As The First Amendment Center recently reported, this year Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy made the list of “challenged” books for the second year in a row—meaning that the books were among those that most frequently sparked a formal written complaint, sent to a library or school, requesting that the book be restricted or removed because of its content or lack of appropriateness. (The list of challenged books is compiled by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.)
Initially, as the First Amendment Center also reported, when the focus was on the first book in the trilogy, The Hunger Games itself, complaints fell into three categories: that the trilogy was sexually explicit; that it was too violent; and that it was inappropriate for the age group reading it. (I won’t address that last complaint here, as I believe that parents and teachers are generally the best judges of when their particular young kids are ready—or not yet ready—for a particular book.)
The subsequent film based on The Hunger Games, meanwhile, portrayed much of the action in the arena where the battles take place as being so fast-paced as to be blurry, in order to ensure a PG-13 rating, rather than an R, so that younger viewers could see the film.
Two Ratings Fights, and Two Right Answers
It’s interesting to compare the ratings decision regarding the movie version of the first book in the trilogy, The Hunger Games, to The Weinstein Company’s recent ratings decision—which I wrote about earlier here on Justia’s Verdict about “Bully.” The Weinstein Company ultimately opted to release “Bully,” a documentary about bullying in schools, unrated, rather than make the concessions that would have been necessary to ensure a PG-13 rating. The makers of “The Hunger Games” made the opposite decision, to go for PG-13.
I think both decisions made sense. “Bully” had a responsibility to do justice to the true, lived experience of the bullied kids whose lives it documented—including the moments where bullying incorporated expletives. Leaving out the expletives would have meant watering down reality. In turn, The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins, a co-screenwriter of the movie who reportedly worked closely with director Gary Ross, was in an ideal situation to know whether the screenplay and the film compromised, or held true to, her own book’s vision.
Examining the Complaints About the Hunger Games Trilogy
Now that the full Hunger Games trilogy has been published, complainants have written to libraries with other concerns, adding to those that were communicated earlier about sex, violence, and the lack of suitability for readers of certain ages. Now, complainants have called the trilogy “anti-ethnic,” “anti-family,” and even “occult/satanic.” I’ll argue here that none of these complaints, in the end, holds water. But that argument, by necessity, contains spoilers, so readers are duly warned.
The Complaint About Sex in the Hunger Games Trilogy Is Off-Base
To begin, the complaint about sex in the Hunger Games trilogy is difficult to fathom. The sixteen-year-old heroine, Katniss, and hero, Peeta—who go into to the arena where they will battle 22 other children to their death—never have sex during any of the three books. They do share a bed at times, but the clear implication is that they merely comfort and hold each other, as they wait to enter the arena and face what may be their deaths.
Moreover, later in the trilogy, when a lie is propagated suggesting, for strategic reasons, that Katniss is pregnant, it’s made clear that there’s no way that she really might be pregnant. Katniss does get pregnant and have children at the very end of the trilogy—but only after she and Peeta marry, and years pass. When it happens, it is clear that she and he are both of age.
Moreover, even if Katniss and Peeta did have sex, while on the way to their virtually-certain death, who could really blame them? And, more to the point, could any sensible real-world teenager possibly take his or her own license to have sex from the choices of these fictional characters each of whose odds of dying appear to be 23-to-1?
Sex is also discussed in the trilogy when one prior Hunger Games competitor, Finnick, reveals that becoming a victor in the Hunger Games competition only leads to one’s being prostituted to the wealthy citizens of the Capitol. But surely, no reader could take offense with a victim of forced prostitution’s revealing the crimes of those who victimized him.
The Complaint That the Hunger Games Trilogy Is Occult/Satanic
Another complaint about the Hunger Games trilogy—the “occult/satanic” claim—seems to have to do with the lack of religion in the trilogy. Indeed, what happens in the arena could be seen as a kind of human sacrifice—although the goal is to keep the districts from rebelling, rather than to placate some evil demon.
Here, too, however, context is key. The country in which all the characters live, Panem, is described as part of what once, long ago, used to be North America. At some time between then and the trilogy’s time, all religion was lost. So yes, Panem is faithless. But no one would describe Panem as anything but a nightmare society, so the books hardly endorse being faithless.
Indeed, if anything, the Hunger Games trilogy implicitly endorses mainstream religion—which was a hallmark of Panem’s far more civilized past.
