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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Redemption in the Hunger Games?

I’m reading James Scott Bell’s The Art of War for Writers again (excellent book) and flipped open to page 104 today: “The writer who understands redemption is on the border of enduring fiction.”

I read this three days after seeing The Hunger Games, a movie that disturbed me greatly—and, truth be told, still does.

I think I’m beginning to understand why the movie so bothers me: No redemption—or is there?

Literary redemption

Redemption Scene from The Shawshank Redemption
I have not read the books. I saw the movie with my wife, a children’s librarian, because I thought it would be an interesting experiment—a movie buff who hasn’t read the book watching the movie with a reader who generally doesn’t appreciate movies. Plus, it was at the bargain theatre.

From Bell’s book: “Flannery O’Connor talked about the need for a story to show ‘grace being offered.’ …  Redemption is bound up in choice. The right choice brings about redemption because the wrong choice will leave the character in a worse moral condition.”

First of all, what do I mean by redemption?

Redemption: The action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil.

This includes, but is not limited to, the traditional Christian understanding of redemption: Where Jesus Christ laid down his life to save humans from their sins, and the price of those sins, eternal separation from God.

Lies and more lies

If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book—and you want to—you may want to stop reading.

Katniss and Peeta considering suicide
At the climactic moment, after being lied to by the games’ organizers that both could survive, Katniss (the book’s main character) and Peeta, a young man from her District and also a participant in the game, are faced with a horrific choice: one of them must kill the other to survive and win the game or they both must kill themselves, choosing to go out on their own terms.

There is no redemption—no way to save or be saved from sin, error, or evil. In fact, what Katniss’ gambit (pretending to be star-crossed lovers willing to commit suicide) does is force the game’s organizers (who are clearly evil) to offer a faux redemption and reinstate the rule change that two participants from the same District could win together. There will be repercussions for all involved.

But wait

Earlier in the movie, after finding Peeta injured and dying, and after hearing the lie that there could be two winners if they were from the same District, Katniss risks coming out into the open to retrieve the medicine Peeta needs to survive.

And even earlier, Peeta, seeing Katniss nearly starving to death and being in love with her, contrives a way to get a loaf of bread to her that saves her life. Self-sacrifice! There is redemption, then.

But Katniss doesn’t really love Peeta the way he loves her. She has another young man back in District 12 she’s in love with. But she knows the “star-crossed lovers battling against insurmountable odds to survive” is a powerful myth that will resonate with the television audience watching the game.

So her love is “ends justifies means” love—she will love Peeta if it means they have a better chance at survival.

What does it all mean?

The phrase the end justifies the means refers to the morality of an action and is based solely on the outcome of that action and not on the action itself. Example: Telling a lie that has no negative effect on anyone, and saves someone grief, is good.

But there can be no redemption in a lie. “O how terrible for those who confuse good with evil, right with wrong, light with dark, sweet with bitter.” Isaiah 5:20 (The Voice)

Think about that quote from Bell again: Redemption is bound up in choice. The right choice brings about redemption because the wrong choice will leave the character in a worse moral condition.”

At the end of the story, all of the characters are in a worse situation than they were before—alive, but morally compromised. I walked out of the theatre, dejected and oppressed rather than encouraged and freed.

At the end of the Harry Potter movies, even the darker ones, good triumphed—often at cost, but it triumphed. That does not happen here.

What do you think? Have I missed something essential by having not read the books?

Michael Ehret loves to play with words and as former editor of the ACFW Journal, he is enjoying his playground. He also plays with words as a freelance editor/writer at, where each Tuesday he takes a writer Into The Edit, pulling back the veil on the editing process. He has edited several nonfiction books, played with words as a corporate communicator, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.


  1. No, Mike, you haven't missed anything. However, the book is a dystopian and, in keeping with the genre, there is rarely a happy ending or anything resembling redemption. 1984, which set the genre standard, ends with a song--"I sold you, you sold me, under the spreading chestnut tree." I think it was a chestnut tree, anyway. But that one line sums up the novel. Hardly redemptive.

    The real problem I see with the latest flurry of dystopians is that they try to appease a YA audience by providing the illusion of a happy ending and still attempt to cling to the dystopian genre. If your hero overcomes and defeats the oppressive government, it is no longer dystopian. It is sci-fi. This is why Orwell didn't write 1985 and 1986. There is no happy ending.

    The Collins almost got it right in book 3 of her series. Katniss discovers that even in victory they have become that which they hate and fight against. It falls a bit flat, but it doesn't end with rainbows and butterflies. It ends with a dark heroine who has the rest of her young life to consider the choices she's made. It's a bleak ending, as it should be if it is to fit the genre.

    Despite that, Collins seems to lose focus throughout the last two books, uncertain if she wants to reveal the darkness that exists in all of us or write the next YA love story. If she'd remained focused on the rules of dystopian, I think the series would have been stronger.

  2. The series does end differently.
    Spoilers from Mockingjay to follow.
    Hunger Games is basically a setup that eventually leads to revolution. It is a depressing, violent, and realistic revolution with many lives lost and compromises made. I appreciated this since it was a realistic view of war. Many of the "happier" books glorify war and don't show the cost of it, which I think can be harmful.
    In the end of the series, the evil government is overthrown. It's still not that cheery of a world, all the characters are emotionally damaged from what they went through, but Katniss has kids. For those who forgot, in Hunger Games, she mentioned she would never have children because she didn't want to bring them into the horrible world she lived in. By having kids, it said to me that the world was a better place in the end.

  3. Great points, Ron and Jessi. Just to clarify a bit, I don't think a redemptive ending has to be a "happy" ending. The Harry Potter books have a redemptive thread in them, but the end (factional violence between what should be a united people) can hardly be called "happy" even though the "right" people win. That may be too simplistic of an example, but it's what came to mind.

  4. I missed it, too. Oh, how I love a redemptive ending!


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