‘The Hunger Games’ and movie morality

Young adult readers have propelled “The Hunger Games” trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins into bestseller stardom. The new film, … Continued

Young adult readers have propelled “The Hunger Games” trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins into bestseller stardom. The new film, The Hunger Games, is likely, therefore, to be a blockbuster.

It is important that parents pay attention to why their teenagers would be so attracted to The Hunger Games, especially because fear of the future is a major theme.

A scene from the movie version of “The Hunger Games.”

These novels follow a teenaged girl and her friends who must confront, and survive in, a not-too-distant America where tyranny reigns, hunger for most people is the norm, torture is used to quell rebellion, and a rich few lead lives of pampered luxury. The bored and the rich are entertained by a fight-to-the-death “reality show” called “The Hunger Games.”

Do these novels project the subconscious fears of many teens that their future will be more and more grim, and they will have to do all they can in order not to be crushed by it? In The Hunger Games, the government is out to get you, adults die or fail you, and the media is all about illusion and hype. Maybe you can rely on your friends. But maybe you can’t.

Keep in mind that for more than half of the lives of young adults in this country, the United States has been engaged in two wars. The war in Afghanistan, America’s longest war, is still going on, and lately, going badly as we try to get out. It has been routine for young people who grew up in the last decade to see war footage; combine this with violent video games and more and more risky reality shows and the whole can blend into a seamless, chaotic carnage.

View Photo Gallery: “The Hunger Games,” the film adaptation of the first book in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy about a dystopian future where the government pits children against each other in an annual fight to the death, opens March 23.

Indeed, according to Collins, the idea for the novel, “The Hunger Games,” came from channel surfing on her television, and seeing both reality shows and war back to back. “I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way.”

Unsettling is right. These books are more disturbing than the Harry Potter series. In the J.K. Rowling series, some very bad, even deranged, adults try to harm kids and young adults, and other, mature and responsible adults try to help the young people. In The Hunger Games, young adults and even kids are mostly left to fend for themselves in a brutal society. There is kid on kid violence portrayed in a graphic way.

Torture occurs, and is a part of the terrorism used to keep the struggling, starving people in line. These novels reflect the influence of torture in the conflicts of the last decade, from Abu Ghraib to “rendition.” It is sobering to reflect that torture is also a theme in the later Harry Potter novels. Young adults today know torture occurs, and is even defended by some in power.

The main protagonist of The Hunger Games is Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl who takes her young sister’s place, when her sister is chosen to compete in an annual televised event in a post-apocalyptic America called Panem. In punishment for a rebellion in the past, two young people, a boy and a girl, are chosen by lot from different areas of the country. These “tributes” are forced to fight to the death in a live-televised game that resembles the reality show “Survivor,” except that winning is defined as being the last one actually alive. Katniss takes her sister’s place, aware that she will most likely be killed in the game.

What is attracting young people to such a grim tale?

Two Methodist pastors, a father/daughter team, have created a Bible Study centered around Collins’ novels called “The Gospel According to ‘The Hunger Games’ Trilogy.” “”Sacrificial love … is the most obvious theme throughout all three books,” one pastor is quoted as saying.

Yes, but there are many other themes in The Hunger Games that go beyond self-sacrifice, themes that are also biblical. One important subject in The Hunger Games is a wholesale indictment of economic exploitation and injustice. The prophet Jeremiah could very well be speaking to the haughty and cruel President Snow of Panem, who exploits the people, has young adults kill each other for entertainment, and who has lied and stolen to gain his power and his luxury palace:

“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice, who makes his neighbor serve him for nothing and does not give him his wages… you have eyes and heart only for your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence.” (Jeremiah 22:13-17)

In The Hunger Games, there is a bitter rejection of government corruption, military surveillance and violence, manipulative media, and reality television.

Media hype is treated very cynically in the novels. This is important to recognize as I think it is a sign of resilience of young people. They are making their own effort to take back their life and meaning from mass entertainment culture and the Internet. As Katniss says bitterly and cynically as she looks at the television coverage of the selection of those who will fight to the death in the Hunger Games, “The camera crews, perched like buzzards on rooftops, only add to the effect.” In her world, the media feed on death.

Suspicion of the motives of others is another important theme in these novels, and one that as a parent I find concerning. Do kids and young adults, in the dog-eat-dog world of social media in school, think they can trust each other at all? They certainly can’t trust adults. Parents need to pay attention to this.

The young adults in The Hunger Games have to cope as best they can in this corrupt and violent society. It is true that the young woman protagonist has a strong moral core, but her morality has been forged in this degraded and repressive society. She is not totally disconcerted by the idea of killing a young man from her own hometown, someone who did her a big favor in the past. She steels herself to kill him, and suspects his motives if he tries to help her. She wants to love, but except for loving her little sister, whose life she saves by taking her place in the Hunger Games, she has built up a shell to survive her society. And she plans to kill the others in the game to survive. She does befriend a girl who resembles her sister, and ultimately she and the young man from her hometown cooperate in the games, but suspicion remains.

