Hunger Games: Losing the moral center

The Rev. Torey Lightcap, one of the Lead’s news editors, reviews The Hunger Games at his blog Irreducible Minimums. He wonders if the moral lessons of the books are lost in the films:

With $152.5 million in weekend receipts, The Hunger Games is the financially powerful first film in what will most likely become a four-part franchise. The Hunger Games franchise is the adaptation of a trilogy of young-adult novels by Suzanne Collins, whose work has spent 82 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list for Children’s Series. (Collins cowrote the screenplay.)

Of course, with great power comes great responsibility, and the influence Collins wishes to see is directed like an arrow into the thinking process of young adults. In The Hunger Games, Collins writes with an urgency and a momentum that makes it almost impossible to put the book down, and her protagonist Katniss – a teenager living in a cruel society that sends its children to die at each other’s hands for televised sport – is careful to note how insane and out-of-control she thinks her world has become. Throughout the trilogy of books, Katniss’ narration is the moral center of her world: Collins shows restraint in this one aspect, that although Katniss does what she must to survive (and to help her family and closest companions survive), and is often impulsive, she never ceases in being rightly disgusted that people in her world are so freely turned into bread and circuses … that human lives can be offered up as units of entertainment.


All of this takes time to explain and patience to understand. If you’re going to paint such a cruel picture and market it to youth in the hopes of lessons learned, then you’d better be prepared to walk with them every step and to speak with them about why it’s stupid and wrong for governments to turn children into gladiators for the sake of entertainment. If you’re going to teach that lesson, you can’t get too caught up in the sparkle and the spectacle of it all, as the film is often guilty of doing; you need a moral voice providing that slightly-outside perspective – someone to consistently, if artfully, take the viewer out of the “sport” aspect of the story and back into the context of it.

I keep hearing that today’s youth are much more sophisticated about this than my generation, and that they’re completely capable of getting what it’s all about even at an earlier age. But then I hear about the parents of twelve-year-olds sending their non-chaperoned children to watch The Hunger Games, and I think to myself, Well, what do I know since my oldest is only seven, but would I want him to see that movie in just five more years? And I have to answer that for now … no, I wouldn’t. Not even with Katniss’ sanity-making narration restored.

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  1. tgflux

    In the book AND in the movie, never have I more missed the legacies of Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Katniss may provide the “moral center of her world” (and Peeta at the end, even moreso), but it’s a morality that’s little more than “give my life for my familial/familiar beloved” [I can hear Jesus now: “Do not even the Gentiles do as much?”]

    Giving your life for Something BIGGER (humanity, a Higher Power, a universal ethic) just doesn’t seem to exist in this society. Pity (and lack of it).

    …which brings us back to our place and time: in the theater in which I watched the movie, there was widespread applause at the death of two of the tributes (***CHILDREN***). We may be closer to the Hunger Games—from the POV of The Capitol (those in charge)—than we think. Kyrie eleison!

    JC Fisher

  2. Michael Russell

    In our actual world a child dies every three seconds from totally preventable causes. That is ten million a year that die because governments refuse to commit to preventing those deaths and citizens don not rise up and demand it.

    The life time capabilities of tens of millions of children are permanently stunted each year because we fail to ensure that they get sufficient nutrition to fully form their brains. Again, totally preventable.

    So we already live in a world vastly more cruel than Panam because we are not cowed by violent sadistic tyrants. We are cowed by the sheer vastness of this senseless holocaust, by our individual powerlessness against it and by our willingness to turn from the terror of this because it would devour us if we dwelt on it too long. I acknowledge my own failure here along with us all, naming it is important, though.

    Just a few moments ago I finished reading the second book, without giving spoilers I can tell you it is more evocative and provocative than almost any other piece of fiction I have read.

    The question is not what moral guidance we give teens when they see the movie, it is whether we can speak morally at all as children die all about us. “Tick, tock; tick tock” says Wiress in book 2. Read it and weep.

  3. @Michael – I appreciate your comments. As someone who in graduate school chose to study the process and effects of mass communication, and now as the parent of a child who already at age seven is becoming increasingly independent and selective about his media choices, there is a real concern for me about how messages received from these various outlets can potentially change his ways of thinking for the better or for the worse. So while your question raises vital concerns, my immediate sphere of influence includes the question of how much my child can handle. If he ends up having to address that question on his own, then I won’t have done my job.

    Just as we have conversations such as these in our house, we have also begun to tackle some of the much-larger issues such as those you raise. *All* of this is part of the job of parenting.

