Do the Hunger Games Lack “Transcendent Meaning”?

by Mike Duran · 32 comments

I got worked over pretty good a while back for suggesting that a Judeo-Christian worldview is essential to good storytelling. So it was with great joy that I read a fascinating article about What The Hunger Games Miss by Katie van Schaijik.  She begins by quoting political pundit Mark Steyn’s summary of the film:

It seems to me there is something empty about the Hunger Games. In the end the stakes aren’t big enough for it to quite work. There’s nothing primal at stake in the Hunger Games, in part because I assume the author doesn’t subscribe to any particular transcendent meaning to life. I think there is a kind of absence of that in the book. (emphasis mine)

For the record, I haven’t read the book nor seen the movie. I’m simply commenting on the observations of others to the series and how it applies to the point I sought to further in that post. And the above observation resonates with my thesis. Here’s my conclusion:

The naturalist might believe life is a colossal accident, and that when we die we return to Nothingness. But if that’s the case, not only will my existence be irrelevant, so will my stories.  The struggle for survival has little consequence — in the existential or fictional sense — if there is no afterlife, if nothing really eternal is at stake. Ultimately, for the naturalist, the only real dramatic tension is how long she can stave off the inevitable advance of cold complete Annihilation.

Not prescribing “to any particular transcendent meaning to life,” as Steyn put it, removed the bite from the movie. It’s the same reason I suggested that a Judeo-Christian worldview and moral absolutes are necessary to compelling story-telling. For which I got pummeled. However…

Without a “transcendent meaning to life… the stakes aren’t big enough.”

Really, it’s a pretty simple concept.

Interestingly enough, some Christians have extracted significant spiritual meaning from the movie and book. A good summary can be found in Tori Ackerman’s Does the ‘Hunger Games’ have a Christian meaning? wherein some readers articulate biblical themes found in the story, going so far as to compare the main character Katniss Everdeen to Jesus and Moses.

This disparity of opinions is fascinating. Perhaps it’s representative of the nature of art; we bring our own worldviews and expectations into every story. Meaning resides with the readers, as much as the author. Nevertheless, while some see The Hunger Games as a reflection of the Gospel, others see it as lacking any transcendent meaning whatsoever. Ms. van Schaijik is of this latter camp:

The drama takes place on a temporal scale.  There are no absolutes.  There are no intimations of immortality, no suggestion of the promise of justice in eternity.

…Though the characters are engaged in mortal combat, and confronted with supreme moral challenges, none appears to have any thought of God or the possibility of an afterlife.  That human life is surrounded by the supernatural and that our acts and choices may have consequences more ultimate than death seems not to occur even to the most sensitive and self-giving characters. (emphasis mine)

This was the point that some of my objectors missed (or refused to concede) in my initial post.  Just because a character is “engaged in mortal combat” does not mean something “primal,” something “transcendent,” is at stake. Sure, your protag might be fighting for her life. But if there are “no absolutes …no intimations of immortality, no suggestion of the promise of justice in eternity [and no] possibility of an afterlife,” nothing really matters.  It’s the equivalent of building a beautiful sand castle in the path of an approaching tsunami.

It leads the author to conclude:

Can anyone think of an example of great literature that is similarly bereft of the divine?  I can’t.

This lack renders the drama unreal in a rather problematic way.  In truth, the “breath of the eternal” (to borrow Kierkegaard’s phrase) animates the ethical sphere, and all great human drama, real and fictional. When it’s left out, the inescapable impression is that the author is asserting—or perhaps unintentionally insinuating—something definite, namely this: the question of God need not enter the picture.  It’s irrelevant. (emphasis mine)

That’s an interesting suggestion: The writer who lacks a transcendent moral center may be “asserting—or perhaps unintentionally insinuating” that a transcendent moral center (i.e., “the question of God”) is unnecessary… to life or story. Like her character, the author need only survive until, well, the Existential Tsunami washes her into Oblivion.

Does Katniss’s survival summon something bigger than her? Does her struggle manifest the larger struggle of Ultimate Good versus Evil? Apparently, for some it does. Whether the author intended it that way is another story.

