The Hunger Games, revisited

A couple people asked if I finished reading the Hunger Games series and if my original thoughts had changed. To be honest, if the first book in the series had been a stand-alone book, I’d be slightly more inclined to let our young teens read it. Yes, it is a disturbing premise, and you’re afraid that the main characters are going to be forced into really awful stuff. But the plot of the book conveniently allows the protagonists to avoid doing the very worst themselves, and the hard things they did do could be seen as simple self-defense.

But the second and third books descended deeper into stomach-churning violence.  The further I read, the more glad I was that we’d said no to the whole thing. It doesn’t feel reasonable to approve book one, and then ban future books in the series. And when it comes to movie sequels, often subsequent movies in a series are more twisted and limit-pushing than the first. I don’t know if that will happen with future Hunger Games movies.  But given the way the books themselves got uglier, I’d guess that the movies will too.

Are John and I banning the books because we fear they’ll cause our kids to descend into commando-style murder rampages? Absolutely not. But the series depicts violence that our kids don’t need in their heads.  The words are very visual —  as I read books 2 and 3, I kept getting the feeling that the author had been writing with the idea that the books would become movies.  And the further I got, the more disturbingly violent the images in my head became. I found myself reading fast, rushing past the worst scenes, because dwelling on them was too disturbing. And I’m a jaded adult, not a young teen.

In the series there’s also a persistent moral relativism. For example, at the end of the first book, when a couple of the main characters are expected to fight to the death, they instead decide to commit suicide. This could be seen as a calculated gamble that worked–after all, they were stopped from doing this and both live.  But I think if they hadn’t been stopped they would have gone through with it.  Does that mean there’s a time when suicide is right?  Courageous? Honorable? I don’t believe so, and yet the books set readers up to admire exactly these types of actions.

Our world is full of evil, full of moral relativity.  It is important to talk through ethical dilemmas with  kids so that they can make honorable choices in their adult lives.  The Hunger Games isn’t the worst series out there, and doubtless it has sparked good discussions.  But it does so while exacting a price. John and I think it is possible to have meaningful discussions with our young teens without filling their minds with violent images from a dystopic world.

 

{ 42 Comments }

  1. The suicide aspect is very disturbing. I supposed someone might bring up something like Shakepeare, but in that case (i.e. Romeo and Juliet) it is shown to be folly, not held up as an ideal of honor.

    • Thinking back on it, the suicide scene is a bit forced – the author could have worked with the characters simply refusing to fight each other. Also, in the sense of a plot, how would the gamemakers have known that it wasn’t a ploy on the part of one contestant to get the other to kill themselves? I’m not sure it’s in character either way, but simply the way the author chose to get them out of the arena now that everyone else was done away with.

      • Kirstin says:

        Hi everyone. Mary, I’m so glad you responded! I agree that the later books are more disturbing than the first book.

        I just wanted to remind everyone that the Gamemakers interfered with the games, so simply refusing to fight really wasn’t an option, at least not without the strong possibility of a gruesome death (e.g. Cato). Katniss and Peeta were not bluffing; they both felt that suicide was a better moral outcome than murder and they preferred to die quickly than to die a slow, painful death. I have a hard time believing, Mary, that you would harshly judge suicide in every situation. If for example a prisoner of war knew that death by torture awaited him, and he chose instead to quickly take his life by painless means rather than experience that, I think you could find it in your heart to understand why someone would make that choice. Thus it’s not just “these books” that set the reader up to sympathize with actions like suicide, it’s real-world cruelty as well.

        I’m very glad you read the books. I’ve taken their anti-violence message to heart (I used to be much more open to “humanitarian” military intervention. Now I’m pretty sure it’s a bad idea 100% of the time.), and I hope that others do too.

        • Kirstin,
          To answer your question, I believe suicide anytime, anywhere is wrong. I can certainly see times when folks would *justify* it as right and where it would be a very great temptation. But I strongly believe that we should not decide how long our own lives should be. This is NOT because I’ve never had close experience with the suicide of a loved one. I have. And in fact that experience made my feelings even stronger. But in the end it is not about my feelings, or about me ‘harshly judging’ someone’s actions. It is about God’s commandment, which says, “You shall not kill.”

          Thanks for your thoughts– I’ve been enjoying the comments you’ve written on this post.

