After my initial moral repugnance to the notion of forcing children to battle to the death for entertainment, my first thought was to ask why I had such an aversion to this practice. The narration makes it clear that even outside of the Arena, site of the Hunger Games, life in the Districts of Panem is fraught with uncertainties. To be sure, a survival rate of less than 5% is a bit bleaker than in society at large, but if the Hunger Games were in a very real sense metaphorical for the struggle to survive in the Districts, was my horror at them explained merely because they were more lethal than society at large?
The answer I came to in the end was no. There was a key difference between the indifferent cruelty that perpetuated a system where starvation was a very real and pervasive threat, and the deliberate sadism displayed in forcing people to kill each other for sport. The difference is neatly summed up by my favorite Kantian maxim, that we ought always respect the agency of other people. We all go into the world each day and take our chances with our newest chance at reality, and every day some of us do not survive to see nightfall again. Certainly perpetuating a system in which a large number of people find their mortal end so young in life ought to be immoral by some other standard, but at least it preserves their right to make their own way through their world. On the other hand, to purposefully place them into a situation of mortal combat is as extreme an example of using other humans purely as an instrument to an end as I can think of.
"So what?" you may be asking, after all, most people agree that making playthings out of people is in poor taste. However, upon further consideration it occurred to me that our society still contains dangerous impulses in that direction. I am not merely referring to our penchant for using other species as playthings, in the cases of rodeos, races, and Mike Vic-esque acts of villainy, but rather the explicit use of people for entertainment. Subtle things like dangerous sports, I have been intending to write a post regarding football injuries since mid-January, and reality television. These endeavors are characterized in that they serve no apparent purpose other than entertainment and seek to convey a sense of danger to the participants.
Of course, you might argue that they are structured so as to minimize, or at least mitigate, the chances of a fatality. One cannot dispute the reality of on-field deaths in professional sports, which ignores the host of lesser ills and injuries that occur with disturbing regularity. I also can remember ads on Hulu for an episode of Deadliest Catch in which one of the, quite real, fisherpeople dies. According to Wikipedia, the episode in question is the most watched in the series.
There is a difference between shows like Deadliest Catch, which tape people doing things that, presumably, they would be doing otherwise, and shows like Fear Factor which contrive to put people in situations of perceived danger. However, I bring it up to highlight our fascination with the entertainment of death. I am by no means immune to this allure. Earlier this year I heard about the movie Grizzly Man, which details the last camping trip of a bear enthusiast and his girlfriend, a trip which terminates in both their deaths in a bear attack. While I admit it is macabre, I find the notion of watching the last actions of people who I know are about to die intriguing on some level. "We who are about to die salute you," as it were.
In light of our continued fascination with our mortality, and the endless opportunities for entertainment therein, it seems like stories like The Hunger Games, which reinforce our aversion to such entertainment, continue to have a purpose. Of course, even if you feel no particular desire to watch people fight to the death for your pleasure, I still recommend the book as an all around good read! I think that I shall write a further, more spoiler-iffic post regarding the series as a whole at a later date.