My daughter convinced me to read Suzanne Collins’ mega-bestseller The Hunger Games, describing it, in quality, as falling somewhere below Harry Potter but considerably above Twilight. Having completed the first book in the series–and there always is a series, isn’t there?–I can agree with the assessment. In this book, Collins has created a plausible dystopia, different from our present world but not so different as to be unrecognizable. The plotting of the story is marvelous, pulling the reader along without resorting to cheap cliffhangers, although in a world with a last-person-alive-wins game, cliffhangers needn’t seem cheap at all. Perhaps most refreshingly, Collins did not wrap everything up in a tidy, happy ending. As Katniss, the heroine, returns home, her government is still oppressive, her security is still tenuous, and her feelings for the two young men in her life are unresolved. Even saying that, I feel as if I don’t do her justice. Twilight features slowly resolving feelings between two male love interests, yet that choice seemed artificial and contrived. Katniss doesn’t know how she feels, precisely, about either of the guys in her life. Who will she wind up with? I can guess, but I can’t be absolutely certain.
Having said all of that, I would like to spend the remainder of this look at the book by considering what is completely absent from the narrative and, apparently, from its future world. Unless I missed it, religion–specifically Christianity–has utterly disappeared from Panem, Collins’ future nation. As a success-seeking writer, Suzanne Collins can be credited with wisdom for avoiding the landmine of religion in the future. After all, if she plants Christianity in the soil of Panem, what flavor of Christianity will it be? Will it be a dominant state church used as a method of control by the authorities? And if there is Christianity, is there also Islam? Had she wanted to completely dive into mindfield, she might have painted a world where Islam has supplanted Christianity.
An apologist, of a more artistic bent, will suggest that the omission of religion makes perfect sense in a world set perhaps centuries in the future after devastating wars. While this seems reasonable on the one hand, I have to wonder how religion disappeared while Classical civilization lingered, evidenced by a host of Roman names and the very name of the nation.
You might accuse me of being unfair, criticizing a novelist for what she did not write into her book, yet I am not willing to give up this matter. What I wonder perhaps most of all as I read the book’s pages is the source of the fairly traditional morality that animates Katniss and Peeta. Both of the pair, as well as other Tributes in the Games, appear to resist killing. Instead they seem more inclined to “do unto others.” Loyalty and fidelity are championed in this world with religion. Even a Protestant work ethic seems to have survived as the industrious Katniss and the baker’s son Peeta are contrasted with the vapid attendants from the Capitol or the coddled “Career” Tributes.
A critical reader might question whether the morality that undergirds a vast swath of Collins’ readership is instinctual as opposed to a construct, largely flowing from the nation’s Christian heritage. Without the bread of life (John 6:35), the hunger that stalks both the games and the world of Panem will be satisfied. Although I enjoyed this book immensely, part of me sits back and wonders if the moral clarity of Katniss could truly emerge from a world as darkened as the one in these pages.