          Mary

  2. I disagree with the view that the finale scene in the games was ever a genuine suicide attempt. On the contrary, it was part of Katniss’ game strategy—she was playing a game directed at The Capitol. I don’t believe for a moment (especially after reading the whole series) that she would have actually gone through with it or let Peeta if the strategy hadn’t worked.

    • Agreed

      • Kirstin says:

        Very much disagree! If Katniss and Peeta had refused to kill each other, the Gamemakers would have done the job for them and it wouldn’t have been pretty. I believe Katniss thought that the Gamemakers would stop their suicide attempt, but she couldn’t have been sure, and I do think that she was prepared to go through with it rather than murder Peeta or subject herself to death by mutts.

  3. I finished the series about a week ago(definitely doing lots of violence/grossness skimming) and your assessment of “maybe, if there was only the first one” and the main character really does avoid being personally responsible for a lot of the worst, and the fact that movies do tend to ramp up and up in a series, is pretty much what I was thinking too(and Ben).
    *possible spoiler alert*
    That said, I think I liked the second one better than the first one(at least for the arena portion) in that there was some actual teamwork demonstrated by more than just the two mains. It certainly doesn’t atone for the rest of the stuff in the books, but it was something. The third one, of course, was rubbish, and gross and boring even. I plugged through, hoping it would improve and solve something, but the end pretty much annulled the point at the beginning of the first one, so, no such luck.

    Definitely soooo many other ways to discuss whatever themes you might think important about the books. I know that I(mostly adult, even) get caught in the story(even rubbish stories) and the real life implications(if there are any) are the last thing I think of. I hardly think teens are going to be finding anything other than a story unless you bring it up(which most parents won’t, but let the poor kiddos at the books and movies anyway) and that still won’t be the thing that sticks in their heads.

  4. The author in question is, by profession, a television writer – so I think it’s a VERY safe assumption that she wrote these books intending for them to be optioned as movies. No doubt her writing style is also one of the reasons why people are gobbling up the books they way they are.

    I have a friend struggling with this same issue (to censor, or not to censor) with her older kids. I’m trying to put myself in her place, and what I can’t figure out is this: A work of fiction can’t be worse than the moral relativism happening all over the world, can it? To avoid a book trilogy with the aim of avoiding moral relativism seems like a drop in the bucket, particularly b/c it’s fictional. What of the events happening all over the world that are completely absent of morality and care for others – Syria, Israel, North Korea, and several countries in Africa? Your kids are really smart, Mary – they’re going to figure out soon enough that the world can be a terrible place for some – and accepting that reality has nothing to do with anyone’s views of wrong and right. Why not use the books as a discussion point for the older kids, who could really grasp the themes and tones of independence, trust, and knowing your worth without focusing on how Collins uses violence as a medium for the message?

    • Jamie, Im with Mary on this one and I haven’t read the books. Children (or teens) don’t need that sort of sensationalized violence in their heads. You want to teach them about atrocities and moral relativism in the world, teach them about the world. Don’t justify reading this horror fiction by saying it could be used for good. Anything could be used for good but it doesn’t justify the actions.

      In the end, Mary and her husband have made a decision for their children. That’s all any parent can do – make the decision for their own children. You want to read it to your kids, Jamie, no one is stopping you.

      • My comment was written in the spirit of open dialogue, worded respectfully, and by no means was an attempt to pass judgment on anyone – least of all Mary and her decision to do what she feels is best for her family. I will more carefully consider my choices in the future when attempting to dialogue about hot topics such as this one, particularly if curious or neutral opinions are to be perceived as being “against” something or someone.

    • The thing is, it’s not really about avoiding moral relativism or the fact that bad stuff happens. My sibs KNOW that terrible stuff happens in the world. Adoption, for example, is a response to bad things that have already happened. We’re pretty familiar with that in our family. Couching the lessons in terms of popular fiction(which many kids will want to read just because their friends do, not for any “lessons”) is entirely unnecessary. Like you said, my parents have really smart kids and they hardly need these books (laced with unnecessary themes) to understand or bring up discussions about the real stuff in life.

