The moral tensions of “The Hunger Games”

Ryan NealCulture, Ryan Neal, Sermon Illustrations, Theology

Over the Christmas break my brother-in-law recommended a book to me, called The Hunger Games (thanks again, Jerald). Once I began reading, it took me very little time to read through the entire 3 volume series. It’s an engaging trilogy, with sympathetic characters, a futuristic – but not sci-fi – setting, and other than the violence (which gets more heinous in the 3rd book) it’s entirely PG.

I have high expectations for “The Hunger Games” movie which opens Friday, March 23rd. The trilogy is excellent and – as usual – when I read a book or see a movie I look for theological questions, ethical dilemmas, and seek to discover the author’s view on these issues. (Unrelated note: I saw “The Lorax” recently, and was glad to discover there’s more to it than a “save the trees” morality tale; that’s for another day though).

The plot seems to have clear applications for one’s view of war, human nature, human dignity – and on a grand overarching scale – the dangers of an immoral government engaged in extreme oppression of most of its people. While these are interesting issues to ponder (and much will be written about them now that the first book has become a movie), today I’m going to focus on a few dilemmas that are more personal in nature. Some of these are phrased as direct questions, while others are still a bit fuzzy in my mind.

  1. In the post-apocalyptic world that Collins has created, to what extent does the Pauline exhortation/admonition “be subject to governing authorities” (Rom 13.1-2) apply? Whether posed on a micro or macro level, the question about obeying government, which in The Hunger Games is immoral, seems difficult to untangle. At what point does obedience to activities required by governmental authorities transform from (mere) acquiescence to neutrality or even to support? The event of the “hunger games” is a massive production, and everyone involved in creating, disseminating, and promoting it is contributing to this unjust activity, whether they are a TV producer, make-up artist, or contribute in a more direct, severe way.
  2. As a father of four, I wondered – especially during the first book – whether I would want to have children in such a world. Would it be better to cease procreation, with the goal of eventually stopping the annual “hunger games”? Or, the other half of me questions: should we instead have as many children as we can possibly sustain and support, so as to eventually raise up enough to overthrow the Capitol (which if answered in the affirmative, runs you right back to Question #1)?
  3. I read the books with a detached “this is fascinating” frame of mind because it doesn’t apply to my relationship to my government, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if it applies to more people than I care to admit. Of course, I’m not aware of a country that puts on an annual “hunger games” but there are countries that seem to limit food supplies, thwart plans of individual betterment, and control people’s ability to come-and-go. Does this book provide any pointers on how to help people in such conditions? This question also seems to boomerang right back to Question #1.
  4. My 4th issue is more clearly raised in The Mockingjay (the final book in the series): at what point does violence with the goal of ending violence “justify the means,” especially if that violence is directed towards an immoral, oppressive government (leading back to Question #1 again)?
  5. And lastly, while I’m sympathetic with, but cannot subscribe to, the basic moral stance of pacifism, this trilogy seems to call into question pacifism’s core approach, which in a massively overstated form goes something like this: if someone ends the cycle of violence, then violence will end – eventually. Yet, The Hunger Games trilogy seems to make two tension-filled claims regarding violence: violence does violence even to the perpetrator(s), and violence – even though the cost is high – is the only way to end violence. I’m not sure this is what Collins intended, but it’s what I’ve concluded is the inherent moral claim in the world she has constructed, and the actions of her main characters.

I’m hopeful that the movie will capture the essence of Collins’ world, and I’m confident it will help me clarify my questions, and perhaps raise even more.

What about you? What questions do you find compelling in The Hunger Games?