Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Educator, Author

Considering The Hunger Games

            I have yet to see The Hunger Games movie, although I plan to soon. The release of the movie has a lot of parents asking, “Should I let my child read these books and see this movie?” So, I thought I would take a few minutes to review this book series for you to give you a better idea about the content and teachable moments that you may find.

            The Hunger Games is set in a time and place where people have destroyed themselves and rebuilt their world into a rigidly controlled and segmented society that is widely ruled through fear, intimidation, and outright brutality by the Capitol and maintained by representatives in each district that meet out punishment as they see fit. The regularly scheduled Hunger Games pit the young people of the different districts against one another in a life or death fight for survival. There is fear and death in these games and parts of the story, but there is also grace and love. This is not a pleasant series to read, in fact, it can be very difficult at times. So, you may wonder why you should give it a chance at all. The fact is, sometimes art is valuable not in spite of the fact, but because of the fact that it makes us uncomfortable. To be honest, I am not the type to just enjoy difficult art for its own sake, though. For me to be able to really engage with it, it has to touch me and make me think about my own life in a personal way, it has to challenge me to consider the way I live and how I might do it differently. This is what The Hunger Games does.

The main character and hero is Katniss, a girl who just wants to be left alone to do her own thing. As she witnesses the moral decay of her society, part of her just wants to run away from it all and take care of herself. Another part of her, spurred by other characters, urges her to be a part of making a difference, of fighting for something better. Katniss originally volunteers to be a tribute for her district to keep her younger sister from being in The Hunger Games. Just like many of us, her intentions are noble in a personal way, focused on an individual who she loves. But as the series builds, Katniss is forced to decide if she will continue to live her life focused on her individual needs, or if she will allow herself to become part of a bigger story. Does this sound familiar? Who of us hasn’t, or won’t at some point, stood at a crossroads in our life where we can see that if we choose one way, probably a more difficult way, we have the chance to make a difference not just for the individual people who we love, but for those beyond our small circle? Committing oneself to be a world changer is not an easy thing, it is often not a pleasant thing, and yet people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan B. Anthony, and those who make change every day such as teachers, ministers, physicians, police officers, and so forth continue to do it. Why do they do it? Why place yourself in a situation to be harmed for the sake of people who you don’t even know? Why choose to have a bigger view of your life than your own individual safety and comfort? This is a theme that The Hunger Games explores.

Another theme that is predominant in the series is that of being true to yourself and what you believe in. Katniss has a tribute that goes to The Hunger Games with her, his name is Peeta. In a powerful statement of individual purpose, Peeta tells Katniss, “ I keep wishing I could think of a way to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.” In a culture that is filled with superficiality and the pressure to find one’s meaning in the most trivial of ways, this theme will challenge young people to think about who they really are. When it comes down to it, the airbrushed, plasticized version of “ideal” that we are sold is nothing compared to the real beauty of a flesh and blood people struggling to find their purpose in this world. Throughout this series, the characters must come back to this idea of who they are, deep down inside, and how that will inform the choices they make. Regardless of the outside pressures, the difficulty is being true to oneself even in the darkest moments.

One of the things that is particularly powerful about this series is that the characters are not perfect. They make mistakes, they make selfish choices, and they struggle again and again with the two themes above. What I like about this is that it allows the reader to consider that when he or she has made a choice that doesn’t consider the greater good, that doesn’t reflect who they truly are, that there is redemption. After all, a well-lived life is not, in the end, about perfection. It is about the struggle of maintaining one’s integrity in spite of the challenges, of finding hope in places of darkness, of continuing to walk the hard but necessary path when you don’t feel that you can take one more step.

If we want to teach our children to think, to live intentionally, then we must offer them opportunities to be challenged in their understanding of the world and their place in it. Sure, it can be easier to just let our kids drift along on a sea of froth and superficiality, but that doesn’t provide them with the chance to really think about what they believe and why they believe it. We might give them scenarios, talk with them about these types of issues, but one of the most valuable components of art is that it touches us on a much deeper level, it tugs at our emotions, it stirs our thoughts in ways that a straightforward conversation just can’t do.

This book series and, I’m sure, the movie, is not for younger children. I would caution any parent to read the books themselves before having a child under 15 read them. My 12-year-old has read them, but I read them along with her and we had a lot of discussion about them. There are difficult and dark themes in this series, and your child will need to explore them with your guidance. Having said that, for older children I believe that the power of the themes are well worth the discomfort they may cause. In many ways, this series reminded me of the story of my friend, Serge Gasore, who is a survivor of the Rwandan genocide. Serge’s story is not pleasant to hear, and yet it touches my heart and challenges me in a way that no newspaper rendition could. When Serge shares his story, he does so because he knows that out of tragedy and darkness has sprung hope and light. If you’re on the fence about The Hunger Games books, I hope that you’ll decide to give them a chance with your older children and use them as an opportunity to explore some important and challenging themes.

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