What We Missed in The Hunger Games

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One of the first critics to miss the point was Laura Miller. Writing in The New Yorker in 2010, she claimed that “dystopian fiction exists to warn us about the dangers of some current trend,” and she went on to interpret The Hunger Games as “a fever-dream allegory of the adolescent social experience,” her idea being that coming of age in America is now a particularly scathing crucible, with foreboding trends, like bullying and near constant parental surveillance. It was a fine theory, but a bit of a stretch, as there are so many more obvious warnings. Suzanne Collins, author of the young adult trilogy, who also happens to be a Roman Catholic, rarely responds to what is written about her work, but she felt compelled to make a public clarification later in an interview with The New York Times.

Collins said: “I don’t write about adolescence. I write about war. For adolescents.”

Upon the release of the first Hunger Games in March of last year, reviewers and commentators in the Christian media weren’t much quicker on the uptake. Christian websites, magazines, blogs, and chat boards were abuzz with discussions about the film and the series of novels it was based on. Parents questioned whether they should allow their children to see the film, exchanged warnings about the content, and advised each other on how to talk to your kids about [insert part of story deemed morally questionable]. Nearly every moral issue in the story was considered and discussed—the suicide pact, the scene where Katniss and Peeta sleep together but don’t “do anything”—every moral issue that is, except that one which lies at the heart of the story.

The United States has been at war for over a decade, the war in Afghanistan now the longest in our history. Recent wars have been responsible for the deaths of almost half a million people in Iraq, tens of thousands in Afghanistan. Those numbers don’t include the wounded, the disfigured, the poisoned, the displaced. Those numbers don’t include the suicides. The United States has spent $10 trillion on defense and homeland security since September 11, 2001, on bombs, drones, guns, bullets, planes, artillery, tanks, rocket launchers, assault rifles, etc. As a teacher, I’m amazed at the frequency with which students mention 9-11 in classroom discussions and student papers. They were toddlers when it happened, yet they refer to it as if it were a real memory. That is how present it is in their consciousness.

Miller’s theory that world of The Hunger Games couldn’t possibly make any sense until you see it through the lens of a teenage wasteland only belies her faulty assumptions about, as she put it, “what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader.” The young readers who first discovered this series back in 2008, and the readers who have been eating it up ever since, have virtually no memory of pre-9-11 America. Their entire experience of living has been one of living in a country at war. They grew up steeped in that toxic brew of fear, propaganda, aggression, militarization and violence that is post 9-11 American culture, a culture that has created a “stormy psyche” for all us all and to which children are certainly not immune, and are probably especially susceptible. The respect Collins paid her young readers in writing this trilogy was to see them as not only conscious, but socially conscious, and potentially curious about or concerned with that central human problem called war. It was interesting to see that Christian adults saw very little about the central human problem of war in this wildly popular film that was, in the words of its Roman Catholic author, written about war, and after a decade of living under a government that is perpetually waging war.

John Mulderig of Catholic News Service characterized the book thus: “Depending on the individual viewer’s politics, the basic allegory can be read either as a critique of overweening big government or of the trampling under of the 99 percent.”

Steven D. Greydanus pointed out at National Catholic Register that the land of Panem did reflect America in some ways—with its loud media personalities and slick political rhetoric—but then, he wrote, “at some point in the story the allegory recedes and there is a mad scramble of tributes for a stockpile of weapons and supplies. Within seconds, teenagers who just days earlier had been going about their business commence butchering one another with swords and throwing knives.” So according to Greydanus, the story reads like an allegory for our times until precisely that point when it starts to look like a war, and then the “allegory recedes.”

This is not to say that any of these people, Miller, Mulderig, or Gerydanus, did not have valuable insights into the film and its parallels with our world today. They did. Political and sociological themes abound, but they zeroed in on issues that provide the backdrop, not the drama. The series is called The Hunger Games, after all, not Panem. I only mean to point out a strange lacuna: that the word “war” never once appeared in any of their reviews, and this was a pattern across the board at Catholic and Christian websites.

One can tell a lot about a culture from the books that are a product of that culture; one can also tell a lot about a culture from how particular books are received by it. When The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, it was banned, burned, and blasted as “a pack of lies,” mostly because people simply didn’t know what was really going on. People were so ignorant about the plight of migrant workers that they assumed Steinbeck must have been exaggerating in his book or else made it all up. It didn’t strike them as being a reflection of the world they lived in. The way the book was received belied the blind sport of a large portion of the populace.

