Saturday, April 7, 2012

What is the popularity of The Hunger Games telling us about ourselves?

The Hunger games trilogy and now the movie has been a phenomenal success with over 26 millions books sold and record breaking attendance for the first movie.

The dystopian narrative is very disturbing in which 12 districts of a the country of Panem must offer up 2 tributes each between the ages of 12 and 18 chosen by lottery who will fight to the death until only one victor remains for the entertainment of the capital district residents who watch the whole thing on television and who can sponsor their chosen tribute.

As disturbing a plot as this piece of art is, it has certainly resonated with its American audience especially its targeted teen age audience of 10 - 18 year olds. The question arises in reflective observers as to what factors might this popularity be attributed?

We have seen the United States sacrifice its young for years first to Viet Nam and then to pre-emptive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The killings and atrocities of torture, pillage, and rape are reported daily in the media for the entertainment and instruction of the population who are titillated with this ongoing violence in Afghanistan for over 10 years.

The entertainment on television with shows like Survivor, and other elimination shows imbue the audience with the thrill of watching contestants match wits to eliminate one another until there is a single victor. Rather than working together in a collaborative and cooperative way, these shows depict scheming, conniving, humiliation, and attack to eliminate one's fellow participants.

The current economic system allows the rich and powerful to oppress and subjugate the poor in demeaning practices of foreclosing on their homes, bankrupting them often due to unpaid medical bills, and indenturing them for years to repay college loans. The economic system favors the rich in the legal/criminal justice system, and incarcerates the black and brown poor to create jobs for blue collar workers in districts which support the political system which has used such punishment as a jobs program for the rural white unemployed.

As one deconstructs current social values and practices, it becomes apparent that art, the Hunger Games trilogy, mirrors current life.

These current social values and practices are antithetical to the Unitarian Universalist principles such as the affirmation and promotion of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and the affirmation and promotion of justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark are the heroes of the Hunger Games not because they are victors in the arena, but because as Peeta says, " I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them that they don't own me. If I'm gonna die, I wanna still be me."

Peeta recognizes that he is more than an object of entertainment for the residents of Panem. Like Jesus, he desires to demonstrate that he is more than a body which can be tortured and executed. In his love for Katniss and his kindness towards others he demonstrates that there is more to life than compliance and acquiescence to the societal powers that be. At the end of the first book and movie, it is Katniss' and Peeta's willingness to die by eating the poison berries to deprive the Capitol of its power over them that they are allowed to live. As it says in Mathew 16:25 "If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it."

The Hunger Games trilogy and movie is an appalling morality play for young people, but its popularity attests to its ability to resonate deeply with young Americans experience of their lives here. Let us hope that the deeper lesson is not lost amidst the entertaining violence and the anemic romantic love story.

The question remains which is who will stand with Peeta's desire to be himself and be true to his intuitive wisdom that there is more to life than being an object onto which society projects its values, beliefs, and preferences which often are perverted and create an experience of hell? The clear message of the Hunger Games is that there must be a better way, and we Americans who live daily our own self created versions of the Hunger Games, are beginning to understand, especially with climate change, that we are all in this thing called life together, and life takes us all working and sharing together to create peace on earth. We Unitarian Universalists have much to share in terms of finding a better way. However, living our faith is much more difficult that paying lip service to it. Who will stand with Peeta? Who will offer him the respect, solidarity, and love which he craves?

It is ironic that in reading the Hunger Games books and watching the movie we too, like the residents of the Capital District, become voyeurs using other people's terror, suffering and death for our own entertainment. As Collins has experienced, there is big money in it and we humans are prepared to spend big money to be entertained at other people's expense. You might object that these are fictional characters, but we send our brothers and sisters off to war regularly and watch the "shock and awe" on television and rather than use our tax dollars for education, health care, the social welfare, we approve through our representatives to use our tax money to kill other people in foreign lands. We cry, "Support the troops" and hang banners in our public streets saluting our "home town heroes". The Hunger Games is not some dystopian fictionalized account of the future, it is being enacted daily in our lives, and our children know this and consume the  "fiction" which mirrors their daily truth. It takes a novel and movie to tell them the truth that they are mere objects in political games that their parents and grandparents play for their own benefit and amusement. It validates their premonitions that their elders would see them die in an arena of combat for their own entertainment and advantage. We have created a hell on earth for our children and it is only with awareness and love that we can overcome the hell we have made for ourselves. Is there a better way? Absolutely, and it lies in the direction of forgiveness and collaboration.


  1. This is as good a critical analysis of the Hunger Games phenomenon as I have read anywhere. People are oblivious to the cynicism of the popularity of these novels, but the kids get it. They realize they are being offered up as human sacrifices to that we can continue to live a luxurious lifestyle based on a capitalistic system which runs on oil.

    I would hope that UUs and all good people who see through the sham will work together to help one another to create a more just and peaceful world.

    Thanks for the article.

  2. I didn't read the books or see the movie but I understand your point about how art mirrors our culture. When our kids spend all their time killing people in video games, is it any wonder that feel right at home watching depictions of people killing each other in this fascist society? As you think so shall you be. Rather than protecting our minds from violent thoughts, our culture sell violent thoughts and scenarios as entertainment. Soldiers steering drones over Pakistani villages and bombing houses of families killing innocent people (collateral damage) is what these soldiers have spent their childhood and early adolescence doing. Killing now has the feeling of a virtual reality until the nightmarish dreams of PTSD set in when they realize what they have participated in. The kids get this while adults are so callous and cynical that they pretend to be oblivious and don't want to be bothered by the painful reality of what we Americans have become. Would that our Unitarian Universalist faith in the inherent worth and dignity be taken more seriously by the people of the United States and around the world.

  3. I was sickened by the premise and the story of the Hunger
    Games. I told my daughter that I didn't think she should let her 10 year son read it although he was very interested in it having heard about it from others.

    It is antithetical to everything I believe in, and I am disgusted by it and I realize how hard it is to look evil in the face and not stick my head in the sand like an ostrich.

    Let's try to be more positive and stay away from this kind of rubbish.

  4. I think you've missed something more immediate: High-stakes testing.

  5. Dear John:

    What is "high-stakes testing"?

  6. In the case of my not-quite-nine-year-old daughter, it's the benchmark exams which took an entire week of her school life this month, the tests on which she and her classmates are judged and on which her teacher's jobs depend. It's a heck of a burden to put on a kid, but I suppose it's how you train hyper-competitiveness into them, making them lose sleep and worry when they still should be kids.

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.