N. D. Wilson: Why Hunger Games Is Flawed To Its Core

A very thoughtful reader in Texas sent me this note:

Hello friends. I appreciate the work you do on this site and elsewhere. I’ve been keeping my eye on the conversation, particularly Christian and scholarly conversation, surrounding Hunger Games, and while the majority of that conversation casts the series in generally positive light, occasionally, I come across a more negative view. The Gospel Coalition recently posted an article by novelist ND Wilson that makes the case that the HG narrative is “flawed at its core.” It’s a convincing case, I think, and I’d love to hear what you all think. Thanks so much.

Thank you for this link and for the appreciation. I confess to being surprised you found this a “convincing case” because I couldn’t find the substance in any of his arguments. I don’t know who N. D. Wilson is, but I think I can file this complaint about readers over-reading Hunger Games and enjoying-it-for-the-wrong-reasons with A. S. Byatt’s complaints about Harry Potter. There’s no ‘there’ here and we’re left pondering the author’s motivation in making this kind of attack on another, more successful writer.

Three quick notes for your reflection, if, after reading the criticism leveled at Collins’ work, you think it merits a response:

(1) His comments about Katniss reflect only the most superficial of understandings of the character. She plays the despicable kill-or-be-killed game and I think certainly would have played the rape game he suggests as a supposedly game-ending gedanken piece because of her family. That he proposes that Collins work is a failure because Katniss needs to be a revolutionary from the start of Book 1 makes me wonder if his reading capacity and understanding of character development are the reasons I have never heard of his books. [Readers of N. D. Wilson, please instruct me about how worthwhile his books are!]

(2) His thoughts on Peeta as a putz and dismissal of Peeta as Christ figure symbolism — despite his repeated sacrificial deaths and resurrections, association with life saving bread, and allegorical appearances in Katniss’ life immediately after her decision to die for others — leave me equally awe struck. Unless I’ve totally misread his analysis, Mr. Wilson the writer has openly revealed that he is a surface dweller incapable of an anagogical reading and one who believes that other readers aren’t capable of experiencing same. In brief, he’s a nominalist whose ignorance is compounded by arrogance, the unfortunately ubiquitous Siamese twins of those dismissing popular fiction.

(3) What is so pathetic about this last is his insistence that it’s not jealousy or bile at seeing Collins successful (“She’s a great writer!”) but his impatience with readers who can read and who appreciate Collins’ artistry and meaning. Forgive me for suspecting his complaint is founded much less in serious reading of Hunger Games than in this writer’s frustration in not being able to produce this kind of four dimensional work and generate this kind of engagement in and close reading from thoughtful readers.

The best response to literary novelist A. S. Byatt’s attack on Harry Potter was in Salon.com’s ‘A. S. Byatt and the Goblet of Bile.’ I propose for your reflection that this novelist is drinking from the same cup.

I suspect I am being as uncharitable in this reading to Mr. Wilson as Mr. Wilson is to Suzanne Collins. Looking at his educational background at Wikipedia (alas), I would have thought he would have been sensitive to and appreciative of the Pearl, the White Rose, and Hanging Man symbolism of the books beyond Peeta as Christ figure. ‘Trinitarian nominalist’ is a non-starter, I’d think, if not a contradiction. But apparently not? His work on the Shroud of Turin is certainly embarrassing, and, sadly, this is the sophistry for which Mr. Wilson is best known.

I welcome, even more than usual, your comments and your correction.


  1. Thanks again for responding to this! I should clarify that the article struck me as convincing on the surface, that is, rhetorically, which sent up huge yellow flags for me because of what Christian scholars whom I respect have been saying in support of the novels. Knowing others I know would read the article and either be pleased by it or be guilted into feeling the need to “hide” their enjoyment of the series from other Christians (much like people felt with Harry Potter), I wanted to be able to respond to it intelligently. And that’s why I came to Hogwarts. 🙂

  2. Elizabeth,
    Thanks for sharing the article by Wilson and your critique with which I wholeheartedly agree. In particular, on point (1), the author not only misunderstands Katniss’s character and her development during the series but also the nature of Panem. While Katniss’s world resembles ours in some ways, Wilson does not account for the impact of living in a completely totalitarian society. Katniss has spent her entire life forced to watch 73 years worth of Games that play out in the same way year after year. 24 tributes go in, only one comes out. It’s even demonstrated that tributes who may buck what few rules exist are taken out by the Gamemakers (see the description of how the “overzealous” tribute, Titus, was taken out of the game). Aside from some pretty minor rebellious hunting and gathering in District 12, Katniss has no personal role models and certainly no literary or historical examples to be the kind of rebel that Wilson suggests she should be (at age 16) immediately at the start of the story.