    Torey Lightcap


    I agree that the books are well-written and engaging. As the father of three daughters, I appreciate a strong, complex female character like the author has created in Katniss. And there are elements of courage, defiance against oppression, substitution, and sacrifice that I can appreciate. But, I am not excited about the possibility of this story shaping imaginations.

    As I read the books I became more and more disturbed by what I think is a lack of a moral center to the story. While Katniss is not eager to kill anyone, there is never the suggestion that she won’t. The necessity of participating in the violence is assumed.

    Even Peeta, who some have suggested is a sort of Christ figure, participates in the games and hooks up with the ‘careers’ at the beginning of the Games and, though it is less clear in the movie, he participates in the killing of one of the other ‘tributes’. The moral heart of the story, such as it is, seems to be “It’s ‘kill or be killed’, so do whatever it takes to protect yourself and those you care about. If that means killing people along the way, well that is unpleasant, but necessary.”

    There was much about the third book that bothered me, but I especially found the assumption and acceptance of collateral damage disturbing.

    Near the beginning of the book and the movie, Katniss’ friend, Gayle asks, “What if no one watched the games?” No one ever suggests the option of refusing to participate in the Games.

    What if Katniss and/or Peeta had refused to play the Game?

    “Why are you trying to kill me?”

    “Because the odds were not in our favor and the evil Capital says we have to kill each other.

    Why aren’t you going to try to kill me?”

    “Because I am not inclined to do the evil Capital’s evil bidding.”

    “That means you will die.”

    “There are worse things than death.”

    (Would have been a shorter book/movie, I suppose)

    Matt Gunter

  5. texasbishop

    I find it fascinating that we are ranting across the media airwaves against the Hunger Games, a book where fictitious characters are killed in order for the pleasure of a select few to be maintained.

    While I do believe parents should be responsible for what they allow their children to experience, parents are responsible for being parents. I think that is your point Torey. But your argument is misdirected if it is. I think it is better a question for parents: as in what do you think you are letting your children do? And, what do you think happens to them when they watch this or play this video game?

    These are good and challenging questions. However, this is not where my mind has wondered as I have watched the media frenzy unfold.

    I have been struck with what I find to be an interesting event – the deflection of attention from the real message.

    I find it sad that the real deaths of children globally, the thousands of young men and women killed over the last couple of decades(many the same age as the oldest children in the book/movie) go without a cry of concern.

    We are deflecting the shame of what is really going on by railing against a movie and author.

    Collins’ interviews have produced an interesting mix of creative energy: “She found herself watching on one channel where she observed people competing on a reality show and on another she saw footage of the invasion of Iraq. The two “began to blur in this very unsettling way” and the idea for the book was formed The Greek myth of Theseus served as basis for the story, with Collins describing Katniss as a futuristic Theseus, and that Roman gladiatorial games formed the framework. The sense of loss that Collins developed through her father’s service in the Vietnam War also affected the story, whose heroine lost her father at age eleven, five years before the story begins.”

    The greater moral question left unanswered while our culture deflects attention from the real underpinning themes of the book is: who is the capitol in our world today? And, how can we change a global culture?

    texasbishop – thanks for commenting – PLEASE sign your name in the future ~.ed.

  6. Rebecca Wilson

    This conversation raises good issues about how responsible parents help their kids navigate popular culture. I think The Hunger Games (rated PG-13) is appropriately directed toward teenagers, but not toward younger kids.

    The middle school book group at our parish chose to read The Hunger Games last month, and on opening night, the kids, parents, and youth leader went to see the film together. From our conversation in the car on the way home and others since then, it’s clear to me that my son (age 13) understood even better than I did the film’s critique of violence as entertainment and its commentary on our culture’s sacrifice of poor children. (The contrast between the unreal sparkle and spectacle of the Capitol and the gritty realism of District 13’s Appalachian poverty made that second point brilliantly.)

    For him and his friends, at least, the “lesson” of The Hunger Games didn’t need to be more explicitly taught; like many teenagers, they see themselves in Katniss and Peeta, and the film provided an opportunity for them to speak in their own moral voices. I’m glad I went to see the movie with my son, but more so I could listen to him tell me about it than so I could teach him about it. A more explicit outside voice guiding audience interpretations might well have made him and other teens dismiss the movie as just one more morality tale constructed by adults to improve them.

