The Hunger Games & Human Dignity

Mark Beuving —  January 19, 2012 — 16 Comments

I was told that I had to read The Hunger Games. So I did. Apparently, so did a lot of people. After its release in 2008, it spent three consecutive years on the New York Times bestseller list. There are reportedly 11 million copies in print, and Lionsgate is releasing it as a movie in March. So I guess you could say that the book has been popular.

The Hunger Games (written by Suzanne Collins) tells a compelling story. North America has been taken over by an oppressive regime which divided the country into 13 districts. When the districts tried to overthrow the Capitol (the seat of the regime), the Capitol destroyed district 13, kept the other 12 districts starving, and forced each of the districts to send two teenagers to participate in the annual Hunger Games, which are essentially a televised death match.

The story follows Katniss and Peeta, the female and male participants from district 12, as they battle each other and the other contestants in the “arena” (a large but apparently enclosed landscape featuring woods, a lake, and open fields). Contestants form alliances, but there can only be one victor, so every alliance is temporary and strained. Every moment of the games are televised—some portions of the games are required viewing—and members of the Capitol watch with anticipation as they place bets on who will win.

What I find most fascinating about this story is the opportunity it provides to examine human dignity. Any time you have human beings hunting one another, you can be sure that a society’s view of humanity has been skewed. Especially when the whole thing is presented as a sport. The book invites a comparison to the coliseum in ancient Rome. The death matches that took place in Rome were just as intense, just as gruesome, and just as celebrated by spectators. The biggest difference is that the coliseum wasn’t fictional.

The Hunger Games definitely presents “the games” as a monstrous affair forced upon people by heartless dictators. So killing people for sport isn’t being promoted. Yet the story presents us with an interesting moral dilemma. Even though we know that the scenario is dehumanizing and barbaric, it’s enjoyable to read about! I’m not saying that I was glorying in killing for sport as I read the book, but the story is compelling, and I kept reading because I was dying to find out what would happen next. The reality that thousands of Romans gathered at the coliseum to watch people who were forced to battle to the death seems incomprehensible, yet teenagers hunting one another is a bestselling storyline! In a fascinating way, the reader finds himself implicated in a morally reprehensible situation. The reader is disgusted by the members of the Capitol who watch and cheer the games, but is not the reader doing exactly the same thing?

The book also raises another question: can human dignity be preserved even in such a dark scenario? Collins certainly gives us some characters who care nothing for human dignity. But these characters are portrayed more as monsters than as people. At key moments in the story, Katniss and Peeta (and some of the other characters to an extent) demonstrate a high view of humanity. Peeta vows to preserve his dignity during the games, to live and die as himself and not as an animal. Katniss sings a comforting song to a dying contestant and places flowers around her destroyed body. Peeta and Katniss even refuse to kill one another at the end of the games.

Francis Schaeffer said that there are two things that man has never been able to ignore: (1) the existence of the world as God created it and (2) what he called the “mannishness” of man. By the “mannishness” of man Schaeffer meant that human beings have never been able to overcome the sense that there is something unique about humanity, something that makes man special and unique, something that can’t be explained in purely scientific terms.

I would say that it is exactly this “mannishness” that Collins is wrestling with in The Hunger Games. She may not offer a basis for human dignity, but she recognizes it nonetheless. And the reader recognizes it as well. This is why we can’t quite escape our uneasiness with reading an enjoyable story about teenagers hunting one another. This also explains the success of the book. As we read the book, we are reading about more than a competition, we are viewing humanity from a fresh angle. We are brought face to face with the question of what it means to be human. We won’t find that question answered in The Hunger Games—I believe that the only satisfactory answer is found in the Bible—but it is an essential question to wrestle with.

