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The Hunger Games - the books


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#1 SDG

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Posted 19 March 2012 - 12:11 PM

Link to the film thread for The Hunger Games.

No thread on the books yet? I see some of us have thread them. I'm reading the first book now. I don't know how it ends, but I'm curious to know what those who have finished the book or the series think of the premise of an action-adventure about a heroine forced to kill other people who are being forced to try to kill her.

Obviously it's not like the evil of the whole business is being whitewashed by the book. The whole scenario is depicted as a monstrous evil forced on miserably unwilling participants by a monstrously tyrannical totalitarian state.

Obviously it's not like the evil of the whole business is being whitewashed by the book. The whole scenario is depicted as a monstrous evil forced on miserably unwilling participants by a monstrously tyrannical totalitarian state.

And yet. I'm assuming that when the games actually begin, we will be in the position of rooting for a heroine who will actually be killing people. People who are trying to kill her, of course. Does that make it morally supportable self-defense?

I don't think that was the thinking of the early Christians in the face of Roman gladiatorial bloodsports. Was their willingness to die rather than participate in violence to entertain the mobs rock-bottom Christian morality, or was it heroic witness? I'm still thinking about that.

Even if their willingness to die was a matter of heroic witness rather than rock-bottom morality, could a story about a heroine killing unwilling assailants to stay alive at least potentially erode something of our remaining cultural patrimony of reverence for life?

Worse, are readers (and audience members for the film) being put at least somewhat in the position of spectators at Roman bloodsports, watching violence-for-entertainment unfold for our own entertainment?

These are genuine questions. Haven't finished the book, haven't yet screened the film.

To get the ball rolling:

For the prosecution, Reformed writer Doug Wilson:

the point of the game [of Scruples?] was that you drew a card that dealt you some kind of 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 ...

Kat 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.

For the defense, Brad Williams:

Doug Wilson is a smart guy, I think. But today he tried to put me in an ethical dilemma with his review of The Hunger Games that I feel is blatantly unfair. He tried to trick me into thinking that because The Hunger Games is about a repressive regime that forces children to kill each other for the entertainment of the capital city with the side effect of keeping resistance underfoot, and that because murder is bad, there should be no Hunger Games and so the Hunger Games is a bad book ...

Does Doug think that we are so dumb as readers that we didn’t notice the dilemmas going on in the book, even the false ones?

My first impression: I'm not convinced yet by Wilson's line of thought, but I don't think Williams really grapples with that line of thought, such as it is.

Your thoughts?

#2 Tyler

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Posted 19 March 2012 - 03:51 PM

I think Suzanne Collins was aware of the "killer heroine"difficulty, and she tries to downplay it in the books by making Katniss's strategy more about running and hiding than killing. At least in the first book, the primary villains are the tributes who have been trained to fight in the games pretty much from birth.

I'll be interested to hear what you think of the first book's ending. It addresses the violence of the games in a fairly interesting way.

#3 David Smedberg

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Posted 19 March 2012 - 03:56 PM

I have only read the first book. I abandoned the series after that so I can only speak up to the end of that one.

I would argue that questions about the premise of these books are just as relevant to a movie like Gladiator--even though that movie isn't as fundamentally about a murder sport as the first Hunger Games book is, it is still about one in a fundamental way (just look at the title!). I think it is easier to overlook the question when the murder-sport protagonist is someone like Maximus (who is a warrior) than someone like Katniss (who has never killed anyone before, if I remember right).

I have a huge problem with this idea of "The Rape Games", though (from the article you quoted). There's a reason it's called "The Hunger Games", not "The Murder Games", for Pete's sake--because clearly enough participants were trying to out-survive the other tributes, rather than kill them.

#4 Tyler

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Posted 19 March 2012 - 04:22 PM

I have a huge problem with this idea of "The Rape Games", though (from the article you quoted). There's a reason it's called "The Hunger Games", not "The Murder Games", for Pete's sake--because clearly enough participants were trying to out-survive the other tributes, rather than kill them.



