The Hunger Games: How Suzanne Collins uniquely avoids the question of morality.

January 13, 2011 § 11 Comments

I’m not a fan of science fiction, and by that I mean all those books that take place in “other” worlds where there is an entire new system of order and rules that have to be explained.  Why don’t I like them?  Because the author usually has to spend the good part of 75 pages just to explain the fictional world to the reader before the story really gets going. (Or in some cases, the main character whines about jaw lines and becoming immortal for four whole books.)

So when my husband picked up The Hunger Games and said we should read it, and after I read a nice blog about the trilogy, I decided to give it a shot.

FYI:  THIS IS A SPOILER ALERT.

Collins is not unique in coming up with her plotline for humans hunting humans.  That one short story we had to read constantly during high school about the man that hunts the boy on his island–The Mysterious Game?  The Hunting Place?–was the first thing I thought of when I began this book.  And neither is the idea unique.   The setting of a pseudo-post-apocalyptic United States is not either.  (See The Road, Book of Eli).  Plus, Collins has an annoying way of turning a phrase.  For example, short phrases/sentences such as, “But it wasn’t her. It was the boy.”, and “The reaping isn’t til two.  Might as well sleep in.  If you can.” make for a disjunctive narration, create a drone sort of narrator’s voice, and are repeated from the beginning to the end of the book (props for consistency?) all while something ominous is happening, much like every thriller/suspense movie that comes to theaters.

But the redeeming factor of Collins’ book is how she avoids addressing the timeless argument of morality.  That’s right, avoids.

So Katniss Everdeen is the heroine and protagonist of the book, and Collins immediately sets up up to be the stereotypical “good” girl at the very beginning when she takes her younger sister’s place in the hunger games–the capitol’s way of maintaining control over the districts by forcing 12-18 year old children to literally fight to the death.  It’s an appalling plot line, one that forces Collins’ to create Everdeen’s character one that mirrors the thoughts of all the readers.  Because you see, Everdeen has to also think the hunger games as atrocious, or Collins loses the attention of the readers who might regard not just the character, but the author herself, as a somewhat sick and twisted human being, and since Collins’ imagination already came up with a sick and twisted plot line, she uses Everdeen to redeem herself.

We follow Katniss to the Capitol as she and fellow District 12 partner and competitor prepare for the games.  Collins creates other character/competitors who think it is an honor to compete for their district, who are looking forward to killing their peers, and the Capitol’s leaders make a terrible and obscene sport out of the whole game.  Plus, the entire game is televised for the world to see and for rich Capitol people to place bets on hopeful hunger games winners.  The voyeurism Collins sets up is the first example of what makes her book more unique than war and action plots.  It’s another example of a sick and twisted imagination, but it’s also the very thing that makes the entire hunger games so terrible.

Okay, let me get to the morality point.

Yes, Katniss (and Peeta) is the winner of the hunger games.  But I think it is very important to note that she doesn’t kill anyone.

I know what you’re thinking, she killed the boy from District 1 after he killed Rue.  And this is, of course, obviously true at the beginning of the chapter when her “arrow drives deeply into the center of his neck,” and then the cannon sounds to further illustrate to the reader, to Katniss, to the other players, and all who are watching that the boy is dead.  And yeah, she kills Cato at the end when he’s being eaten alive by those weird wolf/dead player mutations.  I cannot deny that point either.

If you take the deaths out of the book’s context and put them into today’s cultural context–and by that I mean movies, TV, books, and the news itself–both killings are inherently not considered ruthless murderings.  Collins’ sets up the love and friendship between Rue and Katniss that when Rue is killed, Katniss is only taking out her revenge on the boy.  Subconsciously, this is recognized as justifiable, even reward-able.  Not a single reader is going to look on this scene and condemn Katniss for her killing.  Instead, Collins sets it up so that Katniss is forced to play the game, but will not be condemned by her readers.