One of the pastors who created the Hunger Games Bible study notes that while all the young people [in his church] had read the novels, “[T]he parents on the whole seemed oblivious.”

Big mistake. Parents need to read these novels and pay attention to what is attracting their kids today.

Now, I need to make a confession here. I would not have known about The Hunger Games books if one of my students had not written about it. But it seemed important to her, and so I thought I would take a look. I was stunned when I did. As I read these novels, I asked myself what kind of world we have created for the young people who have lived with war, torture, media hype, political polarization, and economic recession in formative years of their lives. It’s not one they see as good.

The popularity of The Hunger Games tells us young people are fearful of the future, and they think they’re on their own in fighting for a better world. Can we tell them they’re wrong? Why would they believe us?

An On Faith panelist and former president of Chicago Theological Seminary (1998-2008), Thistlethwaite is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

  • johnmartin1

    This isn’t a new literary theme. Star Wars has some of these themes as do many movies and books written in the last two centuries. The struggle between good and evil, just and unjust is the basis of many classic stories. That we enjoy them, doesn’t mean we (or our youth) have lost faith or young people fear the future. Young people that enjoy reading an imaginative plot worry me less than adults that crave reality TV. The nature of people hasn’t changed, but their entertainment outlets have. Why must people wake up today and decide our society is in trouble today. What has really changed in the last 2000 years? I suggest that our media outlets increase our ability to be aware, but not our willingness. Those in fear should read some history.

  • RubyBridges

    My teen wanted me to read the book — and I did. She asked: Did you enjoy it? I said, “Enjoy? I can’t “enjoy” a book about children being forced to kill other children — even if fiction.” My children and friends loved the book and they can’t wait to see the movie. Interestingly enough, yesterday, all four of them would not watch the movie, “The Birds”, because they didn’t want to be afraid of birds.

    I love human beings of any age.

  • rhodesm022701

    This comment is on the mark while this article seems to miss it. Some like to think that their era is particularly distinct when it really isn’t so much. American kids today have it easy. There’s no conscription and instead dependence is on an all volunteer army. Child labor is passe. Cartoons aren’t limited to just Saturday mornings anymore. The Hunger Games is merely a well-told update on a story that has been told before.

  • jhirschhorn1

    It’s not hard to flatter an adolescent audience by telling them that adult authority is hypocritical, arbitrary and corrupt and should be resisted. Ever since Mad magazine got going 50+ years ago, teaching the clever kids and the outcasts to be perceptive and cynical about media and pop culture has been a reliable money maker. And the sacrificial tribute of young people theme goes back to Theseus.

    What’s contemporary about Hunger Games is its unabashed working class perspective and its resentment of the Careers, the kids from the affluent districts who have been trained for the Games and view it as an opportunity. That’s a good metaphor for how a blue collar high school student might view the college admissions struggle against her competitors from the upper middle class.

  • eferguson530

    I’m not sure the allegorical parallels here go that deep or should be taken so seriously. Nearly every young adult novel worth reading could have some underlying biblical themes if you try hard enough. I’m 26 and enjoyed these books immensely. I understand their topical origins and how it’s much harder for young people these days to make their way, but do I feel “The Hunger Games” is some way of explaining how kids today see their future? No. I think they just like reading a very entertaining novel. Can’t wait for the movie!

  • krickey7

    These books are compelling to young adult readers–and not so young ones–for the same reason as horror movies. There is this suspicion, this fear, that just underneath the comforting normality of everyday existence is an awful place, inhabited by the worst denizens of the subconscious. The protagonist survives, but unlike most fiction geared toward that age, at terrible cost.


    My daughter read the book and shared it with me. I read all three books and found them quite interesting. They do contain terrible violence, but that is an integral part of this fictionalized and frightening society.

    Unfortunately, violence is part of our society – in movies, video games and television today. My children were never allowed to watch violent movies or video games. They were taught that human beings were for hugging, not hitting! I never even smacked their hands. But as they have grown older, it has been harder to keep them from seeing violence in movies, etc. I could only shield them for so long.

    What was interesting about the “Hunger Games” is that my daughter was reading – yes, reading instead of sitting in front of a computer, IPhone or television. She and I had fascinating discussions on the books on a myriad of topics. We talked about the realities and injustices of violence.

    But I do not think that my daughter reads any more into the Hunger Games than it is a book that she found interesting! She has a keen awareness of what is right and what is wrong – this book will not change her views of life – consciously or subconsciously!

  • plattitudes

    It’s nice to know this type of “armchair psychology” is still around, and as valid as it ever was.

    So, since I enjoyed the Hunger Games (though I thought the next two were severely sub-par), I’ll add the label of “grim and disillusioned anti-establishment peon” to my trophy case. I think I’ll put it between “Devil Worshipper” for playing Dungeons and Dragons, and “Sociopathic (and likely suicidal) loner” for buying Nirvana’s Nevermind album…

  • Please_Fix_VAs_Roads

    Stephen King’s “The Running Man” was a better story and less annoying (yes I read these books) when he wrote it almost 4 decades ago as Richard Bachman.

