|Christians and The Hunger Games|
|Written by Douglas Wilson|
|Friday, 23 March 2012 11:28|
There are ethical dilemmas, and then there are the phony baloney ones. The famous National Lampoon magazine cover did not pose a genuine ethical dilemma—buy this magazine or we shoot the dog.
Many years ago I was working on a television show with the local PBS station at WSU, and Nancy and I were invited over to dinner by the producer and his wife. They were very gracious, and we enjoyed our time with them. But one of the events of the evening that turned out to be a dud was when our host brought out a game which was called, I think, Scruples. Something like that. At any rate, the point of the game was that you drew a card that dealt you some kind of ethical thumb-sucker from a stack of ethical conundra, to make up a funny-sounding plural. If you are stuck in a lifeboat, and you will most certainly die if you don’t do something, do you eat the fat guy or the skinny guy first? That kind of thing. You were then supposed to say something like whoa, and think about it for a while, twisting in the wind. I can really see how a living room full of wealthy relativists in an upscale neighborhood in the eighties could really be flummoxed by the game, but we were no fun at all. There are certain things you just don’t do because the Ten Commandments were not suggestions, and the game is over.
This said, The Hunger Games specializes in a similar kind of elaborate set-up for situation ethics. In this review, I will not be going after the book for stylistic faults. It does not open itself up for that kind of thing the way Twilight did. The writing in this book was competent enough, and the pacing delivers what it promises. The premise had a lot of potential—gladiatorial games meet reality television in a dystopic future.
The country is Panem, set in a future and really messed up North America. The place is run by the Capitol, and there are twelve districts run by the harsh and cruel guys in the Capitol. There had been a war of rebellion sometime back, and the Capitol had won it, and now exacted a harsh and inflexible penalty on all the previously rebellious districts. Those districts have been utterly cowed.
The book is written in the first person, and the protagonist is a young girl named Katniss Everdeen. Her father was killed some years before in a mining accident, her relationship with her mother is strained because of how her mother had collapsed after her father’s death, and the only person she really loves is her younger sister, Primrose. But then Prim, as she is called, is chosen by the lottery for the Hunger Games. Katniss volunteers to take her place, which is good and sacrificial and noble, and that is the point of the whole set up. We’ll come back to it.
Every year, each district is forced by lottery to send one boy and one girl (between the ages of twelve and eighteen) as tributes to the Hunger Games, where they are all put into a closed off area, a vast outdoor arena, and forced to fight it out to the death. The arena is full of cameras everywhere, and everybody in Panem is forced to watch the games. As I said earlier, the premise is one full of dramatic potential.
Katniss is tough and edgy enough to be a survivor in the Hunger Games (which means she will have to kill other people’s brothers and sisters), and soft enough to be likeable. The reader can begin to identify with her . . . if the reader takes his eye off the ball. I don’t like books that make me choose between the fat guy and the skinny guy.
Suppose the Capitol bad guys had decided to set up a different required sin in their games. Suppose it were the Rape Games instead. Suppose that the person who made it through the games without being raped was the feted winner. Anybody here think that this series would be the bestselling phenomenon that this one is?
In short, when you have the privilege of setting up all the circumstances artificially, in order to give your protagonist no real choice about whether to sin or not, it is a pretty safe bet that a whole lot of people in a relativistic country, including the Christians in it unfortunately, won’t notice.
As the book progresses, the ethical problems are effectively disguised. The first way is by having a number of the wealthier districts send tributes who are semi-pro. In other words, they are not reluctant participants, but are eager for the glory that attends winning the games. When that kind of guy comes after you, everything is self-defense. Then there is the fact that there are a bunch of them out there killing each other, and Katniss doesn’t have to do it. And the third device, and the one that keeps you turning the pages, that the author does not reveal whether or not Katniss will be willing to kill when it gets down the bitter end, and her opponents are innocents like she is. In other words, you have a likeable protagonist who is fully expecting to do something that is perfectly appalling by the end of the book.
