Friday, March 9, 2012

God in the Hunger Games

Several months ago, thanks to the encouragement of some of my family, I started reading the Hunger Games Trilogy - and 6 days later (it would have been faster but for priestly duties) I finished.

They really are fantastic books, and I can't recommend them enough, especially if you are looking for a fun read over Spring Break. Two weeks from today, the first of the books will make its much-anticipated appearance on the big screen. You can watch the trailer for the film here

Let me quickly fill you in on some of the details of the story (nothing I say here will spoil the books for you - I'm just setting the table). Post-apocalyptic North America is split into 12 districts all subservient to "The Capital." In order to continually remind the districts who is in charge, "The Capital" hosts the annual Hunger Games. Each district sends a boy and a girl into the arena, and the last one standing is the victor. The entire event is watched live from cameras that have every angle in the arena. Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her sister's place and she is joined from her district by a young man named Peeta Mallark. you are caught up on the basics.

Let me say that I can't recommend the books strongly enough, even to junior high children. There is some definite violence, but it is handled appropriately and is certainly not glorified (as we'll get to in a moment).

I wanted to offer up some reflections on how themes raised in the book are certainly in line with the Gospel and the Church's teaching throughout the centuries on several important topics.

1) First of all, the book is beautifully crafted and artistically written. Every chapter is a cliff-hanger and so you can't read fast enough and it is difficult to put down. Suzanne Collins, the author, has produced something that is very aesthetically beautiful as well; I have reread the last 20 pages of the final book probably 10-15 times and especially there I am struck by the beautiful writing; it is so well done that it almost takes on the quality of poetry! Things that are objectively beautiful, as we'll discuss in a minute, are always worth our time, as the Church has consistently taught through the years.

2) Another important theme is that of poverty. Katniss' home "state", District 12, is the poorest of the districts, and Collins does a great job of painting a picture of what poverty and hunger look life from the inside and from the perspective of a very sympathetic and teenage heroine.

3) The most important theme of the book is that of the dignity of the person. Collins said (either in an interview or on one of the dust jackets of the book) that her main impetus in writing the books was to look at the effect that war has on people. After having read the books I would say "mission accomplished!"

There is a very important conversation between Katniss and Peeta in the book that occurs on the roof of the training facility where they are preparing for the games. This conversation is important not so much for the plot but for bringing up a very important discussion on the dignity of the person.

Here, a brief aside. The Church teaches that we are the only created beings who can CHOOSE how HUMAN we are. Cats can't choose to be a cat, nor do they have the capacity to choose to be less than a cat - they are just a cat.

Humans, on the other hand, can choose to be human or to forsake that humanity. Every sin, every failure to do what we know we ought to do is a giving away of a percentage of our humanity. Saints aren't angels, they are human beings who lived and embraced their humanity. I was listening to Catholic radio the other day and a priest said "When we get to Heaven, God isn't going to ask us "Why weren't you more like Mother Teresa or Terese of Lisieux or John of the Cross"...He's going to say "why weren't you more like YOU!" AMEN!

So back to the roof --- Peeta tells Katniss that he doesn't want the games to change him into SOMETHING HE'S NOT - and that is a very important theme throughout. The games don't change Peeta, he doesn't let who he is be affected by the situations he happens to find himself in - even when other human beings are hunting down hoping to take his life. This isn't to say that he lives out the old 8th grade yearbook scribble "don't ever change!" it is to say that he MAINTAINS HIS HUMANITY despite his environment, and I believe Collins is really holding that up as the ideal (as does the Church). Katniss at one point sees herself during the games and notes that her hair is matted and she looks more like a wild animal than a person, rabid and crazed. Many of the other participants in the games forsake much more of their humanity than Katniss does. Some of the young people have been training their whole lives for the opportunity to be in the arena and are actually excited about it, so there is the whole range of people living out their humanity and differing levels, some forsaking it entirely.

4) Along the lines of human dignity another key scene that carries through the other books as well is when a friend of Katniss' is killed in the arena. Instead of pragmatically and strategically moving on with the games, Katniss reverences her dead friend's body by decorating it with flowers and offering a short "funeral" service. Because the entire nation is watching live, Katniss' actions spread a flame throughout all of the people. As art and beauty ALWAYS DO, once again in this situation it reminds all the people watching of the dignity that ALL people have, and the people watching are reminded that FULLER and MORE WORTHY HUMAN LIVING is possible. That image is one that continues to stir the people to action throughout all three of the books.

5) Of course the very important and very well-handled issues of teenagers trying to figure out love and Katniss being the last one to realize that she is a heroine (as it is with lots of saints through the years - they are the last ones to recognize their holiness). These themes would make it commendable in and of themselves for parents and their children to read and discuss together.

