Friday, November 21, 2014

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Publishing nowadays is a weird behemoth. Every so often some giant reading experience will come along, and everyone in the world will read the same book (and a few of its imitations), and then in a year or two go on to the next phenomenon. Who will hit the jackpot next? First it was Harry Potter and the stories about wizard school, then it was Twilight and YA vampire romances, then it was The Hunger Games and the dystopian teen sci-fi. In 2009 I became the last person in the world to read the Harry Potter series, based solely upon my satisfaction at being correct when I predicted certain plot twists in the last book. Of Twilight I do not speak. Last week, I became the last person in the world to read The Hunger Games, because a friend suggested that the world could be well served by a clear-eyed Christian review of same.

So, pardon me if you’ve heard the set-up before: in a dystopian future in which North America is split into twelve Districts ruled with an iron fist from the decadent Capitol, the annual “Hunger Games” pit twenty-four teenagers against each other in a bloody fight to the death in a vast outdoors arena, which is broadcast to the nation partly as entertainment, partly as warning. Katniss Everdeen, a resourceful poacher from poverty-stricken District 12, hopes and prays that she’ll never be chosen to participate in the gruesome contest...until she’s sixteen, when the day of Reaping comes, and her twelve-year-old sister Prim is chosen. A loophole in the rules allows Katniss to volunteer in Prim’s place, which saves her sister’s life but leaves Katniss to face certain death in the arena.

I want to begin by saying that I have a fair bit of respect for Suzanne Collins as an author. In a lot of ways she’s done a fine job. I thought the choice to narrate in first-person present-tense was excellent. I appreciated the book’s pacing and suspense. I admired the lean, direct writing style, though the constant use of "says" as a dialogue tag bugged me. The themes—I’ll get onto them in a moment—were well-woven into the plot itself, echoing and re-echoing through the work in multidimensional ways. The narrator was just cold enough to make the dystopia credible, and just sympathetic enough to gain our loyalty.

Special mention has to go to one aspect of the otherwise perfectly tiresome love triangle—the heroine’s, and the author’s, respect for the main male character, Peeta, a city kid without Katniss’s hunting or survival skills, who nevertheless is permitted to be brave and surprisingly resourceful.

I had niggles. The fact that everyone in District 12, from the rich to the starving, all attend the same high school (which somehow fails in any way to prepare them for the Games, so that the tributes’ survival depends on what they’ve learned in their spare time). The fact that they pit twelve-year-old girls against eighteen-year-old trained male killers in the Games, despite the clear mismatch involved—actual gladiators in the Roman games by which this book is clearly inspired, were all highly-trained adult males.

Then, most characters’ motivations throughout the book remain a mystery—Peeta’s feelings for Katniss, Haymitch’s desire to help her in any way, why on earth the Gamemasters should feel remotely threatened by any of Katniss’s small “rebellious” gestures, like strewing a corpse with flowers. This is partly a limitation of the first-person narrative, but a more careful author might have taken a little time to set up a context in which these actions would make sense.

All this is small change, however, when set beside the book’s one, big, glaring fault. That’s what I want to focus on for this review.

The Hunger Games, even more than some books, relies for its effect on the extent to which it is able to touch the reader’s soul. It is a very gritty book: it is about twenty-four young people being loosed into a wilderness for the purpose of killing each other for the entertainment of a nation. The violence is very confronting. This book has important things to speak about: media, entertainment, violence, and ethics. It stands or falls by the import of what it has to say. And unless it has something substantial to say about these things, it’s simply a rather pointlessly violent adventure tale.

At its heart, The Hunger Games is the story of a series of ethical dilemmas. Astonishingly, it manages to defuse just about every single one of them before the heroine actually has to deal with it. Equally astonishingly, the story retains its suspense despite this, leaving those of us who’ve memorised the Westminster Shorter Catechism to gesticulate helplessly and wonder why we didn’t have the (rather awesome) idea for this story long before Suzanne Collins did, for we would have so enjoyed applying the Ten Commandments and the ethical theories of Samuel Rutherford to the same scenario.

So, here’s the problem: Katniss is drafted into the Hunger Games. She hates the idea, and later on, she hates participating. She doesn’t want to engage, she doesn’t want to entertain people, the whole thing is sick and wrong and she knows it. But she never acts on this. She never sits down and decides on a strategy for subverting the games. She takes no moral stand. She just scrambles along while her author, like a guardian angel, goes about resolving the really tough problems for her.

