The original printing was for 50,000 copies. Twice the number rose to 200,000 copies. Today there are 15.5 million copies of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian novel, The Hunger Games in print. Fantasies which achieve such popularity usually tap into a deep hunger in the population.
Following the Great War, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote his Lord of the Rings trilogy at a time when the Christian story still lived in the battered and disillusioned culture. He set his action in a mythical prehistory to illustrate the enduring truths of Christian archetypes and tropes to a changing world .
Today the Christian story, so familiar in Tolkien’s day, has faded in our culture. Biblical figures and metaphors are no longer part of our common knowledge. Aggressive, totalitarian secularism is on the rise, driving Christian thinking to the margins of society. Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games assumes current trends continue into the distant future. In this future there is no religion, no memory of religion, not even a memory of any supernatural dimension to human existence.
In the North American country of Panem (“Bread”, an ironic reference to “Bethlehem”, the city of bread) a totalitarian government maintains power by feeding the terrified population an annual televised, life and death gladiatorial contest –American Idol plus Miss America plus Survivor – until only one teenage regional contestant survives. The game is as old as the Sacrifice the Children to the ancient god Baal
In this Nietzschean world, most people hunger for survival so that an elite few may feast on power. In Collins’ bleak dystopian future, the Christian “hunger for righteousness” is not even a lost quotation. It is a lost concept.
What remains is the law of nature’s jungle. But beneath the surface God’s “natural law” lives written on human hearts. Philosopher J. Budziszewski explains that
the expression ‘natural law’ refers to the basic principles of right and wrong that are true for everyone because they are rooted in the very nature of the created human person, and knowable to everyone because we are endowed with conscience and the power to deliberate…[W]e all experience the reality of natural law, because it is rooted in our creational design, woven into the fabric of the human person. We can’t help but notice certain obvious things about ourselves.
With natural law the Kingdom of God reigns on the molecular level; God has baked His eternal truth into the very fiber of Panem life. We see that
Man cannot live by bread alone.
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
I did hunger, and ye gave me to eat; I did thirst, and ye gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and ye received me.
I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
He took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.”
Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!
While no character in her novel would recognize the quotations, Ms. Collins’ hero Peeta Mellark the baker’s son (Martin Luther called the baker a “mask” of God), and sixteen year old heroine Katniss Everdeen, the daughter of a deceased coal miner, have their identities rooted in these “natural” truths. Peeta is “so steady, solid as a rock”, while Katniss is “the girl who was on fire”, “as radiant as the sun.”
Through their life and death trials, Peeta and Katniss seek to clarify both their motivations for action and their feelings for one another. In the process, they explore all of the possibilities of” love.” C. S. Lewis discussed four types of love:
Storge (Affection/Family) – Katniss is animated primarily by her love for her depressed mother and young sister, Prim. Katniss, following the sudden death of her father in a mine accident, finds herself the family’s provider. Like Huw, the son of a deceased miner in How Green Was My Valley, Katniss’spirit (Huw” is Welsh for spirit) narrates the novel. She wears a golden pin, the image of the mockingjay, like the Biblical dove, a symbol of the spirit. She realizes that the pin “is like having a piece of my father with me, …protecting me.” The mockingjay sings the tune her father taught her long ago, a song which proves her salvation.
Once in the games, Katniss begins to explore her feelings for her district’s male counterpart, Peeta. Her primarily encounter with him had been when Peeta, sensing her desperation to feed her family, gave her a loaf of burned bread, only to receive a severe punishment from his mother in return for his saving act.
Phileo (Friendship) – Friendship is a strong bond existing between people who share a common interest or activity. Peeta and Katniss both desire to survive the games. Both agree to convince the public that they are “star-crossed lovers.” Katniss needs to learn if Peeta is sincere in his feeling toward her,or if his love is a deceptive act of survival. As she comes to trust Peeta’s feelings for her, Katniss struggles to identify with her own feelings for Peeta. Neither character wants to kill the other in order to survice
Eros (Romance) – This is love in the sense of ‘being in love’. This kind of love longs for an emotional connection with the other person. Peeta claims to have had this feeling for Katniss all his life. But Katniss has only felt this for her hunting companion Gale. Katniss senses herself developing this love for Peeta and, when faced with returning home at the close of the games, Katniss must decide if Peeta or Gale holds her romantic future.
Agape (Unconditional Love) – This is the love that brings forth caring regardless of circumstance. The essence of agape love is self-sacrifice. It is a decision to love regardless of feelings.Both Peeta and Katniss play the survival games determined to sacrifice themselves, if need be, for the sake of other, weaker ones – players, family members, and even each other.
The dialectic on love enacted between Katniss and Peeta, echoes the final encounter between the risen Jesus and his oldest disciple Peter:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
Peter has denied Jesus three times . Jesus asks him three times to clarify the nature of their relationship. Peter uses the verb for phileo love – friendship – all three times . But Jesus uses the verb for agape love in the first two questions. In the third exchange Jesus switches to Peter’s use of phileō. Peter may not think himself capable of the higher and purer form of love. So, rather than argue with Peter, Jesus settles for phileo, for the time being. Peter will discover through his own actions that he is, as Jesus knew, capable of agape love, after the Holy Spirit descends upon him at Pentecost.
Likewise, Katniss departs from Peeta after sorting through the different kinds of love she has for him:
I can’t explain how things are with Gale because I don’t know myself. That it’s no good loving me because I’m never going to get married anyway and he’d just end up hating me later instead of sooner. That if I do have feelings for him, it doesn’t matter because I’ll never be able to afford the kind of love that leads to a family, to children…I also want to tell him how much I already miss him… [Peeta the]boy with the bread is slipping away from me. I take his hand, holding on tightly, preparing for the cameras, and dreading the moment when I will finally have to let go.
In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien consciously employs Christian signs and symbols to animate his mythic story of Christian truth. In The Hunger Games, Collins uses natural signs – for example, “Peeta Mellark, and the bread that gave me hope, and the dandelion that reminded me that I was not doomed” , to consciously or unconsciously affirm the eternal truths of God’s love.
The God who created love by loving has implanted that love in us. We hunger for righteousness, for God’s love, in all its dimensions. The Hunger Games grabs the reader by illustrating the battle between God’s love and the forces of the Capitol, forces the apostle John calls the “Antichrist”:
The Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world. You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. …[W]e know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error… [L]ove is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love… . Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. … God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him because He first loved us. If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.
1 John 4
The Hunger Games presents days of judgement – the spirit of truth against the spirit of error, the courage of love against the fear of hunger.
Victory comes to the one who loves.