Thursday, May 31, 2012

Christ Figures in The Hunger Games

Once Christians have answered the question, "Can a Christian read or watch The Hunger Games?," we should ask ourselves: what Christian themes, if any, are in this trilogy? There have been more blog posts and news articles (some more helpful than others) written about the series than Haymitch has drinks in a day, especially in the wake of the box office boon. And like Haymitch's drinking, this flurry of activity is not without benefit (he was after all a good mentor). There are several good articles I've read while researching more of Suzanne Collin's background.

As an aside, I have yet to find a decent interview that asks the right kinds of questions about the author's own personal views on religion, politics, etc. and how those influence (or do not) her writing. Perhaps its the interviewers or Collin's own admitted shyness or both. It is far more easily to get a grasp on J.K. Rowling's worldview, for example.

At any rate, many of these articles have delved into the clear lack of religion in The Hunger Games and its Christian themes, both implicit and explicit. Here are the links to a few of my favorites so far:
And while these articles provide valuable insights into the books, both for the Christian and the non-Christian, there is one theme that has not yet been mined to the depths. I only pray that I do not delve too deeply as the Dwarfs in Moria.

When it comes to Christian themes in The Hunger Games many have called attention to the explicit "Christ-figure" of Katniss in the opening few chapters of the first book in the trilogy, and rightly so.

The story begins with Katniss’s self-sacrifice on behalf of her sister, Prim. Although her name was drawn in the lottery, Katniss volunteers as a substitute, taking her sister’s place in the games, even though the odds of returning home are not in her favor. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends...or their sister. In many ways this theme provides a major story arc from the beginning of the The Hunger Games to the end of Mockingjay. But that is only one "Christ-figure" and taken throughout the rest of the book it breaks down as all analogies and figures must. For if every one is a Christ figure then no one is. This is not a case of looking for Jesus in every arena and rock in Panem. However, there is yet one more compelling "Christ-figure" in The Hunger Games trilogy.

The theme of self-sacrifice unfolds in other places throughout the story. Love that leads to sacrifice and sacrifice that leads to love. This is true, of course, in the case of Katniss's substitutionary sacrifice on behalf of her sister, Prim. But it is even more abundantly clear in the character of Peeta. If we get glimpses of sacrifice and substitution with Katniss, we have an all out "passion" in the case of Peeta. It is only after Peeta has sacrificed and loved her that Katniss knows anything of love. To paraphrase the apostle, she loved because he first loved her. Like Christ's love for sinners, Peeta's love comes first and then love follows living sacrificially for others.

While Katniss is often selfish, Peeta is self-less. Everything Peeta does in the trilogy is for Katniss. Peeta is the Giver; he is always giving, even to the point of laying down his own life to save Katniss on multiple occasions. 

Shortly after Peeta is chosen in the reaping, the reader finds out that he has already selflessly - and at great risk to his own life - given Katniss something: bread (yet another Christian theme). When Katniss was at her worst, Peeta was at his best. Her father had died. Her mother had broke down and there were hungry mouths to feed. She was terrified, lonely and hungry. Then, as Katniss recalls, the encounter went this way:

Why him? I think. Then I try to convince myself it doesn't matter. Peeta Mellark and I are not friends. Not even neighbors. We don't speak. Our only real interaction happened years ago. He's probably forgotten it. But I haven't and I know I never will...
...The boy took one look back to the bakery as if checking that the coast was clear, then, his attention back to the pig, he threw a loaf of bread in my direction. I stared at the loaves in disbelief. They were fine, perfect really, except for the burned areas. Did he mean for me to have them? He must have...
...It didn't occur to me until the next morning that the boy might have burned the bread on purpose. Might have dropped the loaves into the flames knowing it meant being punished and then delivered them to me.

And after their eyes met at school and Katniss turned away in embarrassment, she saw something:

...and that's when I saw it. The first dandelion of the year. A bell went off in my head. I thought of the hours spent in the woods with my father and I knew how we were going to survive. To this day, I can never shake the connection between this boy, Peeta Mellark, and the bread that gave me hope, and the dandelion that reminded me that I was not doomed.

That loaf of bread brought Katniss - and by extension her family - back from the dead. Call it the bread of life. It wasn't the first or the last time bread and life would go together when Peeta and Katniss are together.

