Archives For The Hunger Games

One Verse Hollywood Believes

Mark Beuving —  February 17, 2014 — 2 Comments

Hollywood isn’t known for its adherence to biblical truth. But in some cases, Hollywood returns repeatedly to biblical truths. As with all humanity, Hollywood can’t seem to fully move beyond Jesus, as though Jesus were a “thorn in the brain” (to borrow a phrase from Christian Wiman), a “haunting figure” (to adapt a phrase from Flannery O’Connor), or a “rock in the shoe” (from my colleague, Ryan McGladdery).

In this post, I want to highlight one verse that Hollywood believes in. A truth that Hollywood considers profound and returns to time and again:

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

As soon as I say that, I’m sure you can think of plenty of movies that feature self-sacrificing love, where a character lays down his or her life for a friend. Let me give you a brief sampling here, and then invite you to post other good Hollywood illustrations of this verse in the comments. And, by the way, spoiler alert: Don’t read any of the descriptions you don’t want to read (I shouldn’t have to say that, but someone always complains…).

 

The Lord of the Rings & The Chronicles of Narnia

I’m lumping these two together and treating them briefly because they are both adaptations from stories written by Christians. But they’re also great examples. Self-sacrifice runs throughout Lord of the Rings as Frodo and his companions risk their lives for one another and to save the world. And then Gandalf sacrifices himself so the “fellowship” can continue (and later returns—reborn—as Gandalf the White). And Aslan’s self-sacrificial death to save Edmond is so clearly Christian that I need not explain it here. But the success of these movies shows how powerful our modern culture finds such stories.

 

Harry Potter

I have written on this before, so I’ll direct you to those two posts for details (here and here). But Harry’s parents die so he can live, Harry and his friends sacrifice for one another for seven years, and finally, Harry willingly lays down his life to save everyone he cares about.

 

The Hunger Games

In the first film, Katniss willing chooses certain death in the arena when she volunteers as a substitute for her sister, Prim. In the second film, some of the other tributes throw themselves in death’s path to save Katniss. Depending on how faithfully the third film follows the book, we may see more of this later. (I’ve written more on this here, here, here, and here).

 

The Little Mermaid

I’ve written on why The Little Mermaid can be taken as absolutely horrifying or as powerfully edifying (here). But in either case, we see King Triton willingly becoming a pathetic piece of seaweed in order to take his daughter’s place and allow her to live. And Ariel and Prince Eric in turn risk their lives for one another and the good of the world.

 

Wreck-It Ralph

In this animated gem of a film, Ralph finds himself in a place where the little kid (Vanelope) for whom he has developed a big-brotherly love is going to be destroyed, along with every other character in the arcade. As King Candy (aka Turbo) holds him high in the air and tells him that it’s “game over for both of you,” Ralph says, “No, just for me,” and throws himself strategically to his death in a boiling geyser of Diet Coke and Mentos so that Vanelope and the others can be saved. Vanelope sees his sacrifice and risks her life to save him as well.

 

Gran Torino

The impossibly curmudgeonly Walt (Clint Eastwood) eventually learns to love his neighbors, and eventually gives his life for their good (see Preston’s take on it here).

 

Frozen

After the newly crowned Elsa flees into the mountains out of fear and confusion, leaving her kingdom in a perilously “frozen” state, her little sister Anna risks her life to help her sister. She is persistent in her life-risking because of her love for Elsa, and eventually she forfeits her last hope at life so that she can save her sister. It’s seriously beautiful. (You can read more here).

 

Titanic

After the horrifying events surrounding the Titanic unfold (spoiler alert: the ship crashes and sinks), Jack selflessly places Rose aboard a floating piece of debris and stays in the icy water, where he quickly freezes to death. A self-sacrificing act if there ever was one, but as many have pointed out, there was clearly room for two people aboard that piece of debris…

 

Conclusion

There are so many other examples we could look at. These are merely the first nine that came to my mind. But the point is, Hollywood seems enamored with the idea that love has no greater expression than the laying down of one’s life for the sake of another.

What does it all mean? Well, it certainly shows that non-Christians often say things that are true, profound, edifying, etc. It also illustrates that what we have in the gospel is the most compelling story in history. Perhaps the phrase “the greatest story ever told” has become cliché, but the host of Hollywood films (and keep in mind that we haven’t said anything about the world of literature or music here) focusing on this one biblical concept shows that this old cliché is far from tired.

 

One of my students recently told me about the theme of a summer camp he was working for: The Holy Games. The concept is a one-off of the popular book (and now film) The Hunger Games. Essentially, this Christian camp is trying to be relevant to their culture. Everyone seems to be pretty into The Hunger Games, so how can we use this concept to relate to the younger generation? It’s a noble goal, but anyone familiar with The Hunger Games will see a problem here.

