“What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by?”
—The Hunger Games
Revolutions have an unfortunate tendency to end in catastrophe. The French Revolution is perhaps the most familiar example of a story familiar since the late 18th century: an oppressed part of society rises up against its rulers, overthrows them, and forms a new government, which quickly becomes as oppressive (if not moreso) than the old. Sometimes the oppressive nature of the new government appears even before it gains power, as during the Communist Revolution in Cuba. And thus it happens in the Hunger Games trilogy.
(And yes, the Hunger Games books must be read as a trilogy. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, the three Hunger Games books are definitely separate novels; however, the endings of The Hunger Games and Catching Fire are more pauses in the storyline than complete stops. In the case of The Hunger Games, one of the story’s central tensions is not resolved; in Catching Fire, the book seems to end almost at its climax. More importantly, however, only in the third book, Mockingjay, do we fully see the author’s worldview play itself out in Katniss’s experiences.)
Without spoiling Mockingjay for those who have not read it, the third book covers District 13’s rebellion against the Capitol, symbolized by Katniss as the “Mockingjay.” Mockingjay is a book of meltdowns–emotional, mental, and moral. The Capitol melts down after a fashion; but so do the rebels. Katniss does not end the story with triumph of any kind. Rather, she (and many others) end it needing therapy.
Situational ethics seem to be the norm for most of the characters in the Hunger Games series. The only real exceptions that I can think of are Prim, Rue, and Peeta; and even Peeta’s ethical principles seem to waver in Mockingjay. The author, Suzanne Collins, not only creates a world without God, but a world in which God simply isn’t a concept that enters anyone’s mind. (Here, she one-ups Nietzsche quite nicely.) Yet, behind all the immediate gore, the reader gets the sense that Collins’ moral beliefs, however unorthodox, are very strong.
Collins correctly recognizes that rebelling against something bad does not automatically give a person any sort of high moral standing. The Capitol that the rebels fight is decadent and evil. But the rebels, too, are guilty of evil–and of an evil perhaps not very different from the Capitol’s. Based on what she has said in (rare) interviews, Collins seems to have had a more general anti-war focus rather than a specific focus on the problematic nature of revolutions. International war, however, does not appear in the Hunger Games series: rather, we read about just how quickly good intentions can disintegrate in the face of conflict. And, although I do not know whether Collins believes in a literal Fall, her books certainly show the Fall’s effects.
The Scholastic Library Journal interviewer summed up the theme of her books this way: “Your books send a strong message that grown-ups have messed up the world big-time, and kids are the only hope for the future.” Katniss has some successes, but at the end of the series, it isn’t even clear how much better the new government will be than the Capitol. At least we know there will be no more Hunger Games. But Katniss makes many mistakes, and, in general, she sets out to survive, not necessarily to do the right thing. She provides hope for the future, but a very tentative hope if that hope is based on the events of the trilogy. Throughout most of the trilogy, we see the evil of man as something difficult to counter without becoming caught up in it. Kids, however much hope they provide, cannot solve the basic problem of sin.
With true goodness nowhere in sight, the Hunger Games characters begin to seem rather hopeless by the story’s end. They are, in the end, left with a hunger that no bread in Panem (oh, the irony of that name!) will satisfy. Katniss at the end of Mockingjay: “What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again.” She finds a shadow of true goodness in Peeta, but even his goodness is not enough to completely overcome the horrors of their past. For the moment, Katniss feels full, but the old hunger will someday return. No one is perfect, including Peeta: and no relationship can supply all Katniss’s needs.
As another person who suffered at the hands of a cruel government said: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger” (John 6:35, ESV). Like Katniss, we all hunger for good. And only through the Bread of Life can that hunger be filled.