The Complaints That the Hunger Games Trilogy Is Anti-Family and Anti-Ethnic
Next, the complaints that the Hunger Games trilogy is anti-family and anti-ethnic also are strikingly off-base.
Regarding the anti-family complaint, it’s true that Katniss loses respect for her mother when, after her father dies in a mining accident, her mother is frozen by depression, and unable to help despite the fact that her children—Katniss and her younger sister Primrose—are literally starving to death. In response, Katniss learns to hunt to feed her family and sometimes takes a flippant or sarcastic attitude toward her mother. Thus, it’s true that Katniss lacks respect for her mother in The Hunger Games itself, but she has at least some reason to do so.
Moreover, and more importantly, by the third book in the trilogy, Katniss has become more compassionate toward her mother. She has come to understand that her mother’s depression was an untreated illness, and more generally, to understand that at times people are thrown into situations that at times, they are not equipped to handle. Katniss also learns to admire her mother’s ability to care for the sick and wounded. This subtle narrative of Katniss’s growth and maturity can hardly be captured by the label “anti-family.” Moreover, how “anti-family” can Katniss really be, when she volunteers to take her younger sister’s place in the arena? Finally, too, if we widen the lens to take in more than Katniss’s family, we see Gale hunting and working hard in the mines, so that his younger siblings have fewer chances to go into the arena. In sum, the trilogy is, if anything, pro-family.
Regarding the anti-ethnic charge, that accusation seems ironic in light of the ugly, racist complaints taking issue with the fact that the character of Rue, who is Katniss’s beloved ally in the arena, is dark-skinned in the “The Hunger Games” movie, just as she is in the book. It’s these racist readers—who read a description of a black girl but somehow envisioned a white girl—who are anti-ethnic.
The Complaint About Violence in the Hunger Games Trilogy
Ultimately, the core complaint about the Hunger Games trilogy may be the one that is based on its pervasive violence. But as with the trilogy’s mentions of sexuality, context is key. While the trilogy begins with a game, it ends with a war, and in war, there is violence. Indeed, author Suzanne Collins has stressed this aspect of the books—that they culminate in war—in her comments in response to complaints about the books’ violence level. But, importantly, the trilogy does not endorse violence for violence’s sake. The message is entirely to the contrary.
In The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, the architects of violence are patently, unequivocally evil. There is no chance, in the first two books in the trilogy, that any reader will side with the Capitol and its brutal, unjust games. Indeed, the second time the tributes go into the arena, even some pampered Capitol citizens seem disturbed by the development.
Things get more complicated and difficult, however, in the trilogy’s final book, Mockingjay—where the rebels come within a hair’s breadth of recapitulating the very society against which they have just warred. It’s still the case in Mockingjay that no reader will side with the Capitol, but there’s a possibility that the rebels will essentially become the Capitol, leaving no “good guys” to root for. Still, though, it remains entirely clear that the viewpoint of the Hunger Games trilogy and its author is in favor of peace, not war.
Other Classics Taught to Young Readers in School Are Also Violent
For those who are still inclined to write the Hunger Games trilogy off as too violent, it’s worth remembering that other books that depict violence—and even, in some cases, violence among teenagers—are hailed as classics, and taught to schoolchildren, for violence is part of the drama of human life.
Here are a few examples:
In A Separate Peace, when one schoolboy jounces a tree limb and causes his friend to fall and break his leg, the line between intentional and accidental conduct becomes a major issue.
In The Chocolate War, a rebellious student is brutally beaten by his peers after he refuses to participate in a school fundraiser.
The Great Gatsby contains a fatal car accident, a murder, and a suicide.
The Iliad chronicles deadly battles in the course of a lengthy war.
Finally, in Lord of the Flies, killings occur when a group of boys, all younger than 13, are stranded on an island and cannot maintain a lawful, cohesive society among themselves. Like the Hunger Games trilogy, Lord of the Flies is a frequently challenged book on the ALA’s list. It is also an enduring classic that is frequently taught in schools.
I believe that, in time, the Hunger Games trilogy will become a classic too, taught widely in schools. Even now, it is already being taught—as the numerous requests from teachers on Donorschoose.org for funding to buy more copies for their low-income students well illustrates. I think the teachers are wise to teach the trilogy, as it strikes the rare balance of offering both a riveting story and interesting and important ideas.