      • Kirstin says:

        I believe you, eldest, but for me couching it in fiction was very helpful. I don’t want to spoil anything for anybody else, but the final events of the third book made a powerful impression on me about the incentives of world leaders to ruthlessly protect themselves and their power. After the initial shock, I was surprised to find that I wasn’t all that surprised by the identity of the perpetrator of that atrocity. It made sense to me. I don’t shy away from unpleasant things – I’ve visited the genocide museum in Rwanda – but this series made a few concepts about the relationship between political power and systematic violence click in my head, in a way that scraps of news stories never had. (It’s also likely that I’m severely lacking in history education. 🙂 ) In any case, I’m very grateful for this series.

  5. I was speaking with a movie theater manager on Friday who said the author actually wrote the first story as a movie screen play first. She couldn’t get anyone to take it, so she turned it into a book to gather the support. As the first one was always intended to be a movie, I’m sure that was still in her head when she wrote the next two. He said they have had a number of middle school classes coming to private screenings to see it as a class; he did not sound supportive but I only know him on a surface level and did not have time to ask his opinion. As I’ve not read the books nor have plans to see the movie and my son cares even less about it than I do, it is not really an issue for me at this time.

    What you deem best for your family is your decision, and I’m certainly not questioning your choice. (Quite frankly, I don’t care if your kids read the books or watch the movie!) I am curious, though, if your kids read the OT, particularly some of those gruesome stores in Judges and such. I came from a home that encouraged me to read anything and everything (and I did!) and I remember being shocked when I first read those Biblical stories. Driving nail tents through skulls is certainly a visual and violent image. Not that crucifixion is really any better, but that one does take a little more thought to picture it. Do you differentiate between horrific parts of history versus fiction, or do you just skip over those portions of the Bible, or how do you handle that?

    • Hi Sandi, Much of the violence in the Bible tends to be done by evil people, or as a punishment for wrong-doing, so that is the frame of reference in which we read it. We trust that all scripture was written for our learning, since that’s what God says. But when reading to elementary-age and younger kids, we tend to stick with the standard Bible stories– and no, you don’t tend to come across the tent peg story in kids’ story books! (wry smile) Song of Solomon is also just simply avoided with little ones. By the time they’re old enough to come challenging sections of the Bible on their own and ask questions, they’re old enough to understand and comprehend more too. But all of us are still learning– the folks who say they understand everything in the Bible are most likely wrong…

    • “I was speaking with a movie theater manager on Friday who said the author actually wrote the first story as a movie screen play first. She couldn’t get anyone to take it, so she turned it into a book to gather the support.”

      That’s false. I’ve read several interviews with the author about the book and what inspired the series, and I’ve never seen anything that would support the theater manager’s claim. Collins was not the only writer for the screenplay either. She also used a similar writing style in The Hunger Games in her earlier series The Underland Chronicles.

  6. I was SO disappointed in the books. I used to be a middle school English teacher and even though I’m a mommy to a baby now I still like to read what kids in our youth group are reading. I liked these books so much at first, even though I hated the violence, because I really thought that we were going to get an epic hero and Christ-figure out of one of the characters, particularly Peeta. Instead, no real hero ever emerged by the end of the third book and instead we got this vague sense that everyone is just evil and there is no hope. Humanity loves books with a solid hero and a clear message that good always destroys evil in the end- we were made for that! The series fell so short and felt ultimately so pointless that I would really hesitate to put the books in the hands of teenagers, too. If the violence and loss of life had turned out to be purposeful (meaning, it created a picture of the evil the characters were up against or showed true martyrdom in dying while standing against evil) I would feel differently. Instead, by the end it was all about revenge and the heinous acts of violence were very senseless. So disappointing, so frustrating, and DEFINITELY R-rated, but perfect proof that parents should read books before their kids read them!

    I love your blog so much! 🙂

    • I really, really don’t want to derail too much, but Harry Potter may be exactly what you are looking for! So good!

      • Kirstin says:

        Ditto Kate. You won’t find more of a Christ-figure than Harry.

        • Do you really want your children to feel that magic is safe and comfortable? The Potter series is dangerous. It has been on the news several times how a Potter fan injured themselves experimenting with “magic”. The Potter series is dangerous.

  7. I firmly believe that what we intake through our senses (especially our sight and hearing) sticks in our minds.

    We have taught our kids that if they encounter something that shouldn’t be stuck in their minds (something inappropriate, immoral, or frightening) they should turn away, or at least close their eyes or ears.

