As I write, The Hunger Games continues as the top box office hit. The film depicts a future North America divided into districts, each of which must send a boy and a girl to compete in an annual, nationally televised kill-or-be-killed competition. The event, we are told, is a continuing punishment for a previous rebellion against the dominant Capitol district, and the drama arises from the combatants’ struggle for survival.
The film’s impressive record at the box offices echoes the success of the trilogy on which it is based, which sold several million print and electronic copies and won a number of awards.
According to one rating source, more than eight out of ten critics have written positive reviews of the film, and audience polling has produced similar results. Both reactions were predictable. The film’s pace is fast, the main characters are likeable, and the costuming is striking. Above all, the story line is designed for excitement: the audience is kept asking what strategy will prove successful, what role chance will play in the outcome, and who will survive
The film’s theme is open to interpretation. Among the possibilities proposed in blogs are loyalty, love, oppression of the poor, manipulation of the masses, retribution, personal choice, and rebellion. Those who follow contemporary politics might also see it as the struggle of the victimized 99% against the oppression of the cold-hearted 1%. Unfortunately, such thematic vagueness may easily be mistaken for profundity.
What troubled me as I left the theater was the clever way in which the plot line coerced the audience’s reaction. The main characters, Katniss and Peeta, were shown to possess redeeming qualities, notably familial loyalty, compassion, and self-sacrifice, so I had to like them. But they were given little time for reflection and no reasonable choice but to become murderers, so I had no reasonable alternative to approving their actions and, what is more, applauding their ingenuity and skill in lying, deceiving, and killing. (It takes a very odd, even deranged person to root against heroes, even when, as in this case, they are barely distinguishable from villains.)
I saw the film during Easter season, so my challenge on leaving the theater was to return my attention to a very different message—loving my neighbor as myself, refusing to take vengeance or to bear a grudge, blessing those who curse me, doing good to those who hate me, treating others as I wish to be treated, refusing to judge or to condemn, forgiving the offenses of others, and striving for perfection.
The shift in focus was dramatic and it got me wondering about the film’s effect on the millions of others who will see it, particularly the young adult audience for whom it is intended. Will most viewers recognize the contrast between its message and the Christian message? Will they regard its message as more relevant than the Christian message? Will they become more accepting of violence as a way to solve problems? Will they be more inclined to believe that the end justifies the means?
I hope that many viewers get beyond cheering the survivors’ success in the “games” and ponder the deeper questions:
- What effect will the experience of killing other people have on them, mentally, emotionally, spiritually?
- What could have led the dominant district to promote such barbarity?
- Is that factor a cultural aberration or a characteristic of human nature?
- What, if anything, can a society do to avoid such decline?
To hope, of course, is not necessarily to be confident. Today’s education system does little to cultivate reflective or analytical thinking. And contemporary culture is too committed to shallow sensory stimulation to encourage it. Perhaps the film’s sequel, reportedly in the works, will probe deeper. Perhaps.
Copyright © 2012 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved