Engage with culture without disengaging your faith.
(longer plot synopsis – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1392170/synopsis)
The Hunger Games is an adaptation from Suzanne Collins’ trilogy. In a not-too-distant future, North America has collapsed, weakened by drought, fire, famine, and war. Panem takes its place – a country divided into the Capitol and 12 districts. The Capitol is a glittering city where people live lavish lives, supported by resources, food, and material goods from the districts. The district people are essentially slaves, oppressed by hunger, poverty, and military control. Each year, a boy and girl from each of the twelve desperately poor districts are selected by lottery to fight to the death on live television, broadcast for the entertainment of rich people. Katniss Everdeen, the 16 year old heroine of the story, volunteers to take her younger sister Primrose’s place for the latest match. Katniss is the responsible provider for her family in the districts. Her father died in a coal mining accident, and her mother still grieves.
The contest is staged in the wilderness (think Survivor reality TV show, but where contestants don’t vote the others out, but rather kill them in a modern version of a gladiator contest). The final winner earns wealth and fame, and food for his or her home district. But he or she must bear the memory of having murdered to win. Katniss and her male counterpart Peeta together move on to revolution, as they become the somewhat reluctant symbols of a popular uprising against Panem’s oppressive government. The Hunger Games as been described an American equivalent of Harry Potter, a story of a teen searching for meaning in a chaotic and threatening society.
Questions for discussion
Some general questions might provide enough framework for you to discuss the movie, such as:
- What stood out as the main points/highlights in the movie?
- What themes are explored?
- What assumptions were embedded in the story?
- What challenged you? What questions did it raise for you?
- Are there aspects of the story that resonated with your own experience or with the experience of others in a similar situation?
- Are there biblical or theological themes or characters that come to mind?
The following provides some particular aspects of the movie that could be explored. Feel free to use these ideas as a catalyst for further discussion and reflection.
Disparity between the rich and the poor
The country of ‘Panem’ depicts the rich living in luxury, while those in the ‘districts’ live in poverty. Here in Australia, Treasurer Wayne Swan warns that income inequality is rising in Australia. The Bureau of Statistics Household Income Survey demonstrates the rise in the gap between the richest and poorest in Australia – in 1994-95 households in the top 10 per cent earned an average of 3.78 times more than the bottom 10 per cent. By the latest survey in 2009-10 this had grown to 4.21 per cent. The gap in wealth is even starker, with the wealthiest 20 per cent of households accounting for more than 60 per cent of wealth, with an average worth of $2.2 million. The bottom 20 per cent own just 1 per cent of the nation’s household wealth at an average of just $32,000. Bureau of Statistics figures show wages have risen about 111 per cent since March 2001. But over the same period, company profits are up about 185 per cent. Some of those company profits filter through in dividends to shareholders and super funds, but the wealthier you are, the more shares you’re likely to own. Big business and unions tend to hog the limelight in Canberra because they’re more organised and have much bigger resources to fight for their cause.
- What might the disparity in wealth in Panem in the movie reveal in a fresh way about the disparity of wealth in our contemporary world – in Australia and in our global village?
- What biblical references or stories might inform our views about society where ‘the ‘rich get richer, the poor get the picture’ (to quote Midnight Oil’)? Perhaps explore The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12*) and Hebrew (Old Testament) prophets like Micah and Amos.
* see http://bible.org/seriespage/beatitudes-matthew-51-12 for helpful background or Dave Andrew’s Plan Be series
Counter cultural/subversive ways of changing the world
Decades ago, the districts had revolted against the “Capitol”. When they failed, the annual ‘games’ was determined to be the punishment to remind them of the futility of resistance. The spin doctors in the movie describe the ‘games’ in a propaganda film as a “pageant of honor, courage, and sacrifice” that are “how we remember our past” and “how we safeguard our future.” The games underline the way the ‘system’ favours those with wealth and power, and the masses are expected to put up with it. We see countless examples in history and in our contemporary world. Themes of resistance to oppression and hope for a better world are woven through the movie (and books). Such challenge and resistance to the ‘status quo’ is messy and difficult. It mirrors in many ways the experience of Jesus, as well as the transformative way of life Jesus offered his followers.
