Education Matters: Surviving ‘The Hunger Games’


By Marsha Sutton

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, makes me lose my lunch. Never one to pan a book adored by young readers, I say this with a heavy heart. My general belief is that any book that enthralls children and ignites their imaginations so that all they want to do is read more, is nothing short of miraculous and must be worthwhile literature.

But this is different. The Hunger Games, with its sinister plot and cold, calculating brutality, is such a vile presentation of the insatiable human capacity for gore and bloodshed that I have to question its suitability for children.

That nearly all reviews are uncritical and gloss over the gratuitous violence, focusing instead on the young heroine as a positive role model for girls, is just as mystifying.

The plot centers around a strong-willed 16-year-old girl named Katniss who tries to retain her humanity while forced to participate in a “game” for the entertainment of her country that pits children against children in a fight to the death. Citizens bet on which of the 24 arbitrarily chosen children will win – meaning, will live.

The book’s horrifying futuristic government that sponsors this annual hunting event with human sacrifices makes aggressive dog-fighting seem like hopscotch and football star Michael Vick look like a spokesperson for PETA.

First, it’s bad science fiction. Sci-fi and representations of dystopian societies must be believable. Yes, we have to suspend our knowledge of current technological limitations and value systems to buy into the stories. Warp drive, after all, is not real. Nor is time travel … so far.

But stories like Star Trek and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court work because they convincingly portray civilizations and inventions that might be plausible.

Even books using fantasy, magic and magical realism can work if cleverly created and supported. Magic isn’t real, but if it were, Harry Potter could actually exist because author J.K. Rowling imagined a fantastical world supported by characters who might live in such a place. And she allows for ordinary humans – Muggles – to blissfully co-exist.

Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight vampire books insert fantasy into everyday reality, mixing both worlds to allow readers to engage and connect with at least some of the characters.

But it’s just not credible that an entire country, in The Hunger Games, would so enthusiastically embrace the ritualistic killing of children by children and revel in the spectacle of remorseless teenagers hacking at each other with viciousness and cruelty.

Which leads to my second point – the unquestioned acceptance of shocking violence for sport. Panem et Circenses indeed.

Imagine a world where bullies on the playground are unrestrained, with no adult guidance, a la Lord of the Flies. William Golding’s disturbing story of marooned boys becoming savages is believable because we can understand how young children might form packs and behave violently in a world where all adults, their rules and the constraints on behavior imposed by a civilized society, are removed.

The Hunger Games is Lord of the Flies, except that adults are not repelled by the children’s actions but instead orchestrate the show for their perverse private viewing pleasure. The fact that Katniss is a young woman of inner strength, with cleverness and physical prowess thrown in, does not compensate for the unrelenting graphic descriptions of children forced to adopt the warped adult values that compel them to kill one another without contrition or mercy.

Other children’s books – The Giver and Holes, for example – present possible worlds that bring awareness to children of what might be and what we must do together as a society to prevent the disintegration of moral standards that keep us from destroying one another.

Dystopian societies presented in literature – like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange – do the same for adults.

But The Hunger Games is a collapse of all things sane and real and is not for the hopeful or the squeamish. Should it be banned? Never. But it should be marked with red “danger” flags all over it.

The Hunger Games presents a terrifying depiction of an implausible world of adults totally devoid of compassion and morality. Although the novel is classified as young adult literature, I’m not even sure I’m old enough to read it.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at