Either way, Steyn and van Schaijik illustrate a larger point about how one’s worldview shapes their fiction. The measurement of a truly “transcendent” story is not one that simply puts a character’s life at stake. It’s a story that appeals to a divine moral urgency, a Beauty that beats at the heart of the Universe, a cause of Justice that is bigger than any one character or tribe. A story without those things is simply…  a sand castle.

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Kevin Lucia April 22, 2012 at 2:39 PM

“Can anyone think of an example of great literature that is similarly bereft of the divine? I can’t.”

Yes. Fahrenheit 451. Easily a work of great literature, about freedom of speech, censorship, and personal choice. But there’s no spiritual thrust whatsoever. The Bible is featured, but only as a work of literature featuring depth of thought. Not spiritual truth.

And “Anthem”, by Ayn Rand. The forerunner to almost all dystopian works. And “The Giver”. And “The Red Badge of Courage”. And many more I can’t name.

I mean, we can argue all day about what’s “great” literature and what’s not. But I also think we’re still missing the fact that The Hunger Games is “dystopian” fiction. Dystopian fiction doesn’t HAVE to lack a divine theme….but very often, it does.

That’s what dystopian fiction is.

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Mike Duran April 22, 2012 at 2:46 PM

Kevin, doesn’t the concept of “dystopia” itself appeal to something transcendent, at least Good? Utopia. It’s the antithesis of a state of Balance or Health or Peace. In other words, it is dystopian not just because it lacks a “divine theme,” but because there IS a divine theme to be lacking.

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Kevin Lucia April 22, 2012 at 3:03 PM

I guess I really feel like we’re muddling things or splitting hairs that simply aren’t necessary. I, for one, don’t see a difference between the themes between those other works and The Hunger Games (not counting quality of prose, obviously).

So what are we talking about, here? Does this “transcendent” thing have to be God-related? Because your post seems to lean toward a sense of the divine. Most literary Utopias are usually created WITHOUT the divine, also. In fact, to many thinkers and philosophers, the removal of the divine is necessary for the establishment of a Utopia.

I guess this is one those posts of yours which I don’t see the point of, past getting lots of comments of people disagreeing with each other. So – are you saying that a story has to have transcendence to be a good story? Okay, fine. But does that have to be a Jude0-Christian transcendence (Which I honestly disagree with, completely)? Because your post seems to indicate this, but then your response to my post seems to say that, no, the divine is not necessary for this transcendence.

Should I re-read the post? Maybe I missed something….

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Mike Duran April 22, 2012 at 4:14 PM

Kevin, apparently I’m having this effect on people lately…

“Does this ‘transcendent’ thing have to be God-related?” Oh, I don’t think so. However, when a person ascribes “transcendent meaning to life” (i.e., something beyond pure biology) it undermines a purely nihilistic or materialistic worldview. Which is the “trap” I see a lot of dystopian tales fall into: More is at stake than just survival. Take for instance, “The Road.” It wasn’t just the father saving his son; it was the father not giving in to Evil as he sought to save his son. To me, this is an appeal to transcendent Good and Evil. I think similar themes run through novels like “I Am Legend” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “1984.” There may not be a mention of God, but there’s an appeal to something Bigger than the person(s). Does that make sense?

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Kevin Lucia April 22, 2012 at 4:32 PM

I understand that, but I sometimes feel like you make broad statements and paint with a really wide brush, trying to make arguments apply to all works of literature when they simply…don’t. And can’t. Or, you cite examples that support your point, but dismiss the ones that conflict with your point.

For example, I get the good vs. evil thing, but how far can you stretch that? Again, I refer to Fahrenheit 451, Anthem, The Giver, dozens of other stories in which the “bigger” thing is actually dystopian societies, and, given the framework of the stories, THEY need dismantling because they are corrupt and have subsumed the individual, therefore, to be consistent with a dystopian novel/story’s theme, it is COMPLETELY about the survival of the individual, and that’s okay, because THAT’S WHAT DYSTOPIAN FICTION IS SUPPOSED TO DO. Because society has grown corrupt, too powerful, and personal choice and freedom has completely eroded, dystopian fiction seeks to elevate the individual above the thing “bigger than them”.