    This may seem extreme, but I believe that it does protect their minds. Furthermore, they are establishing a habit of taking action to protect their own innocence and virtue — fleeing from sin.

    There are endless real-life horrors that they will encounter and need to mentally process or flee throughout their lives. To encourage them to voluntarily fill their minds with such ideas and pictures seems about as reasonable at throwing stones at the bull in your neighbor’s field and hoping he doesn’t turn on you. 🙂

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I’ll be back in about 6 years to re-read all of these posts when my kids are teenagers and asking me the same questions!

    • Elizabeth says:

      I totally agree with you, PlainJane! I also tell my older girls (10 and 11) to cover their eyes or ears when something inappropriate crosses their path. I think of that song “Be careful little eyes, what you see….”

      It’s so true that some of those images can stick with you for years. No need to put something into your head that you can’t get out 🙁

      • My son’s english honors teacher REQUIRED The Hunger Games series be read.

        • Cris, I don’t agree with what your son’s teacher did at all. These books are too violent to be required reading for anyone. I hope you protested to the principal. I’m sorry.

  8. Hi Mary, I hadn’t even heard of these books until you mentioned them, but since then my ears have perked up and I’m realizing how popular they are. I greatly respect your decision and feel the same way. With so many good things to read, and not enough time to read them all, we find no good reason to to read something that at best, provides no benefit, and at worst, could darken their hearts. There is enough darkness in the real world, and in the study of history, that our children will come into contact with soon enough. We choose to focus our energy on those teachable moments. Thanks for standing firm in guarding your children’s hearts. It is such an encouragement to other families like ours who are striving to do the same.

  9. Good for you, Mary – you are doing what everyone should do – make thoughtful, informed decisions about what we feel is best for our kids.

  10. My teenage daughter could not read this book through and so stirred my interest in what book would turn her off so much. To my surprise, I hated it also and couldn’t get through the whole thing. She and about 15 kids also decided they would not go see the movie when the school had a field trip the day of its release. This title is only one of two books I have never been able to finish through in all my years of reading and in a home library of thousands of books which include favorites like Paper Towns, Skipping Christmas, Shantaram, The Blue Zones, and the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. My reading takes me all over the place so the Hunger Games would not have immediately turned me off but the storyline seems unusually cruel and harsh for a teenage read. If I want to read about child soldiers I will read a true story out of the Sudan-for instance.
    She has now been turning to me for books to read this year (doesn’t trust the teacher anymore) or will ask me what I think about a book the teacher is recommending. The last book she read was ‘Day of Tears’ which she really enjoyed and made her think about slavery. She is now reading ‘Three Little Words’ about foster children.

  11. I never would have read this book based on the premise of the story. However, I am a high school librarian and mom to two teenagers, and the wild popularity of the books forced me to do it. I did find redeeming qualities in the series. The characters are sympathetic. The ending is satisfactory while avoiding wrapping up a war story with a clean fairy tale ending where everyone lives happily ever after. As my own minister said, there is heroism. Katniss who was stronger traded places with Prim who was weaker, just as Jesus who is stronger traded places with me, and I am certainly weak. I think Peeta’s determination to protect Katniss is also heroic. I did let my children read the series because I feel that they both have the maturity to handle it. What shocks me is that middle schools in our area are taking students on field trips to see the movie. I think that is a bit much, and parents and teachers of elementary students repeatedly ask if they should make it available to elementary students. I have two children in elementary school and never entertained the idea of letting them read the books or see the movies.

    • Shocked that a middle school field trip would involve a PG13 movie when a large majority of th ekids are not even that age yet. Also what happened to the idea of a field trip for learning purposes? As mentioned previously, my daughter and a small group of kids stayed behind and played board games, had pizza, and had a great day but the school should have offered two different movies for such a trip—if they are going to do.

  12. Elizabeth says:

    I have chosen not to read the books myself, at least for the time being. My rationale is actually that I think I might enjoy the books a little TOO much, and like your teens, I don’t believe I need that kind of violent imagery in my head. There are plenty of other entertaining stories that also contain solid moral frameworks out there. I don’t mean only religious fiction and nonfiction, either; there are plenty of secular authors I enjoy without reservations, but on this one I’ll take a pass for now. BTW, I’m 26 years old, so I think I’m able to handle violence by now – it’s just that I want to continue to be discerning about what I intake, not only when I was a teen but now into my adulthood.

