Would Kierkegaard Like Katniss Everdeen?
Matthew William Brake
Initially, I wasn’t a fan of the Hunger Games.
The first time I heard about the series was from a friend (Hi Emma!) who read the books based on a recommendation from someone else.
When the first movie came out, I didn’t go see it. I just heard that it wasn’t as good as the book. The first time I ever saw any footage of the movie was in its Honest Trailer (which left the phrase “fake CGI fire” permanently embedded in my memory).
Move forward to Thanksgiving 2013.
I was visiting with “framily” (friends who are family), and they told me they were seeing Catching Fire the day after Thanksgiving. They asked me if I wanted to go, and I said, “Yes.”
We were all set to go until I told them I hadn’t seen the first movie. In their horror, they made me watch the first movie before I could go with them, and I complied. While the first movie’s effects and directing seem a little rough, I was intrigued enough to still see the second movie.
And. Oh. My.
When the credits rolled and Coldplay’s “Carry Your World” came on, I was a fan, and my framily and I continued the tradition of seeing the remaining Hunger Games films together until the trilogy (quadrilogy?) wrapped up.
That is the occasion for this blog. A reflection upon the end of a framily Thanksgiving tradition that we did not celebrate this past year (thank goodness Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is in theatres, amiright?).
With the Hunger Games series behind us as a cultural phenomenon now, I’ve been reflecting on a question I’ve had ever since I finished the books (which I did long before Mockingjay Part I came to theatres).
Is Katniss Everdeen a good protagonist?
Watching the movies, it’s easy to see Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of the character in a heroic light, but when one reads the books, one can’t help but feel like Katniss is…well, a little bit of a self-centered jerk.
From her inner monologue, Katniss seems like a manipulator navigating a world of master manipulators. While this might make sense in a context of squalid poverty where she is fighting for her survival, I still found myself getting frustrated with Katniss’ inability to really, deep down, embrace a cause greater than herself to better the world. She is really only concerned with her own survival and the survival of her sister Prim.
In my opinion, Katniss’ focus on herself and her sister is her undoing as a character.
In Mockingjay, Katniss takes a group of her compatriots to storm President Snow’s house and assassinate him, which she undertakes for personal revenge more than anything else (again, greater cause be damned). In the end, she gets most of her companions killed, watches helplessly as Prim is blown up, and ends up badly burned from the explosion.
For her efforts, Katniss is given the honor of executing President Snow, whose continuing manipulations cause Katniss to change her mind and aim her arrow at the newly inaugurated President Coin, whom Snow implied is responsible for the explosions that killed Prim.
Katniss is arrested, has a nervous breakdown, and is finally sent home to live out her days in District 12. She and Peeta marry. The end.
Katniss isn’t the hero everyone thinks she is, nor do I think she becomes one. She is manipulated and bossed around by everyone from President Snow and the Capitol to President Coin and District 13. After Prim is killed and she kills Coin, her inner world spirals. All of the external forces break into Katniss’ inner world, and she falls apart.
In one of his early works, Søren Kierkegaard critiqued one of the famous authors of his own day, Hans Christian Andersen. Andersen released a book entitled Only a Fiddler. It tells the story of a musical genius named Christian who “succumbs to [external] circumstance, becoming nothing more than a poor fiddler. He dies a musical failure, in obscurity and alone” (Westfall, p. 37).
Kind of sounds like someone else we know, hmm?
Kierkegaard criticizes the way that Andersen allows the hero of his story to crumble under external circumstances. For Kierkegaard, a real genius or hero would be incited by external difficulties, not be defeated by them. Andersen depicts “not a genius in his struggle but rather a sniveler who is declared to be a genius” (Kierkegaard, Early Polemical Writings, 88). I can’t help but think here of those who are so quick to declare that Katniss is a strong feminist role model, when in reality, she is constantly being manipulated and ordered around.
Kierkegaard attributed Andersen’s treatment of Christian to Andersen’s own “dissatisfaction with the world” (89), and while I want to avoid making a similar accusation against Suzanne Collins, I do think that there is a cynical and nihilistic part of our cultural psyche that a dystopian story like Hunger Games appeals to.
So what is Kierkegaard’s solution to Andersen’s “gloom and bitterness against the world”? (73)
He needs to have a life-view. A life-view provides one with a unified self that is able to overcome life’s external circumstances and not be tossed about by every mood and circumstance. As Kierkegaard might have described it, it is “the idea for which I am willing to live and die” (Kierkegaard, Journals, 5100). If an author has a life-view, it will make his or her novel “have [a] center of gravity” rather than being “arbitrary and purposeless” (Kierkegaard, Early Polemical Writings, 81).
If Kierkegaard were to read the Hunger Games, I think he would critique Katniss as a protagonist, and he would say that the series’ lack of an apparent life-view and subsequent popularity reflects the nihilistic underbelly of our own age.
Søren Kierkegaard, Early Polemical Writings. Edited and translated by Julia Watkin. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1990.
Søren Kierkegaard, Søren Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers, Vol. 5. Edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 1967.
Joseph Westfall, The Kierkegaardian Author: Authorship and Performance in Kierkegaard’s Literary and Dramatic Criticism. New York: Walter de Gruyter. 2007.
Matthew William Brake is a dual masters student in Interdisciplinary Studies and Philosophy at George Mason University. He also has a Master of Divinity from Regent University and is a teaching pastor at Hill City Church in Arlington, VA. He has published numerous articles in the series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception, Resources, including an article on Kierkegaard’s criticism of Andersen in volume 17. You can follow him on Twitter @mattybrake.