The Hunger Games and the possibility of just war

I wrote most of the following over a year ago, upon reading The Hunger Games trilogy, and never got around to posting it because I kept meaning to expand it further.  Now that the movie has come out, it seems like a good time to share my thoughts.

Suzanne Collins' best-selling young adult trilogy The Hunger Games is many things to many people -- a dystopian fantasy, a love triangle, a critique of reality TV and manufactured celebrity, a searing indictment of imperialism and class injustice, a recasting of classic literary tropes (Theseus and the Minotaur, Romeo and Juliet) in a postmodern setting, a fable of the emotional and social turmoil of the American teenage experience -- but on my reading, it is first and foremost an extended thought experiment for adolescents on the possibility and conditions of a just war.

Granted, the war in question doesn't really get going until the middle of the third of three books, so I can understand why many thoughtful readers scratched their heads when Collins' editor Kate Egan, not to mention Collins herself, identified this as the central theme of the books in interviews given in 2010 surrounding the release of the final installment, Mockingjay. But for me, questions concerning just war and just violence leapt off the page from the very beginning of the first book.

The question that haunts, as Collins lays out the basic premise of the Hunger Games, is how the adults living in the districts of the futuristic nation of Panem can tolerate living under a government that compels them to sacrifice their own children in a horrific annual bloodsport spectacle. Why don't they refuse? Why don't they resist? 

It is explained that the Hunger Games are a punishment for a previous generation's rebellion and a form of ongoing psychological terrorism designed to prevent future rebellions, but no matter how traumatized the collective psyche, it's hard to accept the acquiescence of adults in the slaughter of children as anything other than an abhominable abdication of the basic parental responsibility of protection. I recall that one of the basic tenants of classical just war theory is that a just war must have a reasonable expectation of success, but in a case like this, wouldn't even an utterly futile resistance -- indeed, even a mass suicide a la Masada -- be better than cooperating with such barbarity? The organizing scenario of the stories is thus one that paints a situation in which revolution is not only morally justified, but morally compulsory.

(Reading The Hunger Games literally gave me nightmares, and I was aghast that this would be considered appropriate fare for preteen readers.  Eventually I realized, however, that a major source of my distress stemmed from the fact that I am now old enough to be the mother of a child the right age for the Hunger Games, and the thought of a society so fantastically failing to protect its own children was what horrified me.  Had I read the books as a teen, I expect I would have more readily accepted the premise as precisely the device that Collins intended it to be -- a way to get her young protagonists right in the middle of the action.  I can imagine the teenage reader version of myself telling the adult reader that I now am, "You do realize this is fantasy, right?  You don't have to freak out; IT'S NOT REAL.")

But there is no revolution. (Yet.) So the next haunting question is, thrust into this horrendous situation, What ought Katniss to do? What would YOU do if YOU were Katniss? Clearly, her impulse to volunteer for the Games in order to save her little sister is praiseworthy. But then what? Is killing the other contestants justifiable as self-defense, given that the Capitol has coerced them into a situation where only one will be allowed to survive, so it is either kill or be killed? Or must the other contestants be considered fellow-victims, noncombatants, and thus to be protected, even at the cost of one's own life? Of course, if Katniss were a pacifist, it would be very difficult to make the story stretch the length of one book, much less three. But I struggled with the question all the way through The Hunger Games.

The two subsequent books do a brilliant job of expanding the stakes -- it's no longer just about the justice of individual violence, the sort of things Katniss is forced to do to survive the Games, but about collective violence -- when, and how, and to what extent is participating in revolution or war an appropriate or necessary act?  And what are the rules?  Collins also expertly invites readers into the deep complexity of war, even against a clearly evil foe.  In real life, the good guys and the bad guys are rarely so unambiguous that it is possible to ally yourself with a side that requires no moral compromise.  So it is in Panem.

I am somewhat of a reluctant fan of The Hunger Games.  When I read them, I feel trapped, with Katniss, in a world with no good options.  Dystopias depress me.  But these are rich and serious stories, compellingly told, and, as Beth Felker Jones and Julie Clawson point out, doorways to important conversations about important things.  We let 17-year-olds sign up to join the military.  Some time before that point it would be good to give them the chance to think seriously about the relationship between justice and violence.  For many young readers (and, starting today, movie-goers), The Hunger Games may provide just that chance.

(Further musings: My GoodReads review of The Hunger Games.)


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