Postcards from Dystopia: Misunderstanding ‘The Hunger Games’

Jennifer Lawrence The Hunger Games

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), accompanied by Peacekeepers, prepares to enter the arena. Image:

In 1516, Sir Thomas More published a short book entitled, Utopia, on which titular island lived a society of complete religious, social and political perfection. The word has come to mean “an ideally perfect place, especially in its social, political, and moral aspects.” Interestingly, utopia comes from two Greek words ou (not) and topos (place). In other words utopia means “nowhere.” It does not exist.

What dysfunctional is to functional, dystopia is to utopia. Opposite the idyllic perfections of Utopia–to an extreme–dystopian societies are presented in literature and film as desperate, hopeless places, often due to a disaster or political upheaval. Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Children of Men, and Mad Max are dystopian. Many dystopian books and movies portray abuses of governmental authority, a surveillance state, oppression, loss of human rights, and the like. [Insert obligatory comment about current events.]

The current, massively popular teen book trilogy and just released movie, The Hunger Games, falls into this category. (Catching Fire and Mockingjay round out the Suzanne Collins authored trilogy.) The novels are international best sellers read by teens and adults alike.

Set in a future dominated by a harsh, enslaving government, all of North America (now called “Panem”) has been divided into 12 districts. Annually each district must offer tribute to The Capital as payment for a failed coup attempt set more than seven decades before the opening of the first book. The tribute payed is the offering of two young people–one boy and one girl–who are “reaped” from each district. These 24 “Tributes” are forced into a kill-or-be-killed fight, broadcast live for all to see. This bloodlust is called The Hunger Games.

The movie follows the characters, plot and storyline of the book faithfully. The acting is strong, with Lawrence being a standout. Fans of the books should not be disappointed.

The Hunger Games Katniss and Peeta

Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) training for "The Hunger Games." Image:

Since the hype surrounding the movies reached fever pitch on Thursday and Friday, discussions popped up all over Facebook as to whether the books were appropriate for certain ages, and whether the movie should be viewed by kids. My take on age is most definitely not under 10. Eleven through thirteen depends on your child’s maturity and ability to grasp themes of good and evil. Middle school and up would be fine for most kids as long as you remember, the movie isn’t mere entertainment. It’s visual storytelling with a purpose using violence to challenge our hardened indifference to violence.

Recently a well known author/pastor/theologian offered his take on the series concluding they are filled with situational ethics. He writes:

The Capitol is hateful, and cruel, and distasteful, and obnoxious, and decadent, and icky . . . but not evil, as measured against any external standard. The Capitol is to be disliked because the Capitol is making people do things they would rather not be doing. But nowhere is there a simple refusal. There is a desire to have it all go away, but everybody participates with an appropriate amount of sullenness…But think for a moment. Someone tells you to murder a twelve-year-old girl, or they will kill you. What do you do? Suppose they give the twelve-year-old girl a head start? Suppose they give her a gun and tell her that if she murders you first, and she will be okay?

Collins’ purpose for writing is, according to the “About the Author” page in The Hunger Games, “to explore the effects of war and violence on those coming of age.”

To read this trilogy and see primarily situational ethics or kids killing kids is akin to dismissing Animal Farm because pigs cannot talk. It’s simply missing the point. Widely.

After reading the first book and seeing the movie, I’m left with three immediate impressions Collins might have been trying to make.

First, there are many who view war as sport and those people are clowns. The residents of the Capital look and act like Ringling Brothers clowns on a LSD trip. They dress as if a Crayola factory exploded beside their only Kohl’s. Bringing Katniss and Peeta from the drab grays of their coal mining district to the garish garb of the Capital citizens could have sprung from a novel co-authored by Cormac McCarthy and Dr. Seuss–perhaps No Country for Old Lorax.

