In my last post, I argued that The Hunger Games is nothing new – but that’s a good thing! Young adults need texts like this and they ought not to be censored for early high school readers. In this post, I want to address some specific concerns about the novel. There are a number of articles floating around on the internet. Most of the objections are picked up in this one.
As far as I can tell, there are three main complaints against The Hunger Games and I want to address each in turn and why I think each is actually a reason to engage with the novel.
1. Violence as the only means of rebellion.
This is the idea that Katniss is painted as a rebellious character. She hates the Hunger Games and only participates in it as her own survival forces her to. But she does participate. However rebellious she may feel, she still buys into the violence of the game. If she’s so rebellious, why doesn’t she challenge the very nature of the games, for example, by choosing passive resistance or even martyrdom?
Let me say, straight off, that I think it’s important to have stories of passive resistance. But it’s also worth recognising that pacifism takes pretty strong, well thought out convictions. For many, these disappear in the heat of the moment as survival instinct takes over. There’s a sense in which having such a philosophy is a luxury. However, I do think we see Katniss struggle with this idea. As she participates in the violence, she describes herself as helpless, a victim of the Capitol. Yet, she’s looking for another way. That she and Peeta consider taking their own lives in defiance of the idea that there must be one victor is one manifestation of that.
So the discussion is far more complex than simply saying that Katniss doesn’t consider passive resistance. Actually, her participation in the violence is part of her awakening to that. Katniss’ violence is the vehicle by which the passive resistance discussion is opened up. I can imagine the argumentative essay topics now: ‘To what extent is Katniss responsible for her own acts of violence?’; ‘If you were in Katniss’ position, what would you do?’, etc. I don’t think The Hunger Games allies violence and rebellion at all. In fact, it does the opposite, constantly challenging its protagonist (and the reader) to consider alternative methods of resistance, even as her pragmatism takes over.
2. Moral ambiguity is heroic.
Because Katniss is a sympathetic heroine, this view suggests that the choices she makes are endorsed. It’s characterised as brave to allow herself to be preened by the stylist; it’s clever to play up her (fake) romance with Peeta to attain the audience popularity and sponsor’s gifts that she requires; it’s necessary to kill, not just for her own survival but for the pride of her District and the admiration of her little sister.
Again, I’m not sure that this view does justice to the complexity of The Hunger Games. I read Katniss as conflicted over each of these decisions and victimised by them to some extent. This is Katniss’ own estimation of the situation as well. She describes the Hunger Games as a reminder to those in the Districts of their vulnerability and the oppression they must suffer at the hands of the overlords. But most tellingly, the novel’s ending shows that each of these decisions has ongoing consequences, most of them negative. Katniss may be in deeper trouble than when she went in; it may all have been in vain. If she is heroic, she is a tragic heroine. The novel itself begs the question of whether these decisions were foolish after all, or worse, pointless.
3. Our enjoyment of this (violent) text makes us just as bad as those in the Capitol.
The Hunger Games is said to have been inspired by the world of reality TV where destructive behaviour is often exploited for ‘entertainment’. It suggests that our modern obsessions are not that far from the gladiatorial arenas of ancient Rome. And watching a film like The Hunger Games actually participates in that violent obsession.
I find this the most poignant of the three objections because I think it’s true on some level, not just in our willingness to suspend morality for (reality) TV but also as a broader question of how our society functions. In many ways, ‘the rest’ are consistently brutalised by ‘the West’ as by our consumption, among other things, we force the majority of the world’s people to battle to the death for survival. The superficiality of Katniss’ beauticians primping her for the Hunger Games when they have little understanding of the world she’s come from or what she faces is devastatingly familiar.
It’s worth asking, why do we care about Katniss while the plight of child soldiers around the world remains theoretical? Is our consumption of chocolate justified simply because we don’t know about the conditions on cocoa farms or are ignorant of the age of those who work there? But again, I see The Hunger Games as somewhat satirical in this regard, holding up a mirror to our own society, challenging our own exploitation of the weak. Be horrified by the violence of The Hunger Games, but don’t run away from it. Instead, let it lead you to be horrified by more than fictional violence, lest you only care about what happens in the arena and miss the real injustices against those who are marginalised.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.