Is this blind spot for war a sign of something, perhaps that our government has finally won their information war, through the use of “embedded” journalism, information classification, and censorship? Perhaps our journalists have been so controlled, so constrained, for the past ten years, that we are barely conscious of the wars that are taking place, let alone the actual “butchering” that they entail, those beastly acts of bombing, shooting, and maiming; for what else is war but the wounding and killing of men? In the Vietnam era, though the fighting took place in faraway jungles, at least journalists had unfettered access to war zones. They took photographs. They wrote articles. Americans were very aware of that war: they saw its fruits right there in the papers, on magazine stands. Today we see only what the government wants us to see. In an advertisement for the Wounded Warrior Project, we might see a very clean, very polished image of an amputee wearing a crisp, ironed uniform. We don’t see too many bloody Iraqi corpses lying disheveled in the dirt. We watch something like The Hunger Games and all that “butchering” strikes us as something quite barbaric. We think it has very little to do with us and our world, the way we live and the kinds of things we do.

Or, has war become so normalized in our society that it no longer commands our attention as a moral issue deserving of special consideration and discussion, the exposure to which, without proper Christian illumination and context, could potentially warp the minds of young children? Could the Christian community’s failure to notice the parallels between the “Hunger Games” and war be likened to a failure to notice that the characters, like us, wear coats and eat apples? Sometimes people wear coats. People sometimes eat apples. Wars sometimes must be fought. What more needs to be said? What I’m asking is: Does the silence about the theme of war betray that our “Christian” attitudes towards war, and the use of violence therein, are about as amoral as our attitudes towards coats and apples?

Or has the mental bracket that we’ve created called “war,” which is our go-to justification for violence of this sort, become so ossified with conceptual baggage and theoretical trappings, political language and “policy” considerations, so removed from the actual nature and reality of war (the butchering and the killing), that we can no longer even recognize it when we see it happening right in front of our faces? What does it say about our understanding of war if giving it another name (“games”) is enough to short-circuit our mental connections and make us see it as something entirely different in kind?

At least Nancy French mentioned the word “war” in her review over at Patheos, even if only in passing. Nancy French wrote: “Though the producers do a great job at avoiding gruesome killings, Katniss must battle it out with the other contestants until there’s one survivor. So how do you justify letting kids read about such a horrible situation?  Because there’s a strong message about personal freedom, liberty, war, and oppressive governments from which teens – and adults — would greatly benefit.” Unfortunately, she never ventures to say what that message about war might be. But at least she mentions it.

About a movie in which citizens are impoverished by design and children are forced to kill each other for sport, Monica Mullen over at the National Review writes that it “gets an A+ for conservative values”! She clarifies: “This is a movie that makes you root for personal liberty and against state control.” War is not mentioned in her review either (despite the fact that starting wars is, historically, the most efficient way for any state to go about its business of crushing personal liberties and seizing ever more control). Mullen continues: “The film is also a telling critique of our current culture, which values celebrity, reality TV, and superficial style (the culture in the capital here) over family, freedom, and compassion (that’s our heroine)…. Go see it.” Of course these “A+ conservative values” also happen to underpin every war that’s ever been fought: How many Iraqis who lost their lives in the last decade were killed by an American who thought he was protecting his freedom and his family? How many “militants” and “insurgents” who killed an American soldier thought he was protecting his freedom and his family from an invading foreign power? George W. Bush went to war in Iraq with the full backing and support of a lot of people who put a very high price on family, and that war destroyed, well, hundreds of thousands of families. I am tempted to point out that, looked at honestly, National Review “conservative values” go hand in hand with war, but Mullen does the work for me, writing: “If [The Hunger Games] is sold out, check out the Navy Seals in Act of Valor for your conservative film fix.”

Father Barron probably offered the most popular Catholic response to The Hunger Games in an article he wrote in the National Review and in a video produced by Word on Fire. Fr. Barron did broach the topic of killing. Sadly, he chose to explore it in such a way that it was completely sapped of all cultural relevance.

