Monday, March 26, 2012

"Hunger Games" Thoughts — Probably Will Offend Everyone A Bit

I was going to withhold my thoughts on the Hunger Games a bit longer for a couple reasons.

  •  I've only read through them once, and until Friday I hadn't seen the first movie.      
  •  There's a lot of layers to discuss: writing style, plot, tone, articulation of vs. encouragement of violence, written depictions vs. visual ones, age, maturity, parental control....       
  •  Finally, because I'm trying to avoid social media this Lent (except on Sundays).
However, several good friends have specifically asked my opinion, and many more friends and I have conversed about the books and movie.  So, what the heck...

I'm going to address just three of the myriad topics that could be looked at: 

  1. the series as a whole work, 
  2. some moral and metaphysical dimensions of the work, 
  3. and —perhaps a lot less lofty— my thoughts on the movie.  
Please feel free to skip around the ones you couldn't care less about.  

In all this, I take for granted that parents are the primary formators of their children's moral fiber and are essential in guiding their conscience-development.  When kids are younger that means saying "no" to some things, when they are older that may mean reading or watching things together, and when they approach adulthood —knowing that youth may check out even what you ban— it can mean just being ready to initiate discussion on what's out there.  

1) The Hunger Games as a Whole Work

I read the entire series in a 72 hours.  Wal-Mart checkers probably laughed at me returning each day to buy the next one.  I thought the first book was top notch.  It was well-paced and had great natural movement.  That vitality drove me to the second, which was still very good.  Collins opened up new doors in plot and internal drama, and, when revisiting previous themes, she gave a new enough spin so as to not feel like she was rehashing.  The pace was off a little though, and the trite parts of Section Three weren't the revisitation aspects; it was the simplistic nature of the problems and their solutions.  It was like a table of junior high boys developing a sequel to the first book: "Oh yeah! and what if we do this?  That'd be awesome!"  It wasn't that it was repetitive, it was flawed in that it was so nicely packaged.   

The third book was a true letdown for me.  I felt Collins ran aground on the problem so many authors have with sequels.  A writer makes a great story.  It clearly is not the end of any to the characters' troubles and it demands a sequel.  The temptation usually is to find bigger, crueler enemies, to kill off more of your darlings, to damage or conflict your heroes more, and/or to globalize the struggle.  In the first book, just sending teens to kill each other for adults' entertainment is revolting enough, but in subsequent books, following Søren Kierkegaard's "rotation theory", one has to create new horror by openly executing civilian dissidents, or have the police whip your friends, or even mistreat the costuming crew.  Ironically, in trying to show the horrors of oppression and war, Collins may actually have done the opposite, and numbed us out.

Pace is another problem.  Mockingjay's first two sections managed to be running fleetingly through a great many places and yet still feel interminably bottled up.  The speedy punch of The Hunger Games was lost, and the knife-fight tempo gave way to drawn out, internalized, thought-and-word skirmishes.  And when the characters did bodily sally forth, the action again seemed nicely packaged...and predictable.  Section Three, on the other hand, moved way too fast.  The exponential throttling-up leaves the reader behind, and the crescendos seemed to be more of the same: ever greater pain, ever greater losses, ever greater confusion of allies and morality.  It reminded me of The Departed, a brutal modern mobster movie that seems to think a story is only "real" or "tough" or "dark" if people die in Hamlet-like numbers, but with a water-fight's rationale.   

Finally, my ultimate problem with Mockingjay as a work of literature is that I'm not sold on its conclusions.  I don't mean its themes; besides, those are for the next section.  And I don't mean who dies and who ends up loving whom.  I mean, if, in the end, Character A is going to do/choose/become thing X, the author has an obligation to get me there.  Permit me some examples far away from Katniss' land of Panem.  The twisting ruin of Othello is tragic, but reasonable; Shakespeare showed me how he gets there.  The heights and pits of MacBeth's life's arc are both realistic; they both make sense given the data.  On the other hand, George Lucas never came close to giving me reasons for Anakin Skywalker to leap from being a sniveling but hot-tempered and disobedient young man with fitful dreams about his wife's safety to suddenly want —much less be inclined to try to grab— rule over the whole galaxy.  Sorry, George, you didn't make a case for it.  And so it goes for Mockingjay.  Collins never really makes a strong case for the likely final destinies of any of the principal characters, nor any of Katniss' last four or five decisions in the book.  They neither resound with human nature nor with the character and plot arcs drawn up to those points.  

