The bestselling novel and blockbuster movie The Hunger Games provoked a wide range of reactions among evangelical Christians. A reviewer from Focus on the Family find in the female protagonist a heroine who determines to value human life, even if that means sacrificing her own. Alvin Reid and Amy Simpson glimpse the gospel throughout the storyline while MovieGuide sees such strong humanistic messages that the film is deemed “unacceptable.” Doug Wilson describes the book and film as an exercise in ethical relativism while Dick Staub treats The Hunger Games as a morality tale that moves beyond situational ethics.
[Read more about the ethical perspective in The Hunger Games here.]
From my perspective, such a breadth of responses is encouraging. The Hunger Games trilogy and film deserves neither uncritical acceptance nor flippant rejection from the Christian community. What this piece of popular culture calls for is thoughtful engagement that is willing to listen for echoes of the gospel while critiquing a deeply-flawed worldview.
My exposure to The Hunger Games began with a pleading glance from my teenager. “Everybody says it’s going to be an amazing movie. Could you at least look at the book to see if I might be able to watch the movie?”
It was a respectful request, and she was prepared to follow our family protocols for watching such films: If a movie is based on a book, the book must be read before there’s even a chance of seeing the story on the silver screen, and parents must approve the book before the progeny can read it. Up to that point, I had only heard of The Hunger Games in the context of literature for female young adults, and I had assumed they would be too similar to Twilight for our family’s taste. Further complicating matters was the fact that Denny Burk is the designated Twilight fan among the faculty at Southern Seminary; interacting too much with popular entertainment intended for teenaged girls could intrude into his important area of specialization.
Despite my trepidation at meandering inadvertently into a Twilight zone, I began to glance through the first volume of The Hunger Games for the sake of my daughter. Three chapters into the book, I was hooked. I found myself spending a half-day devouring the first volume then immediately purchasing the remainder of the trilogy.
The prose is far from fine literature. Descriptions of the heroine’s inner conflicts when caught in a romantic triangle are cliched at best, cringe-worthy at worst. Yet The Hunger Games is—for the most part—a well-plotted tale set in a richly-detailed dystopian future. The premise, the pacing, and an abundance of clever allusions to ancient history kept me reading long past the point when I had planned to lay the book aside.
Katniss Everdeen is a fatherless sixteen-year-old in the nation of Panem, a confederation of twelve districts in a far-future North America. Katniss lives with her mother and sister in District 12, a destitute region responsible for producing the coal that provides power in a distant and decadent Capitol. The family survives because Katniss has carried on her father’s habit of hunting illegally beyond the fence that hems in District 12. Katniss hunts alongside Gale, a young man who lost his father in the same coal-mining accident that took the life of Katniss’ father.
Nearly a century earlier, the districts revolted against the Capitol only to be defeated. To punish the districts for their failed rebellion, the Capitol decreed that each district would send two tributes—one young man, one young woman—to fight one another to the death in the yearly Hunger Games. Each year, twenty-four youth enter a vast arena that encircles a different type of terrain each time; only one emerges alive.. The games function as entertainment in the popular culture of Panem, particularly in the Capitol, and the victors become celebrities.
What Suzanne Collins has twined together in these novels is a futuristic retelling of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. After conquering the Athenians, King Minos of Crete constructed a circular labyrinth with a mutant beast—the Minotaur—at the center. To avoid utter destruction at the hands of the Cretans, the Athenians agreed to send seven young men and seven young women each year into the labyrinth to battle the Minotaur. The third time that this process played out, Theseus—son of the king of Athens—offered himself as a volunteer and defeated the beast.
The beast in The Hunger Games is not a single particular creature, although mutant creatures (“muttations”) do make appearances throughout the trilogy. The beast in this arena is the system that turns citizens into slaves of the Capitol. President Coriolanus Snow—described throughout the books as a snakish tempter—serves as a personification of this system.
When the name of Katniss’ twelve-year-old sister is plucked from the bowl to represent District 12, Katniss Everdeen offers herself as her sister’s substitute. She is paired with Peeta Mellark, the son of a baker, and sent to the Capitol to prepare for the seventy-fourth annual Hunger Games. In the hype that precedes the games, it’s revealed that Peeta has long loved Katniss, and they are portrayed by the media of Panem as a star-crossed couple, faced with the impossible dilemma of one having to kill the other for either to survive.
In her training and in the arena, Katniss Everdeen is a reluctant hero with a Byronic streak. Her compassion for a twelve-year-old girl in the arena transforms her into a folk hero among the citizens of Panem. When she outwits the seemingly-omnipotent powers of the Capitol by bringing the game to an end in a way that saves both herself and Peeta, Katniss becomes more than a tribute or even a hero. She becomes a symbol of hope and solidarity for those who wish to overthrow the Capitol.
Working with author Suzanne Collins and screenwriter Billy Ray, director Gary Ross has developed one of the most faithful novel-to-screen adaptations of the past decade. Only one change between book and film struck me as unnecessary and unfaithful to the original story line: In the movie, Katniss obtains her mockingjay pin—a token that increases in significance as the trilogy unfolds—through an impulse purchase for her sister; in the book, the pin is more purposefully placed in Katniss’ possession.
Jennifer Lawrence is stellar as Katniss Everdeen. Tiny tremors of fear flitting through her face and fingers, heaving sobs over the corpse of a child, hunger-hardened glares of determination in the face of death—all of them are deeply convincing. Josh Hutcherson, playing the part of Peeta Mellark, slips skillfully between the same roles that Peeta does in the books: he manipulates the media but refuses to sacrifice his commitment to do whatever it takes to save Katniss.
A faithful move from book to film means that not only the book’s strengths but also its weaknesses are transferred—and perhaps magnified—on the screen. A solid underlying premise from Collins couples with strong performances from Lawrence and Hutcherson to prevent their characters from becoming the next Bella and Edward. The same can’t be said for Gale, a cliched character in the books who becomes a brooding cardboard cutout in the film.
Gary Ross chose to tell this tale in a documentary style, with an ever-shifting camera . In most instances, “shaky cam” pretends to provide audiences with cinéma vérité while mostly just making people queasy. Yet, this approach serves The Hunger Games well. The camera shots reveal the grisly deaths of the tributes in rapid glimpses before quickly turning away. It is as if the camera itself is shifting its gaze, unable to linger over the horror.
For the fictional citizens of Panem, the deaths of the tributes are entertainment; the cameras they have embedded in earth and trees for their viewing pleasure never blink at the horror. By refusing to allow moviegoers to gaze long on these murders, The Hunger Games underscores the point that these deaths are meant to provoke shock and reflection, not amusement.
If such carnage is necessary to a story line, perhaps these quivering glimpses are an appropriate approach to depicting the dark horror of walking in the footsteps of Cain, staining the earth east of Eden with the blood of our fellow human beings. And yet, one wonders whether such a cinematographic strategy can possibly succeed for moviegoers of the twenty-first century. So many scenes in so many films, television episodes, and video games have descended so deeply into virtual orgies of gore, lingering long over horrors that ought to have remained unseen or, at most, glimpsed briefly in a context that considered the true tragedy of life lost. In a world that gorges itself on virtual violence, are we still capable of being shocked by these fleeting shots of teen-on-teen carnage for the sake of entertainment in the arenas of Panem? And, if we aren’t, one wonders whether The Hunger Games are quite as far-fetched as we’d like to think.