In Book One, Katniss is completely concerned with her own survival. But, that’s just the plot of Book One. I haven’t read Book Two, so I can’t comment on it. Was she striving towards something larger than herself? Not in that book, but since I haven’t read the entire series, I’m not in the position to comment on the rest. AND, quite frankly, I think your argument that your position is bigger than the trilogy is convenient. Just as convenient as Christians who derided Harry Potter without ever picking up one book.

In Fahrenheit 451, Montague discovers he’s been lied to, discovers the value of books. He also discovers, however, that society is doomed, it can’t be changed, and he must wait until it destroys itself before people can be re-educated. You COULD say that Montague is striving toward a larger Good – Literacy, Free Thought over Control and Oppression. But, in this case, there’s no divine. Anyone could claim these things as “Moral Goods” over “Universal Good”, which you’ve taken exception to, time and again.

And, I’m sorry, but this:

“Can anyone think of an example of great literature that is similarly bereft of the divine? I can’t.”

…is just ludicrous. It smacks of a broad statement made by someone who – and I have no way of knowing this, obviously – is just not very well read, at all.

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Mike Duran April 22, 2012 at 6:03 PM

“…I sometimes feel like you make broad statements and paint with a really wide brush, trying to make arguments apply to all works of literature when they simply…don’t. And can’t. Or, you cite examples that support your point, but dismiss the ones that conflict with your point. ”

Um, this is turning into the “Question Mike’s Methods” week.

Kevin, I’m not sure what points that conflict with mine that I’m “dismissing.” I’m definitely arguing for a certain POV, however. So maybe I’m missing something…

And re: the line about “an example of great literature that is similarly bereft of the divine” — that’s not my line. Perhaps if I’d left it out it would have saved me some headache, huh?

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sally apokedak April 23, 2012 at 7:50 AM

And you’re ugly besides. And don’t you forget it, Buster!

:) Sorry. I could resist.

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Mike Duran April 23, 2012 at 8:39 AM

On top of being an uniformed, arrogant SOB, and a provocateur, now I’m also “ugly”???

Really, I appreciate the levity, Sally. I need it right now!

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Katherine Coble April 22, 2012 at 3:07 PM

Maybe you should try _reading the book_ before indulging in conversations about its meaning.

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Mike Duran April 22, 2012 at 3:33 PM

The issue I’m addressing is a lot bigger than the trilogy. Those two reviewers, I think, touch upon that issue.

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Katherine Coble April 22, 2012 at 4:02 PM

Yeah, but the title of the post is about The Hunger Games. People will come expecting the conversation in the post title. To wit: does the Hunger Games etc.

As with that earlier conversation, you are making a post grounded in your preconceptions. I can list more than 200 books that survive as Great Literature without having The Divine reflected. But then, as before, it becomes an argument going nowhere about What Is Great Literature.

Frankly, I’m troubled that you are making sweeping statements about the merits of books you’ve _never read_.

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Mike Duran April 22, 2012 at 4:21 PM

Katherine, I said clearly that I didn’t read the book or see the movie. I also gave what I feel is a balanced perspective of opinions about it: Some see elements of the Gospel in it, others don’t. I chose to include “The Hunger Games” in my post title because (1) That’s a hot web tropic now and (2) the primary quotes I build from address the Hunger Games. Those coming here through the title will, I think, have that issue addressed. The two authors I mention are referencing an idea I expressed a while back and was vilified for, which is my theme here.

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Jill April 22, 2012 at 4:40 PM

The issue isn’t bigger than the trilogy because your premise is based off somebody’s analysis of it. Maybe the person who wrote that review simply missed the deeper meaning of the work. In that case, the analysis isn’t an apologetic for your premise.

