The Hunger Games has at least three very compelling things: the moral dilemma, the page-turner plot, and the character Katniss. Obviously, one has to get over Collins’ great weakness: names. But she makes up for that with the characters.
The moral dilemma is this: the Capitol rules the districts oppressively and every year the districts are required to offer up two tributes under the age of 18 (or so) to fight to death in a televised event. If you are one of those children, what do you do? How do you survive without capitulating? Can you? Collins walks you through the dawning implications as the books unfold; it is a panorama of horror. The nice thing is that this young adult literature contains no semicolons that might frustrate its target audience with requirements above their capacity; just a lot of chopped sentences and people.
The plot is wonderfully done and well sustained through the three books. In a way, the same thing happens in each, only each time it gets worse. The reason Suzanne Collins does this is that she knows what she is aiming at. Oppression is simply war by other means, and as things escalate you understand that her great theme is war: what it does to people, how awful it is. Near the end our heroine is seriously considering various means of suicide—which is the ultimate act of war (see Chesterton).
And what is most compelling is what the situation does to Katniss, the heroine. As the story progresses, Collins beguiles her readers so that one cares about Katniss, rejoices in her triumphs and is appalled at her setbacks. It works very well. Really, the power of The Hunger Games is the character of Katniss Everdeen: her courage, what is precious to her, how she changes and develops, her decency. And in the end the big let-up, her vindictiveness and loss of decency.
One could argue the end is not redemptive but rather vindictive. And the ending is certainly characterized by a certain ambiguity as to the satisfactory resolution of events. Resentment and revenge rise–not entirely unexpectedly–to cloud the events at the sudden conclusion. I think this is due to Collins’ point about war; in her mind war has no satisfactory resolution. So we end our wars and go on living by whatever means, and so does Katniss. Because after the wrenching considerations of suicide in the aftermath of the climactic and catastrophic conclusion to the war, she takes up life and goes so far in affirming it as to have children.
One of the things we learn very early on about Katniss is that she intends never to bring children into a world that knows the Hunger Games, one that knows war. But in the end she does, and I think Collins meant it as a redemptive epilogue. It is a bit meager, but it is there. It is all that war leaves.
And with nothing greater, nothing transcendent, what would be left?
I wish there had been chivalry. Here’s this terrible dystopian vision; what could be better than for the light of chivalry to shine of our heroine at the crucial moment? The answer to the perpetual renewal of wars by whatever means waged among us of the human race is not that we are going to usher in world peace—and think how much a modern author of a run-away bestseller is conceding in our times to write a book denying that pipe dream. No, the answer is that there must be rules, there must be honor. The only thing descending again into barbarity will bring is a new and crying need for real chivalry, for a code of honor that is more valuable to the soldier than life. This is what is missing in The Hunger Games, it seems to me: or maybe I should say it is what Katniss whom we so admire never gets. Had there been a point where somebody begins to read Malory . . . ah well.
Of course, chivalry would require the affirmation of something transcendent. I was watching recently a BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters with Katrina (we liked it awfully; though I’m sure the book is way better;). The triumph after all her trials of Molly Gibson is an affirmation of a transcendent benevolence that upholds the moral order. But when that is not the clear vision of the writer, the only thing you get by pretending such and outcome will be sentimentality. Collins does not fail there, and I think she’s trying—however badly it may seem to some—to find a way out of brutality on the other hand.
I think that’s Collins’ message: war can have no heroes. The theme is the same of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen: denying that it is sweet and right to die for a cause greater than yourself. Or perhaps I should say they deny that such a cause exists. Katniss loses her hold on that cause, it fades from view the moment she shoots her last arrow. And then? Then life continues, diminished.