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.