Hunger Games Effie Trinket Katniss Everdeen

The clownish Effie Trinket (L, Elizabeth Banks) interviews Katniss Everdeen at The Reaping in District 12. Image:

While Katniss and Peeta struggle with the dilemma of killing others their own age on live TV, the citizens of The Capital cheer as the blue haired Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) flashes a gleaming smile while projecting faux-interest onto those about to die. (“Hail, Caesar, we about to die salute you!” anyone?) Tucci and Toby Jones (playing co-anchor Claudius Templesmith) come across as a demented Weekend Update duo providing commentary on deaths, injuries and progress.

The message seems clear: those with such a keen desire for war are clownish, absurd and make a mockery of life itself. America’s military industrial complex comes clear into view. It is the true hunger game.

Second, children do kill children for real, not only in literature. One of the most puzzling objections to the books series and the movie is the portrayal of kids killing kids should not be shown. I’ll admit, it was difficult to watch a bunch of 13-18 year old young people in a 3-day murderous rampage, even if it was a movie. It was a sickening and grotesque invention.

But, therein is the rub. It is not an invention. It is real. Children die because of war ever single day. Children kill each other in gang wars, drug wars and child wars. They die in the ghetto and in Uganda, in America and Africa. Perhaps what the movie really reveals is how callous we have become to kids who are dying in real life. Or any people, child or not. Some will cry over the death of a fictional tribute who never give a second thought to a kid blown apart by a previously unexploded IED, suicide bomber or soldier gone rogue.

Third, killing is personal. In The Hunger Games most of the killing is hand-to-hand or very close combat. While not all violence is directly on screen and the gore is kept to a minimum, the sounds and emotions are close and have impact. The personal reality of killing in war is something we civilians never know, and the main thing our veterans would like to forget. Call it the difference between watching Band of Brothers and having lived it. It’s a root of PTSD, post-war depression, and suicide. Since Cain killed Abel humanity has too often turned to killing as a solution.

War today has been redefined by technology. Supposed smart bombs launched from planes or battleships hundreds of miles away destroy entire complexes of buildings. Human beings for whom Jesus Christ died are sent into eternity as little more than a flash of light on a screen in the war room. A news story from this year told of a new type of “smart bullets” capable of being programmed to be fired beyond an enemy and detonated a yard or two past his position. With it armies will be able to kill people without doing too much damage to the infrastructure. Yes! God help us save our buildings while killing each other.

Collins reminds us that all killing is personal, whether on the battlefield of a declared war, a covert op, or a mugging in Manhattan. She also reminds us of what two former warriors knew from personal experience:

“It is well that war is so terrible, or we should get too fond of it.” Robert E. Lee
“There is no glory in battle worth the blood it costs.” Dwight D. Eisenhower

The Hunger Games, a Lionsgate Films, Inc, production, is rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images–all involving teens. Read a follow-up to this post.

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

4 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • I think the last movie Peg & I watched was “Eat Pray Love”, when it was in the theaters. Having said that, I’ll still view your review as a pretty good reason not to see “Hunger Games”.

    If Peg asks to go see it, I’ll say “no” and put you back on my Christmas Card list.

  • Becki Lail

    one of the themes that struck me while reading the books is the great disparity between our society that is so freakishly obsessed with entertaining itself and most of the rest of the world that is scrapping and clawing just to feed their children…

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  • Marty, thank you for a very thoughtful review. I wrote discussion questions on the book to discuss with my kids and ended up sharing them with our church. You can find them at if you are interested.


    • Marty Duren

      Thx, Kevin.

  • BLOGOS_admin

    What caught me most was the willingness of society (and parents) to sacrifice their children for the sake of peace and quiet.The adults in the districts should rebel. The peacekeepers should rebel. But they don’t. Maybe because it’s only two kids from each district a year. Shades of sacrifices in the OT, abortion, and me when I’m too tired to deal so I stick my kid in front of the TV. I wrote about it here:

    (I can’t figure out how to not have it say BLOGOS admin, which I am, but this is Alan’s friend Beth.)

    • martyduren

      Is the account registered in the name of the website, rather than your name?

      • BLOGOS_admin

        Yeah. And so far I’ve been too lazy to get my own :)

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