Cover of "The Hunger Games" by Susanne Collins

Starving on Nihilism: The Moral Vacuum of The Hunger Games

Cover of "The Hunger Games" by Susanne Collins

The Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins
Scholastic, 2010
384 pages, paperback, $8.99

(Given the wide-spread popularity of The Hunger Games and the multiplicity of reviews of it, this review will not summarize its plot; the reader can find a summary here.)

The Hunger Games presents its readers with a nihilistic world in which evil actions can be excused based on necessity. It accurately portrays the potential endgame of a big, centralized government and a population addicted to mass-media entertainment. In such a world, survival becomes the basis of morality and people mere objects in the pursuit of survival. While such a Machiavellian ethic seems realistic given the situation in which Suzanne Collins places her characters, she presents no alternative ethic. Instead, she crafts the plot to mitigate, as much a possible, the moral culpability of her protagonist, Katniss Everdeen.

Suzanne Collins, intentionally or not, includes a critique of modern mass media and technology and their dehumanizing effects in her story. Panem, a new nation comprising much of North America, has twelve districts all under the control of the Capitol. Because of an earlier rebellion, the Capitol rules with an iron fist, using economic exploitation, superior technology, and psychological intimidation to keep the districts under its control. What becomes evident throughout the story is that the Capitol uses the mass media, in particular the coverage of the Hunger Games, simultaneously to intimidate and give hope. Each contestant hopes to win and escape with his life in this strange inversion of Hobbesian political theory where the government is actually causing the summum malum; winning also brings the prospect of more food supplies for the entire district. Through the Hunger Games, where each district must send a boy and girl each year, the Capitol demonstrates its continued sovereignty.

When Katniss arrives at the Capitol, she is repulsed by its citizens, who are carefree, decadent, and inhumane. They rely on technology to fulfill their every whim and economically exploit the districts to fund their extravagance. Every year, they eagerly await the beginning of the Hunger Games; they live for entertainment. This picture is perhaps the most brilliant aspect of the book: Suzanne Collins creates a dystopia using elements from both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. As in Nineteen Eighty-Four, a strong and unchallenged centralized government leads to misery and dehumanization for the majority of citizens. As in Brave New World, people are seen as use objects and are kept in check by mindless entertainment. Like others who comment on the problem of disconnected elites in society (e.g., Christopher Lasch in Revolt of the Elites), Collins picks up on the inevitable problems of selfishness and dehumanization that arise when those elites see their social inequals as use objects.

What Collins fails to present, however, is a character who transcends (or even learns to transcend) the lack of morality in this dystopia. Rather we see a heroine who is perfectly willing to engage in an inhuman sport. That she does so to save her sister is commendable; that she then adopts the nihilistic ethic of the Capitol’s inhabitants is not. What is perhaps even more disappointing is that Collins lacks the courage to fully explore her protagonist’s Nietzschean ethic. Collins does not have Katniss boldly slay all her competitors; instead, the majority are killed off by other characters, one dies from poisoned berries, and one is killed by wolf-like mutants. The only characters killed by Katniss are killed in relatively palatable ways: she kills some by dropping a hornets’ nest, and she kills Marvel to stop him from killing her friend Rue. Thus Katniss accepts nihilism without having to act upon it; this is lazy and cheap. To be a well-written character, Katniss would need to face her moral dilemma and make a decision. Collins’s laziness (or cowardice?) regarding Katniss’s ethics can be seen in Katniss’s relationship with Peeta, the other tribute from her home district. During the Hunger Games, Katniss realizes that Peeta loves her and begins to love him in return–but before she can even think about what she will or ought to do if she has to kill him the rules are changed to allow both tributes from any one district to win. Peeta and Katniss join forces and she helps him recover from his injury. When she and Peeta eventually stand as the lone victors, the rules are changed again so that only one of them can win. Again, before any ethical dilemma can ensue, Katniss, who has learned the volatility of the Capitol’s inhabitants, has herself and Peeta act as if they will commit suicide. The rule change is rescinded.

The ethical laziness and cowardice of this story illuminates the problems inherent in (purely) deontological ethics, i.e., one centered around moral rules. “Do not murder” is a moral rule. Yet while Katniss may not do any wrong by breaking moral rules, she is not virtuous, either. Her moral behavior is merely a product of the situation in which she is placed: given the dog-eat-dog nature of the Hunger Games, she is able to kill her competitors without “murdering” them; her behavior is further excused by her being placed in that situation against her will. Virtue remains unaddressed. Katniss’s behavior may not be immoral, but is she virtuous? We are protected from seeing her actually kill any competitors who have not done her harm, but how would she react if she were faced with that situation? We are left to think that, survival being her only rule of action, Katniss would have killed the others in self-defense.