Fr. Barron talks about the Games as: “the riveting drama the entire country [of Panem] is watching. The government is clearly using [the Games] to manipulate and dominate the populace.” Now this would be a good opportunity to draw a parallel with the good ol’, present day U.S. of A, where the “riveting drama” of war has been glorified endlessly on the Military Channel (“Every weapon, war, soldier and branch of U.S. Defense has a story to be heard.”), by the news networks, in films like Zero Dark Thirty, Blackhawk Down, and Mullen’s beloved Act of Valor, and on every Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Veterans’ Day. Suzanne Collins said that one night she was lying in bed, “channel surfing between reality TV programs and actual war coverage. On one channel, there’s a group of young people competing for I don’t even know; and on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting in an actual war. I was really tired, and the lines between these stories started to blur in a very unsettling way.” When I watch this video that compiles reactions to Osama Bin Ladens’ reported death, I’m in Panem. When I go to a sports stadium and hear the Star-Spangled Banner and watch fighter jets fly overhead and hear the crowds roar and the fireworks explode, I am in Panem. When I can’t board a plane without getting a photograph taken of my naked body, when I read about the NSA’s Prism program or the purchasing of military-grade weapons and equipment by local police departments with grants from the Department of Homeland Security, when I think about all of the ways the government has managed to shred the Bill of Rights in the past ten years, using the War on Terror as an excuse, there is no doubt in my mind that these wars are being used to manipulate and dominate the populace; unfortunately, Fr. Barron says: “The government [in Panem] is clearly using them to manipulate and dominate the populace, much like Ancient Rome.”

Ah, yes. In Ancient Rome, where gladiators engaged in hand-to-hand combat to the death. Fr. Barron also mentions in his video the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minataur, and the short story “The Lottery.” Collins, herself, has admitted that these stories definitely did inspire The Hunger Games, so Fr. Barron was right, but Fr. Barron disappoints when he tells us that as he watched the film, all he could think of was “these antecedents of stories of human sacrifice and the reality of human sacrifice in our history.” Fr. Barron then launches into a rather pedantic explanation of Rene Girard’s “scapegoating mechanism,” as the key to understanding the ritual of human sacrifice. The children in The Hunger Games, Barron says, were “sacrificed,” which strikes me as a euphemism. As for the lottery at the beginning of The Hunger Games, it did not make Fr. Barron think of national conscription apparently, but, rather, of some obscure ritual that used to take place in pre-Columbian Aztec civilization. What’s going on here?

Since 1788, the U.S. government has been involved in more than 100 armed conflicts. These conflicts have taken many forms—declared wars, undeclared wars, wars of expansion, wars of secession, proxy wars, pre-emptive wars, revolutions, civil wars, tribal wars, pirate wars, colonial wars, occupations, nation-building, covert operations, destabilization, surgical strikes, and sanctions. Now we are an imperial power with the most military might ever possessed by any country in the history of human civilization, engaged in what one historian called perpetual war for perpetual peace, with a military that is 25% Catholic and 70% Christian. In the twenty-first century, not a day has gone by when “we”–Catholics and other Christians– are not shooting, bombing, blockading, threatening, assassinating, abducting, torturing, arming, bribing, training, destabilizing, or sabotaging some foreign people somewhere. Yet, in his article written for the National Review, Fr. Barron did not use the word “war” once, nor did he mention war once in his ten-minute long YouTube video. Instead of discussing the incredibly pressing moral issue of war, and the wounding and killing of men that war entails, and “the dangers of this current trend,” Fr. Barron used his platform to discuss the ancient ritual of human sacrifice, something that has absolutely nothing to do with our lives today.

Or does it? Father Barron wrote that the really interesting question is: Why has this motif of the sacrificial victim played such a large role in the human imagination for so long? Why do we keep acting out this scenario, both in reality and in our literature?

I have a better question: Why has war played such a large role in the human imagination for so long, and why do we keep acting out this scenario, both in reality and in our literature? I would love to hear Fr. Barron answer this question in light of his theory of human sacrifice. I do think his theory applies; he only failed to make the connection.

Do you ever wish you could pull someone onto the screen, like Woody Allen does in Annie Hall? In one scene, Allen’s character, Alvy, is arguing about the meaning of a film with a fellow moviegoer, and he pulls the director Marshall McLuhan in from off-screen so McLuhan can back him. Alvy looks at the camera and says, “Don’t you wish life were like this?” If I could pull Suzanne Collins in right now, I think she would say, “The Hunger Games isn’t primarily about big government or the 99% or family values or the ancient ritual of human sacrifice. It’s about war. Why is that so hard for everyone to see?”

I have ventured a few thoughts on why that might be. Regardless, it will be very interesting to see whether the blind spot remains after the release of the second film, and then the third and fourth (they plan to split the last book in two). Will the Christian community’s concerns about what is morally questionable in The Hunger Games change as the story evolves, as Katniss finds herself embroiled in a situation that looks less and less like a game, and more and more like war? It is debatable what the message about war really is in The Hunger Games. If Christians ever do lock in on the theme, I’m curious as to how they will interpret the message, whether they will frame it in a moral light, and whether they will find it—the wounding and killing of men– something very urgent to talk to their children about, almost as urgent as that scene in the movie where Katniss and Peeta sleep together but don’t do anything.

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