I would argue that morality has to be implicit in the storyline, or the subject of children involved in a game of death wouldn’t set our teeth on edge. The dystopian darkness assumes an unstated morality–something akin to “this is what happens when we, as a society, no longer value human life and use it for sport.” Or “this is what happens as a result of war and poverty.” Also, I see an intense duality between self-sacrifice and self preservation that is inherent to the story. As a Christian, I might also argue that the absence of transcendence is very telling: this is what the world looks like when we deny God’s existence. You can tie all these moral issues to a Judeo-Christian world view if you want to, but it isn’t necessary in order for us to understand that war, poverty, and a lack of respect for human life wreak havoc on human society.

Here on this site, you are always debating the nature of Christian fiction. Should it be overt? Should it be nice and pretty, feel-good? Is this Christian fiction? Maybe. The author is reputably a Roman Catholic. But I hasten to add that her religious faith doesn’t matter in this argument. The themes of the work speak for themselves. Do we have to add eternal consequences to these themes, preach a sermon about heaven/hell in order for them to have an impact on our culture?

The books themselves might be a better apologetic for your argument than the quotes above–as in, they are wildly popular because of their Judeo-Christian themes of self-sacrifice, despite naysayers. You should read the books and judge for yourself.

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Mike Duran April 22, 2012 at 6:12 PM

“The issue isn’t bigger than the trilogy because your premise is based off somebody’s analysis of it.”

Jill, my premise is that moral absolutes are required to make a story compelling. Even if it’s “based off somebody’s analysis of it,” it’s still an independent premise.

I guess this IS the “Question Mike’s Methods” week. Sheesh.

“The dystopian darkness assumes an unstated morality.” I agree with this. In fact, I’d say [M]orality. And as I said said to Katherine above, I attempted to be fair by referencing those who see redemptive themes in the story.

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Jill April 22, 2012 at 6:25 PM

Yes, I know! That’s why I don’t agree with your method! The books, themselves, would make a better apologetic for your premise. They are popular because they’re transcendent…..I guess I missed your point, which seems to be that you’re not the only one who judges books by this criteria: A lack of transcendence=meaningless. I apologize. :(

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Jill April 22, 2012 at 6:34 PM

Or, I guess what I really mean is that IF these books are getting mixed reviews–they are Christian! No, they’re nihilism at its finest! Then how is there a clear cut method of defining what is or isn’t good literature by the standard of transcendence? It’s beginning to seem anything but simple.

But I actually came back here because I remember you saying once that your publisher asked if you would write historical romance [and thought I could find it by looking around]. Am I remembering that correctly? I’m writing a blog post entitled “The Castration of Christian Fiction.”

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Tony April 22, 2012 at 9:21 PM

I bet there was a nicer, less smart-alecky way to put that. . .

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Katherine Coble April 22, 2012 at 11:58 PM

Fascinating.

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Guy Stewart April 22, 2012 at 5:43 PM

I had a reasoned argument prepared.

Then I realized after reading it again that it’s not a reasoned argument.

I happen to agree with Mike Duran (this time), but I’m making a judgment based on what I’ve read so far that once I’ve said that, anything I write stands only a slim chance of being considered objectively.

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Nissa Annakindt April 22, 2012 at 5:46 PM

I have heard that the author of ‘The Hunger Games’ is a Catholic. (Catholics are Christians.) Perhaps the reason that there are no overt religious themes in The Hunger Games is that it is a YA book and if they want to peddle it through the schools, God is not allowed. Allah, maybe, but not God.

I’ve read all of the books three times each and loved them (and NOT because I’m some teen chick enjoying the romancy bits.) But then again, I’m a weird person with Asperger Syndrome and don’t really read books for the hidden themes and messages, which I do not get, but to experience an exciting story, possibly one which does not spit on my Christian worldview (but if the story is great I’m willing to overlook some spitting).

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Kat Heckenbach April 23, 2012 at 6:41 AM

I really ought to be working on a blog post of my own, but I saw this and had to jump in and back up my girls here.

I agree with Katherine: One should not use as an example for a premise such as this a book one has not read. It resides in my mind as sort of like doing an essay for school based solely on the Cliff’s Notes :). I do get your point about it being a bit “bigger” than the one book–and if that is so, then there must be other books you can use as an example–books you have read.