What deontological ethics misses, and what virtue ethics maintains, is that there is more to morality than its rules. Being good is more fundamental than doing good (or, perhaps, merely refraining from doing evil). Doug Wilson  points this out in his critique of the book:

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. . . .

This is where deontological ethics come very close to consequentialism : is it better to do a little evil or to allow a large evil to happen?

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.

Painting: The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer, by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Jean-Léon Gérôme - The Christian Martyrs Last Prayer (1883)

Deontological ethics essentially fails to take into account the damage that morally permissible actions might have. It fails to ask the question, “Is it better for me to kill someone in self-defense or to allow myself to be killed?” This life is so transient that damage to one’s eternal soul must be taken into consideration when faced with an ethical “dilemma.” Such consideration is utterly lacking in The Hunger Games.

While The Hunger Games is popular fiction written for teenagers, this does not excuse its pathetic avoidance of ethical issues. The nihilistic tone of the story leaves one wondering why anyone even strives to win the Hunger Games. It is written in first-person present tense which, while eminently suitable for transitioning to a movie script, is not pleasant to read. This book need not be read; if one wants cheap and entertaining thrills, one should rent the DVD for a buck—you’ll likely lose less time from your life. The good messages in the book—those regarding technology, mass media, and entertainment—can be better found elsewhere. The only caveat needed here is that this book is the first in a three-part series; it may be that some of these problems have been corrected in the series’ later installments—but it seems unlikely.

17 thoughts on “Starving on Nihilism: The Moral Vacuum of The Hunger Games”

  1. Yeah, no, it pretty much just gets worse from there. THANK YOU for explaining the reason I don’t like those books to me, finally 🙂

  2. Or … the author isn’t intending to put it forth as a purely theoretical exercise in ethics. Perhaps Katniss acts as most logical people would — by avoiding, by running away, and by killing only when necessary. She is cold, calculating, but unwilling to kill unless necessary. You’ve missed a big part of what is going on in the book by using a strawman argument — stating that Collins should have used it as a hypothetical ethics situation, and then explaining why it fails to live up to that.

    Next time, try harder.

  3. @ Sandi & J,
    The problem is that literature teaches whether it intends to or not. Impressionable teenagers and young adults will read this book and the nihilistic leanings of postmodern relativism will be strengthened in their approaching the world.
    Regarding Collin’s laziness in her writing style, she does set up an ethical dilemma and then craft the plot such that her main character does not have to address that dilemma. This is not how real life works.

    1. you misunderstand — I don’t disagree with you about some of your points, I just don’t think she is being lazy. Real life works precisely like that. It’s called luck. You almost *never* actually have to act on your thoughts, or even how you think you might. You might believe that you could never take a life, even in the face of a deadly threat. Chances are good you’ll never know.

      I am not excusing her from setting the stage or reacting to it because it is a work of fiction — you are completely right to say that literature teaches, and there is a responsibility. The responsibility, however, is also to the story, and what point she WANTS to make, not what point you think she is or should be making. The book takes a different angle — and especially in connection with the third, makes a much deeper point about dystopian society and as you rightly point out obsession with entertainment/reality TV.

      Thoughts?

  4. This review suffers from having read only 1/3 of the story. Almost every complaint it makes is either factually wrong or addressed later.

    “The Hunger Games presents its readers with a nihilistic world in which evil actions can be excused based on necessity.”

    Katniss volunteers to participate in the games in the place of her sister. This is fighting to defend family, not a nihilistic act based purely around the necessity of one’s own survival.

    “Instead, she crafts the plot to mitigate, as much a possible, the moral culpability of her protagonist, Katniss Everdeen.”

    By the end Katniss is killing people in cold blood and they are wiping out cities full of civilians. The moral culpability of such actions is discussed in detail.

    “What Collins fails to present, however, is a character who transcends (or even learns to transcend) the lack of morality in this dystopia.”

