Fear, poverty, state power, violence as entertainment, moral dilemmas: these are among the chilling themes that have made The Hunger Games such a massively compelling story. Not only does this dystopian fantasy draw us in with a powerful, suspenseful plot, but more significantly, it offers a thought-provoking critique of violence and society’s participation in it.
Set in the futuristic country of Panem in what was once North America, the premise of The Hunger Games centers around the totalitarian rule of the country’s capitol, which requires an annual retribution for a past rebellion in the form of one boy and one girl selected at random from each of 12 districts. Those selected compete in the Hunger Games, a nationally televised life-and-death competition in which the last remaining survivor is declared the victor. In the midst of this dehumanizing scenario, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister’s place as “tribute” in the games. This courageous act is only the beginning of an intense personal and moral struggle which raises challenging questions for us all.
Katniss, whose driving aim is simply survival, must fight to maintain her own humanity and to see the humanity of others, even her opponents in the arena. But can she succeed in doing so in a situation where survival requires a willingness to kill?
From the start, there is a profound tension between Katniss’ revulsion at the injustice in which she is forced to participate and her deep-seated survival instinct. This tension produces something of a moral disconnect: Katniss is deeply aware of the fundamental injustice of the Hunger Games, yet within the games, she demonstrates surprisingly little hesitation to kill. In one exchange the night before the games begin, Peeta, the male tribute from Katniss’ district, expresses a desire to “die as himself,” to maintain some piece of his identity despite the brutality that the repressive Capitol is trying to reduce him to. Katniss retorts that she “can’t afford to think like that”: as she goes into the games, survival trumps defiance. Peeta too, despite his grandiose declaration, exhibits the same disconnect by his prediction that he will kill like everyone else. In this resignation he has already defeated his wish to show the Capitol they don’t own him.
By the end of the games, something appears to have changed for both Katniss and Peeta, whose ultimate act of defiance involves a decision to lay their lives on the line rather than kill, and in doing so reclaim their own humanity. The refusal to kill turns out to be the only way to defeat the Capitol’s claim on them. Even as a risky survival maneuver, their choice is a dramatic demonstration of the true power of nonviolence, which raises an even more provocative set of questions.
In one of the film’s earlier scenes, Katniss’ friend Gale wonders aloud, “What if no one watched?” That is, if watching 24 teenagers kill each other is nobody’s entertainment choice, could the games be repeated year after year? The question implicates everyone, and the implications concerning the potentially desensitizing effects of our own entertainment choices, as well as our indirect complicity in state-sponsored violence, are well worth pondering. But one might also ask, what if no one killed? How would it affect the games if all of the tributes, or even one, refused to kill from the start? What kind of message would that send about the Capitol’s ownership of their humanity?
An all too easy dismissal to this question might be found in reference to the tributes from the wealthier districts, referred to in the book (and more briefly in the film) as the Careers because of their lifelong ambition and training to compete in the Hunger Games. The Capitol and its representatives, especially the despotic President Snow, are the true villains of the story, but in the Careers we get a more immediate set of antagonists. For the audience, this has the unfortunate effect of dehumanizing some of the characters vying for their own survival – each presumably with a family back home hoping for their safety and a back story we never see. What if all the tributes had simply been, like Katniss, trying to do what it took to survive? If that were the case, we would surely be more disturbed by every death that takes place in the arena. By creating characters whose deaths we can feel good about, novelist Suzanne Collins has done us the disservice of a moral reprieve in an otherwise powerful critique of the dehumanizing nature of all violence. Still, the presence of the Careers may give us cause to consider who we are tempted to dehumanize as a handy excuse to justify violence in whatever form it takes.
Many have seen the popularity of The Hunger Games as owing to more than its gripping plot, masterful as it is. To a considerable extent, the story has found resonance on a deeper level, touching a social nerve about the acceptance and even glorification of violence, often exacerbated by other social injustices such as systemic poverty. As we anticipate the release of the second film in the trilogy, Catching Fire, this coming November, we are left with much to ponder about the nature of violence and the moral choices we must all make in relation to it.