2) Moral and Metaphysical Considerations

The previous section was basically asking if the construction was good, if they flowed well, if they were fun to read?  Here we get to the question that most parents would be asking: "Is the content of the Hunger Games series good?"  

My answer would be: It depends on the age/maturity of the reader, and it depends on your definition of "good for a reader".  I mean, even a very flawed book, read by someone who could understand what was happening, may in fact be a very good book to have read.  I should warn you that this opinion comes largely from the armchair-philosopher in me that thinks that good people should consume bad media sometimes to understand what is wrong with its worldview.  For example, I think the whole world should watch John Q and have it pointed out what a really awful movie it is.  I fear this movie infinitely more than I do the avowedly atheistic The Golden Compass because Compass is a crappy piece of work, but John Q is an amazingly good movie with an incredibly bad idea.  

Now, that doesn't sound like I'm about to say anything good about The Hunger Games, but I am.  What it foretells is that I'm going to make a strong and constant distinction between portrayals of evil in themselves and portrayals of evil that make it attractive or sympathetic.  Schindler's List showed about as much evil as you can onscreen, but no one thinks it was an approving depiction.  The graphic brutality was nauseating, but that was the point, wasn't it?  Charles Dickens made a living, and a universe, by showing awful people doing awful stuff for awful reasons.  He may have been the greatest evangelist of the 19th century.  So the question with the Games is whether Ms. Collins always depicts evil in such a way that people will call it evil and long for good in its place.  If she does, then I think there is nothing wrong with kids/teens reading them provided that they are mature enough to understand this.  If not —if sometimes evil can appear attractive, excusable, or sympathetic— then readers need to be even wiser and be able to recognize the places where they can disagree with the author.  (e.g. Movie-goers should question Batman's decision to lie to cover up the D.A.'s crimes while having the Commissioner pin them on Batman himself.  You should not be nodding along at the end of The Dark Knight.)  I think parents need to decide this on an individual basis, but they should recognize that other people's kids will have already encountered the books, and it could be better to have your kids enter this conversation duly prepared.  

So the concrete question is: "Does The Hunger Games correctly depict evil as evil?"  I answer: "In Book 1, yes."  Most of the teens sent to the Hunger Games go utterly against their will.  They approach the Arena as self-defense and survival in awful circumstances (which can, no doubt, turn to opportunism too).  The beauty treatments and superficial body enhancements (including the violation of privacies by the frivolous cosmetic crews) are not voluntary; Katniss in no way desires a full body wax or eyebrow plucking.  One truly believes that the Katniss, Peeta, Rue, and even Tresh would have had a hard time offing each other if they were the last ones standing.  The only real controversies would be putting a slowly-dying person out of their misery and contemplating suicide rather than be bent to the will of the Gamemakers.  Yes, both are ultimately attempts to claim the end justifies the means, but only someone with an iron stomach and serious training in Natural Law morality could keep from a "I'm sparing you a worse fate" mentality when watching another be torn apart.  The misery-ending scene is identical to Nathaniel shooting Major Duncan Heyward as he burns alive in The Last of the Mohicans.  Few remember their Plato in such moments.  All the killing, cheating, plotting, betting, boozing, decorating, commercializing, white-washing, corruption, tyranny, coercion, and murder-for-entertainment-and-control is depicted as utterly damning.  The vapid Capitol citizens are either despicable or laughable.  Dickens and Chaucer probably wet themselves laughing at the living caricatures Collins writes—so reminiscent of their own.  There is virtue in Katniss' and Peeta's longings to persevere, to play self-defense only, and to retain their own wills and humanity in the Arena.  Evil is abundant, but it is rounded condemned.  Likewise, American "reality TV" shows are, as well as mixed-martial-arts events and Hollywood in general, too.

Catching Fire (Book 2) weaves a tighter web of intrigue, which necessarily results in more deceptions by the main characters.  A mature group could have some interesting discussions about societies, just and unjust laws, tyranny, and rebellion.  There's more non-Arena violence and it's uglier, but I don't recall any serious violations of claiming the end justifies the means.  Mockingjay, however, is a full-scale debate (or lack thereof) about whether two wrongs make a right, and yeah, I think Collins too often comes up short in her drawer.  Now, just because a character does or permits evil doesn't mean the author sanctions it (I'm not convinced that we should think Steinbeck condones how Of Mice and Men ends).  However, I think too many sympathetic characters do too much evil with too many good, reasonable motives in Book 3 to turn a blind eye to Collins' choices.  One character acts in a way that is inexcusably unjust even while they lament all the injustice they've suffered.  It's hard to clearly identify themes in the book, but let's just say some seem to come straight out of the final chapters of 1984 and Animal Farm.  Moral ambiguity, on the micro and macro levels, seems to increase through the three book series.  There are characters of virtue, and moments of aching beauty throughout all the books, but the worldview of Mockingjay is quite postmodern, ambiguous, self-flagellating, and borderline nihilistic.  