Here’s an example. The night before the games, Katniss has a conversation with Peeta, the other tribute from her district, and it goes like this:
“My best hope is to not disgrace myself and…” He hesitates.
“And what?” I say.
“I don’t know how to say it exactly. Only…I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?” he asks. I shake my head. How could he die as anyone but himself? “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.”
I bite my lip, feeling inferior. While I’ve been ruminating on the availability of trees, Peeta has been struggling with how to maintain his identity. His purity of self. “Do you mean you won’t kill anyone?” I ask.
There. First opportunity to confront Katniss with the ethical dilemma at the heart of the Games: participate in the evil, or become a victim to it? But Collins avoids bringing her characters to the rub:
“No, when the time comes, I’m sure I’ll kill just like everybody else. I can’t go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games,” says Peeta.
Perhaps, at the opening of the story, the characters’ unwillingness to face this tough decision is understandable. However, Collins never forces them—or herself—fully to confront the ethical dilemma. At no point do Katniss and Peeta face a really difficult decision.

Spoilers Ho!

Katniss teams up with Rue, a twelve-year-old girl who reminds her of the sister she herself volunteered in order to save. “Needling me, at the very back of my mind, is the obvious. Both of us can’t win these Games,” thinks Katniss. But again: “I manage to ignore the thought.” Collins saves her from ever having to seriously think this through by arranging for Rue to die a nasty death shortly thereafter.

Because of Katniss’s kindness to Rue, a few chapters later, the other tribute from Rue’s district, Thresh, saves Katniss’s life. At this stage in the Games, the only serious remaining contenders are the gigantic Thresh and the possibly insane Cato.
“I think we would like Thresh. I think he’d be our friend back in District Twelve,” I say.
“Then let’s hope Cato kills him, so we don’t have to,” says Peeta grimly.
This looks like another promising ethical set-up. If Thresh kills Cato, then in order to win, Katniss and Peeta will have to kill Thresh. As their dialogue has just told us, it’s the last thing they want to do. Then, indeed, they’ll have difficult decisions to make. But again, Collins refuses to face them with a real dilemma. She also breaks what I would consider a cardinal rule of storytelling, which is that if you have your main characters hope that Situation X does not happen, you are then more or less contractually obliged to bring about Situation X.

But no. Thresh loses the duel. And Katniss and Peeta are left to confront Cato, who exactly no readers feel an ounce of sympathy for. At no point in The Hunger Games do the main characters have to come to terms with the morality of what they are (or are not) doing.

Instead, the author manages our emotions and her plot so that we, and Katniss, can justify the lives she does take. The killer hornets with which she kills two girls are justified because after all, she didn’t know for sure that the result would be lethal (an excuse which no court of law would accept: the technical name for this crime, absent a good defense of self-defence, is reckless murder). The vengeance she takes on Rue’s killer is completely sympathetic, as he is in the act of impaling a helpless twelve-year-old girl with a spear (as if killing could be excused by a sudden and passionate hatred). The girl who eats poisoned berries Peeta gathers by mistake is simply that, a mistake. And finally, even Cato is dispatched amid a perfect storm of excuses: he’s a dangerous killer, it’s self-defence, and when Katniss does finally put an arrow through his head, he’s been suffering for hours and she needs to put him out of his misery...

Yes, within the context of the story, you can just go along with it. But look behind the scenes. Look what the author is doing. Look how she smoothes away every potential stumper, bending the rules, bending the circumstances, to bring out her characters without any significant sacrifice. No moral stand is taken.

In fact, Katniss does not face a real ethical choice until she stands opposite Peeta at the climax and the Gamemasters attempt to force her to kill him. Finally, at this point, she does refuse. But it’s really a lamesauce ethical dilemma. We are not for a moment in a pother over what Katniss will do: after hundreds of pages of tormented love-triangling, we know she can’t and won’t kill him.

Had Collins been serious about the ethical challenges of her world and the grittiness of her setting, she would have driven her characters to the edge, not guarded them from it.

Applying the Shorter Catechism

I’ve had so much fun imagining how much different the book might have been had it starred a tough five-pointed Calvinist.