Also, having *read the books myself* I have to say I agree with Jill 100% on her analysis of them. So, um, “ditto what Jill says.”

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sally apokedak April 23, 2012 at 8:36 AM

SPOILERS!!!!!!!

Well, I hate to enter these debates because I am not well read and I have no higher education. I am at a disadvantage.

But…I have read my Bible quite a bit. And I believe that gives me some wisdom and some obligation to speak about the books I have read.

I read Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 a long time ago and can’t remember them well. I tried Ayn Rand and couldn’t get through more than a few chapters–detested her writing. I read The Giver fairly recently. And I’ve read all three Hunger Games books.

One reason I didn’t like The Giver and one of the reasons I didn’t like the Hunger Games trilogy, is that there is no higher good.

Maybe I should rephrase that. I saw no higher good. Some have seen Christ in Mutt Peeta or in Katniss, I saw a broken boy with no control over himself and Katniss in the end wasn’t even fighting. She was catatonic. Then she decided to become judge, jury, and executioner. Then she sat in her rocking chair for months without showering. OK. that’s what happens to people who become judge, jury, and executioner. Great. I’m really glad that the author had enough integrity to paint it realistically. Once Katniss blew away the civilian because she didn’t have time to ask questions before she shot, she couldn’t be a hero. She could have been redeemed by a God bigger than herself, or she could go on and live a numb life without meaning and without joy. She chose the latter.

Why? Because in the world of the book there was no God bigger than Katniss. There was no possibility of redemption in that world. That’s how the author chose to make her world. There is no religion, whatsoever. The book was all about here and now–and by that I mean future generation in the physical world, but no bigger purpose in life beyond eating, drinking and making merry for tomorrow we die. Katniss had no higher calling. She only wanted to make this world a better place. If there was any gospel in the books, it was a social gospel.

I find books like that to be little books. To be books that lack importance and meaning. To be books that lack depth. They can’t excite me to lofty living. They can’t ignite in me a longing for the transcendent. They can’t move me toward Christ.

Whereas I was recommending the books after the first two, I quit after the third one came out. The author could have put in something that pointed a possibility of redemption, but she didn’t. No one could be redeemed. Gale was lost, Prim was lost, and while there was some small bit of hope for a better world for future generations, it rang false. What was to keep future generations from doing the same evil that their parents did? There was hope, but it was very shallow and didn’t give me any reason to believe things were really going to be better for Katniss’s kids.

And this is a true statement about a world without God, but it is not an accurate picture of our world. Our world will never be completely without God. He will never die and His church will never be defeated. There will always be a remnant.

The truth is that as long as there is life there is hope. Because Christ came there is hope. Because God is long-suffering there is hope. That’s why I hate hopeless books. They simply don’t reflect reality. Instead they look on this world as if this is all there is.

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Carma April 27, 2012 at 9:13 AM

Thank you, Sally! The third book did leave me a bit flat and you have explicated it very well. The first two books leave you feeling there might be hope, but you are correct, it is the lack of a REAL hope or change in the third book that give a flat feeling at the end. Yes, the two power mongers President Snow and would-be President Coin are removed but there is no mechanism to stop someone else from stepping into the power void and creating a worse world – nothing but the idea of Mockingjay, but Mockingjay is definitely retired. It does end up being a hopeless story at the end.

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Alan O April 23, 2012 at 11:17 AM

From my perspective, the answer lies in this little gem, that got overlooked in the fray:

“Perhaps it’s representative of the nature of art; we bring our own worldviews and expectations into every story. Meaning resides with the readers, as much as the author.”

That is absolute truth: and I would argue that “Meaning” is a concept big enough to include both “transcendence” and “stakes.” Who decides…for any given work…when the stakes are big enough? Me. You.