In fact, Katniss even says, “To hat the boy from District 1, who also appears so vulnerable in death, seems inadequate.  It’s the Capitol I hate, for doing this to all of us.”  It’s in this loaded statement that sums up the entire morality of Katniss’ character as well as the hunger games themselves, that the Capitol forced her to kill, and forced Rue’s death.

And this is where Collins also redeems her writing skills, by creating a beautiful picture of Katniss and dying Rue that is so choked with sadness I could hardly take it myself.  She sings the small girl to an eternal sleep, covers her with flowers, and mourns the death not of a competitor, but of a friend, of a sister.

Which then brings me to Cato, when Katniss kills him at the end.  Cato begs her to end his life.  She sees him, ripped apart by the mutations set by the Capitol and responds appropriately.

“It takes a few moments to find Cato in the dim light, in the blood.  Then the raw hunk of meat that used to be my enemy makes a sound, and I know where his mouth is.  And I think the word he’s trying to say is please.  Pity, not vengeance, sends my arrow flying into his skull.”

Again, not only does Collins redeem her writing skills by creating this momentarily horrific scene of Cato as a “raw hunk of meat” not even identifiable “in the blood,” but she uses this pity to warrant Katniss’ killing, so that a reader, a spectator, also roots in Katniss’ favor thinking, “Man, if I was in the same position, I would want her to kill me, too.”

Even Peeta inadvertently kills Foxface with the poisonous berries.  His one kill is an accident, and can’t be deemed ruthless or hard-hearted.

And this is how Suzanne Collins addresses the morality question:  She simply doesn’t.  She forces the two District 12 players to play the game along with all the rest, but all the while they maintain their own integrity and dignity and character as a person, unlike all the rest.  She makes the statement “This is wrong” while at the same time saying “There is no way around it.” She uses Peeta to sum up a lot of the morality when he says, “‘Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol they don’t own me.  That I’m more than just a piece in their games,'” and I think most people would make the argument that it’s Peeta that is the symbol of morality in the face of such an awful turn of events.  And I agree that he, too, is a moral character, or Collins wouldn’t have him win at the end, but it has to be Katniss that exudes goodness in the sight of evil. She is the example of the phrase, “There is always a choice.”

And she chooses right.

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§ 11 Responses to The Hunger Games: How Suzanne Collins uniquely avoids the question of morality.

  • christine says:

    When some of my Christian friends found out I was reading a book about teenagers killing each other, they were astonished.

    If only I’d have been able to refer them to this blog… they would’ve understood the draw of the series and the way it doesn’t FEEL like Katniss is a killer, even though she technically is.

    Excellent analysis. I’m curious; have you read all three books?

  • anonymous pie says:

    The Hunger Games is a WONDERFUL series. What is wrong with Katniss and Peeta being good people?!?! Would you rather read about evil snotbags? I wouldn’t. Yes, she uses short sentences. OCCASIONALLY. And all throughout the article, you say “This is where Collins redeems herself.”Just because there are other books out there about humans killing humans, you assume she ripped them off. Actually, she got the idea form the Roman Gladiator games. Which is an important part of history. So, in summary, you are wrong. Have a nice day.

    • I agree that it’s a wonderful book (I haven’t finished the series) and there is nothing wrong with Katniss and Peeta being good people. The point I’m trying to make is that the plotline Collins creates doesn’t leave a lot of room to play with. I don’t think she ripped off other books. There are so many storylines that it’s hard to come up with something completely and whole-ly original. I do think that she did a great job at putting her own spin on the story and making it an engrossing and haunting read. I don’t think I’m wrong, I just think I have an opinion.

  • Proud to have "borne children and become a sahm" says:

    And then there’s the school of thought that cries, “For Pete’s sake, it’s a fantasy series!”

    Why must it be analyzed to apply real-world ethics or draw religious parallels? It’s a YA trilogy, written to entertain and provide escapism. It’s a good story, plain and simple.