Now, does this mean to avoid them?  No.  At least not universally.  And given that this is the book of the moment, you couldn't dodge it if you wanted to.  Better to educate and elucidate people.  1984, The Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, and Children of Men are horrible places to visit, and therefore everyone should read them before age twenty.  I read The Golden Compass because people need to be able to understand literature as well as critique it.  Teens reading and debating topics is good.  (Oh, there'll be debates, I promise!)  But it's hard not to feel confused by the last fifty pages.  Maybe "cheated" is an even better verb.  Collins has bought into the creed that to be real it must be painful.  In the end, I think The Hunger Games can be good food for social commentary, but realize that, after Book 1, you are on your own to generate the commentary.

3) Thoughts on the Movie

There are two important movie topics: "How well did they do?" and "Would you take kids to it?"

All in all, they did a pretty good job.  Pretty darn faithful to the book, great visualization of District 12 and the Capitol, impressive character realization.  The only real bummer was the last quarter of the movie, which was rushed and killed some of the best plot and character development.  No one watching on Panem's TVs, let alone the movie's actual audience, was going to believe there was anything going on between the "star-crossed lovers".  Both a lack of time (literally, days, in the book) and the absence of meaningful conversations left the movie's partnership cold and Platonic.  Consequently, the chilly post-match interview made sense, because the "Girl on Fire" never caught.  At least they didn't try to presume it without having remotely created it.  

The final battle was telescoped in time too, so much so that it lacked both the requisite response of repulsion and an odd, growing empathy.  Also they eliminated a huge plot piece for one character from the last fight which left the Arena climax more than a bit hollow.  They moved the movie quicker but lost all the urgency.  To their great credit, they did find a way to convey some empathy to the final opponent through the actor's desperation—a real coup because the short time eliminated the original point of empathy.  The key heartbreaking moment in the Arena was kept perfectly intact.  In fact, they did it better than I had imagined it.  I nearly teared up.  

"Should we let our kids go?"  "Is it too violent?"  "Is it gruesome?"  Honestly, I would say it wasn't particularly violent or gory.  Certainly there's violence.  I think it all is in the clearly-depicted-as-evil category.  I think it was all quite fleeting.  I think Suzanne Collins described worse details in the book than the camera shows.  Luckily, the animal-to-human-attack gore is minimal.  That being said, I think I understand why so many say it's brutal.  First, it's because it's hand-to-hand combat.  The movie is about 1/10th as gory as Saving Private Ryan, but Ryan used bullet and bombs, and for whatever reason, the visceral reaction to using mêlée weapons is a lot stronger.  The other reason is that it's teenagers doing it.  Children of the Corn gets most people in a way that Friday the 13th doesn't.  Kids breaking each other's necks is disconcerting.  Overall, the average teen sees worse in his daily video games.  Frankly, I'd say to cut a deal with your teens and preteens: You must read the book, and we will discuss it either before or after you see the movie.  


The Hunger Games are here.  And they're going to stay around at least three years.  Take advantage of the situation and read (and possibly watch) the stories with your young people, presuming they're old enough to do some critical thinking.  Be ready for hard questions and possible disagreements.  Seize the opportunity and meet your thirteen year olds on the fields of the cultural Now.  The first book at least is a perfect critique of the postmodern "Rome on the edge of disaster".  Folks, we're living there right now.  Collins will fail to have clear answers in the third book, but by then hopefully you've created a place to talk about what the right answers should be.  Confusion and nihilism only hang around because people don't offer anything else in answer.  Don't flee this cultural phenomenon, but don't go toward it unaware.  And for crying out loud, don't just tell your kids to dive in without you ever discussing it before or afterward.  Yeesh!


  1. I feel that Collins would have benefited from two changes in her writing technique, or style, or habit. I think that if she 1) chose to write towards teens, or adults, but not both, it would be a stronger literary device. When you explain the Holocaust, and your audience is a room of teens, and adults, you lose things to both audiences. 2) I think that the first Hunger Games should have led directly into the third book, Mockingjay. She seems like she has too much to say, in not enough time in the Hunger Games, but not enough to say in way too much time in Catching Fire, with a little of both in Mockingjay. If she had spread out the series as....