    All that said, I have read excerpts of the stories (just a few pages from random parts of the series) and I noticed the same thing you mentioned, that the books are very visual. They seem to reach out and grab the reader, pulling you very compellingly into the story. I think one of the strongest factors in this regard is that the stories are written in present-tense. Actually, the fact that they are written in present-tense is one of the first reasons why I chose not to read them. I write fiction myself, and I use that tense when I want a very dramatic, immediate, often emotional feel to a story. Given the topic of this series, about which I was already on the fence, I started to feel like the present-tense narrative was going to be my downfall because I would be emotionally pulled into the story even as I tried to stay rational as a reader.

  13. My 17 year old son read all the books and wanted to go see the movie with his friends. We decided that I would go with him to see the movie so we could discuss it afterwards. I wrote about my take on the movie on my blog (http://blessedtobeahomemakingmom.blogspot.com/2012/03/my-take-on-hunger-games-movie.html).

    I left the movie in tears. The thought that children the same age as my children would/could be put in the same situation as the children in the movie, it was just too disturbing for me.

  14. I love to hear your thoughts on this. I haven’t read the books because I’m a sensitive reader and can’t stomach a lot of what I expect is in the books, but I did see the movie and enjoyed it.

    Steph

  15. I’m a church youth worker and I read the books after my middle school and high school students were all talking about it. And I did not like them, especially for that age. I’m 26 and don’t have any kids so I don’t know about that perspective but all I could do was look at my youth kids and think that’s who was fighting in the arena. It disturbed me. I I won’t see the movie as I won’t support it and I don’t think emotionally I could make it through. I think you’re very smart not letting your kids read them. I think some teenagers could handle reading the book, but I doubt the majority could.

  16. I read the first book after seeing your earlier post. I thought I would be smart & get onto it before my 12 yr old asked to see the film. Of course he hadn’t even heard of it at that point but, having seen the book, read the book (I thought he wouldn’t bother so didn’t want to ban it & make it really appealing!)he now wants to see the film. Sigh…I hate it when a plan goes completely belly up!Rubbish mother!

  17. Cheryl says:

    I am a grandmother so I don’t have a final say on what my grandchildren read. I read the trilogy and felt that the important observation that I could share with my grandkids, who loved the stories, was that the author failed to include a very real thing. It has proven in history that whenever mankind has experienced a devastating trauma like Panam has then there will be at least a remnant that will turn to God for their answers, encouragement, and security. Sometimes we have to use the negative to our advantage to make it into a teaching moment.

  18. Hi! Coming late to the conversation, here! My kids are finally out of school so I can take my laptop back. :0) I am a lurker, devoted reader, but hate commenting from my iPhone. Thank you for your encouraging and honest blog, Mary! I feel like I can “sit at your feet” so to speak, and watch how you are raising your family and I’m learning so much.

    I typed a *very* long comment here, and decided I’d do better to post it and let you know, rather than dump a truck in your comments section and preach to the choir, so to speak. :0) But I wanted to say thank you for a thought-provoking post.

  19. I’m glad you followed up, loved hearing your take on the book. Incidentally I agree with almost everything you said (except I am absolutely ok with the moral relativism :))

  20. You cannot make an accurate decision regarding The Hunger Games series until you have read ALL THREE books. You will miss the point the author is trying to make: We must do everything we can to NOT become like Panem. Realize: We already have TV series like: Survivor, etc, etc. My son’s english honors teacher REQUIRED this series as summer reading. I decided that I want to actively be involved with my sons opinions, so I read the series. Because of the horror in the first book, I don’t understand why they didn’t rate the movie as “R”. But remember: We must do everything we can to NOT become like the society portrayed in this series. (How far away are we really?)

  21. Hey, I’m new to this blog but it looks very interesting. I’m a Christian too, but I don’t 100% agree with everything you say in this article. However, I like how you present both sides and don’t take an extreme position (because some parents are way too restrictive and some are way too permissive) So I’m definitely going to keep following your blog 🙂

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