A few weeks ago I began to notice numerous students of mine carrying any one of three books from the recent trilogy “The Hunger Games.” And then I overheard their conversations as they excitedly anticipate the release of the first of the movies (March 23rd). So I read the books. Without spoiling the story for you, allow me to comment.
We are witnessing a growing number of stories in our day that fall into a genre portraying what I call a “post-apocalyptic dystopian world.” It’s not an entirely new notion. In fact as long ago as 1957 Nevil Shute’s book On the Beach (with a 1959 movie starring Gregory Peck) introduced this genre to the American public. In that story, a crew of sailors on the submarine USS Sawfish were the last remaining Americans, waiting in Australia for the deadly nuclear fallout (the result of a war in the northern hemisphere) to drift south and wipe out the rest of humanity. More recently there has been no shortage of movies including the “Terminator” series, the “Matrix” series, “The Book of Eli,” “I am Legend” and more. All are set in a world where some event (usually man-made) has caused such destruction that human civilization has been threatened or profoundly altered. “The Hunger Games” approaches this subject from the first person perspective of a teen aged girl – thus some of the appeal to students in 2012.
Hundred years in the future in a completely reorganized North America, an unnamed country organized into 12 districts is controlled by “The Capitol.” Reminiscent of the Greek myth in which King Minos requires seven boys and seven girls from Athens to battle the Minotaur in a labyrinth, so the Capitol requires each “district” to choose one boy and one girl annually to compete in “the Hunger Games.” This fight to the death reminds the reader of the Roman gladiatorial games: the contestants are called “tributes,” they enter the “arena” in chariot-like vehicles before being thrown together in a fight to the death.
Some critics have said the book is one part reality TV genre (Survivor meets American Idol) and one part video game genre (look for the video game by September!). In the course of the “games” over the three books, many lives are taken, but the description of the violence is not nearly as gory or as detailed as is common practice in our day. The descriptions of violence seem rather to emphasize the unjust plight of the teen tributes and the gross desensitization of the Capitol dwellers who are entertained by the whole affair. In their existential boredom, the favored Capitol citizens seek extreme “entertainment,” which includes watching others suffer brutality and die gruesome deaths – again, much like ancient Romans.
All this said, the books offer some redemptive (if confused) ideas worth pondering. The two or three primary teen-aged characters spend significant time talking together about what it means to be human, what genuine love looks like, and how one can be loyal in the midst of terrible circumstances. These are certainly good questions for teens to consider.
But all of this is confusing as these important thoughts somehow emanate from a world with no mention of the divine or the supernatural. In my 7th Grade Biblical History class last week we briefly discussed a verse in Proverbs: “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker” (Prov. 14:31a). Students quickly made the connection. We are created imago Dei (in the image of God). To degrade another human insults the God in whose image this person is made. Then I reminded them of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s observation: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” In a world where there is no God, one must conclude there is no ultimate meaning, therefore, no binding reason to act with altruism toward your neighbor. In such a world, we cannot say the Hunger Games are “bad” – they are a reflection of what the powerful desire over the powerless. Morality becomes absolutely relative.
And the book concludes with one character continually asking a question (as he recovers from having been brainwashed by the powerful): “Real or unreal?” In the end, if God does not exist, this is THE question. If students can penetrate the mere drama of the story, there may be profitable questions to discuss from The Hunger Games.
For a more extensive discussion of these issues, one link to consider (of several on the web) is the following: http://jwwartick.com/2012/02/20/hunger-games-christian/.