I was told that I had to read The Hunger Games. So I did. Apparently, so did a lot of people. After its release in 2008, it spent three consecutive years on the New York Times bestseller list. There are reportedly 11 million copies in print, and Lionsgate is releasing it as a movie in March. So I guess you could say that the book has been popular.
The Hunger Games (written by Suzanne Collins) tells a compelling story. North America has been taken over by an oppressive regime which divided the country into 13 districts. When the districts tried to overthrow the Capitol (the seat of the regime), the Capitol destroyed district 13, kept the other 12 districts starving, and forced each of the districts to send two teenagers to participate in the annual Hunger Games, which are essentially a televised death match.
The story follows Katniss and Peeta, the female and male participants from district 12, as they battle each other and the other contestants in the “arena” (a large but apparently enclosed landscape featuring woods, a lake, and open fields). Contestants form alliances, but there can only be one victor, so every alliance is temporary and strained. Every moment of the games are televised—some portions of the games are required viewing—and members of the Capitol watch with anticipation as they place bets on who will win.
What I find most fascinating about this story is the opportunity it provides to examine human dignity. Any time you have human beings hunting one another, you can be sure that a society’s view of humanity has been skewed. Especially when the whole thing is presented as a sport. The book invites a comparison to the coliseum in ancient Rome. The death matches that took place in Rome were just as intense, just as gruesome, and just as celebrated by spectators. The biggest difference is that the coliseum wasn’t fictional.
The Hunger Games definitely presents “the games” as a monstrous affair forced upon people by heartless dictators. So killing people for sport isn’t being promoted. Yet the story presents us with an interesting moral dilemma. Even though we know that the scenario is dehumanizing and barbaric, it’s enjoyable to read about! I’m not saying that I was glorying in killing for sport as I read the book, but the story is compelling, and I kept reading because I was dying to find out what would happen next. The reality that thousands of Romans gathered at the coliseum to watch people who were forced to battle to the death seems incomprehensible, yet teenagers hunting one another is a bestselling storyline! In a fascinating way, the reader finds himself implicated in a morally reprehensible situation. The reader is disgusted by the members of the Capitol who watch and cheer the games, but is not the reader doing exactly the same thing?
The book also raises another question: can human dignity be preserved even in such a dark scenario? Collins certainly gives us some characters who care nothing for human dignity. But these characters are portrayed more as monsters than as people. At key moments in the story, Katniss and Peeta (and some of the other characters to an extent) demonstrate a high view of humanity. Peeta vows to preserve his dignity during the games, to live and die as himself and not as an animal. Katniss sings a comforting song to a dying contestant and places flowers around her destroyed body. Peeta and Katniss even refuse to kill one another at the end of the games.
Francis Schaeffer said that there are two things that man has never been able to ignore: (1) the existence of the world as God created it and (2) what he called the “mannishness” of man. By the “mannishness” of man Schaeffer meant that human beings have never been able to overcome the sense that there is something unique about humanity, something that makes man special and unique, something that can’t be explained in purely scientific terms.
I would say that it is exactly this “mannishness” that Collins is wrestling with in The Hunger Games. She may not offer a basis for human dignity, but she recognizes it nonetheless. And the reader recognizes it as well. This is why we can’t quite escape our uneasiness with reading an enjoyable story about teenagers hunting one another. This also explains the success of the book. As we read the book, we are reading about more than a competition, we are viewing humanity from a fresh angle. We are brought face to face with the question of what it means to be human. We won’t find that question answered in The Hunger Games—I believe that the only satisfactory answer is found in the Bible—but it is an essential question to wrestle with.