No Winners Allowed

I just finished reading The Hunger Games trilogy, that pop fiction series that is being aggressively marketed to young adults, made into movies, spawning fan clubs and Facebook sites. Before I critique any further, I will say that Suzanne Collins can write. Her style is engaging and fast paced, just what is required to sell books to the young.

The story is set in some post-apocolyptic time where North America has imploded, devastated by a civil war against its Capitol. It is now comprised of 12 outlying districts and the Capitol, which is the seat of power. To discourage any further uprising, the Capitol keeps the districts in poverty and isolation with fences around each one. Every year the districts are required to have a reaping, where one boy and girl are picked to participate in the Hunger Games in an arena set up by the Capitol. There can only be one victor, therefore all participants in the games need to learn to survive by killing ruthlessly. The games are televised to all districts, with the most likely survivor being the one who can get people to like him, thus receiving gifts in the arena. The author does a masterful job of making one like the main character, Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers to take her sister’s place at the reaping. She starts out nobly in the games, protecting the weaker children, forming alliances with kindly intent.

You want her to live, but you start to realize that all the other kids will have to die for that to happen. It is, quite literally, kill or be killed. She pretends to fall in love with the boy from her district as a strategic measure to arouse sympathy from viewers of the games, thus receiving pricey donations in the arena that make the difference between life and death. She does manage to survive and insists on saving the boy from her district, strong-arming the designers of the games with the threat of suicide if they do not allow him to live.

This event catapults one into the second book of the series where Katniss is touring the district as the much-pampered winner, along with her “boyfriend”. They keep meeting the families of the other slain children, some of whom Katniss herself eliminated. Guilt and confusion set in. Maybe survival of the fittest wasn’t the right way to go. Someone is responsible for these actions. There has to be someone to hate, someone higher up who needs to be eliminated. Katniss herself is blacklisted by the Capitol because of her act of defiance  at the end of the games. The Capitol fears her ability to incite revolution, and decides to use only former victors of the games for the reaping of the next games. Of course, this takes her back into the arena with people she has come to know and care about. Once more she is required to kill or be killed. They all hate the Capitol, the president, the game makers. Katniss hates herself and this no-win situation. There is no way out. She has decided to try to save Peeta, the boy she pretended to love in the first games, as an act of atonement for using him. Just as she thinks she has figured out a way to do this, there is a tremendous disruption in the arena and she is airlifted by hovercraft to a district that she didn’t know existed.

Book 3 is her experiences in District 13, the underground district with nuclear weapons. It describes her coercion into being the face that inspires a raging revolution, her decision to kill the president and end this madness. She is just a shell of a person, consumed by hatred, propelled by one desire to get revenge. She sacrifices everything for this goal, with an ever growing wake of destruction behind her as her friends die defending her and her enemies fall in front of her. She emerges, victorious, alive!  The Capitol is overthrown. The last scene in the book is of her children, dancing happily on the meadow that has grown over the mass graves of the victims of war.

I know my take on the books is quite different from the reviews that call them “phenomenal” or “brilliant” or “compelling”. I think the primary adjective should be “disturbing”. This is our foremost, best-selling literature for young people, this mess of absolutely no way out.   It is hopeless. No matter how much the characters wish there were a way to live without killing, they feel that there is no choice. In fact, it is all for the greater good, this awful morass of death and destruction.

What would have happened if the mentors would have instructed the kids in the games to refuse to kill, to band together as brothers, to love instead of hate? What if the Capitol would have been disarmed by a people who refused to rise to the bait? What if returning evil for evil is not the best way to bring change in a society?

It disturbs me that this mindless do-whatever-it-takes to survive is being touted to our children as the only way to live. There is a constant dilemma of what is absolute (you shouldn’t kill) versus what makes sense (you should stay alive) and in nearly every case what makes sense hurts other people. Right does not seem to be relevant. The books are a sad overview of a society with a sagging framework of morality. There are no absolutes; it is each person looking out for his own interests in the end, with only a few fringe characters who care about other people. It is chaos.

The author is at least honest enough to describe the desolation in the soul of a person who steps on top of others to stay alive. She does not have any solutions to the problem of a shattered spirit and divided soul except the passing of time. Katniss and Peeta simply have to live with their gnawing regrets. There is no redemption other than having children who don’t have to face the same impossible odds. In fact, they are not really winners at all. I am terribly saddened when I reflect that this is, indeed, the way many post-modern people view life.

I am one of those annoying fundamentalists that believes what Jesus taught is to be taken literally. I know that I live it imperfectly, but I am willing to stake my life on it that His is the better way: the way of suffering love, the path of forgiveness, the eternal perspective of winning by losing. I don’t want to live my life on the premise that there is no higher way than to live for myself, that the only way to save my life is to keep it! I am not buying that load of empty nonsense and I am certainly not going to feed it to my 7th grader.

Another day I will do a review on a book that is the polar opposite of this one. 🙂

4 thoughts on “No Winners Allowed

  1. Very interesting. I didn’t read the books, but I did watch the first movie. It filled me with horror and revulsion. As literature for our children it’s profoundly damaging. I remember well how books affected me as a child, and still do as an adult.

  2. Just this past weekend, Arlin and I were reading about these books in an effort to learn more about them. Thanks for doing the review for us and for sparing us from reading them ourselves. 🙂

  3. I haven’t read the books or watched any of the movies, but I heartily agree that “disturbing” is the adjective of choice to describe them. Thanks for your review, so I don’t have to read them myself to know I don’t want my boys reading them. 🙂

  4. You are braver than I would be! When I first heard about Hunger Games (the movies) I investigated online to get an idea what the commotion was all about, and that was more than enough for me. It seems haunting, and come to think of it, it is! I am eagerly waiting for your “polar opposite” review. 🙂

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