Suzanne Collins bottled lightning in writing her Hunger Games trilogy. Now that reviewers beyond the work's original young adult demographic have greeted the new movie based on the first book of that trilogy with varying degrees of enthusiasm, we who care about what influences us and our progeny have work of our own to do: We need to ask whether the Hunger Games franchise is worthwhile, or merely contributes to the coarsening of culture that Collins' defenders say she has written a parable about.
Controversy dogs The Hunger Games because its fictional world of the not-too-distant future depends on a disturbing premise: In what used to be North America, a postwar dictatorship with a well-scrubbed capital city, an unbridled consumerist ethos, and a perverse sense of "Must See TV" now requires boy and girl gladiators chosen by lottery from formerly rebellious outlying territories to kill each other in annual games where winning brings financial rewards to one gladiator and his or her home district, but losing means death. There are no consolation prizes.
The main thread of the story follows Katniss and Peeta, contestants from an impoverished coal mining region. Peeta becomes a gladiator in the usual way (bad luck), but Katniss takes an unconventional route to the arena by volunteering to replace her younger and softer sister, who is too obviously vulnerable in her first year of lottery eligibility at age 12.
What thinkers from antiquity through the Renaissance would have said about a setup like this, we already know. Assuming for the sake of Western Civilization that it is still appropriate to require something uplifting from art, thoughtful critics have to ask if The Hunger Games meets that criterion. I think it does.
Misgivings about what Suzanne Collins created do not always come from expected directions. Sister Helena Buns, member of a Catholic religious congregation whose mission (they call it a "charism") is to evangelize the world for Christ through the media, ended her review of the movie by calling it "extremely well done on all counts," and deferring to parental judgment about who should see it: "Once you know what you (and your children) are in for at the cinema, it's your call," she demurred.
Fortunately for the continued relevance of faith-based reviewing, other Christians did a better job of exploring moral issues in The Hunger Games. Working separately from similar perspectives, Fr. Robert Barron and movie critic Steven Graydanus cited a conspicuous lack of Christian influence as key to the Hunger Games environment. "I would argue that what keeps human sacrifice at bay is none other than Christianity, is this great religion that says 'no scapegoating violence'," Fr. Barron suggested, clearly hoping that The Hunger Games might help some people to see that.
Greydanus, meanwhile, read subtle purpose into the names that Collins gives her characters. Those names are botanical (Katniss, Willow) or Roman (Cato, Caesar, Cinna, Claudius, Seneca), he said. He is right about that, but would have done well to add a third ("Dickensian") category, because "Effie Trinket," "Peeta Mellark," and "Haymitch Abernathy" are every bit as memorable as Uriah Heep and Martin Chuzzlewit were. In any event, Greydanus observed, "Christian names are almost completely absent, which makes sense, because in no culture with any lingering Christian influence could something quite as barbaric as the Hunger Games exist." Importantly for my point here, both Fr. Barron and Mr. Greydanus also thought that author Suzanne Collins and movie director Gary Ross had managed to create something unusually thought-provoking
Why Collins chose to speculate about a world without Christianity is a question only she can answer definitively, but I suspect there is a clue in the title of an old blues song called "How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away?" You do not need to embrace Christianity to believe that barbarism would probably take center stage in its absence.
Writing for the prosecution, bookstore manager Clare Cannon offered an argument to the effect that there are five good reasons to decry the desensitizing or corrosive influence of The Hunger Games. Hers may be the most eloquent of the Christian misgivings about what Collins created. Without objecting to dystopian visions as such, Cannon charges Collins with advancing false notions of mercy as weakness, admiring cynicism, embracing unacknowledged hypocrisy, obscuring moral culpability, and lingering too lovingly over violence.
That five-point indictment must be taken seriously, although space constraints recast serious consideration as "a fair trial, followed by a first-class hanging" -- which, come to think of it, is precisely what Ms. Cannon attempted while slamming The Hunger Games. Her argument would have been more convincing had it not suffered from overreach (about which more in a minute) and narrow focus.
Katniss Everdeen is the Hunger Games character who most compels our attention, and while Katniss is a resourceful young woman who loves her sister, she is also cynical, manipulative, confused, and hypocritical. Cannon understands that skill with a bow and arrow does not make anyone a paragon of virtue, but she ignores the fact that Collins also created the character of Peeta, who is simpler and more introspective than his fellow contestant. In the movie and the book, it is Peeta who first calls attention from within the narrative to how dehumanizing the games are, by expressing a hope that they not turn him into something he is not. Peeta can be deceitful, but what guile he has is used to protect Katniss because – as we quickly find out – he has a longstanding crush on her. Surprisingly, perhaps, self-preservation as an end in itself is not what motivates either of the lead characters. Supporting characters like Rue (youngest of the unwilling gladiators), Haymitch (mentor to spotlighted contestants), Caesar (compromising TV host), and Gale (friend left behind) also have unexpected layers. By emphasizing the shortcomings of one character, Cannon ignored the contrasting virtues of other characters.
The other problem with the Cannon indictment is that it is too ambitious. Anyone who doubts that need only read to the end of it, where Ms. Cannon recommends such alternatives to The Hunger Games as Corrie Ten Boom's The Hiding Place and Immaculee Ilibagiza's Left to Tell. The Ten Boom and Ilibagiza books are indeed excellent and rife with heroism, but the dire events in their pages really happened, and it is no part of honest criticism to hold fiction and nonfiction to the same standard. We ought instead to compare Collins with her novelist peers. Do the people who think Collins wrote a satirical failure also believe that Aldous Huxley was cheering for a new normal that included "pneumatic" women in Brave New World, or Ray Bradbury was serious about the purported advantages of having firemen start fires in Fahrenheit 451?
Let's not forget that mortal combat between a teenager and an adult was central to the Harry Potter books, yet the death match there and in B-level films like Red Dawn did not get as much attention because it was not institutionalized as a tool of repressive government or staged for entertainment.
Suzanne Collins grapples more directly than some of her peers have done with morally hazardous material, but grapple she does, and we should applaud her seriousness. Although the Hunger Games franchise is no substitute for a well-formed conscience, the work deserves better than critical dismissal. Ironically, the kids are alright.