I’d probably have begun with Samuel Rutherford’s three-level response to tyranny. First, petition the tyrant. Second, flee the country. Third, if those fail, resist by force of arms. At the opening of the book, petitioning—political action within the existing channels—seems to be out of the question. So our strong-minded Calvinist heroine (we’ll call her Catechiss) should from the beginning be looking for a way to escape: escape the train to the Capitol, escape the training centre, escape the arena.

(It is never explained in the book that the arena is inescapable. One assumes it would be tough. But in seventy-three years of Hunger Games, has no one really ever tried, or succeeded, in escaping? Or in hiding out long enough to win nonviolently? )

Once in the arena, our heroine has a few options present. The one thing which should clearly not be an option, is partaking in the Games. Because she is a Calvinist heroine, she believes that Thou Shalt Not Kill, and she has also memorised the Shorter Catechism, which informs her that “the sixth commandment requireth all lawful endeavours to protect our own life, and the life of others” and that it “forbiddeth the taking away of our own life, or the life of our neighbour unjustly, or whatsoever tendeth thereunto.” She therefore understands that there is an allowance for self-defence in the sixth commandment, which will allow her to use lethal force to this end.

So her first option is to use self-defence all the way through the Games, fighting only when attacked. This is not a good option, for several reasons, but mainly because it would still play into the Capitol’s deranged appetite for blood.

Another option would be to spend the Games on the run, with avoiding discovery and conflict as her primary goal, and a determination not to resist with lethal force. The martyrdom option is time-honoured throughout the history of the Church, and it poses a challenge to the Gamemakers. Its primary weakness as a strategy, however, is that it doesn’t do a great job of “protecting our own life, and the life of others.”

No, I believe that all the virtues require definite action, and I can see just what I would do if I was writing this story. One by one, Catechiss would contact the other contestants and offer them a way out: form an alliance and refuse to kill each other—or, if possible, anyone else. I see a small, steadily growing band evading and repelling the attacks of other tributes. I see conflict, the pressure of wondering if one of your companions is about to turn and kill you all (Total Depravity, after all). I see the increasing worry of the Gamemasters that someone will actually succeed in convincing the majority of the tributes to refuse to participate in the Games. I see, in short, all kinds of fascinating possibilities stemming from the characters’ willingness to confront and embrace their moral duty.

That’s how I wish The Hunger Games had played out: confronting, instead of evading, the big questions.

The Hunger Games was published in 2009 and followed by two sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, which I have not read. A series of movies has also been produced, which I have not seen.


Elisabeth Grace Foley said...

This is really an awesome review. I haven't read this series and frankly have no desire to, but considering its wild popularity, it's nice to see such a clear-headed analysis of what it's really like and where its flaws lie. Well done.

Anna Mussmann said...

I've talked with so many people who say that "Katniss had no choice" but to do whatever she did, yet as you so incisively point out, it is not really Katniss' choices that are the issue-- it is the author's choices.

Surely the author's careful avoidance of moral decisions teaches the idea that even in life-and-death situations, morality can be sidestepped, and that in fact, to do so is the most moral position of all, because it avoids the arrogant belief that one is "right" (I guess I'm referring to the later books here, where anyone who thinks they know how to change the world turns out to be bad news).

Btw, for what it's worth, the issue of escaping the arena is addressed in the second book.

Lady Bibliophile said...

Wonderful review, and spot-on. You defined the crux of the issue.


Kim Marsh said...

First rate review. You have seen the huge flaw in the book and exposed it. I must confess to not having read the book. I found the whole premise so distasteful that I decided not to read it. I am in absolute agreement with what you say.
Sincerely Kim

Suzannah said...

Thanks, folks! I have to say, as I did after HARRY POTTER, "You're not missing much."

Anna, wow, excellent point that sidestepping moral decisions is the most moral position of all. That escaped me but of course you are perfectly correct! Faith in objective truth and order is the unforgiveable sin of the postmodern religion. While I studied law I stumbled across many judges and jurists who acted as if, and at least one (Peter Birks, as quoted in my post here) who outright stated that, the postmodern worldview was incapable of supporting the kind of transcendant objective standard that was needed for the law to function--so all they could do was fall back on the objective standards of Christendom and use those.

Georgia said...

I love the Hunger Games, but this is a very good review.

The Signorina said...

Really interesting take on the phenomenon that is The Hunger Games! Haven't read the books yet.

I've recently written a post on books - my 5 recommended for Christmas, just a small and select list! I'd be delighted for you to check it out, and let me know if you've read any and what you think if you have.


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