The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012)

When trust is a matter of life and death
The story is set in some unidentified period in the future. The United States has collapsed, and in its place is a nation named Panem. Panem consists of twelve isolated, oppressed Districts, essentially slave labor camps ruled by a Capitol whose citizens live in ease. In commemoration of a past rebellion against the Capitol and to be certain it is never repeated, once each year each District must pick two tributes. These 24 young adults are brought to the Capitol where they are feted and paraded before being placed in a dome in which the annual Hunger Games are played. There they must fight to the death until just one remains. The District whose tribute wins receives added food and resources in the coming year.

In The Hunger Games (2012), Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence, is horrified when her younger sister Prim is chosen as the tribute from District 12. Katniss volunteers to take her place. She is assigned a mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (played by Woody Harrelson), a previous Games winner who she must depend upon but who has descended into alcoholism since his victory. In the Capitol, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) a fashion stylist prepares her for the crowds, a task that extends past mere looks since the impression she makes can cause wealthy viewers to purchase favors for her in the Games. It is customary, in the opening section of the Games for the tributes to make alliances, working together to knock off more dangerous opponents before they turn on one another. Friendship, community, and relationships are shown to be matters of life and death, and at every turn Katniss must decide whom she can really trust, and who is merely using her for their own selfish ends.

If I had young adults living at home I would look forward to reading The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, and watching the film together. Though I do not think the novel is as well crafted as the Harry Potter series, it is an exciting story that forces us to consider questions of ethics and meaning that every young adult must face in our broken world. It is a parable, a piece of science fiction that serves as a metaphor for our world. This means that different viewers will likely see in the story different real-world equivalents to the world in which Everdeen exists. Their conclusions will say more about their own ideological and worldview commitments than it will the true meaning of The Hunger Games.

In a column on the novels in The New York Times, Stanley Fish, professor at Florida International University (Miami) asks, “just what is it that the characters, and by extension the readers, hunger for?”

On the literal level the answer is obvious. Kept at a near-starvation level by their rulers, the inhabitants of the nation of Panem (bread) hunger for food, and one of Katniss’s virtues is that as an expert archer she can provide it. Food, however, is a metaphor in the trilogy for another kind of sustenance, the sustenance provided by an inner conviction of one’s own worth and integrity. (Man cannot live by bread alone.) The hunger to be an authentic self is a basic constituent of the game we call life, and the difficulty of achieving that state—Polonius tells Laertes “to thine own self be true,” but forgets to provide the how-to manual—is intensified for the “tributes,” the name given to those selected by lot to be contestant competitors who must exercise the twin skills of deception and violence if they are to survive. How can one maintain integrity in a context that mandates aggression and betrayal?

One of the strengths of The Hunger Games is that it removes ethical issues from a purely individualistic setting. Living in a corrupt system, Katniss discovers that simply doing what is right may not always be sufficient because at times her correct choice can have very negative consequences for someone else. As in reality, faithfulness requires not merely that we do what we believe is right (though it is never less than this) but that we out-think the world system in which we live that promotes values in opposition to God’s kingdom and shalom. Faithfulness includes creatively subverting those values, so that human beings can flourish even as we live, day by day, tasting on our tongues the acrid tang of the dust of death.


1. What was your first impression or reaction to The Hunger Games? Why do you think you responded to the film this way? 2. Consider the story as a science fiction parable. What real world realities do you see reflected in the story? What do you think this says about your way of viewing society and the world? 3. Discuss the flamboyant character Caesar Flickerman, played by Stanley Tucci. What does he represent in the story? What roles—good and bad—does he play in Panem? What is revealed through him about the media and its celebrities in our world? 4. In what ways were the techniques of film making (casting, color, direction, lighting, script, music, sets, action, cinematography, editing, etc.) used to get the film’s message(s) across, or to make the message plausible or compelling? In what ways were they ineffective or misused? 5. Why is The Hunger Games so attractive to so many people? 6. Would you identify Katniss Everdeen as a true hero? Why or why not? 7. Some adults have objected to the violence in The Hunger Games as being inappropriate for a young adult audience. Do you agree? Why or why not? 8. “Hope, it is the only thing stronger than fear,” President Snow, played superbly by veteran actor Donald Sutherland, says. “A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it's contained.” What is the significance of this statement in the flow of the story? How does hope stay viable in a broken and oppressive world? 9. In what do you hope? How is that hope expressed in the way you live your life? Would a stranger who simply watched you live be able to identify that hope? 10. In what ways has the system(s) of which you are a part—say in your work, political commitments, or friendships—had an impact on your ethical choices or the results of those choices? 11. Trace the issue of trust as a theme through the story. Whom do you decide to trust and why? 12. Using Dr. Fish’s statement as a beginning point, what is it that the characters are hungering for in this story? In what ways do we sense similar hunger in ourselves, and those we know best? To what extent are our hunger games—our effort to relieve our hunger—also a matter of life and death?


Cast and Crew Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen) Willow Shields (Primrose Everdeen) Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark) Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne) Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket) Wes Bentley (Seneca Crane) Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman) Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy) Lenny Kravitz (Cinna) Director: Gary Ross Writers: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins (novel), Billy Ray Producer: Robin Bissell, Suzanne Collins, Louise Rosner, and others Cinematography: Tom Stern Original Music: James Newton Howard Runtime: 142 min Release: USA, 2012 Rated PG-13 (for intense violence and disturbing images)