    You comments in point (2) are also right on as Wilson completely misses Peeta’s full character as well as his purpose in the story. It continually frustrates me that any character who shows some emotional vulnerability (and bravery), as Peeta does by declaring his love for Katniss without knowing whether it will be returned, is immediately branded a wimp or a sap. Collins explicitly describes Peeta’s other strengths to keep him from being just such a stereotype.

  3. miles365 says

    I have heard good things about Wright (particularly about 100 Cupboards series & Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl), but I’ve yet to read his books.

    (1) I agree that Wright has misunderstood Katniss. I think Wright is saying Katniss would have played the rape game, and I think this is his real complaint. It seems as though he expected her to be heroic from the start of the story. (I wonder if Wright had heard too much about the books before reading them, and then accidentally projected his expectation onto the text.) He fails to give the character room to grow into a hero (I also wonder if he’s read the entire trilogy), and like carrenm said, fails to take the impact of Katniss’ society into account. He writes, If Collins wanted her protagonist to be the kind of rebel who would start a revolution (and she does)…. I disagree, and think this is the core fault of Wright’s argument.

    (2) I have to admit that I am usually one of those surface-dwelling readers incapable of anagogical reading. Maybe this is why I also found Peeta a bit too passive for my taste, and didn’t much care whether Katniss ended up with Peeta or Gale, as I didn’t find either one particularly deep or interesting. So I can see where Wright is coming from with this. (I find that all the discussion here – like about Peeta’s character – helps me get a bit beyond my usual surface reading.)

    (3) I suspect Wright’s frustration actually comes from his misunderstanding of the characters and world. If, as he asserts, Katniss is supposed to be the hero but is only a pawn, if Peeta is supposed to be the self-sacrificial boy but is only a passive puppy, and if the Games themselves are the enemy but actually win since (nearly) everybody dies and everything goes back to normal, then the books would be something like what he’s portrayed: a fast-moving reader-grabbing failure. But if you think he’s wrong about those things, then his conclusion must be wrong as well.

  4. You’ve both got good points here. For example, just because a character is a Christ figure doesn’t make him worthy of being lauded as good writing. Peeta is BOTH a Christ figure AND kinda of a schmuck. His “Christ-ness” comes from gentle self-sacrificial love, but he’s also got a bit of that bland fawning puppy-ness that Wilson doesn’t like. I didn’t like it either. I get his symbolic role, but that doesn’t mean he’s a well-designed character.

    I have to agree somewhat with Wilson about Katniss’ response to the games. While reading the book, I had hoped that she would see that the games themselves are the primary enemy, and rouse some type of unified rebellion among all the tributes to refuse its rules at all. To be honest, I was actually surprised when the horn blasts and she races into the games just like everyone else. She may struggle with all the expected consternation about them, but she still goes right along with it and Wilson is correct that it’s a troubling aspect the story.

    Prof. Granger, I’d like to see you examine this intriguing concept, rather than just take a swipe at Wilson himself here (the mocking comment about his “reading capacity” and corresponding fame comes off badly). THG has enough in it to generate plenty of fascinating, varying points of view, and none ought to be shut down with an ad-hoc taunt about the other person (“he’s a surface dweller”). You’ve railed against trolls here before, so give us more than lowbrow derision as an example to us. It betrays a certain bias to simultaneously assure us that he’s so little known that you’ve never heard of him, and then conclude with “this is the sophistry for which Mr. Wilson is best known.” Which is it–you know his body of work enough to critique his career from it, or you’ve never heard of him and hope others will fill you in on his writing?

    I think my overall view of the issue is that just because a writer installs certain characters into certain symbolic roles (“He’ll be the Christ figure, and he’ll be the Alchemical Symbolism figure, and she’ll be the redeemed hero figure…”) doesn’t mean that those plug-ins make something great. In this case, THG is a pretty damned awesome book, but that’s not why. Its not brilliant because Collins wrote in a sacrificial Christ character–after all, Peeta does dome off as kinda bland to me. And just because a character exhibits self-sacrifice doesn’t make him a “Christ figure” anyway (Spike sacrifices himself at the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, arms outstretches as he dies, but isn’t a Christ figure). “Peeta” may be intentional (given the name and “Peter” as “rock”), but yeah…Wilson’s right here, that Peeta is a milquetoast of a character too. And I do wish Katniss had done something different in the games besides just play them by the rules until the very end and then ACCIDENTALLY stumble upon a spontaneous choice that troubles the Capitol, setting her up to become a rebel leader.

    So I can see good points in both views here.

