The Humanist Heart of the Hunger Games

By Chris Lindstrom

Turkey Day! Only 366 days until the release of the Hunger Games sequel! We’re talking about the best-selling young adult trilogy by Suzanne Collins and the corresponding movie versions. There’s an entire market of Hunger Games-derived products to keep you satiated until November 2014. You can watch the DVD, then dig into The Hunger Games & Philosophy: A Critique of Pure Treason while listening to Songs from District 12 and Beyond and eating some fabulous concoction from The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook: From Lamb Stew to “Groosling”. In my hunger for all things Hunger Games, I ran across a blog article by John Granger, a writer interested in the intersection of literature, faith and culture expounding on Christian symbolism in the Hunger Games. I was amused at his insistence on Peeta as a Christ figure in light of Peeta’s brush with insanity and PTSD in book three, but it got me thinking.  If the Hunger Games is truly high art, a many-layered myth with universal resonance, is a humanist reading of the work possible?

The Hunger Games are set in the future, after rising seas have eaten up much of the land, in a country called Panem. Capitol residents live in luxury while the surrounding districts are poor and subjugated. The ultimate tool of domination is the annual Hunger Games. Two children from each district are “reaped” as tributes to fight to the death for the amusement of Capitol citizens. Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her sister’s place in the Games, alongside Peeta Mellark, who once took a beating to give her family bread. After much we-who-are-about-to-die-salute-you pageantry, the Games begin. Katniss outsmarts the gamemakers, threatening joint suicide with poisoned berries, forcing the gamemakers to allow both of them to live or have no victor at all. The games continue outside the arena with threats against Katniss’ family and friends unless she can convince the masses that love rather than rebellion motivated her. As a symbol of the resistance, Katniss must navigate between public façade and private reality, ending with a romp through the capitol as rebels overthrow the government.

From a humanist perspective, Panem’s most striking feature is the total lack of religion anywhere. No churches, synagogues, or mosques are mentioned. No one prays. Holidays, like the Harvest Festival, appear entirely secular. It is as though all memory of religion has vanished from the earth. However, Panem is hardly a humanist utopia. Humanism is a commitment to building an ethical framework based on human needs, rather than authority and tradition. Panem exploits human needs to keep authority in place. Suzanne Collins indicates that her inspiration for the series was a blending of reality TV with war footage, but this is no simple anti-war screed. The story is certainly a critique of a society fixated on the next American Idol while drones kill wedding parties in Afghanistan, but the series can also be read as a feminist fantasy where bad-ass girl makes good or even a high school morality tale where the top of the social pyramid gets their comeuppance. (Where else would your love life be so constantly scrutinized?)  I believe there is also a humanist parable within the Hunger Games’ layers.

The Humanist Manifesto III explains that “Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.” If humanists had a holy trinity of moral development, it would be reason, evidence and compassion. Katniss’ interior journey illustrates the steps toward ethical maturity. When the story begins, her sister is the only person she is sure she loves. Even after her mother recovers from a struggle with depression, Katniss continues to distrust her. She writes off Haymitch Abernathy, the district’s only surviving victor, as a drunk. However, Katniss gradually expands her circle of concern as she comes across new evidences that trigger her compassion. In the arena, she teams up with a young girl named Rue and tries to protect her because Rue reminds her of her sister. Her own traumatic experiences in the Games force her to look at her mother and Haymitch with new eyes. Eventually, she is able to see the humanity in people she has never met, arguing for mercy when the rebels attack a mountain stronghold in district 2 because the people inside remind her of her father and how he died in a mining accident.

It’s probably not an accident that Suzanne Collins has wrapped a tale of ethical development inside of a story about the damaging effects of war but she doesn’t stop there. Ethics made visible has ripple effects. When Rue dies, Katniss covers her body with flowers, an act of love, but also a reminder to others of Rue’s humanity and the Capitol’s barbarity. Something similar happens with the berries. Katniss herself even wonders why she did it. “If I held them out to save Peeta… because I loved him, I am … self-centered although forgivable. But if I held them out to defy the Capitol, I am someone of worth.” Katniss truly “has no idea the affect she can have.” She can’t see what we do: the revolutionary humanist idea at the heart of the Hunger Games is that that love and community can be the basis of resistance and the start of something big.

Chris Lindstrom has been a part of many freethought communities over the years. She is one of the founding directors of Camp Quest West, an affiliate of the National Camp Quest, and has also served on the board of the Silicon Valley’s Humanist Community.