But the examples of Peeta's self-lessness go on. When training before the 74th annual Hunger Games, Peeta eventually insists on attending the sessions alone; he has a plan, a plan which Katniss eventually realizes in the arena. The love he showed at the opening ceremonies, before the cameras, before all of Panem was not merely part of the strategy, it was genuine. Love is why Peeta sacrificed everything for Katniss. Love is why he joined the Careers in the arena. Love is why he lay waiting death in a stream-bed and then rested in a cave for three days before emerging to win the games (and with horrific wounds to prove his love no less).

In the second book, Catching Fire, Peeta's sacrificial love continues despite Katniss's angsty teenage confusion: Gale or Peeta? Is my love for Peeta real or was that just part of my game-play? At any rate, when the 75th annual Hunger Games are commenced and the pair find their way back in a new arena with other Victors, Peeta continues to play the Christ-figure, ultimately resulting in Katniss's escape while allowing himself to be captured in a twist of events that further spreads the mockingjay rebellion into (the once "lost") District 13 and throughout Panem. He is captured. Tortured. Forced to speak publicly against the rebels - but even there is compelled to warn them of a coming strike against the District. And though he suffers greatly at the hands of the Capitol's machinations, he is returned to the rebels. Once again, all this he does for Katniss.

By the end of the third book, Mockingjay, the full story arc is complete.  And though for many readers and critics, this third book fell flat in comparison to the other two, Peeta was there once again to redeem it all, in true loving humility, giving everything he has to Katniss. Gale knew it too

No, you won her over. Gave up everything for her. Maybe that's the only way to convince her you lover her...I should have volunteered to take your place in the first Games. Protected her then."
You couldn't, says Peeta. She'd never have forgiven you. You had to take care of her family. They matter more to her than her life.
Well, it won't be an issue much longer. I think it's unlikely that all three of us will be alive at the end of the war. And if we are, I guess it's Katniss's problem. Who to choose, Gale yawns. We should get some sleep.
Yeah...I wonder how she'll make up her mind.
Oh, that I do know...Katniss will pick whoever she thinks she can't survive without.

Gale was right. Katniss couldn't survive without Peeta's unconditional, bearing all things, sacrificing all things, always putting her needs first kind of love. And that is why the story ends with a glimmer of hope against the utter despondent background of war, violence, murder, the corruption of the Capitol and the utter inhumanity of it all. In the midst of death and destruction there was still rebirth and renewal, all because of Peeta, the Suffering Servant of The Hunger Games trilogy. There wasn't anything he would not do for Katniss. He is the bridegroom who gives his life for his bride. He is the Victor over death by giving himself into death for others. No wonder Peeta and the dandelion appeared as the sign at the end:

Peeta and I grow back together. There are still moments when he clutches the back of a chair and hangs on until the flashbacks are over. I wake screaming from nightmares of mutts and lost children. But his arms are there to comfort me...I knew that what I need to survive is not Gale's fire, kindled with rage and hatred. I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again. And only Peeta can give me that...You love me. Real or not real? Real.

The love Peeta displays and bestows upon Katniss is but a glimpse of the agape, the unmerited, undeserving love and passion of Christ whose love, in the words of St. Paul's great chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians, never fails. And that is exactly what we need.  He has taken our place in the ultimate hunger games - a fight to the death, a fight to destroy death - and emerged victorious for you.


  1. Love your website! I'm a huge Inklings fan and a confessional Lutheran.

    This post was very moving. Brought me to tears. I really need to read the series again.

    You may already know about, but if you don't, he has written quite a bit about Peeta as a "Christ-figure".

    At his site, scroll down to "categories" on the left hand side and choose "Hunger Games". There are pages and pages of links to articles. September 7, 2010 is one of the articles written about the spiritual allegory aspect. Also, don't miss his Holy Friday post from April 2012.

  2. Laurie, thank you so much for the kind words. And thanks for reading. So glad you enjoy it; this is meant to be that kind of haven, for fans of the Inklings, Christianity and the proclamation of the Gospel. Always great to hear from and find another fellow fan!

    I have read several of the items on the Hogwarts professor website. His skill and wisdom in this area continues to impress and inspire me to write as well. I haven't read the posts you mentioned yet, however. But I will certainly check it out. Thanks for the great tip!

    Pax Christi