There's a good explanation of the "Hunger Game" name at this Hunger Games wiki, but it's heavy on spoilers. Basically, the districts of Panem banded together and rebelled against the Capitol, but the Capitol eventually overpowered them, and

Every year since the rebellion, the Capitol forces 24 children into the arena and uses hidden cameras to televise the events in order to both entertain the Capitol citizens and remind the twelve districts how completely at the Capitol's mercy they are.



Edited by Tyler, 19 March 2012 - 04:31 PM.


#5 Ryan H.

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Posted 19 March 2012 - 04:38 PM

I would argue that questions about the premise of these books are just as relevant to a movie like Gladiator--even though that movie isn't as fundamentally about a murder sport as the first Hunger Games book is, it is still about one in a fundamental way (just look at the title!). I think it is easier to overlook the question when the murder-sport protagonist is someone like Maximus (who is a warrior) than someone like Katniss (who has never killed anyone before, if I remember right).

Oh, GLADIATOR raises all sorts of ethical questions along these lines, and one of the reasons I loved the abandoned GLADIATOR 2 script--as crazy as it was--is that it offered a pretty direct moral critique of Maximus, which I found pleasing given the way the first GLADIATOR distastefully glorified his quest for vengeance.

#6 Rachel Anne

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Posted 19 March 2012 - 05:19 PM

Here is how I would see the ethics of the situation:

I think it a reasonable supposition that the tributes are in the position of people who have been drafted for an unjust war, and face execution if they do not comply. If that analogy holds, then a tribute should refuse to attempt to kill other participants, even at the cost of their own life. Franz Jaegerstaetter, an Austrian peasant, refused to serve in the Nazi army, and was executed as a result. (And was declared a martyr and beatified for doing so.)

It does seem, however, that tributes would be morally permitted, however, to violently resist those attempting to force their compliance in the games, including the use of lethal force. I believe that the government's conduct in attempting to enforce compliance is so clearly outside of any moral authority that the default imperative for citizens to obey the law is waived.

I am doubtful of the self-defense justification for participation. If I would only try to kill you in self-defense, then I am innocent and you have no right to take my life. Similarly, if you would only try to kill me in self-defense, then you are innocent and I have no right to take your life. The result is a stand-off in which neither of us would attempt to take the other's life.

Another take: if you and I are in a confrontation, whoever makes the first move to attack cannot claim to be acting in self-defense: there is no threat to which they are responding. The simple possibility that the other person might attack you is not in itself justification to attack them. I don't think that the question of when a threat escalates to the point at which an attack in response is justifiable is of concern here; everyone is clearly under a responsibility not to make any such threats, as doing so negates any claim they could make of self-defense.

You do have the right to use lethal force in self-defense if you knew that someone else had decided to attack you, even if you knew they were only motivated by fear for their own lives. (This could apply to your right to defend yourself against either other participants in the games or to agents of the state attempting to enforce your compliance in the games.)

That the participants are morally bound to refuse means that if everyone acts morally, the Hunger Games cannot exist. Given that the Hunger Games are an evil, the non-existence of the games is a morally correct result on a social, as opposed to an individual, level. This outcome would support the correctness of the arguments above for individual ethics.

#7 Tyler

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Posted 19 March 2012 - 06:09 PM

That the participants are morally bound to refuse means that if everyone acts morally, the Hunger Games cannot exist.


This makes sense philosophically, although it's a bit more complicated in the world of the books. The Games take place in an arena designed by the Capitol to maximize their dramatic potential; the game controllers can manipulate the arena (by creating a forest fire, for example) and could conceivably wipe out the tributes even if they were behaving peacefully. If I remember right, there are scenes where the controllers ratchet up the environmental obstacles in order to force the tributes into conflict, and then dial them down once they start fighting.