  5. I’ve read two books by N.D. Wilson: Leepide Ridge was a good coming-of-age kinda book and created very definite, likeable, and fairly unchanging characters; 100 Cupboards was very meh – a little too new age flavor for my tastes even though I believe he meant it to be Christian. I think his father is the book reviewer for Christianity Today. The bottom line is more likely to be less academic than his essay suggests- he probably just didn’t like the story and that’s okay to admit – which is probably what he just should have done.

  6. Matt writes:

    Prof. Granger, I’d like to see you examine this intriguing concept, rather than just take a swipe at Wilson himself here (the mocking comment about his “reading capacity” and corresponding fame comes off badly). THG has enough in it to generate plenty of fascinating, varying points of view, and none ought to be shut down with an ad-hoc taunt about the other person (“he’s a surface dweller”). You’ve railed against trolls here before, so give us more than lowbrow derision as an example to us. It betrays a certain bias to simultaneously assure us that he’s so little known that you’ve never heard of him, and then conclude with “this is the sophistry for which Mr. Wilson is best known.” Which is it–you know his body of work enough to critique his career from it, or you’ve never heard of him and hope others will fill you in on his writing?

    Whew! Okay, the two big points: “You’ve railed against trolls here before, so give us more than lowbrow derision as an example to us.”

    Fair enough, Matt, and thank you for the straight forward correction cum challenge to ‘walk my talk’!

    Speaking in my defense, though, we have put up >30 posts about Hunger Games and I have written three on the allegorical and anagogical depths of the books. That checks in at close to 50Gs of writing and I thought a topical review with a link to the greater work sufficient counter to what a2paper writes (I think correctly) is Mr. Wilson’s drawn out “I don’t like it.” Please do review any part of those posts, especially the three longer ones, all straight repudiation of an iconoclastic reading like Mr. Wilson’s, and let me know if I am being uncharitable in my dismissal or just venting too baldly my frustration with superficial readings of Ms. Collins’ inspired bit of writing.

    It betrays a certain bias to simultaneously assure us that he’s so little known that you’ve never heard of him, and then conclude with “this is the sophistry for which Mr. Wilson is best known.” Which is it–you know his body of work enough to critique his career from it, or you’ve never heard of him and hope others will fill you in on his writing?

    This is just sniping, no? I had not heard of Mr. Wilson, but, as I linked in the post, I did read his Wikipedia page and followed several of the links there, many of which were about his sophomoric Shroud debunking efforts. I should have heard of him, I guess, because his father is very well known, especially in circles I used to run in, but I hadn’t heard of the son’s writing. I hope this one-off about Hunger Games is no indication of the value of that work.

    Anyway, I’ll plead “not guilty” to your charge of “bias” or faking ignorance in this piece because of my speaking the truth about my not knowing of him at its opening; all I knew about Mr. Wilson at the end of writing this post was what I had learned about him by following the links I made in it while writing!

    About your later charge that you don’t find Peter to be sufficiently Christ-like because he is insufficiently masculine, I’m afraid that tells us more about your neo-Muscular Christianity, the rage these days among conservative Protestants, I understand, in reaction to the emasculation of the faith in western churches, than it does about any failing in Ms. Collins’ sacrificial and long-suffering hero. I write about this at length in my discussion of Peeta’s role in Mockingjay when he seems anything but heroic in the second of my three posts on the allegorical and anagogical meanings of the trilogy.

    Thank you again for your comments and corrections! Just the sort of rebuke and exchange I hoped for.

  7. I have read 100 Cupboards and really liked it. I also really liked the Hunger Games.

    I really don’t like when authors go after other authors. I just wish they would tell their own stories and leave other people’s stories alone. It just comes off as arrogant, jealous or catty.

    I find when one artist publicly blasts another artist that it diminishes their own work. Reviews are one thing but it’d be best if artists did their good work and left the critiques and unpacking to the professors.

  8. Chris, good points.

    I was excited to recently discover the Smart Pop books, which are specifically a collection of essays on popular YA fiction, written by other YA authors.

    I’d gotten the one on THG (http://amzn.to/LWhxyI), which looked good, and was delighted to find within that they had a similar book on Twilight.

    And then I read this review: http://amzn.to/KVb5ud, entitled “Jealous by any other name…”

    Ugh. Not so excited now.

  9. And, for comparison, here’s what Stephenie Meyer had to say a few weeks ago about THG and Fifty Shades of Grey:


  10. carrenm, I think you are completely on target about the effect of living under a totalitarian regime. I just made a comment on John’s economy of Panem post that includes a link to an interview with a North Korean refugee — the video is worth a viewing. Life in places like the Soviet, North Korean and Nazi prison and concentration camps is designed to strip both the jailers and the inmates of their humanity. The miracle is that some shred of human dignity, morality and hope can survive in the face of such suffering and degradation.

    Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who survived the Nazi concentration camps, wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning that all camp inmates experienced three psychological reaction to one degree or another: (1) shock during the initial admission phase to the camp, (2) apathy after becoming accustomed to camp existence, in which the inmate values only that which helps himself and his friends survive, and (3) reactions of depersonalization, moral deformity, bitterness, and disillusionment if he survives and is liberated.

    But Frankl found a way to retain his humanity:

    “My mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.

    A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way – an honorable way.”

    Real or not real? Real! The salvation of man is through love.

    The beauty of Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy is how clearly she shows that Peeta, Katniss and Finnick all found salvation in the transcendent reality of love.

  11. Thank you carrenm and hana! You connected a lot of dots for me – now I understand why I preferred Peeta to Gale all along. Peeta appeared to me as more ‘real, under the circumstances’ than Gale, – he seemed a little more like the Hollywood version hero. I love the way you pulled in Man’s Search for Meaning – now it makes even more sense the behavior of Peeta and Katniss in the arena. Thanks!

  12. Hana – thanks for the Frankl reference. It has been so long since I read “Man’s Search for Meaning” that I wasn’t making a conscious connection between the two works. It must have been in the back of my mind though as I’ve read some discussion/criticism of THG along the lines of “nevermind this romance stuff, the books are really about revolution and war” (as if those must be mutually exclusive). Peeta illustrates this well in the rooftop conversation with Katniss where he tries to make her understand that even within the context of a brutal situation “within that framework, there’s still you, there’s still me,” meaning that our worth lies in the choices that we make in the face of challenging circumstances. He chose love, and really was the first to play the game on his own terms, rather than the Capitol’s, by electing to try to save Katniss rather than himself. One more reason that I don’t buy the characterization of Peeta as a milquetoast putz.

  13. Clayton Pearlstein says

    I am thankful for this response. I am in the circle of N.D. Wilson by virtue of denomination. I read his critique and I honestly burned on the inside. He came off cocky and stuck on the surface details like those who cannot get past the magic in Harry Potter. Thank you for posting this and the quick links to all of your other posts on the trilogy. I have had conversations with those opposed and I had not yet finished the books, so was inadequate in giving any proper response. I still want to read your posts and think through it more before I try to speak in defense of the trilogy, so for now I am glad to have these links to pass along. I have already passed it on to one friend who has a default judgment of the books based upon the Wilson critique and is staying away from the books until otherwise convinced of their value.
    Thanks for the wealth of info and your willingness to converse with those reading,
    Clayton Pearlstein

  14. I’m with Clayton; I enjoy a lot on that blog, yet I was fuming while reading N.D. Wilson’s article. I agreed with him on just one point: I also once threw Fountainhead across the room. On the other hand, I’ve found myself revisiting and analyzing Hunger Games again and again. While Fountainhead made me sick with its cold view of humanity, Hunger Games ignited me with hope even in the middle of such a dark regime and circumstance.

    I especially don’t like the way Wilson reacts to Peeta and his symbolism. As others have said, I reject the idea that he is a “second-fiddle fella”; in fact, I think he is possibly the strongest character in the story. It makes me wonder if Wilson has bought into the recent idea that only a certain type of “masculinity” is acceptable in Christianity, and because Peeta is a baker and not a fighter, he doesn’t quite fit and is therefore to be ridiculed and not held up as an example. Jesus was also thought to be weak when he was silent as a lamb before its shearers, but proved the power of sacrifice.

    In fact, sacrifice is a prevailing theme in the three books, and this is what fuels the revolution (really the rumblings begin with Katniss sacrificing for Prim, continue with Peeta and eventually Katniss again, and echo in Mags and other more minor characters). So in reality, Peeta is a warrior of sorts, though not the one we would expect (again, just as Jesus was not what we expected). It is not just some “silly girl and a cute baker” who fuel the revolution, but the power of sacrifice over totalitarian rule. The power of humanity over those who threaten to dehumanize us.

    Also, there are some more nitpicky problems that prove Wilson did not read carefully. For one, he contrasts dropping the tracker jacker nest with shooting someone who’s about to kill you as though they are two different things. The Careers had her TREED, and were surely going to find some way to kill her if she didn’t act fast. He makes it sound like Katniss was the instigator rather than the victim with the phrase “dropping tracker jackers on sleeping kids.”

    Of course, I’m preaching to the choir here. Glad that so many people do see the value of the Hunger Games.

  15. Thank you, Clayton, Becky, and all the other serious readers commenting on this thread.

Speak Your Mind