The Hunger Games (based on the novels by Suzanne Collins) is one of the best ﬁlm series to emerge from the recent renaissance in young adult literature, and the penultimate installment, “Mockingjay: Part 1,” is just out in theaters. With credible themes, full-bodied performances, and (sometimes) thoughtful direction, they actually feel like real films rather than just merchandise promos. To recap: in a dystopian society in the future, children are forced to participate in large-scale murderous outdoor games, fueled by a voracious media controlled by a ruthless and psychopathic president who seeks to keep his subjects pliant by the ancient method of scapegoating villains and making fake heroes out of celebrities. Our protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence, the ﬁnest young actress working in popular cinema today), joins in the games to save her sister, eventually becoming the symbol of a resistance movement. The beauty of the wooded and rivered landscape contrasts with the melancholy and terror of her life: she is forced to kill or be killed, and to lead when she really wants to hide.
To understand The Hunger Games, first you need to research cable news, read political science, and develop a familiarity with ancient Babylonian myth. But just in case you don’t have a copy of The Epic of Gilgamesh lying around, here’s a summary:
The ancient stories inscribed in Gilgamesh—one of the world’s earliest literary works—imagine a creation narrative that would not be out of place in a Quentin Tarantino ﬁlm. Original male and female gods have children to keep them company, but after a few eons, the children’s rambunctiousness gets on their nerves. So the parents decide to kill the child gods, but the kids outsmart them, killing the father god ﬁrst. Huddling in a corner, the kids give authority to their strongest sibling, who manages to kill the mother god by blowing a poisonous gas into her mouth and exploding her with an arrow to the gut. It’s a pretty gruesome tale, but it has to be contended with, for it underpins the stories we still tell even to this day. It’s not just in our art and culture (think of how the shark dies at the end of Jaws—a gas canister in the mouth, and an explosive shot to the gut), for what the theologian Walter Wink called “the myth of redemptive violence”—the idea that order can only be brought out of chaos through force—may be the real religion and politics of our society. The challenge for those called to make peace is to transcend this myth with a new story. The Hunger Games is part of a cultural wave that seems to be attending to this call (others include The Lego Movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Big Hero Six).
Katniss is living in a metaphor for the audience’s life, with childhood sacrificed on the altar of celebrity and the military-industrial complex, and kids forced to do their parents’ growing up for them. In a smart move, the films dress evil President Snow’s enforcers in white: moral puritanism here is the enemy of love. Media intrusion into people’s personal lives is almost as insidious as the news-o-tainment’s obsession with violence, and with telling the story of humanity in a way that grants disproportionate airtime to blood. The world is actually getting more peaceful (see Harvard experimental psychologist Steven Pinker’s work, especially his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, for evidence), but the story we tell about it suggests things are getting worse. Mass media in The Hunger Games is revealed to be fully complicit in raising the temperature of the culture by feeding on and encouraging violence. Such a temptation always exists for media in the real world, and it’s not a trivial matter, for the story we tell shapes the limits of what we believe to be possible. If we keep telling the story as if things are more dangerous than they are, we will keep nurturing fear and threat, which will radically inﬂate the possibilities of real violence.
These films are challenging some of the accepted myths: we have a female hero who doesn’t need a man to save her; we see the impact of trauma on characters—they don’t just brush themselves off after witnessing or participating in horror. Most powerfully, they don’t want to return violence for violence—the first Hunger Games ﬁlm even climaxed with something like a speeded-up version of Gandhi’s hunger strike: the option to take your own life as a last resort to prevent evil without doing violence to others. As the series nears its conclusion, the foremost question is whether or not it will sustain its challenge to injustice and propose a resolution that doesn’t use the same methods as the fictional oppressors. Will it transcend the myth of redemptive violence and offer a new story, or just beat the bad guys but keep the game the same?