    There is such a character. Peeta. He *explicitly states* that he wants to rise above all this and show them he is not a pawn in their game. And he does. For those keeping track, the real heroes in the story are the people surrounding Katniss, not Katniss herself. Even Katniss explicitly recognizes this. I don’t know how the reviewer can have missed this while still reading even the first book.

    “Rather we see a heroine who is perfectly willing to engage in an inhuman sport. …Thus Katniss accepts nihilism without having to act upon it; this is lazy and cheap.”

    These are two mutually exclusive complaints. Katniss cannot be simultaneously faulted for enthusiastically killing in cold blood and then be faulted for not actually killing anyone in cold blood. Anyway, the complaint is inaccurate. Katniss directly kills (or attempts to kill) multiple people in all three books who are not directly attacking her. The boy she kills who is stabbing rue is not directly attacking her. She then shoots Cato repeatedly with arrows attempting to kill him, but his armor saves him. She attempts to kill Clove with arrows as well. And that’s just the first book.

    The hornet incident is not some bizarre attempt to make it appear as though all the other rivals just die by indirect, accidental deaths, it’s to show how utterly evil and twisted the capitol is, for designing such weapons in the first place, and to show Katniss using the capitol’s weapons against them (a recurring theme that slowly escalates).

    “Again, before any ethical dilemma can ensue, Katniss, who has learned the volatility of the Capitol’s inhabitants, has herself and Peeta act as if they will commit suicide. The rule change is rescinded.”

    This is just flat out wrong. They specifically discuss their dilemma in detail before arriving at their suicide pact solution to save both their lives. Should Katniss kill Peeta? Maybe Peeta should kill Katniss? The final ethical dilemma is…is it right for someone to threaten to commit suicide rather than be forced to take an innocent life?

    “We are protected from seeing her actually kill any competitors who have not done her harm, but how would she react if she were faced with that situation? We are left to think that, survival being her only rule of action, Katniss would have killed the others in self-defense.”

    But we DO see a situation where Katniss is faced with a competitor who has not done her any harm – it’s Peeta! How would she react? We already know! She decided committing suicide was better than having to take that life. Was that the right thing to do? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s not just raw nihilistic ‘anything that helps me survive is justifiable’.

    Now it is somewhat strange to see a fictional world with no apparent moral system or any hint or religion – such a situation would be most unlikely. Morever I think there is a lot of scope for explaining to young readers that that is how a world absent Christ would likely look – both in the character of the capitol and the people who eventually rise to the top fo the rebellion. However I would have to say the biggest themes in the book are

    1) Katniss fighting for her family and friends and trying to survive when simply giving up and dying would be easier
    2) Many other people fighting to defend Katniss, even at the cost of their own lives (and these people are by far more sympathetic and admirable than Katniss herself, IMO)
    3) Many people trying to overthrow a dictatorial and murderous regime – how can they do ti? What methods can they use? How much like the regime can they become in the attempt to overthrow it without simply replacing one tyranny with another?

    None of these are really nihilistic. I would fault the writer for creating a world where people apparently have morals and attempt to act on those morals, without ever stating what those morals are or where they come from.

  5. This is a poorly written review. Creating a straw man just so you can project what your tastes and beliefs dictate is lazy.

  6. Some times a movie is just a movie.  

    This review is overly dramatic obviously from someone that is able to monday morning quarterback the character’s actions and place a nice little picture of how you should feel about the situation.  To me this type of review is very judgmental and nicely boxed and wrapped.

    These characters are fighting for their lives.  There is no dilemma in that.  It is a simple equation.  Them or me!  No time for moral evaluation.  Plenty of movies exist with the characters making the moral choice and turning good in the face of evil but this story doesnt allow for that.

    The void of the moral dilemma is present due to the total collapse of society.  

  7. I second JD’s reply. Having read the entire series, I feel JD’s synopsis is an excellent review of the work as a whole and perfectly addresses the critiques put forth by the original poster’s review. I especially agree with his point about Peeta as the transcendent character. A book by no means is obligated to make the main character the person of most virtue in a story. Katniss as the story progresses in fact struggles with the feeling/realization that her actions have been immoral, yet she cannot resolve herself to a path that takes her away from this immorality. Are there not many real people who are trapped by themselves in a similar path? Perhaps if the reviewer had read the entire series the first book would have been seen within this wider context, and the review would not have needed to be so critical.

  8. I agree with the assessment with the review. It sounds like the reviewer finds the book offensive, and so invents reasons not to read it. It is definitely not nihilistic.

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