#8 Rachel Anne

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Posted 19 March 2012 - 06:32 PM

This makes sense philosophically, although it's a bit more complicated in the world of the books. The Games take place in an arena designed by the Capitol to maximize their dramatic potential; the game controllers can manipulate the arena (by creating a forest fire, for example) and could conceivably wipe out the tributes even if they were behaving peacefully. If I remember right, there are scenes where the controllers ratchet up the environmental obstacles in order to force the tributes into conflict, and then dial them down once they start fighting.

That the tributes are being pressured is not in dispute. That this lessens their guilt isn't in dispute either. But let's suppose I am under all this pressure. I come upon the other tributes. They all hold up their hands and tell me, "None of us will hurt you in any way." Do you think that I am justified in wading into them and slaughtering all of them? I don't see it. Would YOU do it?

Edited by bowen, 19 March 2012 - 06:44 PM.


#9 Lynn He

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Posted 19 March 2012 - 07:19 PM

I'm with Wilson in that I hate the premise for The Hunger Games, which is why I've avoided it up until now. On this one, I think I will need to hear from at least a few people I know and respect, recommending it, before I do, if I do, and I haven't yet.

#10 Tyler

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Posted 19 March 2012 - 07:56 PM

That the tributes are being pressured is not in dispute. That this lessens their guilt isn't in dispute either. But let's suppose I am under all this pressure. I come upon the other tributes. They all hold up their hands and tell me, "None of us will hurt you in any way." Do you think that I am justified in wading into them and slaughtering all of them? I don't see it. Would YOU do it?


I wasn't thinking of the morality or justification for their actions as much as the thought that they're probably going to die either way. But if we want to go down that road, I suppose it would end up in a discussion along the lines of Richard Matheson's story "The Last Day" or Von Trier's Melancholia. That is, if you know you're going to so splat no matter how you act, does it still matter what you do before the final event? I'd say that it does, which comes from my belief that the end of life on earth wouldn't mean the end of existence itself, and your condemned-state actions would follow you into eternity. I think Collins is more interested in the series as an oppression/liberation metaphor than an existential morality play, though.

To come back to The Hunger Games, though, the ending, in which
Spoiler
which is a prospect I can get on board with.

That becomes more complicated in the later books, as
Spoiler


#11 Rachel Anne

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Posted 19 March 2012 - 08:30 PM


That the tributes are being pressured is not in dispute. That this lessens their guilt isn't in dispute either. But let's suppose I am under all this pressure. I come upon the other tributes. They all hold up their hands and tell me, "None of us will hurt you in any way." Do you think that I am justified in wading into them and slaughtering all of them? I don't see it. Would YOU do it?


I wasn't thinking of the morality or justification for their actions as much as the thought that they're probably going to die either way. But if we want to go down that road, I suppose it would end up in a discussion along the lines of Richard Matheson's story "The Last Day" or Von Trier's Melancholia. That is, if you know you're going to so splat no matter how you act, does it still matter what you do before the final event? I'd say that it does, which comes from my belief that the end of life on earth wouldn't mean the end of existence itself, and your condemned-state actions would follow you into eternity. I think Collins is more interested in the series as an oppression/liberation metaphor than an existential morality play, though.

Understand that I'm not judging the books themselves. I haven't even read them. I'm only discussing the ethics in the situation. It is perfectly possible to write a good book (even in a moral sense) about bad people doing bad things. Further, an author can contrive the situation so to keep particular characters free from moral difficulty. For example, if I was the author of the Hunger Games and wanted to keep a particular tribute sympathetic to the reader, I would ensure that that particular tribute never attacked first, but always attacked in response to a prior attack (or at least a clear threat). Further, the entire premise could be used metaphorically to illuminate the divide-and-conquer method of rule that bad governments have used throughout history. So, I don't want to be understood as attacking the books solely on the basis of this sort of analysis.

