Katniss, Consistency and Self-Sacrifice

I’m still pondering The Hunger Games and some of the big themes in the books, but as I was looking for inspiration about what to write and curious about what others thought of the series, I did the inevitable Google search, and came across a number of reviews and blog posts – ranging from scarily-obsessed teens to parents warning others not to allow their children to read the books. I also found this review, published on the Gospel Coalition website, that really surprised me.

The author, Nathan Wilson, is himself a writer of, amongst other things, childrens fiction (you can read his bio here) and has some positive things to say about how Suzanne Collins has helped develop the marketplace for their shared profession, but the majority of his article is deeply critical of the construction of Collins’ characters and the choices they make. As you read his review, it doesn’t take long to get to the main gist of his criticism:

Collins stumbles badly in her understanding of some pretty fundamental elements of human story, and the whole thing is flawed to its core as a result.

Wilson seeks to point out evidence of this ‘stumbling’ in the inconsistent and unbelievable choices that (he says) Collins characters make. Comparing the likes of Lewis’ Narnia series, and the stories of Mark Twain, Wilson further comments that

When an author profoundly misunderstands human societies, arbitrarily forcing a group or a character into decisions and actions that they would never choose for themselves given the preceding narrative, it drives me bonkers.

Citing the example of Katniss’ self-sacrifice to save her sister Prim, as the hook that people are quickly caught on, Wilson then argues that for the duration of the story Collins has Katniss make decisions that completely contradict the self-sacrificing nature she displayed at the start of the story, all the while luring the reader into agreeing with Katniss’ ‘sustained, radical, murderous, self-interest.’ He critiques this as masquerading a ‘Darwinian’ worldview (where self-preservation is the ultimate good) under a Christian mask (where self-sacrifice is a celebrated and beautiful thing), as though Collins is trying to trick her audience into thinking of Katniss as the Christian paragon of a hero, whilst all the time promoting a contradictory worldview. I have to say that as I read the Hunger Games, this just wasn’t the impression I got about what Collins wanted to achieve – I think she accurately captures the uncertainty and lack of conviction that people really have  (particularly in our teens!) and takes the reader on a journey with Katniss as she struggles to reconcile the warring convictions she has- giving all she has to look after her little sister, the desire to live, her inclination to both trust and doubt others around her, choosing to let someone live or to let them die…

It’s striking how Collins uses that memorable conversation Katniss has with Peeta on the night before the start of the Games to draw out the fact that Katniss is a girl still trying to figure out who she is and what really matters. In a moment that I can only suppose is meant to reveal something more of the characters motivations and attitudes, Peeta is thinking about how he can cling on to who he is in the midst of what he knows will be a testing time, whereas Katniss has not begun to think about how the Games might change who she is, and is merely bent on survival for the sake of Prim. This turns into one of the major themes running throughout the book, and is what makes the torture and hijacking of Peeta so startling and tragic for Katniss- that he was the one who unconditionally loved her and stayed the same throughout until President Snow twists his memories and love for Katniss into hate, whilst she chops and changes and tries to figure out what she feels and who she loves. None of this would work if we were meant to believe from the outset of the story that Katniss is a single-minded, thought-through hero. Collins isn’t writing a Christian allegory. There’s no reason to suppose she shares Wilson’s worldview, or even his definition of what ‘good’ is, and so it seems unfair to deride her characters as a depiction of something that, for all we know, she doesn’t even know exists. There are definitely questions I’d like to ask in response to the Hunger Games – I’m not saying that Collins portrays a world that is perfectly consistent, but as I ask those questions, I’m asking them not just of Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games, but of our societies, our world that has generated the framework through which Collins and her readers have come to understand the world. As a Christian, I do not and cannot expect them to have the answers – I don’t have them myself.

After all, there’s only one person who ever lived who can give us a true definition of a self-sacrificing hero; one who sees the world as it truly is and offers answers to the questions that we barely even manage to ask… A hero who is like a devoted friend who lays down his life for others, or a good shepherd who lays down his life for sheep who are oblivious to their peril. Many of us never recognise him for who he is.  If you’re curious, why not find out more about him here.

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