- What are some contemporary examples eg Occupy Wall Street movement, Fair Trade campaign (fair trade for growers of products in the developing world)?
- In what ways might the followers of Jesus lead by example in countering wealth and power that serve only the vested interests of a few, and serve to disadvantage those who cannot exercise power?
- Can you recall other movies that have tackled this theme? How do you rate The Hunger Games in comparison for this theme?
- Released in Australia just before Easter 2012 – are there any reflections on the life of Jesus and those who longed for liberation from the Roman occupiers who oppressed the people of the land?
Movies as an entry point into compassion
We may not ourselves have experienced abject poverty and disadvantage. It’s hard to be compassionate when our experience doesn’t provide an entry point into the experience of others. Movies offer a way into ‘story’ that allows us to explore the human journey through the experience of others.
Compassion occurs only between equals. When you are able to feel pain, acknowledge suffering, you are trustworthy to share the pain and suffering of others
- Do movies like The Hunger Games translate into a deeper sense of compassion or a commitment to justice? What happened for you as you watched the movie?
Panem appears to have no institutional religious life. Perhaps the absence of religious life is one way allows oppression and violence? Diana Butler Bass* writes: ‘Despite the lack of conventional religious trappings, the major theme of the novel is a deeply theological question, one that has haunted the religious imagination for millennia: Can violence – even sacrificial violence – save? When Katniss volunteers for the games, she saves her sister’s life by offering to die in place of another. This echoes the Christian teaching of Jesus’s death as a sacrificial substitution for another. But Katniss’ actions undermine the traditional understanding of self-sacrifice. Katniss is not Jesus. To save herself, she must kill others. In “The Hunger Games,” salvation cannot be accomplished only by death but by murder. The game arena is a profane altar-where the teens slaughter each other to placate the emotional and political “gods” of the capital and reinforce belief in the system that binds the society.
Peeta, the other District 12 tribute, understands that violence never saves. Even seemingly noble or sacrificial death breeds more violence. Violence always serves oppressors, never the oppressed. “I don’t want them to change me in there,” he tells Katniss of the arena, “Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.” To survive means to be twisted into one who murders others for entertainment and food. These games are not about fame and victory. They are about one’s fundamental sense of identity, about the impossibility of human dignity under the Capitol’s rule. “I keep wishing I could think of a way to show the Capitol they don’t own me,” Peeta says, “That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.” Peeta wants to subvert this ritual violence for the sake of his humanity. He not only wants to survive; he wants to be free.
Ultimately, “The Hunger Games” argues for a human future of love and non-violence by immersing us into the voyeuristic orgy of violence brought about by inequality and injustice. Viewers must take stock of the limits of violence as a way of freedom and redemption. Katniss is a powerful figure, athletic and smart. But she is saved – and saves others – by reason and love, not hatred and fear. “The Hunger Games” points out that the world envisioned by spiritual leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King is infinitely preferable to a world of “bread and circuses,” where the many are controlled by the very few. The future hangs between these two visions: Will we be Panem or some other sort of world?
No religion in “The Hunger Games”? The story eschews religions that glory in crusades, jihads, nationalism, militarism, and imperialism. In Panem, there is no place for religion that supports injustice. The enslaved neither want nor need such a religion. Banished are religions that celebrate bloodlust. There is too much of that already.
Yet “The Hunger Games” celebrates faith – faith in family, faith in friendship, faith in song, faith in justice. “The Hunger Games” proclaims that beyond the fences of fear built to enslave, control, and guard, there is joy, beauty, and wonder. In the end, there is true freedom, and the hard-earned hope that human beings can create a better world based not in sacrificial violence but in sacrificial love’.
Heroes and those who fire our imagination
Depth psychologist James Hillman writing in The Soul’s Code: “Extraordinary people excite; they guide; they warn; standing, as they do, in the corridors of imagination – statues of greatness, personifications of marvel and sorrow – they help us carry what comes to us as it came to them. They give our lives an imaginary dimension. . . . making our world less impossible through familiarity with theirs.”
* Discuss in relation to the movie and other examples of people, past and present.
© Rev Sandy Boyce 29th March 2012 Pilgrim Uniting Church
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