With regard to "they're probably all going to die anyway", I'll point out that this is a consequentialist approach to the problem. Consequentialist systems evaluate moral problems based on the consequences of the decisions: an ethically good decision being one that produces a good outcome (and the best decision the one that produces the best outcome).

One could construct a consequentialist argument in favor of the tributes fighting: if they will all be killed if they don't fight, then that is a worse outcome than if all but one of them are killed. Therefore, the tributes SHOULD fight. A major problem with consequentialist ethics (long noted) is that they require us to see the future in order to solve problems, and seeing the future is a tricky thing. For example, one could also make a consequentialist argument that the tributes SHOULDN'T fight, because not fighting would, in the long term, undermine the system and end the games, which would be an even better outcome. How do we compare these two consequentialist arguments? Well, we really can't, because we can't see the future. It might be that the government, deprived of The Hunger Games, would adopt more brutal and repressive measures instead, which would be a worse outcome, and so the tributes SHOULD fight. And so it can go, ping-ponging back and forth among an infinite number of hypothetical futures with no clear way to determine which one is correct.

Anyway, given the discussion above, I think its clear that I'm not a big fan of consequentialism and so a consequentialist approach isn't one I would take. (And yes, I did notice that you didn't personally endorse a consequentialist approach to this either.)

Edited by bowen, 19 March 2012 - 09:56 PM.


#12 M. Leary

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Posted 19 March 2012 - 09:31 PM

I don't think that was the thinking of the early Christians in the face of Roman gladiatorial bloodsports. Was their willingness to die rather than participate in violence to entertain the mobs rock-bottom Christian morality, or was it heroic witness? I'm still thinking about that.


I have more to respond to on the books later, but a bit on this for now. Three things:

1. In the Lukan accounts, martyrdom is presented as a form of participation in Christ's proclamation to a nation that rejected its Messiah, which telescopes out to a pattern of discipleship in Acts that understands participating in the suffering of Christ as a missiological act of speaking kerygmatic truth to power. In Luke's record, disciples are called to identify with a the founder of a Kingdom whose seeds are planted in the violent rejection of unexpectedly fulfilled prophecy.

2. In Hebrews, the looming fate of martyrdom is to be embraced as participating in the tragic heritage of Hebrews 11, wherein we come to grips with the fact that the great heroes of the Hebrew Scriptures continued to believe despite the fact that they did not immediately receive the promises of the "God Who Saves." The author of Hebrews is essentially saying: Join them.

3. There is no sense of a "rock-bottom" Christian morality present in the narratives of these NT era martyrdoms, rather a "rock-bottom" eschatology that says this: Given the Lord you serve, your death here makes sense. It is stupid, ugly, and by this time you are bearing the emotional terror of seeing your family torn apart. But Jesus' death and resurrection is evidence that true life is the fallout of your submission to this political and social evil.

#13 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 19 March 2012 - 10:41 PM

I tried to read the first book because my friends were surprised that someone (who they think) reads more than is normal had not read it yet. I retorted that if I'm going to find myself reading any "YA fiction," I'll be sticking with the likes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Howard Pyle, or even J.K. Rowling, thanks very much. They said that I needed to keep track of what EVERYONE else was reading. I said that, on the contrary, I did not need to. One of the girls said she had a copy and that I simply MUST give it a try and that she just so happened to have it in her car right now. She gave it to me and explained that its got a great story just like Brave New World except much faster paced. After glancing through the first few pages, it did look like the sort of thing I could read quickly in one sitting. I began reading it and am ashamed to admit I spent more than an hour on it.

Halfway in, it turned out to be incredibly dull because of poor writing, cliched and stunted dialogue, and uninteresting unsympathetic characters. There are plenty of modern day authors who write good English prose. Suzanne Collins is not one of them. The violence started, but I couldn't make it through the whole book. That's an hour and a half of my time I could have spent reading something that has not been hyped for its sensational or lurid storyline instead of for the actual quality of the books. I thumbed through the other two books later at a bookstore. The writing quality does not improve with time.


