watching Others Suffer: Schadenfreude and the Hunger Games” and “‘Safe to Do What?’: Morality and the War of All against All in the Arena.” This book is available in part via Google books; it can also be purchased at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Wal-mart.com. The next time you’re at Barnes and Noble, consider taking it off the shelf, getting a cappuccino, and reading a few of the 19 essays collected within the book. They just may help you on your own quest to be a more discerning reader.
In the final analysis I don’t mind in the least if you began reading this note diametrically opposed to the Hunger Games and if you remain opposed from here on out. What I do hope though is that criticism leveled at the trilogy will treat it fairly as a piece of literature, and allow the books to speak for themselves.