The plot of The Hunger Games centers an oppressive regime that forces its citizens to participate in an annual death match. Twenty-four teenagers are chosen to participate in the Hunger Games, where they are given a variety of weapons and forced to fight to the death. There can be only one victor.

Now, I don’t know exactly how this camp structured their Holy Games, but I’m told that the games featured a similar structure: a series of competitions in which there was a single victor. How they battled, what it meant to be the victor, and exactly what they were hoping to illustrate with the games all remain a mystery to me.

My goal is not to bash these undoubtedly well-intentioned people. I’m fairly confident that my description above is little more than a caricature, and if they could defend themselves here they would do a far better job than I am doing. But I still want to use this example to make a point.

Sometimes our desire to be relevant goes too far. We should indeed find ways to connect with our culture. But not at all costs. As I have explained in the past, The Hunger Games is a pretty chilling critique of our culture’s heartless pursuit of entertainment to the neglect of injustice. So while I think Christians can and should read such social critiques, I also believe that we need to show a little discernment in the way we interact with such things.

So let’s get out there and find the best that our culture has to offer. Let’s critically engage what is being produced and presented by the culture makers who shape our society. Let’s find ways to connect with the thoughts and longings of the people around us. But let’s avoid cheesy and insensitive imitations. Let’s exercise discernment in the ways we choose to engage the world. The pursuit of relevance is noble, but let’s never forget that the gospel message is both unique and subversive. It requires wisdom and discernment to properly relate the gospel to the culture we live in.

 

I have already made a lot of fuss about The Hunger Games (click here, here, or here), but I can’t resist at least one more post. A friend of mine watched the movie in the theater on opening night. The house was packed. The audience rode the emotional roller coaster until the film climaxed with a showdown between the “good” characters (Katniss and Peeta) and the last remaining “bad” character (Cato). And as Cato fell to certain death, the crowd cheered.

Did you catch that? The crowd cheered! As a 16 year old boy—who was born into a corrupt world system that forced children to fight to the death—fell from safety to be eaten by wild dogs, the crowd cheered.

In my first post on The Hunger Games, I said that I creeped myself out when I realized that I was enjoying a story about kids killing each other. As I read the books, I was disgusted by the members of “the Capitol” who were shallow enough to view a forced teenage death match as entertainment. But I realized that I was indicted when I found myself rooting for one of these teens to triumph by killing the others. (To be clear, I enjoyed the books for reasons that are far deeper than the glorification of violence—I’m just admitting that I too got caught up in the drama of the games.)

It’s no stretch to say that Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games in an attempt to show us how shallow we have become—to prophetically announce that we have become so entertainment focused that we will allow gross atrocities to unfold beneath our noses so long as our stomachs and eyes are satisfied.

How terrifying, then, that you could be sitting amongst a few hundred of your fellow citizens, taking in a prophetic statement about your society’s shallow apathy, and then hear them all break into applause when a teenage boy (himself marred and calloused, but human and young nonetheless) falls to his death.

I’m all for enjoying movies, and I’m not saying that the people in the theater with my friend are especially evil. We all have an ingrained desire to see the wicked punished, and in the movie, this 16 year old was behaving wickedly. But I do think that this example shows the extent to which we need to hear Suzanne Collins’ indictment. Is our generation really willing to fight evil in all its forms, even if we have full bellies and diversions galore? We think the coliseum in Rome was a terrible affront to the dignity of man, but can we really claim to be any better? Based on this particular instance, I’d say no.

 

I’ve developed a weird sort of crush on Flannery O’Connor. If you’ve never read anything she’s written, I would highly recommend it. But be warned: you probably won’t enjoy it.

Her writing is not fun, nor is it entertaining in a lighthearted sense. Pretty much everything she wrote was dark. Her stories are filled with death, murder, doubt, blasphemy, and all sorts of debauchery and violence. This much shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. Much of what we read and watch contains all kinds of darkness. But here’s the kicker: Flannery O’Connor was a devout Catholic.

How can a person with a profoundly Christian worldview write stories that are dark, violent, and depressing?

For O’Connor, the use of exaggerated violence was actually an aid in getting people to see life for what it is, and to see themselves for who they are:

“We hear many complaints about the prevalence of violence in modern fiction, and it is always assumed that this violence is a bad thing and meant to be an end in itself. With the serious writer, violence is never an end in itself. It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially, and I believe these are times when writers are more interested in what we are essentially than in the tenor of our daily lives…the man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him…” (Flannery O’Connor, Mystery & Manners, 113-114)

In other words, extreme situations force us to look beyond all of the decorum and comfortable habits that adorn our daily lives and see what we are at the core of our selves. As O’Connor says, the violence is not an end in itself, it is a means of cutting through the irrelevancies and showing us who we really are.