There is a twelve-year-old girl named Rue that Katniss teams up with, and there is an expectation that later in the games the alliance will be dissolved . . . and you know what will happen then. Rue is the same age as Prim. There is a boy from her own district named Peeta who has been in love with Katniss forever, and who gave her family a loaf of bread a number of years before. Is he going to kill her or vice versa? I hear that spoilers are supposed to be bad, so I won’t tell you what happens.
The Capitol is hateful, and cruel, and distasteful, and obnoxious, and decadent, and icky . . . but not evil, as measured against any external standard. The Capitol is to be disliked because the Capitol is making people do things they would rather not be doing. But nowhere is there a simple refusal. There is a desire to have it all go away, but everybody participates with an appropriate amount of sullenness.
The story is told with enough detachment and distance that you feel like the participants really do have to cooperate. Resistance is futile . . .
But think for a moment. Someone tells you to murder a twelve-year-old girl, or they will kill you. What do you do? Suppose they give the twelve-year-old girl a head start? Suppose they give her a gun and tell her that if she murders you first, and she will be okay?
This is what situation ethics specializes in. Suppose a woman is in a concentration camp, and she can save her husband’s life, or her child’s life, through sexual bribes given to the guards. What should she do? Suppose you could save one hundred thousand lives by torturing someone to death on national television. What should you do? The response should be something like, “Let me think about it, no.” As Thomas Watson put it, better to be wronged than to do wrong. It is not a sin to be murdered. It is not a sin to have your loved ones murdered. It is not a sin to defend your loved ones through every lawful means. But that is the key, that phrase. Every lawful means only makes sense when there is a law, and that only makes sense when there is a Lawgiver. Without that, everything is just dogs scrapping over a piece of meat. And once that is the framework, there is no real way to evaluate anything. The history of the Church is filled with families being martyred together. Survival is not the highest good.
Back in the Cold War, a joke was told about an admiral who was inspecting a destroyer, and was making the rounds while they were out at sea. He came upon a lookout, a lowly sailor, standing there with his binoculars. “Lad,” he said, “what would you do if a Russian destroyer appeared on the horizon there?” “Sir,” the man said, “I’d nuke ‘em.” “Oh,” said the admiral. “What would you do if ten of them appeared?” “I’d nuke them too, sir.” “I see,” said the admiral. “What would you do if the whole Russian fleet appeared there?” “I’d nuke them all, sir,” came the reply. “And,” the admiral said, pressing his point home, “where are you getting all these nukes?”
“The same place you’re getting the Russians, sir.”
When you are imagining some kind of scenario, it is easy to construct one exactly to the needs of your plot, and the sub-creating author can create a world in which it is not true that “God will not let you be tempted beyond what you are able to bear.” Your tributes are in the arena with a command to kill or be killed, and in this place it is not true that with every temptation there is a way of escape. For faithful believers, the way of escape might be martyrdom. Daniel’s three friends worked through it that way. They said that their God was able to save them, but whether He saved them or not, they weren’t going to bow down to the statue.
If you hate spoilers, you can stop reading here. Katniss does survive, and she does so without doing anything perfectly appalling. But this only happens because of luck, not because she learned anything about how the world is actually governed. There is a functional omniscience that the Capitol has in the arena—everything is filmed—and she has real distaste for that functional omniscience, but without any sense that there is any other kind of omniscience. And she does kill one of the bad guy tributes right at the end, but as this is arranged in the book, it is a mercy killing.
Out of five stars I would give this book three. In terms of holding your interest, Suzanne Collins gets four. In terms of keeping a sense of ethical tension in a world without ethics, she would get a five. That’s something that is hard to do. But in terms of helping Christian young people set their minds and hearts on that which is noble and right, we can’t even give it one star. We would have to assign, in this last category, one burnt out asteroid.
|Last Updated on Sunday, 25 March 2012 20:33|