The book, The Hunger Games, is of course better than the movie. The book’s story moves with the internal dialogue of the teen protagonist, Katniss. In contrast, the film’s story moves along through events external to Katniss. As a result of this shift, the film throws away our window into Katniss’s mind and, significantly, into her moral psychology, both of which are by far the most engaging part of the book (and the entire trilogy of books for that matter).
One theme predominates in the book, and it’s self sacrifice. But there’s an arresting twist in how author Suzanne Collins develops the topic. The dramatic movement in the book rotates more around the willingness to receive a gift of sacrificial love from others than it concerns the giving of that gift.
To be sure, there is plenty of attention given to unalloyed self-sacrifice. Katniss’s participation in the Hunger Games resulted when she volunteered to substitute for her younger sister, Prim, who was initially selected by lottery to participate in the fight-to-the-death games. (If you haven’t read the book—the Capitol selects two young representatives from each of the twelve districts to fight to the death in the games, as tribute for their rebellion seventy-some years earlier.) Katniss never regrets her decision to offer her life in substitute for her sister.
But while Katniss freely sacrifices for those she loves, she has a much more difficult time being the recipient of a self-sacrificial gift.
In recalling a gift to her years before her selection for the Hunger Games by Peeta, the boy selected to represent the district with Katniss—two loaves of bread which Peeta gave to her when she was starving, and for which Peeta’s mother beat him severely—Katniss feels resentment, despite (or perhaps because of) the importance of those loaves in sustaining her and her family. Years later she reflects, “I feel like I owe him something, and I hate owing people.”
Similarly, when the people of Rue’s district provide Katniss a loaf of bread during the Games for the kindness she showed to Rue after she is killed in the Games, Katniss reflects,
How many [in Rue’s district] would’ve had to do without to scrape up a coin to put in the collection for this one loaf? It had been meant for Rue, surely. But instead of pulling the gift when she died, they’d authorized Haymitch to give it to me. As a thank-you? Or because, like me, they don’t like to let debts go unpaid?
The only real moral progress that Katniss makes during the series of three books is in her willingness to accept the sacrifice of others as a gift rather than as a debt. It is this aspect of Katniss’s moral psychology that makes the otherwise trite love triangle between her, Gale, and Peeta, of any interest. At the end of Mockingjay, the third book in The Hunger Games trilogy, is it clear that Peeta, the boy who goes through the Hunger Games with Katniss, actually has a chance with Katniss. But Gale (a long-time friend of Katniss’s) perceives it better than either Peeta or Katniss:
“No, you won her over. Gave up everything for her. Maybe that’s the only way to convince her you love her.” There’s a long pause. “I should have volunteered to take your place in the first Games. Protected her then.”
Aside from the temptation to note that this Christological theme (“greater love has no man than this, that he lays down his life for his friends”) unites the story arc throughout all three books, the more interesting element of the stories is Katniss working through the possibility that another’s sacrifice on her behalf is something that she can accept as a gift rather than as a debt. A true gift is not something that creates a reciprocal obligation.
Katniss’s struggle with this topic brought to mind the exchange between Peter and Jesus in John 13:
[Jesus] got up from supper, and laid aside his garments; and taking a towel, he girded himself.
Then he poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. So he came to Simon Peter. He said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” Peter said to Him, “Never shall you wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with me.”
I wonder how much non-Christians today, and Christians for that matter, share Katniss’s suspicion of sacrifice on their behalf—considering Jesus’ sacrifice as a debt rather than as a gift.
One final reflection on the trilogy. Suzanne Collins provides a dramatically traditionalist ending to the love triangle in the book. Throughout the several volumes, Katniss repeatedly affirms her disinterest in marriage and children. Indeed, much of the press coverage of the books (and the movie) suggests that its popularity with tween and teen women results from the strong she-warrior role that Katniss exemplifies. And so Katniss does.
Nonetheless, at the end of the trilogy, Katniss watches over her children with her husband, Peeta. Gale’s comment came true, “You won her over. Gave up everything for her. Maybe that’s the only way to convince her you love her.”
Peeta “wins” Katniss as his bride for the same reason that Jesus wins the Church as his bride:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself up for her . . . So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church . . . This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5.25, 28-29, 32).
That Katniss embraces both roles, and that this resonates with modern teenagers, perhaps suggests an opening point not only for discussing the relationship between the genders in these times, but also might serve as an opening point for discussing the relationship between Jesus Christ, the Church, and humanity more generally.
James R. Rogers is Associate Professor of political science at Texas A&M University and editor of the Journal of Theoretical Politics.