I have already written a fair amount about The Hunger Games, but it’s worth pointing out that this is one of the strong points of those stories. When faced with a violent and dehumanizing situation, we find out who these characters really are. Some of the “tributes” from districts 1 and 2 show their predatory nature, while Katniss, Peeta, and Rue find ways to uphold the dignity of humanity. Those commitments were there the whole time, but it took an extreme situation to draw them out.

As we read or watch this type of fiction, we see ourselves in the characters. Our books or tv screens become mirrors and we are forced to ask, What would I do in such a situation? It forces us to wrestle with that deepest part of ourselves that may not see the light of day in the course of our daily routines.

Of course, many people will pursue violence as an end in itself. But violence can be a good thing when it points beyond itself to reveal the “qualities least dispensable” in our souls, “those qualities which are all we will have to take into eternity with us.”

Warning: If you haven’t read all three of the books in the Hunger Games trilogy and plan on reading them, you’re going to want to cover your eyes. Spoilers ahead.

I recently blogged about the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy. If you haven’t read that post, I’d suggest starting there. Here’s a quick overview: Panem (formerly North America) has been divided into 13 districts and is dominated by an oppressive regime. The evil empire randomly chooses two teenagers from each district and forces them to fight to the death in the coliseum—I mean, arena. In the first book, Katniss and Peeta (the lucky winners from District 12) defy the capitol by refusing to kill one another in the arena.

In my first Hunger Games post I discussed author Suzanne Collins’ treatment of human dignity. In the face of a completely dehumanizing situation, the reader is forced to wrestle with the value of humanity. In the second and third books, this struggle to affirm human dignity takes on new dimensions.

For most of books 2 and 3, Katniss, Peeta, and other major characters are driven by the desire for revenge. Though they are still trying to survive, they begin to think about fighting back against the oppressive regime. In book three, the rebels launch a full assault on the capitol. On the one hand, the rebels are fighting to see the oppression end. But on the other hand, many of the rebels—and especially the hero, Katniss—are motivated by revenge.

As they come closer to achieving their goal, questions of right and wrong disappear. At one point, as the rebel forces develop atrocious weapons that prey upon their victims’ sense of compassion, Katniss says, “I guess there isn’t a rule book for what might be unacceptable to do to another human being” (Mockingjay, 184). Of course, every major religion and ethical system has a clearly communicated understanding of “what might be unacceptable to do to another human being.”

The question becomes: To what extent can we disregard human dignity in order to preserve human dignity?

When everything is said and done, Katniss, having endured horrific atrocities, seems to have given up on humanity: “I no longer feel any allegiance to these monsters called human beings, despise being one myself” (Mockingjay, 377).

Here is where we see the genius of Collins’ books. Her characters are forced to make sense out of mankind at its most destructive. This is something that every generation of soldiers has faced in real life, and it’s the reason so many are physically, emotionally, and psychologically scarred. To a lesser extent, it’s a reality that we all have to make sense of. What do we make of a world in which people mistreat one another so horribly?

Collins does not leave us with an answer to this question. But this is not a flaw in her books. One of the most powerful features of the arts is that it allows us to “grapple with our own problems from a safe distance” (a phrase I’m borrowing from Leland Ryken). In some ways, the effect of The Hunger Games would be reduced if Collins had begun preaching at the end her book. Rather than relieving the tension by telling the reader what to make of it all, Collins leaves us to decide for ourselves. How can we live in a world where human dignity is so frequently trampled upon?

On the last page of the book, Collins has her main character, Katniss, relate an exercise that she works through every time she despairs that every pleasure she has in life will be taken away: “I make a list in my head of every act of goodness I’ve seen someone do.” Collins is certainly not suggesting that this makes everything all right, but it seems to be the best that the scarred Katniss can do.

Here is where the gospel meets The Hunger Games in a beautiful way. People do indeed perform acts of goodness from time to time, but this in no way shapes the value of humanity. Man has value because he has been created by God as a unique and dignified creature. He bears the very image of God. Man’s value is derived from God, not his actions. The Hunger Games effectively leads us to despise human depravity and the oppression that so often stains the human experience, but ultimately there is only one solution to this dilemma. That solution became one of us, gave His life under the heavy hand of an oppressive regime, and then conquered it all by rising from the grave. This solution alone can offer us dignity in the midst of depravity.

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