Let the Hunger Games Begin
By Alyce Gilligan
March 23, 2012
The Hunger Games is not the first young adult book series to spawn a film and a frenzied fanbase. It isn’t the first to provide a compelling love triangle or to lure readers into the late hours of the night with its fast pace and simple phrasing. It isn’t the first to inspire costumes, tattoos and curious fan fiction. But it is the first in a long time to rely not on magic or handsome vampires to captivate its readers; rather, when readers escape into Katniss’ head, they aren’t escaping much at all. They are being confronted by the harsh realities of a not-so-unbelievable future and the responsibilities it entails.
For those unfamiliar with the story, the Hunger Games are an annual event that recruits children for a public fight-to-the-death in order to win a year’s supply of food from the wealthy Capitol for their district. Though this concept is a new level of savage, even the series' most adolescent fans can see the links between the dystopian world of Panem and our own. The book makes no secret of the fact that its Capitol and 12 (or 13) districts represent the deteriorating remains of today’s United States. It depicts an exaggerated version of the country’s wealth gap, society’s celebration of vanity and indifference to violence, the poorer classes’ growing unrest and distrust, and even reality TV’s perverse and inescapable obsession with watching people destroy themselves and each other. In a time when social causes can become trends and Occupy protests can dominate headlines for months, it is no wonder America was ready for a Katniss Everdeen to step forward.
Concerns have been expressed about the horrific violence of the story—and the fact that its most gruesome scenes involve children and are presented to children. There are no rules except "Don’t step off your circle for 60 seconds" and the unspoken rule about not eating one another. But The Hunger Games attempts to illustrate the lengths humanity is willing to go to when it is denied its most basic needs and rights. What are we most willing to sacrifice for and to fight to protect?
In Panem, the Hunger Games serve as a cruel reminder of just how desperate and enslaved the people’s hunger has made them—a corrupt “bread and circuses” system alludes to the cruel practices of the ancient Roman Empire. But just as Katniss and Peeta’s journey demonstrates—and as a man from Nazareth once claimed—people cannot live on bread alone. Sustenance may be essential for physical survival, yes. But a deprived people also have greater social, spiritual and relational needs; even the characters whose physical needs are met are often marked by deep dissatisfaction. The people of Panem were hungry for much more than goat cheese and fresh bread. Perhaps that’s one reason the tributes of District 12 have so quickly captured America's hearts; their struggle for survival brings to light what everyone truly hungers for.
Throughout The Hunger Games, it isn’t the best weapons or the strongest shoulders that prove most valuable; it’s meaningful relationships.
Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is one of the most severely loyal characters to have come along in recent literature. She does not ask, "What would most benefit me?" but rather is guided by “What would be right?” What would be right by her father’s memory? What would be right by her family? What would be right for the hungry, for the weakest party? What would be right by the people who care for her?
Though Katniss more than once proves herself to be a fickle teenager, nobody could dismiss her as self-serving. Whether risking arrest to provide food for her grieving family in the wake of her father’s death, volunteering herself in place of her precious sister in the Games or essentially becoming handicapped in order to ally with an ailing Peeta in the arena, Miss Everdeen does her best to keep her promises and pay off her debts. She may not have many friends—she may not even always be sure what she thinks of the ones she does possess—but it’s her commitment to the meaningful relationships in her life that gets her into the Games, and later gets her out of them.
Throughout the rest of the story, we see other characters choose to value people more than things, more than themselves, even more than survival. Haymitch, the gruff, drunk coach assigned to Katniss and Peeta, is fiercely committed to his tributes, perhaps the first people he’s cared about in quite some time. Cinna, Katniss’ understated stylist, manages stability, sentimentality and friendship in a jaded culture. Rue, the unassuming underdog of the Games, looks for the good in people and lets them in without hesitation. Despite its barbaric system that applauds participants for picking the others off, The Hunger Games shows no shortage of characters who can’t seem to shake the idea that it is better to get by together than to simply survive alone.
Beneath the dysfunctional government and desolate districts of Panem, readers can immediately sense the characters are aching for a change—aching for the opportunity to have a voice, to contribute, to be recognized. Though the theme sees greater focus in Catching Fire and Mockingjay, in The Hunger Games we witness the birth of Katniss’ mission to defy the oppression of the Capitol and restore the freedom of every person.
Suzanne Collins presents a land literally dying to move beyond the limitations of district, of class and of gender. Though the Capitol has lumped them together—just another dead body in the arena, just another worker down in the mines, just another little girl picking in the orchard—Collins subtly shows the reader that each person has potential and is deserving of the chance to exercise it. Her choice of protagonist—a young female from a poor district—is evidence of this message. Even the wealthy, superficial stylists, game-makers and Capitol representatives evoke sympathy from the reader—eventually, we recognize that all of them have become pawns in an elaborate game that neutralizes the power of personhood.
Unlike, say, the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games isn’t a tale dripping with scriptural parallels and undeniable allegory. In fact, The Hunger Games paints a picture of a world where religion has quite frankly starved to death. And the image is a bleak one. But unlike, say, Twilight, The Hunger Games has much more to communicate about love, sacrifice and justice than your typical modern young adult series.
Perhaps the most righteous character we find in this story is the beloved “boy with the bread.” Peeta Mellark is kind to a fault. He is giving. He is slow to anger but quick to defend others. When we first meet him, he’s risking a beating to provide bread for Katniss’ family, wanting nothing in return. While even our heroine at times relies on her powers of manipulation or allows despair and anger to direct her actions (and her bow), Peeta is a glowing example of counter-cultural authenticity and radical love. In Peeta’s famous monologue the night before the tributes are sent to battle in the arena, he expresses his intent to maintain his "purity of self," even though behaving otherwise could be easier, even safer for him. “I don’t know how to say it exactly. Only … I want to die as myself ... I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.”
Religion may be a non-entity in the dreary landscape of Panem. But it’s easy to see that some of its inhabitants are propelled by the unseen and powerful influence of hope, of “right,” even when they don’t know exactly what they believe.
What is right is not always easiest; it's an imperfect and fallen world. But The Hunger Games brings to mind the call to “act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8). We may not have to live our life in an arena, but neither do we live in a vacuum.