The Hunger Games
“A little hope is effective: a lot of hope is dangerous.”
The Hunger Games’ picture of a dystopian future raises significant spiritual and sociological questions for the present day.
Based on Suzanne Collins’ bestselling teen-lit trilogy, the first movie (sequels are already in the works) presents a post-apocalyptic world in which, as punishment for a previous rebellion, 24 “tributes” (12–18-year-olds from 12 impoverished districts) are selected by lottery to fight till only one survives. This spectacle takes place in a large, enclosed wilderness environment, and is televised as entertainment for the ruling citizens of the “Capitol.”
Befitting its theme, the movie is, at times, intense and unsettling. Although there is blood, the film avoids actual scenes of killing. Still, this is not a movie for younger children, or anyone for whom the darkness of the action and themes might negatively outweigh the benefits of a cracking good story and some important lessons.
And it’s a good story that addresses timely issues.
One of those issues is contemporary attitudes to entertainment and the practice of the cult of celebrity. Prior to being sent off to fight to the death, the tributes are lauded as celebrities; they’re treated to sumptuous food, feted in a lavish pageant, and interviewed by a smarmy TV talk-show host. It all seems so familiar, except it’s leading to the violent deaths of all but one of them at that at the hands of each other.
This view of celebrities is different from our world, right?
I’m not so sure. What are the de-humanizing effects of the insane adulation we heap on celebrities in our world? How often do we hear stories, such as the recent death of Whitney Houston, about talented people who, with seemingly all the reason in the world to live, nevertheless struggle with addictions and other demons? What roles do our expectations, our projected fantasies, play in placing them on unrealistic pedestals and killing “normal” for these folks?
The genius of the story is its subversion. Good is a tool for evil. To increase drama (and ratings?) the president of the Capitol advises the producer of the Hunger Games to manipulate the rules so as to generate “hope…the only thing stronger than fear.” But he then cautions: “A little hope is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous.” Hope that doesn’t really point beyond oneself, or one’s circumstances, but is a tool of evil, is not hope at all.
Nowhere is this subversion more apparent than in the nature of the games themselves. Children – the future, the lifeline for humanity – are being sacrificed. I wonder if there isn’t a critique of our age here as well. In what ways are we “killing” not children per se, but childhood? Have post-war parents abdicated our roles in a too-permissive culture? Has too much freedom deprived our children of something essential for their maturation? And what place is there for childhood in an increasingly sexualized world?
The literal game ends with an apparent selfless act, but even here there is a question about motive. And that’s fitting.
There are bright shining themes here – of loyalty, friendship, and sacrifice – but they’re lived out in a world at odds with these values. Cagey wisdom, along with courage, is needed for living them out in that world and in ours. For this reminder, I’m grateful for The Hunger Games.