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Mark Beuving

Mark Beuving

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Mark Beuving currently serves as Associate Pastor at Creekside Church in Rocklin, CA. Prior to going back into pastoral ministry, Mark spent ten years on staff at Eternity Bible College as a Campus Pastor, Dean of Students, and then Associate Professor. Mark now teaches online adjunct for Eternity. He is passionate about building up the body of Christ, training future leaders for the Church, and writing. Though he is interested in many areas of theology and philosophy, Mark is most fascinated with practical theology and exploring the many ways in which the Bible can speak to and transform our world. He is the author of "Resonate: Enjoying God's Gift of Music" and the co-author with Francis Chan of "Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples." Mark lives in Rocklin with his wife and two daughters.
  • i realize i’m behind the times, but i’m catching up on my perusing of the faculty blog and this one definitely caught my eye. i went to the midnight showing of the movie for kicks, and was utterly disturbed by what i saw – not because of the movie, but because of the audience. during rue’s death scene, for whatever reason, i was acutely aware of the audience. what i saw was a room full of teenagers who were being entertained by the movie that itself was, i think, intending to say that that kind of entertainment is despicable. of course, i can’t read minds, so that’s an assumption more than anything else, but i did find it extremely ironic. and frustrating. and convicting. now, i love the hunger games and i totally can get behind what suzanne collins was trying to say with the whole thing. i feel less angry with myself about enjoying the books because i really, truly feel like i appreciated them not for the excitement but for every loaded statement collins was making by writing it the way she did. that being said, i do wonder if the majority of us have missed the point by celebrating it the way we do (not that it’s a bad thing to celebrate good books, but i think the way we go about that and the reasons for it are extremely important and say a lot about who we are on both an individual and national level).

    • Mark Beuving

      Great thoughts, Torri. I think that most of America missed the irony completely, which is itself ironic.

  • Yvonne Wilber

    I know there are many Christian men and even women who watch and enjoy MMA and the UFC. The “athletes” may not fight to the death, but people revel in the violence. Should it bother me that a certain pastor exalts cage-fighting as the ultimate measure of masculinity? (Yes, that is a rhetorical question.)

    • Mark Beuving

      Yes.

    • sam choi

      I am struggling with the whole topic of violence..

      I watched a movie a few months ago called, “Ip man.” It was by far the most incredible kung fu movie I have ever seen (behind kung fu panda of course). I found myself loving every moment in it. After I finished the movie I felt like I heard God ask me, “Do you think I enjoyed the fighting?” This struck me because violence is a part of the fall. It was never God’s intended desire/delight for their to be death or violence.

      If I were to enjoy watching porn, it would be clear to all that this is clearly wrong and would go under the category of lust.

      So is it ok for me to enjoy watching people hurt/kill each other? Does Christ delight in these things? Are movies like “Braveheart” blind spots to Christian men?

      Something seems seriously off about our hearts if we enjoy seeing God’s image bearers being hurt/killed. God must grieve when he sees it, yet we may cheer..

      I am wrestling through this. I would love to hear thoughts back!

      • Mark Beuving

        Good question, Sam. This is something I haven’t completely formed my thoughts on yet. I know Preston has done a lot of thinking in this area, so maybe we can convince him to do a post on it.

        The only thought I have is that it is probably helpful to make a distinction between violence for violence’s sake and violence for some greater good. The Old Testament if full of violence for a greater purpose. I suspect that Braveheart would fall under this heading as well. William Wallace wasn’t a serial killer, he was fighting to gain freedom for the oppressed. So we may rightly be grieved over seeing individual people killed but rejoice in seeing a God-honoring concept upheld.

        But as soon as I say that, I have to acknowledge that I wouldn’t enjoy Braveheart very much if Wallace spent the whole movie writing letters and earning freedom through diplomacy. This is the same problem I ran into in trying to answer Alex. I can’t justifiably get angry at Hollywood for producing violent movies because I find myself enjoying them.

        • sam choi

          This is helpful.

          But I guess what I wonder, is it ok that we get really excited and happy when the “good” guy stabs the bad guy?

          God does not delight in the death of the wicked, so although God’s justice is served, is it wrong for us to be happy when we see a sweet fight move that hurts or kills someone?

          When I see a sweet kungfu movie I get really excited when I see sweet fight moves. But this is still violence. Should I not be excited about it? I guess MMA would fall in this category too..

          • Mark Beuving

            All good questions, Sam. I got Preston to semi-commit (he used the word “maybe”) to posting on this in the relatively near future. That should be helpful.

  • Alex Groh

    I just went back and read your post on good things in bad movies, I really liked it, great thoughts, I heartily agree! I’m fascinated by your first point in your above comment. I don’t think I caught on to that irony before while reading the books, and I wasn’t quite understanding the implications of your point in the blog. Could I request at some point, whether here or another blog, an exploration of that issue? I’m really intrigued by what you’re pointing out here. OR maybe we should just have a book club or something!

    • Mark Beuving

      Yeah, I’d love to talk more about it too, Alex. Let’s make that happen. I’m almost finished with the second book and I keep feeling the tension.

  • Alex Groh

    Warning: This comment may be a Spoiler if you have not read the books yet.

