Don’t Be Afraid of Dystopia: Defending The Hunger Games

A few month ago, I laid out my apologetic for the Harry Potter series. Well, now I’m back to preach the virtues of another popular series that’s met with some trepidation. I’m not quite so unqualified in my praise this time around, but you know what? I really, really miss talking about pop lit in detail. Perhaps ironically, I think my classically-focused background predisposes me to uncritical enjoyment of whatever literary fad comes my way, with a mulling over afterwards. After all, fiction is supposed to be visceral, not ethereal (if you want thoughtful hypotheticals, go read some philosophy but skip the Aristotle). Anyway, I recently luxuriated through the gore of Hunger Games, and just finished moping about finishing the series. So here I am to present my defense.

Stories work best when they manage to tap into our own stories and histories. So a good author is also a good psychologist, because he understands something basic about the human condition and hits a nerve in the rest of us. Hunger Games doubly tapped that nerve — first, in teens who are forming their sense of self, and second, in the rest of us who always wonder what metal we’re made of. That’s why the sci-fi/dystopian choices in the trilogy resonate, because we all wonder the big “what if.” And Hunger Games happens to be especially good at making us feel the “what if” in addition to thinking it.

And really, a dystopian world rings truer to our experience than a chick flick rom com. No matter how idyllic our childhoods, we all run smack into reality. And we discover that life’s not fair. Circumstances conspire to keep the prince and princess apart no matter how noble their intentions. We’ve encountered The Man, and we feel controlled rather than in charge of our destinies sometimes. In short, we realize just how fallen the world is, and how it affects our perfect little plans. The fairy tale ending is a long ways off, if it’s even possible in this life; dystopia, though not so extreme, is something we understand and feel today.

Portraying dystopia isn’t misplacing the focus on evil/darkness when we should be thinking about goodness/light. Rather, dystopia is merely a setting in which people like us wake up and muddle through. We empathize with the character when their choices are bad and worse, because our lives seem like that too. And we think, maybe, if there’s any way out for these characters in such extreme circumstances, maybe there’s a way out — a better way — for us too.

Because that’s the world we live in, isn’t it? Often neither all black nor all white. Christians recognize this as creation “groaning” for redemption from a broken world, our broken bodies, and our broken spirits (Romans 8:22-25). We’ve encountered people we thought were friends who ending up abusing us, and we’ve encountered help in unexpected places. We meet people doing great work but with selfish motives. And then there are the places so dark we can’t even see the light at first glance. The dichotomy of good guys/bad guys doesn’t work in the world around us, so why should we demand it of our stories? Such a dichotomy rings false.

We need stories where the good guy makes it through unscathed, but we also need stories where the good guy gets beat down and keeps going anyway. Poor Katniss and her friends from District 12 can’t always tell which way is up, or even recognize themselves sometimes. But then, we’re all like that, sometimes. And so we identify with their identity crisis, looking through our own mirror dimly and trying to find what’s important and what we love to anchor us. Identity is where we all stumble, and that’s what Hunger Games is all about.

So here I am, 650 words in, and just finishing my ramblings on genre. Oops. For now, I’ll slap a big TBC on the end of this post, and start working on another post. And I promise this one will actually talk about the books’ contents. Promise. (Guess who feels sheepish?)

Further Reading:
Fresh Hell by Laura Miller, The New Yorker
The Hunger Games, Ethics and Christianity by A.T. Ross

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9 thoughts on “Don’t Be Afraid of Dystopia: Defending The Hunger Games

  1. The dystopia elements were good, but I was really annoyed that basic character maturation/development was essentially stagnated by the third book. You think Katniss’s emotional patterns would deepen or evolve, but alas not.

  2. I enjoyed your analysis and I’m looking forward to reading the rest. When I began reading the trilogy I was (unpleasantly) surprised by the level of violence – something about the violence happening to children made it even more difficult to reconcile that this was in many ways a “kid’s book.” But I completely agree with your paragraph about portraying dystopia is “a setting in which people like us wake up and muddle through.” Kind of like what C.S. Lewis says about how God whispers in our pleasures and shouts in our pain…sometimes it takes the reality of the darkness of this world to make us long for redemption and something (or Someone) bigger than ourselves.

  3. I thought her lack of maturation was due to the basic survival/barbarity of the Games themselves. She wasn’t really given the chance to grow because her sole goal was to survive and in the 3rd book she’s trying to convince people she wasn’t crazy (even though I think she was) and find normalcy again. I think she was stagnate because the author was showing how she wasn’t quite “there” anymore.

  4. Katherine – I stumbled on this through the book of face’s feed, and I was like : very cool!
    I’m planning on reading the Hunger Games (sooner than later) in anticipation of going to watch the films. And I’m all about giving pop culture a fair hearing. so I really like what you’re doing here. Keep it up!

  5. Pingback: Too Horrible to Look Away: Violence in the Hunger Games | Who are the Brittons

  6. Pingback: Searching for Identity, Finding Love: The Center of The Hunger Games | Who are the Brittons

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