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Grace and I just finished the Hunger Games trilogy. Suzanne Collins writes a story from the 1st-person perspective of a 16 (17) year old girl by the name of Katniss Everdeen. Katniss lives in Panem – a country divided into 12 (13) districts situated in a post-global warming North America. Panem is ruled by a despot from a territory called the Capital. Collins reveals little about the history of Panem. The effect of limiting the reader’s knowledge of the history of Panem focuses their attention on the present. What happens is what matters.

Panem experienced a revolt 75 years prior to Katniss’s story. In response to the revolt, the Capital instituted the Hunger Games as punishment. The Hunger Games gathers 24 youth, 2 from each district, in an arena to fight to the death. The Hunger Games also serves as entertainment, mostly for the residents the Capital whose shallowness is poignantly displayed by the way they alter their bodies, the way they talk, their tendency toward excess, and their lack of sympathy toward those who are truly suffering.

This dissonace of cruelty and entertainment creates a conflict of interest in the mind of the reader. The physical feats of the tributes (the participants in the Hunger Games), the delicate politics they must play with audience in order to receive aid, the exotic, yet dangerous arenas all create a tense story that keeps you on the edge of your seat: “This is good! I want more!” Yet, Collins does not allow you to escape the cruel world the Hunger Games takes place in. No one ever wins the Hunger Games. No one. They just survive. One poignant example is Haymich Abernathy, Katniss’s mentor and champion of one of the Hunger Games, who chooses to escape the pain he experiences through the bottle.  Haymich’s advice to Katniss sums it up: “Stay alive.” The Games has a lasting effect on the participants – they are tortured for the rest of their lives. At the end, you just want it to stop. In the last book, Mockingjay, the Games do stop, but the game does not. The cruelty of the world Katniss lives in endures til the end of the series.

Katniss is in constant turmoil, both physically and emotionally. Momentary relief is met with enormous trials each occurring in surpassing measure. Katniss takes personal responsiblity for every death that happens under her watch whether it was by her hand or not. She is impulsive, always defying orders, and yet she is always acted upon – manipulated, tortured, commanded, rescued. She goes through a tremendous amount of suffering. She has to endure the loss and torture of friends and family. She has to continually sift through lies and half-truths and is often confused. Her moral compass always spins; her conviction often leads her right, but she always questions whether or not she did right. She always endures. I want her to be rewarded for her endurance – to experience redemption, but she never triumphs. She just survives. No one wins the Hunger Games.

Collins plumbs the depth of human depravity and suffering. Nobility and goodness come out on top, but I wonder if it was only because the “odds were their favor.” Very little can be redeemed from suffering in Collin’s world. Makeup and medical advancements can heal the physical wounds of war (Katniss’s deaf ear is healed in the book). War and cruelty leave deeper scars that cannot be fully healed. Nightmares persist for Katniss even 15 years after the main events of the book take place. Collin’s books encourage us to fight past the superficial (Are you not entertained?). Emotion and psychological damage can last a long time too. I am reminded, though, of another truth not contained in Collin’s trilogy. We live in a world where redemption is real. Suffering is short in comparison to the joy that comes from God. God’s word steadies the moral compass and provides wisdom to understand and act appropriately.

“May the odds be ever in your favor” is a common phrase throughout the trilogy, but I think Paul’s benediction in Romans is more appropriate: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

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