I’ve read all three novels in the HG trilogy, and have seen the movie. (And, for the record, I think you were perfectly honest and clear about the fact that you were responding to one person’s article about HG, not the books themselves.) Could there have been an extra layer of overt transcendence layered on top of what is objectively there? Yes. Collins could have gone that extra step in her worldbuilding. But that fact that she chose not to does not diminish the importance of the stakes, for this reader. The same is true for hundreds of other novels I’ve read that surely qualify as great literature, though they may not expliclity spotlight the spiritual. Instead, that “breath of the eternal” that the article references flows around and through the events of the story, the way God permeates the book of Esther without ever being named.

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Justine May 25, 2012 at 11:30 AM

Alan, it is quite true that the “Meaning resides with the readers, as much as the author.” Often that “meaning’ can not be distilled until one reads more about the writer’s history and life and explores how the story touches the reader’s life and history. I like what you said about ‘gospel’ in the book being more a ‘social gospel”. Because as you study the New Testament and the life of Jesus Christ, his entire mission in life and Christianity was a social gospel.

Allen’s statement; “Instead, that “breath of the eternal” that the article references flows around and through the events of the story, the way God permeates the book of Esther without ever being named.” I experience to be quite true in life as well as in the HG series. Judaic and Islamic conservatives will not even write or say the name of God as they understand it as being blasphemous. Some Christian sects even believe that if you do state the name of God, Jesus you invoke an extreme power, so one should not take their names out loud lightly. Collins has some theological history and training. Thus this makes perfect sense that she would ‘mention’ God symbolically rather than literally.

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Bob Avey April 24, 2012 at 7:28 PM

Great post, Mike.

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Aubrey Hansen May 5, 2012 at 10:41 AM

Fantastic thoughts. I agree entirely. It makes complete sense when you think about it this way – life is meaningless without some knowledge of the supernatural/spiritual. Wouldn’t then our stories be meaningless also without some spiritual foundation? I don’t think it necessarily needs to be deep or explicit – in fact, many (most?) secular works have the basic principles (such as sanctity of life). But if a story is truly spiritually devoid, it has no meaning.

I’m sharing this on my screenwriting forum.

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Justine May 20, 2012 at 6:59 PM

I personally thought the movie the Hunger Games lost ALL of the symbolism of the book. It left out characters and nuances that are present in the book. I. E Buttercup, the cat. I think that you are entirely wrong at saying that the books left out religion and spirituality. It was subtle and symbolic rather than throwing it in your face kind of religion/spirituality. The obvious one is that the abundance of our Creator is ever present if we just inform/educate ourselves to the greater world around us as represented by Katnisses father showing her and providing her with the basic wisdom of nature, so that she could feed herself and the family in his physical absence. Thus always being ‘present’ for her. Buttercup the cat could be symbolic of the paternal nature of God/Father being ever present and surviving through all catastrophes. Buttercup is in all three books and even represented in the teaser of the fourth book in the series. Cats through out millenniums have been seen as representative of the divine in carnal form. In the Hunger Game Series Buttercup can be seen as the Jungian male archetypal image of the male in Katniss. I suggest you reread the books with a mind for symbolisms.

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sally apokedak May 20, 2012 at 8:32 PM

Umm…fourth book?

And Buttercup, for such a minor character, sure is standing in for a lot, in your interpretation. I didn’t see the movie, but I thought he was in the movie, only he wasn’t golden, he was black and white. So the name Buttercup was just silly. Was I misinformed?

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Justine May 20, 2012 at 9:40 PM

Study up a little bit on the writer and her history, symbolism and such and it will make sense.

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Justine May 25, 2012 at 11:16 AM

It makes sense to me in that even though God is all knowing, all powerful and every where, we tend to not ‘really’ see Him/Her and God’s presence in our lives is often subtle like Buttercup was in the Katniss character.

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Justine May 25, 2012 at 11:36 AM

The HG series are great for teens in that it broaches all the turmoil of adolescence while introducing them to sociological, political and world issues on a historical basis on a simpler but none the less complex level which the average adolescent mind is just beginning to understand. Many of the books I have seen my teen cousins and nieces and nephews reading are not intellectually stimulating and the ones they are asked to read they define as boring. This has not been the case with the Hunger Games and two other Utopian and Distopian novels I have given them to read.

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