    This series should just be called “Katniss the C)Ck Tease.”

    (The Schwarzenegger schlock movie version is nothing like the novella. If you can find a copy give it a read, it’ll terrify you once you start getting to his “reality television.” He basically predicted everything that’s happening now.)

  • distance88

    See also: the Japanese film “Battle Royale”

  • ecglotfelty

    Much of what the Hunger Games is based on is the ancient Roman empire, with the gladiator games. Part of the reason why the Romans used the gladiator games was not only to fulfill a blood lust with its citizens, but to also strike fear into the rest of the Empire to keep them alive. The gladiators were slaves or prisoners of war who were forced to fight to the death in front of crowds and a leader, who could determine whether you live or die. This served as a reminder to those around the Empire that the powers that be could take your freedom and your life if you decide to get out of control.

    The Hunger Games are patterned in the same manner. They were meant to unite the country of Panem and strike fear into its citizens. They do this by going after the children first. If they can force these kids to fight each other to the death, imagine what they would do to everyone if people got out of line. The book also uses Roman names like Seneca, Cinna, Portia, and Caesar. Granted, the Romans didn’t have reality TV, but I’m sure they would’ve exploited it.

    If you are drawing parallels to the Bible, certainly studying the Roman Emprire, especially during the period when the New Testament was written, would benefit readers into gaining insight into the Hunger Games.


    It’s probably based on the 1999 Japanese film “Battle Royale’.

  • James210

    onfaith has no copyright infringement clause?
    force majeur.

    alienated! sub-human
    and what do you care? the trophy is one of about 25 known to exist. I’m surprized that you noticed.

    dec2011 .
    anti establishment opinion to the State

    ” And, finally with regards to those children delegated to Community Service (our courts). Often, one can find very good leadership and strength in children who we shall say, run astray of the norms of population. Not all can be saved ( i wish), but some (my reason for hating god) do have it in them. Many seek leadership and light. Many are strong leaders with little or no guidance and, we all know what happens to potential leaders who fall astray. For many, simple discipline and training can turn them, into something they are proud of. The ones I worked with at the firehouse, only needed to hear that I was bigger criminal, years ago, and lets get this place ready for the show. Faces lifted, smiles and those boys dropped it high gear and worked together. The final two hours.
    Let’s not degrade children who only seek support and guidance in their fight to fit in this world. And, for their sake let’s get a hold of them before they turn into something that hurts their future opportunities and, the community.”

    if your not ashamed of this, then i am truly sorry for coming into this place.
    Preamble. Joe

  • James210

    this is a hijack!
    sobriety of alcohol is one thing! but alcohol and caffeine at the same time(?) is not acceptable. deal with it.
    further xample on insanity and goverment playing bothends in the middle.
    names removed to protect the innocent

    these are not sins, to the general public as often preachers and priests try to say but, sufferings. they are evidence of failed community leadership which includes religious institutions.

    “Though you and I have never communicated, I’m not in your district, I believe a further clarification on my part with regards to community leadership, should be addressed( i made accusations). I hope you don’t mind if I include (name) and (name). I have no political ax to grind. In particular I despise politics. My including of (name), friend in my park emails has to do with her being a witness of safety issues at the park. In truth, (name) is a much changed company then it was a year ago. She is not CC’d or BC’d here.
    Mr. (name) as you know the (name) is in your jurisdiction and I believe the (name) Community. If it isn’t and, it’s not tended (dble neg.), then I suggest you tend it, elective borders be damned.
    Both the (name) and the (name)Firehouse sponsor community concerts to raise money, and ‘neither’ work with each other to ensure the success of the other. I know both (name) as well as members of the (name) firehouse. I am not a politician but, clearly the need for leadership is an issue here. As both sides complain of a lack sales, neither side supports the other. I DON’T DO MARRIAGE COUNSELING! Though I have tried. I don’t have the ability as Mr. (name) might have, to say, enough to both, please work together. Do you that ability?
    I consider it a failure of local leadership (county) to not have addressed this. It’s such a simple fix that could help both sides. You and I both know, Firehouses don’t control membership activities and neither does the higher educated of the (name)…(sarcasm). I would like to suggest that you facilita

  • James210

    my point being providing for the general welfare should also include every effort to lower taxes and muster monies through contributions. and that includes dunk tanks with local politicians (LOOKING FOR VOTES).

    a spectacle to be sure and a money maker.

    accusations made because i was picking up bomb casements in a park! that no one told had bombs in it.
    you be pissed too.

  • splashy8

    As I see it, we have the wealthy psychopaths that want to divide us all, get rid of the common good, and drive everyone into poverty to thank for this. The rise of FoxNews, and the hate radio, fostered by the right wingers, leads to this kind of thinking.

    It’s appalling what has been done to our contry by those that are addicted to money.

  • CivilUser

    Deep down I have a subconscience fear that I will have to choose between a werwolf girlfriend and a vampire girlfriend… (Sarcasm)

    This is absurd. My Grandma thought Harry Potter was morally wrong because drinking potions promotes taking drugs.

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