The kids are reading these books and DEVOURING them. Will we seize the opportunity to help show them the deeper truths that Collins is trying to call our attention to, or will we let yet another opportunity to reach our young people go unheeded?

Again, give the series a read. You won't be disappointed. If you have kids, it is a great opportunity to read the books as a family or have some opportunity to discuss the deeper themes present in a beautifully crafted and important work of fiction.


  1. That's great to hear, Fr. My daughter loves these books and we're going to see the first movie together. I enjoy sharing these things with her.

    1. I really enjoyed the books, and am looking forward to seeing the movie today!
      Also, a friendly correction, when you are talking about the government central, it is called "capitol".

      Thank you for the review!!

  2. Oh great post! I also found some parallels with the just war theory. Very simply I told my kids that Peeta represents peace at absolutely as much as very possible, Gale is really about revenge, fighting to "get back" at someone, and Katniss is torn between the two. I think that Katniss really represents the majority of all us. We want peace, but are torn when attacked. I don't know if that totally flies as analysis, but it did get us talking!

  3. I don't agree that the violence was not overdone. By the end of that third book, it was pretty bad.

  4. The violence was excessive for below high school, maybe even not then if they are a sensitive soul. Nobody has said a word about the sexuality, including issues of unwed pregnancy. I wish we had not let them in the house. Just another opinion....

  5. Everyone thinks Katniss is...whether or not she actually is, her team encourages viewers to believe it to garner sympathy. Not exactly themes for Jr. High School kids.

    Also, I think the description and the intensity of the murders in the arena is disturbing.

    1. I disagree that everyone thinks Katniss is pregnant, no one who knows her at all thinks she is pregnant. It is said for preservation, which is a lie, but again, a great conversation starter with kids "is it ever good to lie?"

      I never once found one of the deaths glorified, gruesome, or disturbing. But you are your children's parent and it is your call what to shelter them from.

  6. I appreciate the opportunity to have a discussion over this series, thank you Father!

  7. I am interested in the books but am concerned about violence, could you describe it more? would it be more or less violence than say, in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings or the acts of killing that are smattered throughout CS Lewis' series and more so in "The Last Battle"?

  8. I am trying to ban movies that use God's name in vain, did you happen to notice if god___ was used in the books or movie?

  9. Dear Fr.,
    Thank you for your review although I have to disagree that these books are appropriate for young adults. A lot of kids we know are reading these books and are 5th - 10th graders. I'd have to say that the violence is disturbing. Killed by rabid dogs, venomous snakes and not to mention spears, arrows and rocks. I think the more kids read these types of books, see movies like this or play video games that are violent, the more they become desensitzed to violence in the world. What about the commandment 'Thou Shll Not Kill"?

    There are so many things in this series - nihilism, bodily mutilation, human trafficking and genetically modified organisms - that I feel unless you are discussing this with your children (and most people are not) - how are your kids going to be able to understand these topics with regard to their faith. I'd have to say that this is just the work of the devil prodding at the minds of beautiful young children!

    1. Being a fan of movies over the years, I've followed the Bishops and their rating system. A movie may have violence in it, but the mere presence of violence does not get the movie in trouble with the bishops. What does get the movie in trouble is when the violence is glorified!

      That is a huge difference for me that people fail to make. My Dad let us go see one rated R movie in high school - Saving Private Ryan - because it was getting great reviews from bishops, orthodox Catholics, and veterans, all who were in agreement that it showed the hellish nature of war and in NO WAY did it glorify the violence.

      Collins has said elsewhere that she wrote the books to talk about the effects of war, and the affect that war has on young people.

      I can't say strongly enough how successfully she has done that.

      Each parent is responsible for their own children so if you don't want your kids reading the books, then that is your call.

      But the problem that I see for many people, young adults included, is an inability to distinguish between violence that has a point, and violence that is glorified. The video game Grand Theft Auto and Collins' Hunger Games Trilogy both have people getting killed, but to pretend that because they both have violence in them that kids should be kept safe from both is, in my mind, irresponsible and damaging.

      There is absolutely nothing that glorifies violence in Collins' books. Collins' books, in fact (like Saving Private Ryan et. al.) SQUASH the idea that violence has anything redeeming for it. It is the Gospel in disguise. Katniss, forced to pass through this gauntlet of violence, is left with nothing in the end as a result of the violence. No one who has read all three books would say "wow, that violence was really cool, I'd like to go through what Katniss went through."

      But you are the parent, so it is in your court.

