Life, Death, and Moral Contemplation in the Arena: The Hunger Games and the Ambiguity of Violence

Katniss Everdeen, as portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence in the film adaptation of The Hunger Games. Pic from Adventures in Poor Taste.

As I’ve mentioned before, my grad program’s lack of summer funding has pressed me into service at the CV Starr East Asian Library at Columbia University. This means a lot of shoving book-loaded carts through the stacks and returning each book to its designated shelf. (An aside: if you flip through a library book and return it to the wrong spot, YOU RUIN EVERYTHING! Set it on a table, drop it off on the circulation desk, hell, throw it on the floor, but if its in the wrong place on a shelf, a book is as good as lost, and I hate you.) The library work isn’t what you’d call intellectually rigorous, but on the upside, I can do a lot of it with my headphones on. So over the last few weeks, I’ve managed to listen to the complete audiobook recordings of The Hunger Games trilogy. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting–probably something akin to Twilight-meets-Mad Max–but what I found was a surprisingly nuanced take on war, revolt, and moral ambiguity. Some of the weaknesses that you’d expect from YA literature are present here–the prose can be clunky and the teenage love triangle is tiring–but it’s treatment of violence was more thoughtful than most fiction geared toward an adult readership.

Let me start with a quick description of the series for those of you who are unfamiliar. (SPOILERS AHEAD!) The series centers around Katniss Everdeen, a girl living in post-apocalyptic society that grew out of the ashes of the USA. This country–called Panem–consists of 13 districts that are subjugated by the Capitol. To affirm its dominance, each year the Capitol holds the eponymous Hunger Games, an event that culls one male and one female teenager from each of the districts to engage in a grusome battle royale on national TV. Katniss wins the 74th Hunger Games and, through various acts of televised rebellion, inspires the districts to revolt. A civil war ensues, and Katniss–now the symbol and figurehead of the rebellion–is forced to deal with the ethical ambiguities of war.

It’s to the credit of author Suzanne Collins that the violence in the series is treated with the weight that it deserves. Deaths, even those of Katniss’ opponents and enemies, aren’t celebrated as victories or even skated over as regrettable necessities. Instead, Katniss mulls over the ethical implications of each death. She’ll kill if she must, but she’s constantly meditating over these killings as tragedies and atrocities. The Careers–combatants from the richer districts who have trained for the Hunger Games since early childhood–are certainly presented as unsympathetic and even sadistic, but the novels never let the reader forget that these are teenagers who are forced to kill for the entertainment of others. The cries of the once-menacing Cato from District 2 as he is mauled by genetically altered wolves inspire Katniss to kill him out of an impulse of pity rather than of malice or even self-defense. And even then, Cato’s death continues to haunt her dreams.

In this, Katniss mirrors the trauma felt by real conflict survivors. Near the end of the series, we find her so devastated by the Games and the war that followed that she is unable to speak, unwilling to eat, and contemplating suicide. Refreshingly, this isn’t presented as evidence of some inborn feminine fragility. There are no unbreakable heroes in The Hunger Games universe, male or female. Katniss’ (male) mentor Haymitch has anesthesized himself through his alcoholism. Her (male) friend and sometime lover Peeta is driven to madness by the torture he experienced at the hands of Capitol forces. Peeta’s case actually reads like an account of severe PTSD. He struggles to interpret reality and sees sinister motivations everywhere. He’s prone to unpredictable violent episodes, and, like many soldiers, these are often directed at the woman he loves. In one of the series’ most disturbing passages, he mistakes Katniss as a threat and attempts to choke the life out of her. In spite of this, Collins paints him sympathetically. Though he must be subdued for the safety of the other characters–Peeta willingly spends most of the third book in handcuffs–it’s clear that he hasn’t “become evil”; instead, he’s a young man beaten and broken by torture.

Though the Capitol and its sinister President Snow are the villains for most of the series, the rebel forces are shown to be capable of atrocities that rival their enemy’s in terms of callousness and cruelty. Like a pair of futuristic Oppenheimers, two of Katniss’ friends spend days in the lab devising weapons to use in a fight that they see as moral. Once the weapons are crafted, though, decisions about using them are out of the pair’s hands. They watch, helpless, unbelieving, as the rebel forces employ their double-explosion bombs in a false flag operation that kills a crowd of children and then the rebels’ own medics, including Katniss’ younger sister. Without imposing a false equivalency–the necessity of toppling the tyrannical Capitol is never seriously debated, Peeta’s occasional and possibly coerced calls for a cease-fire notwithstanding–the rebels are shown to be capable of profound evil in pursuit of goals that are arguably just. Revolutions aren’t magical, purifying flames in Panem. In fact, Katniss’ arrow is all that saves Panem from a possible Stalinist post-revolutionary dictatorship under President Coin.

This shades of ambiguity here are something rare in books targeted at Young Readers (and, for that matter, old readers). While Dumbledore might’ve had a slightly checkered past, can you really imagine the Order of the Phoenix orchestrating a plot to kill innocent children, even if they thought it might hasten the demise of Voldemort and his Death Eater regime? And Aslan the Lion? Would he consider such a slaughter? This isn’t a testament to the robust values of the Harry Potter and Narnia series; it’s indicative of their distorted representation of war and conflict. I know that we read popular fiction–maybe especially fantasy and sci-fi–at least in part to escape from the complexities and banalities of day to day life. I enjoyed the Potter books. It’s satisfying to participate in conflicts that are Manichean, even if you’re only participating via the proxy of fictional characters. It’s pleasurable to support a side that is faultlessly noble while your enemy embodies practically Satanic levels of evil. Or, at least, it makes it less complicated to celebrate the former’s triumph and the latter’s annihilation. But what makes for satisfying entertainment can also make for a warped view of war. If the stories we tell our children about violence present it as an ennobling endeavor where the good struggle to vanquish the wicked, how many steps are they from buying into concepts like the “Axis of Evil” or “they hate us for our freedom”? Stories don’t just end when the book is closed. What we read and watch, especially at a young age, helps establish cognitive frames that we’re likely to think with for the rest of our lives.

The experience of reading (or, in my case, listening to) The Hunger Games largely avoids these simplicities and lures its readers into the complexities its stories. Even as we’re disgusted by a culture that could hurl children into an arena to fight, die, and murder, we realize–or at least we should–that we’ve been seduced by just a repugnant entertainment. Much of the drama and the tension of the first two books, much of what keeps the pages turning, is a high stakes plotline of violence and intrigue worked into a reality show format. We might never want to see such an event implemented in reality, but if it was, the books ask, could we trust ourselves to look away?

The Epilogue of Mockingjay, the series’ final book, ties together a few loose ends, but unlike the tidy, gift-wrapped turd that ended the Potter series, it doesn’t give a rosy view of a happy post-war world. Yes, Katniss and Peeta marry (could we once see a blockbuster YA series end with the hero not marrying a teenage sweetheart?), but their recovery from what they’ve endured is wrenching. It took years for Katniss to trust him again and years more to even be willing to consider bringing children into the world. As we leave her, she worries about how she’ll explain her involvement in the Hunger Games and the rebellion to her son and daughter. For Katniss, as for many who experience war first hand, there is life after trauma, but it’s not the easy peace of the “suburban dads and Quidditch moms” that Harry & Co. suddenly become in the last pages of book 7. Instead, it’s a difficult process of picking up the shards that war has scattered, and choosing life in defiance of a world built on death.

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