    Book 1: Setting the scene in Panem, and ending before the Hunger Games actually start, with more focus on both how they started, and if she MUST have the whole love-triangle-but-not-really aspect, give it a little more affection than just a teenage girl going 'do i like him.... no i like HIM.... or is it actually him.....'. This is literature, not facebook.

    Book 2: The gorey bloody battles of each child, with more exposition on her attempts to remain herself/defy the Capitol, causing widespread problems. By allowing more time in the arena, she could allow Katniss more time to develop as a character and get rid of some of that emotionlessness that everyone complains about.

    Book 3: The third book would be hard to read, as there are many directions the author could go, including her original route, but I think that the second book is what destroys it as a series.

    I agree with your comments about how the movie rushed the ending, but I think that the final battle was a damn good representation, and even stronger than in the book... In the book, Cato was just an animal in a human body, and thought nothing of slaughtering Peeta and Katniss, or just one of them if he could. In the movie, it was a realistic representation of character.

    It is easy to do what the group wants you to do. But real character is shown when it is just you. Cato easily killed people when the majority of the people were encouraging it, showing the mob mentality, but then when it was just him, he wavers. I think the movie destroyed the book in that aspect.

    All in all, I think that Collins rushed, stalled, and wrote for too many audiences. If she had picked ONE audience, and stayed in a slow buildup from stall to rush, it would have made a much stronger impact on the readers. Instead, we have to read 'and then they get to the capitol, and oh hey the wars ended, and oh hey yay! and oh hey 200 kids just were murdered, and then they all went home' and we're like.... WAIT, WHAT?!?!?!

    I think I skipped 20% of Mockingjay, and still got the same picture as if i hadn't skipped any.

  2. Thanks so much for writing this! You answered my questions and articulated my concerns in a way that I was having trouble doing. And given me much to think about. The first time I raised an eyebrow in curiosity/concern was when I saw kids drawing chalk outlines of their friends on the sidewalk in front of school. Not a huge deal, but one does wonder if kids will have the moral compass (or parental guidance to give them one) to catch the moral themes over and above the thrill of the chase and beautiful shiny people. (Or if they sense a moral dilemma, will they be able to see the right choice.) My guess is that most kids will not, but then I'm a bit of a cynic, as you know....But you're right, the answer is not to run away but to be informed.

    Thanks for breaking your fast to write this! Have a happy and fruitful Holy Week and Easter!

  3. Father, Thank you for writing this. I haven't read the books but my concern is that young kids are reading these books because they can, with no parental guidance. As with the Potter books, parents are just happy their kids are reading and staying out of their parental hair. And it parental peer pressure to have your kids doing the popular thing. I fear for the kids, maybe the majority, who are reading books that they don't really understand. Between the horrid shows on tv and popular fiction like these books, I wonder how our children's minds are being formed. Perhaps you could sit down with a group of teens, and 5th graders and see if they are seeing what they should from these books. Adult reviews of the book aren't the real point. It's what the kids are thinking and getting from these books.

  4. I've been discussing Hunger Games with my 5th graders in apostolate as I saw them all with copies on their desks, and I made the comparison with last Sunday's gospel. Capitol people were the ones that loved their life and pleasures so much that in their corruption came up with something so horrid as the Hunger Games (I made a point of showing how evil it was), while Katniss "hated" her life by loving her sister more than her own safety. Thanks for this post!

  5. Thank you Father! I have long been trying to convince people you don't have to entirely avoid every questionable book. There is so much you can teach even (and maybe especially) if a book doesn't get it quite right!

  6. I read the book and so did my daughter who will be 12 this month. We talked alot about it while reading it as we were reading it at the same time. I was worried at first as I heard there was alot of violence and kids killing kids. I'm glad I read it, and I couldn't help but notice parellel themes in today's world and the evil a government could become, controlling land, food, weapons, taking freedom and liberty away, not to mention cruelty. I also noticed courage in some characters and doing what is right. My daughter and I talked about all these elements and she was able to comprehend the evil and the good in the characters, etc. We went to the movie together, discussed it afterward, and I also felt it wasn't as violent as I thought it might have been. I think it is a good teaching tool. I remember when my daughter was very young, when a chartoon character would whine, I used to use that as teaching (what NOT to act like). I am glad for the book and movie, and I hope that it will help people realize the dangers that could lie in government being in too much control.