It is perfectly possible to write a good book (even in a moral sense) about bad people doing bad things. Further, an author can contrive the situation so to keep particular characters free from moral difficulty. For example, if I was the author of the Hunger Games and wanted to keep a particular tribute sympathetic to the reader, I would ensure that that particular tribute never attacked first, but always attacked in response to a prior attack (or at least a clear threat). Further, the entire premise could be used metaphorically to illuminate the divide-and-conquer method of rule that bad governments have used throughout history. So, I don't want to be understood as attacking the books solely on the basis of this sort of analysis.

So, while it is theoretically possible to write a good book about a story like this, this is not such an example. There are, in fact, perfectly defensible grounds for attacking the books solely on the basis of their being poorly written. Gotta love how bad authors give their books sensational details to get them to sell.


And yet. I'm assuming that when the games actually begin, we will be in the position of rooting for a heroine who will actually be killing people. People who are trying to kill her, of course. Does that make it morally supportable self-defense?

... could a story about a heroine killing unwilling assailants to stay alive at least potentially erode something of our remaining cultural patrimony of reverence for life?

I doubt criticizing these books on the grounds that the heroine, Katniss, is willing to use lethal force to defend her own life will convince many people. I realize there's a genuine theological debate over whether Christians are allowed to use lethal force ... at all ... ever, but the Quaker position is the minority viewpoint. Besides, it's been a couple years, but I distinctly remember the heroine refusing to kill in the "Games" and did not get the impression that Ms. Collins was interested in cultivating much blood lust in the reader. From the moral point of view, I don't think the author intended the games to be anything other than a reprehensible equivalent to, oh say, the Russian-roulette "games" in Deer Hunter.

In summary, The Hunger Games books will desensitize your kids to shoddy writing more than they will desensitize them to violence.

#14 Nathaniel

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Posted 20 March 2012 - 01:08 AM

In summary, The Hunger Games books will desensitize your kids to shoddy writing more than they will desensitize them to violence.

This statement reminds me of Harold Bloom's famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) pan of the Harry Potter books in the Wall Street Journal several years ago. Aesthetic originality in popular literature apparently isn't much of a concern anymore.

Edited by Nathaniel, 20 March 2012 - 01:12 AM.


#15 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 20 March 2012 - 07:20 AM


In summary, The Hunger Games books will desensitize your kids to shoddy writing more than they will desensitize them to violence.

This statement reminds me of Harold Bloom's famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint) pan of the Harry Potter books in the Wall Street Journal several years ago. Aesthetic originality in popular literature apparently isn't much of a concern anymore.

Harold Bloom regardless, there's still a tolerable argument to be made that authors like Suzanne Collins and Stephenie Meyer are bad writers in contrast to good writers like J.K. Rowling or Madeleine L'Engle.

#16 SDG

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Posted 20 March 2012 - 08:19 AM

Harold Bloom regardless, there's still a tolerable argument to be made that authors like Suzanne Collins and Stephenie Meyer are bad writers in contrast to good writers like J.K. Rowling or Madeleine L'Engle.

Madeline L'Engle was a very good writer.

J. K. Rowling is a decent writer.

Suzanne Collins, from what I've seen, is a competent writer.

Then there's Stephenie Meyer.

Both Rowling and Collins are successful and popular more for their imagination, their worlds, and their knack for vivid conflict and tension than for their way with words. Meyer also is successful and popular for something other than her way with words. It is not really possible to separate L'Engle's appeal as a writer from her way with words.

#17 Tyler

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Posted 20 March 2012 - 05:54 PM

Is this the kind of thing you're looking for, SDG?




#18 SDG

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Posted 20 March 2012 - 07:55 PM

Is this the kind of thing you're looking for, SDG?

I'm looking for moral perspective on the implications of the books. This video appears to be an evangelistic attempt to use the popularity of the books as a hook to share the gospel. I'm not sure I follow your line of thought, here.

