I love The Hunger Games. I love both the young adult novel and the movie based upon it that so far has grossed over $300 million in just three weeks. If you are unfamiliar with The Hunger Games, then ask your children or grandchildren; and if you don’t have any of your own, ask someone else’s kids or grandkids. They will know all about The Hunger Games. Unlike some other young adult novels and movies (for instance Twilight) that just really don’t appeal to me, The Hunger Games offers a moral message that I think is profound.
I should offer the disclaimer, however, that The Hunger Games’ moral message is wrapped in a slick and very violent package. It is not a quaint lecture on morality; there’s a reason it has made over $300 million. The book along with its two sequels (the movie is an adaptation of the first book with film sequels on the way) are written by Suzanne Collins, who has stated in interviews that she wanted to get young people thinking about war, violence and how politicians and governments manipulate their own people. She crafted her story and characters to force her readers to question simple dichotomies of “us vs. them” and “we are right and they are wrong.” In the first book and the movie, the bad guys seem clear enough, but in the sequels we meet the good guys, who ultimately call into question the old dictum “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Sometimes, the good guys have to become as bad as the bad guys in order to win, which means the enemy of my enemy could just be another enemy.
The books take place in a dystopian future in the country Panem, which once was America before wars and civil breakdown. A cruel and despotic Capital controls 12 Districts around the country. As punishment for a past rebellion by the Districts, the Capital controls their food supply which it can mete out or withhold at will. Every year, in a sadistic show of control and manipulation, two children from each District are chosen to fight to the death in a high-tech reality TV version of the ancient Roman gladiatorial games. The child who survives to the end gets rewarded and his or her district is guaranteed enough food for another year.
The heroine of the series of books and movies is Katniss Everdeen (check out this great discussion of the character by two NY Times critics), who lives in what was Appalachia. When her young sister, Prim, is chosen for the Hunger Games, the teenage Katniss volunteers to take her place. We follow her journey and watch as she is manipulated and exploited for the entertainment of the Capital. Her fight to the death and her efforts to resist playing the Capital’s brutal game form the climax of the story.
Yes, the books and the movies have to do with kids killing kids—albeit kids who are forced to do so, but the movie and the books do a fine job of not glamorizing the violence but showing it for the horror it is. I dare you to compare the way violence is portrayed in The Hunger Games with how it is portrayed in the video games your kids and grandkids are playing—the latter largely contain no moral center at all. Consistently throughout the books and films, violence is the tool of the oppressors and the only ones who truly escape the clutches of the Capital are those who learn to find a different way than the violent one offered to them.
An example of Katniss’ efforts to find a different way than the path of violence comes in the first novel and the movie when she befriends a young girl named Rue. Rue, a combatant from another District, is quick and agile but ultimately peaceful. Katniss endeavors to protect and care for her small friend but ultimately must morn her death at another’s hand. Her attempts to show compassion and friendship rather than to view the young girl only as prey are what ultimately inspire the benumbed populace to remember their own dignity as human beings. Ultimately, The Hunger Games is corporate entertainment, but it is entertainment of a superior quality, because it dares to challenge its audience. Although the books and film are not inherently Christian, as a Christian I resonated with the questions they raise. In what ways am I complicit in a culture that exploits my brothers and sisters for entertainment’s sake? Am I numbed to the level of violence portrayed in the media as fiction, much less to the violence carried out in my name by my government? Do I perceive others as competitors to be eliminated or as human beings worth cherishing? The heroine Katniss Everdeen seeks to protect those weaker than herself and to do for them what they cannot do for themselves. Am I willing to do the same in whatever way I can for those denied a voice or an opportunity in our culture? As a middle class American, do I, like the citizens of the Capital, view the rest of humanity as somehow lesser beings who exist for my convenience and comfort or do I see them as fellow children of God? If the latter, what responsibility does that place upon me?
The Hunger Games may or may not be your cup of tea, but I am grateful that such a popular story in our culture dares to offer such a moral point of view.
Grace and Peace,