Moral Ambiguity and The Hunger Games

One day in high school, a teacher was discussing the Holocaust. She pointed out that many people knew what was happening at the time, but chose to remain silent. Then she squared her shoulders. “I like to think that if I had been in that situation, I would have spoken up.”

I was probably sixteen at the time. I was not wise nor sophisticated by any standards (let alone sixteen-year-old girl standards), but I thought at the time she was full of beans. I grew up in a one-stoplight town, where the biggest threat to public safety was the excessive starling population. It’s one thing to declare yourself brave when all is well, it’s quite another to be brave when the Gestapo is dragging off your neighbors in the dead of the night.

Sure, I would like to think I would do differently. I can hope and pray that if I’m ever put to the test, I would stand up and do what’s right. But if the only thing that’s keeping my babies from harm is keeping my mouth shut? Well, I just can’t say for sure. Because for every Oskar Schindler, there are hundreds (thousands) of people who wish they could have a do-over.

That’s why I’ve been intrigued by criticisms of The Hunger Games. Some recent reviews have criticized what they see as the moral ambiguity of the books, likening it to explaining away the actions of Nazi war criminals who went along because they felt they had no choice.

Personally? I didn’t see it that way. One thing I think negative reviews of The Hunger Games continually fail to capture is not only inner conflict Katniss feels, but also the dissonance between outcomes she is promised and the true results of her decisions.

Over and over again, Katniss is put in an impossible situation. Each time, we get the sense that she hopes that if she just plays along for a little longer, everything will be fixed and she’ll be free to go on and live her life. And each time, she finds herself in a bigger mess than she was before.

I don’t think, like some do, that the message of The Hunger Games trilogy is that survival is the ultimate good. The real take-away message is that survival and compromise often come at a huge price. None of the survivors emerge unscathed.

One of the most telling lines in the movie was uttered by one of the careers before he died. (I’m not sure if it appeared in the book, although the sentiment was there.) “Go ahead and kill me,” he says. “I’m already dead. I’ve been dead for years, I just didn’t realize it.”

That’s the thing. In order to survive, Katniss is continually trying to reason with herself. She’s trying to tamp down her own misgivings. She’s trying to believe it when everyone else tells her it will all be over soon if she just plays along one more time. But the people who are advising her can’t see what only she and the other tributes can see: It’s never really over. The winners of the games (and later the rebels) might be alive with plenty of food to eat, but true inner peace eludes them. All of them are damaged in a huge way by the compromises they made.

Are teenagers going to see all these themes without help? Probably not. But I think that the kind of stories that are resonating with kids today are quite telling. Teens in these stories are living in worlds where the “powers that be” insist that everything will be okay if everyone just does as they’re told, and the kids are left to face the evils that the adults won’t acknowledge. This isn’t a happy world, but it reflects the world we’re leaving behind to our children.

God have mercy on us all.

Two other posts on The Hunger Games I’ve appreciated lately are this one by Wendy Alsup and this one by Wes Bredenhof


  1. Pam Troxel says

    Thank you and I agree with the points made in your article. The story is built on a foundation of defeat, apathy and utter depravity disguised as something very loosely covered as nobility. We must be careful as to how we define our words by our actions. Katniss is seen as a noble heroine because she sacrifices herself in her sisters place. But what is really happening is forcing human’s to choose when they have no choice. Giving them options, from a “cornered” position. That is not choice, that is a dog fight for a bigger arena of betters and users.

  2. says

    I haven’t read the books, but your review and Corey’s are very thought provoking. These may be worthwhile reads after all if it helps crack the surface and get to deeper issues that our teens will be facing in the years ahead. I’m sharing your review with a teacher friend whose students are ga-ga over these books.

  3. says

    Found you through Corey’s F&J! Amazing thoughts. I have been pondering reading this book (and/or watching the movie), and this definitely gives me some good nuances to look for. Very intriguing.


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