  10. Father,
    I was looking for Catholic reviews of the movie and book series and found this interesting link:
    At the end of the review, the author listed themes in the books with discussion points to use with one's children. Thought it might be helpful to other readers of your blog.
    Thanks for taking the time to post your own comments-was close to e-mailing you for your opinion when found the link on your blog site.
    In Christ,
    Dawn Hostetler

  11. Dear Father
    I have been waiting to read this post but did not want to until I did my own personal review I have been wanting to write for some months.
    I couldn't agree with your thoughts more and hope you will take a look at what I had to say as well
    God Bless

  12. Father, this is an excerpt from the Catholic News Service's review of the film:

    "Though presumably targeted -- at least in part -- at teens, the dystopian adventure 'The Hunger Games' involves enough problematic content to give parents pause.

    The film contains considerable, sometimes gory, hand-to-hand and weapons violence and graphic images of bloody wounds. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults."

    In my opinion, even though the book and film send a powerful pro-life message, children can receive the same message from less desensitizing sources that keep their sense of wonder in tact.

  13. In my opinion, it would be best for children not to read/watch these kinds of books/films at an age when their senses are still keen and delicate. Otherwise, they become desensitized and jaded at a young age (it would be an assault on their delicate senses), and they will need more special effects to rouse or move them later on. It can also deaden their senses and make them less able to appreciate the quiet, majestic beauty of nature that is one of God’s great gifts to man. In my opinion, timing is everything.

    Unfortunately, with more desensitized kids and adults, the entertainment industry cranks out more books/films designed to shock people out of their numbness in the name of profit, rendering them even more numb after the experience.

    Lastly, these kinds of books/movies can gradually rob children of their innocence and sense of wonder. They can become more worldly and cynical as they are pushed to grow up sooner — when they should be enjoying their youth, which is really such a short period of time, compared to the 40 or 50 years they will hopefully have in adulthood. In my opinion, they’ll have plenty of time to read/watch those books/films then. Why rush it?

    If interested, see David Elkind’s book, “The Hurried Child.” Unfortunately, the world does not respect children and wants them to grow up right away. Pax Christi.

  14. Just a brief comment regarding the unwed pregnancy: without looking it up to verify ( I borrowed the books from the library), I believe that before Peeta announces the pregnancy, he explains that he and Katniss were married in a District Twelve-style ceremony. So as far as their world knows, they were married.

  15. I appreciate the post as well as the comments.
    Very informative for someone who is trying to decide if it's appropriate for her teens/kids.


  16. Hi, Father --

    I just found your blog, basically thanks to my own Hunger Games discussion. Thanks for this contribution to the discourse. I, too, love the books & have shared them with my daughters. We've found much of value in them.

  17. After raising eight boys, most of them grown up now into very responsible and Christian young men, I agree with Father that what matters is how the violence is portrayed. I don't think young boys have such a sensitive nature about such things. Actually, they tend to thrive on some violence every now and then, usually creating more violence in their daily lives than a mother can tolerate. I think we become more sensitive to violence and it bothers us more as we grow older. Children generally think they are quite invincible and indestructable and only later do they realize how fragile human life is and how horrible violence is.

  18. Hi there Father, thank you for taking the time to address this series. I have 6 children, my oldest son will be in middle school next year so I have been contemplating these books.

    My issue is that I do not think that a true Christian would have competed in the Hunger Games to begin with. Isn't that why Christians were "thrown to the lions" rather than competing in hand to hand combat with galdiators? Wouldn't the truly Christian response to this type of contest?

    1. Sure, but the book isn't trying to deal with "what to do with being thrown into the arena" the books are trying to deal with human dignity, the effects of war and violence, etc.

    2. But why *doesn't* the book deal with "what to do with being thrown in the arena". As the previous commenter says, isn't that the central point?

      This seems to be similar to the "lifeboat" question where you're asked which person you should throw out of the lifeboat. As soon as you start answering that question, you're sunk. Why should anyone be thrown out?

    3. The difference between the Hunger Games and the Gladiators is that you could enter the arena of the Hunger Games and run, which is exactly what Katniss does. She runs, and only defends herself AFTER being attacked, which is in line with Catholic doctrine. I don't know how it worked in Rome, if they just said "they're Christians, just throw them to the lions" or if they offered them a chance to go into the arena as gladiators first. It wouldn't be morally wrong, I don't think, to enter into a gladiator arena if you told the other guy "I'm not attacking you until you attack me first." Thoughts?

  19. Cannot our teens learn Christian values from reading from the Classics rather than from the newest , "addicting" book/movie?
    I see mothers especially and their daughters basically worshipping these books with much, much emotional attachment.
    This trilogy scares me

    1. At some point, new classics are written as well. We can't just assume that if it is written after 1950 it is bad