    Although these books contain a society that finds violence entertaining, the whole point of the story is to reveal the actual injustice, atrocious cruelty, and repulsiveness of such violence, and the lostness of such a society. Hopefully as the reader you weren’t cheering on the violence or enjoying it in the least but rather found yourself caught in the horrifying tragedy of those 24 kids forced to fight to the death in the arena. Collins’ goal was to let you feel the cruel tension and horrors of violence.
    I agree that one of the main themes presented in the book, the uniqueness and worth of human life, was merely recognized and not explained. Collins didn’t provide a basis for human dignity, but presupposed it. But at the same time she wrestled with the ability of mankind to narcissistically take their own dignity for granted and deny that dignity to others if they themselves are being satiated. Hence the title of the book (modification of the following phrase) and the main theme carried throughout the series “Bread and Games” taken from Juvenal’s Tenth Satire.
    Just as Juvenal was writing against his contemporary Roman society, ultimately these books are a critique of the direction of American society and political life. This series condemns our films, music, and art that glorifies violence and degrades the value of human life, as well as “calling us out” on our gradual and complacent forfeiting of our political responsibilities as well as our general human responsibility to protect the dignity of our fellow man. As long as we have our food and entertainment (Panem et Circences) we will be subdued enough to allow our political powers and freedoms to slip away until we find ourselves in a land where human dignity is denied to many and we no longer care. A sick place where the prosperity of some is built upon the oppression of others. Those who have their bread and games have the power to change things but don’t because they don’t care, and those that have only their hunger, and find themselves the victims of that unjust society, find themselves helpless to change it.
    In the end, Collins hits home her main point, that protecting and restoring human dignity comes at a great price and requires great sacrifice. That’s a point that as Christians I think we can agree with.

    This series ought to, at least, bring to our attention relevant questions that need to be carefully considered:
    -Have we abdicated of our responsibilities to our fellow man so that we can complacently enjoy our abundant “bread and games”?
    -Have we unknowingly become part of that society that turns a blind eye to those suffering and oppressed so that we can have our plenty?
    -Who will be willing to pay the great cost to redeem human dignity in our country and the world if not Christians?
    -How can we as Christians help restore the world we live in today and prepare it for the Kingdom that is coming?

    Ultimately meditating on these issues ought to bring our thoughts back to Christ, who considered the outcome worth the cost and paid the greatest price. And to be encouraged by those faithful men and women who have gone before us, following in the footsteps of Jesus, to lay down our lives for our fellow image bearers and for the service of our King.

    Let us not forget that the beautiful, flourishing, and radiant meadow of life that we dance in grows over the grave of Another.

    • Lance Hancock

      “Let us not forget that the beautiful, flourishing, and radiant meadow of life that we dance in grows over the grave of Another.”

      Great line, Alex.

    • Mark Beuving

      Well said, Alex. There is much here than can be affirmed. I wrote a bit about this in a post entitled “Can Bad Movies Teach Good Things?”—that the mere presence of evil in a piece of art does not mean that evil is being promoted. I agree with you that Collins invites us to join in hating the games and standing up for human dignity. I was only trying to make two points off of that:

      (1) Though my stance is to oppose the senseless violence of the games, I can’t deny the fact that I was entertained by the games themselves—extreme hunting of this sort is strangely compelling. I think this effectively implicates the reader in the problem. The problem isn’t Panem, it isn’t the leaders of ancient Rome, the problem runs through every one of us. We can’t simply fight injustice “out there,” we are a part of that. But you’re absolutely right, Collins invites us to oppose that evil, wherever it may be found.

      (2) As human beings, we know there is something special about humanity, but the non-Christian does not have the foundation for human dignity that Christians have. I assume that Collins is not a Christian. So she rightly upholds the value of humanity, but I want to take that opportunity to point out that the only solid basis that we can have for such a belief is found in the Christian worldview, and the only hope we have of sustaining a lifelong fight against such injustice is found in Christ.

      So those are my additional two cents. Thanks for everything you said above, that really helps to round out the discussion.

  • Ali Cottrell

    Um, I think you should have put “spoiler alert” at the beginning of your blog, because I haven’t read the book and now it’s ruined for me.

    Just kidding,

    But really.

    😉

    • Mark Beuving

      Sorry, Ali. Mild spoiler alert. I don’t feel like I gave much away there. If you happen to read the comments before you read a blog post, be warned that you’ll hear something about the storyline.

  • The “mannishness” of man? I’m pretty sure Driscoll jacked that phrase and redefined it :-