The Hunger Games has appeared almost from nowhere to become one of the biggest films in recent history. So what does this horrific vision of a fictional future have to say to us about the hidden horrors of our present reality? (This article originally appeared in Christianity magazine)
‘I volunteer as tribute!’ The voice of teenage heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) reverberates around a packed but silent town square, setting in motion a chain of events that will almost certainly lead to her death. Katniss has just volunteered to take her sister’s place in The Hunger Games, a twisted TV show that keeps the proles of post-apocalyptic America in their place. In Suzanne Collins’ phenomenally successful teen fiction series of the same name, and in the recent inevitable film release, Katniss’ sacrificial act is the catalytic moment for one of the most thrilling fiction plots of recent years.
The Games themselves are a shocking and macabre creation – 24 teenagers drawn from the 12 outlying districts of a country renamed Panem are sent into a gigantic arena filled with weapons and traps, and forced to fight to the death until only one remains. Yet Collins’ stories aren’t paedaphobic pulp fiction, and Gary Ross’ film adaptation doesn’t focus on the brutality of the idea. Rather, both are interested in making a profound political point through an attention-grabbing allegory. So don’t file The Hunger Games with lightweight exploitative trash, but with Orwell, Swift and Golding. There is weighty meaning intended behind this story – and it should cause readers and audiences young and old to reflect accordingly.
The film has taken many by surprise. A largely unknown story outside of teen reader circles, it has become a juggernaut, breaking records for advance cinema booking, recording the biggest opening weekend for a non-sequel in Box Office history, and grossing double its substantial budget within a week. It is without question the year’s biggest film, and with at least two sequels already in development, looks set to be the cinematic franchise of the decade. So why has a movie about teenagers competing so captured the world’s imagination? And how can we engage with this, our culture’s dominant story of the moment, as a connection point to the Christian story?
As with a number (although not all) of the post-apocalyptic films of recent years, The Hunger Games is strikingly absent of any kind of theology. Like 2009’s chilling adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a book about a man and his son walking across an even more barren and damaged America, the film and its characters make no mention of God, prayer, or faith in anything beyond the natural. It’s as if the apocalyptic event itself eradicated God as well, or at least disproved his existence.
What the film does talk about is hope. In one scene, the villainous President Snow (Donald Sutherland), tells his Head Gamemaker that ‘Hope…is the only thing stronger than fear…A little hope is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous.’ Bubbling under the surface of the story is a subplot of national revolution; one which takes centre stage as the trilogy continues. In this part, however, we only see the seeds of an uprising planted, as 16-yearold Katniss graduates from tragic victim to symbol of national expectation. As she begins to survive the relentless dangers of the Games, committing little acts of rebellion along the way, those watching her on television in the poverty-stricken districts begin to believe that President Snow’s all-powerful Capitol (the opulent city at the centre of Panem) might not always get its own way. And with that glimmer of hope – as Snow predicts – begins a growing defiance. People begin to believe that change is possible. Katniss becomes more dangerous by the hour – both to the Capitol, and to herself.
Katniss Everdeen isn’t meant to symbolise Jesus, yet her character arc – like that of so many literary heroes – echoes Christ’s story in so many ways. She gives her life freely, volunteering to take the place of her condemned sister; embracing death so that another might live. She subverts the system of her country’s oppressors by navigating a different path through the games – building friendships, sparing lives, mourning those who have died – all in full view of the entranced television audience. Most importantly, she becomes a symbol of hope for an entire nation; a fleck of light in the prevailing darkness.
All this brings us on neatly to Collins’ allegorical target. The film is superb at bringing to life the two sides of Panem – the drab, povertystricken districts and the vibrant, hideously luxurious Capitol. The divide between rich and poor is unbearable to watch; those in the outlying regions dress in rags and survive by eating rats; the lucky few who live in the city wear bizarre outfits that look like rejects from London Fashion Week, and gluttonously devour more food than they need (in the second book, Collins introduces the idea that at parties, the citizens make themselves vomit to enable them to eat more). Moreover, in the Hunger Games themselves, the rich sit back and enjoy the televisual spectacle of watching the poor die.
It is a stark picture of rank inequality; the backdrop for revolution, but also a mirror to the real world. How different is this image – albeit slightly overblown – to the contrast between the rich and poor in our world? TV scheduling means it is normal for viewers to channel-flip between a documentary about famine in East Africa and an episode of Location, Location, Location in which Kirstie and Phil persuade rich people to buy mansions. How different are we to the fictional world represented in The Hunger Games? Is the divide not just as gaping? Don’t we also stand by in our comparative opulence and watch the poor die from a safe distance – from behind a screen?
That might feel like a bit of a stretch. After all, we don’t conscript children from developing countries and force them to fight to the death while we watch. But we are part of a society which uses unmanned drones to bomb Middle Eastern targets while the pilots sit hundreds of miles away watching the ‘collateral damage’ unfold via satellite. We are part of a culture that stands by and watches as famine, disease and corrupt governments kill off millions of children who had the misfortune to be born into developing countries. Like the citizens of the Capitol, we put different values on the lives of the rich and the poor. Western children are priceless; our great hope for the future; to lay a finger on one would be the greatest sin of all. Yet the children of the Twothirds World are implicitly given a different value. Their deaths are a tragedy, and yet not the kind that brings about change. Let’s not kid ourselves – we do have the resources to eradicate poverty. Like the Capitol, we choose not to use them, and so we allow the children of the developing world to participate in a different kind of Hunger Games, one less shocking but just as devastating.
The Hunger Games is the most important narrative of this kind in recent years. If the film-makers continue to project the books’ heart onto the screen, then a primarily teenage, Western audience will be forced to consider: what kind of world do I want to live in? Panem is a horrific vision of what could be, and yet in some ways it only reflects our present reality. That realisation is the true horror; it could also be the catalyst for change. If people young and old are able to see the not-too-subtle link between reality and fiction, then perhaps it could inspire a whole generation of real-life Katniss Everdeens to stand up against injustice and yell, ‘I volunteer.’
This article first appeared as part of the culture column in Christianity magazine. You should all read Christianity you know. Get a free copy here now.