Nate was in town recently, and we had a conversation about books, beauty, and bestsellers. Naturally, we talked about The Hunger Games. His take on it was too good to keep to myself, so I asked if I could share it here.
Why Hunger Games is Flawed to Its Core
Almost everywhere I go, I’m asked about The Hunger Games (book, not film). The questions used to fly about Twilight and Potter, but Katniss and dystopic death-matches have taken over.
First, I completely understand why The Hunger Games took off. Suzanne Collins knows how to suck readers into a page-turning frenzy. The pace of the book grabs like gorilla glue and the kill-or-be-killed tension keeps fingernails nibbled short. She knows her craft, and I have to say that I’m grateful to her for expanding our mutual marketplace (in the same way that Rowling did). That said, Collins stumbles badly in her understanding of some pretty fundamental elements of human story, and the whole thing is flawed to its core as a result.
The best authors are students of humanity, both as individuals and grouped in societies (big and small).
- C.S. Lewis’ profound insight into human motivation and relationships is on display in Narnia, and even more intricately in his Space Trilogy. He paints honest and accurate portraits, leading readers through darkness toward wisdom.
- Think about Mark Twain’s ability to see and image the motivations of boys, and the entire society in which those boys lived.
- Tom Wolfe’s sharp clear vision is on display in both his essays and his fiction. He sees into the hearts and minds of men; he sees which of their choices and follies will set fire to the world around them, and how exactly that fire will progress and grow. (And, like the greatest writers, he manages to maintain an affection and sympathy for his characters and for humanity in general despite this insight.)
When an author profoundly misunderstands human societies, arbitrarily forcing a group or a character into decisions and actions that they would never choose for themselves given the preceding narrative, it drives me bonkers. I once threw The Fountainhead across the room for exactly that crime, and I’ve never read anything by Rand since. And Collins bundles clumsy offenses like this in Costco bulk…
Quick Switch 1
Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place in the Hunger Games. Yay. Self-sacrifice. Christian themes, yadda, yadda. So far so good. But that walnut shell slides away immediately and a moment of self-sacrifice is replaced with sustained, radical, murderous self-interest.
In the Christian ethos, laying down one’s life for another is glorious. In the Darwinian world, self-preservation is the ultimate shiny good. Readers bite the lure of sacrifice, and then blissfully go along with survive-at-the-expense-of-
(Sacrificial Sidenote: Many people point to Peeta as the truly noble and sacrificial character. I don’t mind him as a character, but a picture of heroic sacrifice he ain’t. In Hunger Games, he’s fundamentally passive and submissive. He’s that guy who is happy to ‘just be friends’ with the cute girl. Or a lot more than friends (but only if she initiates). He’s just the puppy at her heels. “Sure, kill me Katniss. Oh, you’d rather we both killed ourselves? Yes, Katniss. Whatever you say, Katniss.” Really? There are plenty of guys in the world just like Peeta, and kudos to Collins for using the type, especially since nice second-fiddle fellas like that confuse and conflict girls tremendously. But worldview readers are gaming themselves into seeing something that just isn’t there.)
Quick Switch 2
The self-defense defense. Katniss is a victim, but so is every other innocent person thrust into these games. She should be rising above the game and defending herself (and everyone else) from the Hunger Games. Instead, she kills her fellow victims. Sure, if someone is in the act of trying to murder you, shoot them through the throat. But dropping tracker jackers on sleeping kids? Negativo. Why is she playing this game by the rules at all? The Hunger Games are the real enemy.
If Collins wanted her protagonist to be the kind of rebel who would start a revolution (and she does want that), she should have had Katniss cutting her locator out of her arm on night one instead of participating in and perpetuating the evil. But readers are a little numb to killing, and this particular switch wasn’t hard to pull on us.
Here’s a thought experiment to help us see clearly. What if Collins had thrown her character into this arena and the rules had been different? Last one raped wins. Rape or be raped. Obviously, a real hero wouldn’t play the game. Explode the game. (Sidenote: rape is awful, but at least the other kids would have survived.)
File this under misunderstanding humanity, which is just another way of saying that The Hunger Games misunderstands courage, inspiration, oppression, and nobility as they relate to people in a collective herd. If you want to see an accurate picture of how one enslaved victim can threaten a regime, watch Gladiator. Twenty thousand people (and the emperor) are commanding one slave to kill another. (Kill!Kill!Kill!) But instead, he throws his sword in the dirt and turns his back on the emperor. And…the people he just defied now adore him. He inspires. His courage is unlike anything they’ve seen, and he is now officially a political problem.
Walk through what Collins has Katniss do while playing in the Hunger Games. First, she does and says exactly what she’s told to do and say (trying to manipulate the mob with false sentimentality). Second, she plays the vile despotic game, and by the immoral rules. Finally, she threatens to kill herself (and talks her faux-boyfriend into doing it with her). This, allegedly, panics the establishment and is the spark that will start a revolution.
But the world doesn’t work that way. Men and women are not inspired to risk their lives in insurrection and defiance by someone reaching for poisonous berries. Revolutions are not started by teen girls suicide-pacting with cute baker boys. Oppressive regimes are not threatened by people who do what they are told.
Put yourself in the author’s well-worn desk chair. If you really wanted your Katniss to threaten this tyrannical system like many great men and women have threatened many tyrants throughout the ages, what would you have her do? She needs to be a lot more punk rock (in the best possible way). She needs to stop giving a rip about her own survival (the most dangerous men and women always forget themselves). She needs to refuse to be a piece in the game. Imagine millions of people watching her disarm some boy who was trying to murder her, and then cutting out his locator, hiding him, and keeping him alive. Every time she defied the order to kill, she would earn the true loyalty of the spared kid’s district. And she would start being a legitimate political threat. (Even Tom Wolfe asked me about The Hunger Games, having apparently heard it had some revolutionary insight. I hit him with the primary plot beats and watched him blink in confusion.)
There is more to say, but I’ve said enough. Well, almost. One final thought: never read or watch a story like a passive recipient, enjoying something in a visceral way and then retroactively trying to project deeper value or meaning onto the story you’ve already ingested. Such projections have been making authors and directors seem more intelligent than they are for decades. As you watch, as you read, shoulder your way into the creator’s chair. Don’t take the final product for granted, analyze the creator’s choices and cheerfully push them in new and different directions. As we do this, the clarity of our criticism will grow immensely. Which is to say, we’ll be suckered far less often than we currently are.
Lastly, Suzanne Collins can really write. It’s just that we can’t really read.