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The Hunger Games: Parts 2 And 3

By Maarten van Swaay

Earlier I commented on the Hunger Games – volume 1 of a trilogy by Ms. Suzanne Collins. The book left me disturbed by the absence of a clear recognition of evil for what it is. The book leaves little doubt about the evil nature of ‘the Capital’, but seems to accept it almost casually. After I wrote about it I learned that the second and third volumes do make a clearer distinction. There is good evidence that those volumes are as popular as the first; the Leawood library has more than 100 copies of each, yet still maintains a waiting list of more than 300 requests for at least one of the books. Fortunately I could borrow the books from another resident on the Village Shalom campus.

The second and third volumes – ‘Catching Fire’ and ‘Mockingjay’ – do indeed let the ‘white hats’ win, in John Wayne terms. But they do not offer much clarity why the white hats are white. The entire trilogy is set well into the future, and must therefore be classified as fantasy. Nothing wrong with that; it places Ms. Collins in the good company of writers such as H.G. Wells (Time Machine), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), George Orwell (1984), Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), and Isaac Asimov. But all those authors placed their stories in societies whose morals have a sense of internal consistency, which may then be inspected and evaluated for propriety. Yes: some of those societies might fail today’s test of propriety, loose as that may be. But I could not find any clues in the Hunger Games trilogy for a societal context that might at least put the fast pace of the books in a context that makes the actions cohesive.

The chief malefactor, President Snow, makes several appearances in the second and third volumes, but one cannot really get to know him; he remains more a cardboard cutout than a real creature – one would hesitate to call him human. But that hesitation does not come from any details about the man himself, more from the implicit ugliness of the tyranny he must have built up. And the books do not offer any clues how that build-up might have happened, let alone how it might have been allowed to happen; it is presented as nothing more than a given that neither has nor needs explanation. Yet without the pervasive evil of the Capital the books would almost certainly unravel into a collection of unrelated and gratuitous episodes of violence. It makes one wonder whether President Stone’s oppression and depravity were dragged in merely as glue to hold the episodes of violence together.

Predictably, President Snow comes to his end eventually. But not from a well-placed arrow. That arrow finds its mark elsewhere, dispatching a person who for several chapters appears to be an ally in the war to dismantle the Capital. Why? The books left me with a vague suspicion that this ending also has little connection with any grand scheme of things.

Granted: all three books provide addictive reading. But an ambition to summarize their meaning in the form of an overarching message left me disappointed and disturbed: the questions still remain what generates the large popularity of the books, and what influence they may have on their intended audience of young adults. They do not offer any guidance how people might find their path in a society that appears to have removed many, if not most of the guardrails that probably helped people to keep their bearings in earlier days. The books do not even offer any indication that such guardrails could or should exist. And that sets them apart from the examples I alluded to earlier; it is not a compliment to the Hunger Games.

Reading the books prompted me to reread an editorial that appeared almost twenty years ago in the Wall Street Journal, under the title “No Guardrails”. It ascribed a crumbling of what one might call cultural conscience to the protests and riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968. Not to the riots themselves, nor to the turbulence around the Vietnam War, but to the various elites who excoriated not the mobsters but the surrounding ‘culture’ that was alleged to have produced them. In other words, the rioters were no longer held responsible for their actions; they were effectively exonerated by explanation of their mayhem as a consequence of some undefined and undefinable ‘context’. The article was reprinted on April 18, 2007, in reaction to the massacre at Virginia Tech. It might be appropriate to reprint it again in reaction to the massacre in a movie theater in Aurora, CO.

Today such logic has been not merely turned on its head but twisted into a pretzel. On the one hand we hear loud protests that popular offerings such as violent movies and games must not be held responsible for real-life violence. But we also read about enormous sums and effort spent on advertising, often with an accusing undertone that such advertising will skew and twist the behavior of customers. One cannot have it both ways, just as one cannot simultaneously demand tolerance and applaud zero-tolerance.

My earlier question remains unanswered, and disturbing: should one applaud a book because it succeeds in making lots of people want to read it, or deplore its content for its failure to acknowledge the existence of, and need for, moral guardrails? I would prefer the latter.

As the story of the Hunger Games progresses, one district is effectively annihilated, and a brutal attempt is made to annihilate another district that had already been driven underground at some unspecified earlier time. In today’s perspective both actions could be, and probably should be classified as genocide. But in the Hunger Games trilogy they are treated almost casually. Where is the outrage?