    As a professional writer, it always amuses me to read bloggers with a somewhat skimpy following use phrases like, “this is where Collins redeems her writing skills.” I look forward to reading your bestseller, Ms. Frost. I hope you manage to escape being picked apart by people like you.

    • Susan says:

      This “entertainment/fantasy” book is being taken seriously as one of those “morality” books. HG is being taught in public schools as quality literature with a moral message. Therefore, I think Ms. Frost has every right to analyze whether it has moral meaning. If Ms. Frost decides to write fiction, judging from her work on this blog and her intelligence she will do a great job!

  • Susan says:

    Great review! Well done! Bravo! This is the best review I’ve read on the internet. Period. Let’s put it this way also. Would you feel sympathy for an SS officer if he said, “I’m sorry I killed the jews, but I was only following orders in the corrupt anti-semetic society.” Nahh…I wouldn’t feel any pity. Yet…we’re supposed to admire Katniss when she kills the two young boys in the Hunger Games. Katniss is absolutely not a hero. She participated in the Games, which immediately nullifies her from becoming a hero.

    HG doesn’t answer questions of morality because Collins herself is relativistic and has never given a higher thought to questions of morality. She created the book to make $$$, and boy she got really lucky with the HG. It’s set to make her multimillionaire, yet the book is so vapid. She’s pretty damn bold to set up a plot of kids murdering each other and not deliver any moral message or rationally justify the violence. She said she got the idea from watching the Iraq War and Survivor. We should drop Collins in the middle of a war zone to see if she would be so quick to write about violence and war in this manner.

    When I think of a hero, what comes to mind perfectly is MLK and Ghandi. They were heros because they used NONVIOLENCE to get their messages across to change the world. HG is selling like hotcakes because we are becoming a dumber, unreflective society. But, hey, free market capitalism always tends to reward the losers!

    • Courtney says:

      “She participated in the Games, which immediately nullifies her from becoming a hero.”
      –she participated to save her sister, which MAKES her a hero

      I think Ms. Frost can’t see the forest but for the trees. The ENTIRE book summed up is a statement: it is wrong to force humans to kill other humans.

      Yes, there are other subthemes about government, they dynamic of different types of relationships, etc. but the entire theme is a revolt because people are sick of watching the government force humans to kill other humans.

      There’s the answer to your morality quest. It’s not hard.

  • Cleo says:

    I think that the HG series is god awful. I read the whole series and it was so completely depressing and traumatizing! All it was was kids killing kids and then more mass killing. I mean for the love of god people, these books are supposed to be for CHILDREN! We already have enough to deal with! After I finished the last book I just cried. Collins told the book through Katniss’s perspective so it was like I was there, experiencing everything. If people say they have not been at least minimally effected by the book then they are lying! All I can think about now is what I would do if I was forced to battle the people in my class to the death (as there are 24 kids in my class). I can’t see how people like this series, are they so completely desensitized that they find this acceptable let alone likable? These books make we want to be in reality, which books aren’t supposed to do.

  • Star says:

    I don’t like the Hunger Games at all but please note this is my opinion. For me I prefer Twilight, I have read all of both series. I thought Hunger Games was overrated at boring. And I don’t like how the Hunger Games Movie Cast think their movie is much better than Twilight. Actually I’ll see which is better. The Twilight Cast never said bad stuff about Hunger Games so Jennifer Lawence should stop bad-mouthing twilight.

  • daringseouls says:

    SERIES SPOILER ALERT. The last half of the final book is the most thought provoking of the series. It blurs the lines or good/evil, right/wrong, success/failure to the point that there’s no single path of morality Collins, Katniss, or the reader can accept. This is why the final book of the series has received such a mixed reaction.

    The final book has an amazing message, but the writing itself is below the standard Collins set in the first book of the series.

    Just curious, but did anyone else think the second book was just a big waste of time? Seems like the second book was extremely redundant.

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