My friend Paul has pointed out the interesting fact that the last three major books that have taken the United States by storm were all Young Adult books. This was said to imply that this was a poor reflection on our culture, but C.S. Lewis once said that a children’s book that is not good for adults is not good for children either. Nonetheless, both Harry Potter and Twilight came and went without me investing any energy in them if at all. The books were huge hits and were followed by movies with the same impact. I just couldn’t get into them before they were well into all the movies. When Hunger Games came out and I heard all the buzz I thought I would try to get in on this book before this too comes and goes.
The book by Suzanne Collins was an entertaining read, and I felt it had an intriguing presentation. It was written in first person, but felt really like a first person shooter video game. Everything was narrated through Katniss, the main character, which limits perspective in one sense, but is able to dive deeper in the character of the one narrating. I found it intriguing because it was written from the perspective of an eighteen year old girl, and I was privy to her whole emotional journey and ponderings. Though at times I found this to be a frustrating part of the way the story was told (mainly Katniss’ inner struggle of trying to figure out her feelings for Peeta or Gale), it did lend itself to an engaging presentation of the material.
The reason I bring up the book in this way is that I was interested to see if the movie was going to take the same approach. It would have been terribly difficult for sure, but I wonder if it would have been more rewarding if it was pulled off. Instead, I believe that the perspective that was chosen and many other decisions were safe ones, which made the story not bad but not great either.
The movie follows the narrative of the book closely. It is a post United States dystopia, where twelve districts are in submission to the Capitol, the victors of the civil war. As a way to remind the districts of the war and their punishment for their rebellion, the Capitol makes each district provide one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in a last-man-standing death to the finish challenge. The main character, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in poor District 12 and does her best to feed her family by hunting illegally outside the city limits. When the participants for the “Hunger Games” are chosen her younger sister who is only 12 gets picked for the games. Katniss takes her place instead, and a boy named Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is chosen for the boys.
Peeta is the son of the baker in town, which means that he has not had to rough it as much as Katniss, and probably does not have the same chance that she has. They develop a romance throughout the story that we are left guessing how Katniss truly feels, knowing that her old hunting partner, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is back home watching her sister. (You see the seventeen year girl/boy old dilemma.) There can be only one victor even if there are two representatives from each district, which makes it interesting for Peeta and Katniss.
It is always difficult to judge a movie apart from the book. They are just two different mediums, but I sincerely felt that the book was a story better told than the movie. I just believe that there were a lot more themes that could have been explored with such an intriguing plot that the movie settled for action and not reflection. Not only that, but Katniss’ supposed outright rebellion during the games did not seem convincing in the effect that it was intended to have. In other words, the defiance that Katniss expressed during the games did not seem strong enough to elicit a response either from the Capitol or from the other districts that would not have been received from any of the games in the past.
One thing that kept coming to my mind as I watched the movie with my wife, Susan, was the apparent critique the book has on our society, whether it be our obsession with sports (and our children’s involvement in them) or just the obsession with entertainment in general. Though I understood the message of the movie, to be honest I felt very uncomfortable watching kids go at it to the death. It is to this point I believe that the movie itself seemed somewhat self-defeating in its analogy. The main characters appeared to be sickened by the fact that teenagers have to participate in such a brutal, inhumane activity, while the people of the Capitol watch on desensitized. But this very premise of the story is what sells. We are intrigued by watching a battle to the death, even if it is just teenagers in a movie. At that point how am I any better than the people in the Capitol who took such great joy in watching children die at each other’s’ hands?
One could argue that at some level Katniss seems to be inconsistent in her disgust at the games and then her participation in the games. But this gives her depth and makes her a round character. She is at war within herself because she is doing something she hates to do, but she wants to get back home to her family. However, this still brings up a lot of ethical questions, which would be most profitable to be explored. Should we condone all of Katniss’ actions during the games? Could there have been a better way, even a more effective way to be defiant?
It makes me think of a more interesting story. It is a story from which I could only guess Suzanne Collins was somewhat influenced by. Coliseums of Rome were filled with gladiators and other games that satiated the bloodthirsty palates of the citizens. Included in these activities were the killing of Christians at the hands of lions and other brutal beasts. Many of these Christians went to their deaths filled with joy. They did not fight back, but instead preached the Gospel, the message of hope and peace and redemption, until their final breath.
This calls to mind a couple of verses from Scripture. Psalms 116:15 says, “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” 1 Peter 2:16-25 is potent and I will quote it at length:
“Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone, Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”
I don’t think I would say that Hunger Games is a bad story. There are many elements that are intriguing, specifically the ethical questions that are raised in the difficult situations in which Katniss finds herself. It is no doubt told in an entertaining fashion that engages the audience. I just wonder if we could have had a hero that was defiant in a way that allowed her to be sicken at the activity forced upon her without participating in it. Sure, she might not have killed as many people with a bow and arrow, which to many would not have been as exciting, but I believe she would have had more depth. I also believe that the story would have been much more interesting because it would have shown a more beautiful defiance that honored humanity all the more.