SPOILER ALERT: Don't read on if you haven't read all three novels!
The Hunger Games presents us with a easily believable version of our future: cataclysmic war and environmental collapse sizzle democratic society, leaving a media-savvy dictatorship to repress the survivors for the sole benefit of the Capitol of Panem. Suzanne Collins’ portrayal of the politics behind tyranny and rebellion rang true. A divide-and-conquer strategy leaves the country’s outlying districts beholden to the metropole, and the grisly televised sensation of the Hunger Games keeps the Capitol’s masses entertained and the districts’ residents terrified. The rebellion leans also on broadcast media to unite the oppressed behind the Mockingjay, a symbol of revolution, eventually beating the regime at its own belligerent game. A politically astute allegory of today’s haves and have nots, indeed.
But one aspect of this post-apocalyptic world escaped Collins’ imagination: the life of faith. Of course, there are reasons for its omission: fear of offending those who care little for religion, or the sheer page constraints of an already hefty trilogy. Unfortunately, the story’s silence on issues of faith left a critical dimension of the characters’ depth and believability unrealized.
This is important to me as a fan of young adult fiction, and as a Christian studying to become a priest in the Episcopal Church. While I believe that faith in any of the world’s great religions would have lended punch and drama to the narrative, I am able to speak only from a Christian perspective in what follows.
Perhaps the author thought bringing up God would run counter to the suspension of reality she sought in these novels. But the contemporary connections she penned in are unmistakable: the obvious geographical and political references to the United States, the traditional nursery rhymes, the fashion aesthetics, and above all, the technology. The Hunger Games present a world that could be ours in just decades’ time. So how and when did religion—or just plain spirituality—scamper off the scene? What might its inclusion have added to this compelling read?
First, faith strengthens resolve. What was Katniss doing in the Justice Building after she’d just volunteered as tribute in place of her sister? Freaking out, understandably. But a belief in something larger than herself may have helped calm her during those tragic moments. A particularly Christian parallel to her self-sacrificial choice can be found in the decision of Jesus to offer himself to the governing authorities as a model of a life lived with moral integrity, regardless of the cost. Contemplating Jesus’ action may have helped Katniss understand her altruistic (and desperate) move as part of a Love larger than what she felt for Prim. Sharing these observations with the reader would have revealed a new side to Katniss and foreshadowed the role she’d play in the social upheaval to come. Instead, in this instance and in others we are led by Katniss through moral decision making that is uncritical, even emotionally detached (consider her assassination of President Coin, an ethically problematic action at best).
Faith also adds moral drama. This could have cut several ways. Maybe Peeta struggled within a restrictive religious upbringing that made Katniss’ libertine aura that much more attractive. Or resounding existential questions around the twin facts of an omnipotent God and a devastatingly evil police state could swirl beneath the plot’s surface. What about the wrestling with the dilemma of a religiously-prohibited action, such as murder, in the face of a “game” that demanded it? Collins left these and countless other sharp subplots in her imagination’s quiver.
Finally, faith offers realism. The Hunger Games nailed the political dimension of its narrative, and tackled terrible psychological trauma with care. But by failing to mention how faith might have played a role in the ability of characters to withstand violence, survive grief, and sustain hope, Collins missed an opportunity to delve deeper into the sources of human motivation and resilience. Instead, readers were invited to assume that Gale’s cold anger, Katniss’ impulsive courage, and Peeta’s endearing and enduring love were all they needed to make it through Panem’s maelstrom of violence. This authorial choice resulted in an unnecessary hollowness of character that called the larger realism of the narrative into question.
Collins wrote a superb young adult trilogy in The Hunger Games. There are plenty of reasons to keep faith off the story board, but in so doing she missed a chance to flesh out her characters, intensify the drama, and strengthen their resolve. Perhaps she thought these drawbacks acceptable so as to avoid the backlash from people of faith that might have come from an unsavory portrayal of religion in the novels. Take The Golden Compass, the first of Philip Pullman’s sci-fi trilogy: its lavishly imaginative and alluring plot would have certainly scored three screenplays if it weren’t for the stiffly, almost gratuitous anti-religious message of the books. Who knows? If we faithful are so sensitive as to bemoan the lack of a faith in a post-apocalyptic thriller, perhaps Collins decided God needed to take a fictional break from us in the future as well.