#19 Andrew

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Posted 21 March 2012 - 11:53 AM

Interesting thoughts, here. A few thoughts come to mind in response (and I've written a bit about the books elsewhere, so please forgive me if I repeat myself overmuch):

- I'm more in agreement with SDG's assessment of Collins' skills than with Jeremy's. I thought Collins put together interesting characters with some psychological substance in Book 1, written competently. Books 2 and 3 were diminishing returns for me: the characters became less likeable and interesting, and Collins' deficiencies really shone through in Book 3, as the repetitive nature of sundry traps and passageways were murkily described and pretty uninteresting.

- Where I think Collins succeeds reasonably well is in depicting the effects of violence and trauma upon innocent minds and souls. We see the main protagonists of the trilogy harden and coarsen as the books progress (with a beautiful parallel process in the pathetic drunken Haymitch), which certainly contributes to their unlikeability.

- A profile of Collins (in the Sunday NYT Magazine several months ago, IIRC), deepened my appreciation for what the author was attempting. It was made clear that growing up with a Vietnam vet father had a huge impact on Collins' personal life and the characters she created. On further reflection, I can't help but wonder if the Games are in some way a metaphor for war: young people (always the young) sacrificed for a nation's entertainment and 'prosperity,' where of course we root for our own 'side' and dehumanize those we oppose. Maybe Collins was striving for the awful mix of exhiliration/adrenaline and revulsion that combat naturally stirs up; she certainly made me reflect on my discomfort at the book's premise.

#20 David Smedberg

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Posted 24 March 2012 - 12:17 PM

As I noted before, I never read past the first book in the series--I suspected diminishing returns and gave up. But I found myself thought-provoked by this article which imagines what George Washington would have thought of the series:

PATHEOS: Sounds like you’re enjoying retirement.

GW: That, and keeping up with young adult literature.

PATHEOS: Really? I wouldn’t have guessed that.

GW: Well, I used to tend toward Locke and Paine, but Winston kept going on and on about this series Harry Potter. He objected to the hairstyle worn by Rufus Scrimgeour in the movies, but he says the series was in whole a celebration of his life and life’s work.

PATHEOS: All of it?

GW: Sure, he was droning on over cigars and whiskey about how the epic narrative embodied the very spirit of Britain during the darkest days of World War II. How Harry Potter was a British everyman who found unknown courage inside himself to fight evil even in the face of almost certain defeat. Blah blah blah. He tends to go on.


And further:

See, in the first book, Katniss Everdeen shows a lot of spunk as she poaches food for her family and volunteers as a tribute, or death match fighter, in her sister’s place. I like that lass. Reminds me of a few Colonial girls I knew.

But in the second book, she becomes the symbol of revolution.

PATHEOS: And revolution is your gig.

GW: Absolutely. Revolution is my gig. It’s what I know. I mean, in The Hunger Games, a fat and lazy Capitol sucks all the resources from its districts, leaving them starving. Can I get a “No taxation without representation,” What? What?...[ ] But it all falls apart.

PATHEOS: No! Really?

GW: Yes. My hopes were dashed. See, Katniss never really takes up revolution inside, you know, in her heart. She suspects the new District 13 president is just like the old Capitol president. She never believes in the cause of freedom. In the book, she’s right. She’s using Katniss and she just wants power.

PATHEOS: Power? For power’s sake?

GW: Yes. It’s as if freedom doesn’t exist or is just an illusion. Katniss regrets fighting.

PATHEOS: Regrets it? Did you ever regret it?

GW: I always regretted the suffering, the lives lost on both sides. But we were fighting for something, something real, you know?


This contrast between Harry Potter and The Hunger Games really struck me. I hope that we haven't created for ourselves here an American tale which re-writes our most cherished values.

Edited by David Smedberg, 24 March 2012 - 12:17 PM.