  7. Jennifer

    I would disagree that Katniss and/or Katniss’ narration is the moral center of The Hunger Games. I see many moral centers – under an overarching theme of morality, justice, and love of neighbor. And in the movie, morality is there not through narration but visually – simply in the silent scenes depicting life in the Districts, for instance. The riot scene in one particular District after one particular event (I am trying not to spoil) had me in tears. The movie’s silent and haunting portrayal of what morality should be, and how societal power structures mean a select few can and do hold it back from the rest, was stunning.

    Matt wrote “While Katniss is not eager to kill anyone, there is never the suggestion that she won’t. The necessity of participating in the violence is assumed.” Isn’t that what we do in the United States, every day? We say war is awful and killing is wrong, and yet we send our young men and women out to kill or be killed, on a daily basis. “The necessity of participating in the violence is assumed.” We had a military draft for many years that could be reinstated at any time. Not so different from the Reaping. Yet when a draft number was called, people accepted their fate and went. “The necessity of participating in the violence is assumed.” We say everyone should have medical care, food, housing, and yet people die all over this country from lack of care. The Hunger Games is about exactly that – we do allow a select few to dictate how and who is harmed, and the rest of us, though we may care an awful lot, don’t or can’t do anything to change the system itself. “The necessity of participating in the violence is assumed.” Katniss does not assume though – she changes the Game in the first book and continues to change it as she goes.

    These books and movie(s) are not for 7 year olds. But I think it is critical that we not underestimate our adolescents. Whether it is in regard to church, including liturgy and worship, or in regard to society, including harsh realities brought up in The Hunger Games, we need to make sure we are one-part guiding AND one-part listening to our young people. We need to be there with them, but we also need to trust them. They know morality, naturally and instinctively. I saw the movie with my 12 year old and his friend. As we discussed it later, it was very clear to me that they did, very clearly, grasp the complex political and social statements contained. They are eager and ready to change their world. We adults could probably take a few lessons.

    “…and a little child will lead them.”

    Jennifer McNally

  8. Kurt Wiesner

    While I appreciate the many opinions expressed in the comments here as to what The Hunger Games represents mortality wise and to what extent it reflects/does not reflect our current society, I would like to return to Torey’s question of “the need a moral voice providing that slightly-outside perspective”: specifically in this case, the parent.

    I agree with this point of yours Torey, especially in the realm of Rebecca’s comment where the parent (by virtue of seeing the movie, or reading the book herself) is ready to engage in the conversation rather than dictate the morals.

    I can understand (well, as a former Youth Minister, and as someone who still works with kids but not as a parent, so take with a grain of salt) Torey’s closing statement:

    “I hear about the parents of twelve-year-olds sending their non-chaperoned children to watch The Hunger Games, and I think to myself, Well, what do I know since my oldest is only seven, but would I want him to see that movie in just five more years? And I have to answer that for now … no, I wouldn’t.”

    I agree with the non-chaperoned part (be it seeing it with them or seeing it for yourself first). But I think the time comes (sooner than most adults wish) where an adult may not want a child/teen to see something, but might have to engage it after all beyond the “no, you can’t see it”. Yes: “everybody else has seen it” isn’t the best of reasons…but if you the adult want to be part of the “moral voice” shaping a child/teen’s life, it means wading into conversations perhaps a little earlier than one might like. Rebecca’s tack again seems like the right one.

    I think popular books, movies, music and the like are an important place for cross-generation conversation: they can be used as common language to explore important things like ethics, religion and morals with less tendency for assumptions (including that the adult’s view matters more).

    A priest like me tries to have a religious conversation with a teen… (Yeah: wish me luck that…) The same priest sits down to talk knowledgeably about The Hunger Games, or Harry Potter, or Glee, or Lady Gaga. We have an opportunity on perceived “more equal footing” to explore meaning and what is being said, which often leads to that religious conversation after all…

    Thanks again for the thoughtful post.


  9. Thanks for these thoughts, Kurt.

    With youth, it always seems the worst thing you can do is to act as though the things they care about don’t matter or have don’t inherent value for the larger conversation, including the world of religion. By caring about the things youth are interested in (either because I care about youth or because I find those cultural items inherently interesting, which I tend to do), and by being willing to be a part of an open conversation about those things, we show that theology and moral theology aren’t limited subjects – that it’s a lens you can see your whole life through.

    I have started conversations on the Café over the past few years about all sorts of things I was interested in that I didn’t think would necessarily have a wide appeal with our readership (like Lady Gaga), but was pleasantly surprised with how people responded on and off the Café.

    Torey Lightcap

  10. Bill Dilworth

    texasbishop – Ranting and railing? Where?

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