Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Something Worth Dying For: A Critique of the Hunger Games

     As of late, the popular world has been awash with discussion of the recently made film The Hunger Games and the trilogy by Suzanne Collins. My sister read the entire trilogy not too long ago, and my mom read the first book after Kelsey and I went to see the movie. Unlike usual, I gave in to the trend, and let Kelsey convince me to read the book after we went and saw the movie. At the heart of the plot is a deadly game: twenty-four children forced to fight to the death, with one remaining victor. What is the excitement all about? What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of the movie and the book, and how do we as Christians fit the Gospel with The Hunger Games?

The movie: 

     I start with the movie mainly because I watched it before I read the book. And even after reading the book I'm glad I saw the movie first. There is, without a doubt, something to be said for being able to watch a movie without thinking, "That's not how it happened in the book!" every ten minutes. I had no pre-conceived opinions about characters (though I did get the full casualty list, from all three books thanks to my sister and a friend beforehand), no ideas or thoughts about how certain characters should look or act, or how certain scenes should play out. And I enjoyed not having any expectations as I watched.
     That being said, there were a few clear weaknesses in the movie, one of which was the lack of much character development, but there were also parts that I really enjoyed.
      The blurry, shaky picture in many parts of the film, particularly the beginning, was extremely distracting. I felt as though there was nothing for my eyes to focus on. Once the Games began, this made sense, and helped to convey the chaos that is part of the nature of the Game, but at the beginning it felt unnecessary and disorienting.
      At the end of the movie, I walked away feeling as though the movie was lacking in character development. It has to be impossibly hard to turn a book that uses the first person perspective into a movie. Though I felt as though I got to know Katniss through the movie, various things confused me, such as a the entire "star-crossed lovers" Peeta sub-plot. This sub-plot felt out of character for Katniss, since she is not demonstrative, and seemed characteristically to shut down emotions, though it did make sense more when I read the book. In addition, her character doesn't seem to change much through the course of the movie. The movie is more action and theme focused than character-development focused.
     Beyond that, I loved how they showed the game-makers manipulating the arena. Those scenes in particular help to compound the feeling of injustice about the entire systemthe wealthy Capitol, the totalitarian state, the brutal games. Not only must the characters fight to the death, but they are also subject to the gruesome whims of the game-makers, which they can enact at the swipe of a finger. As a result, Katniss' small acts of rebellion felt like a triumph against the unjust powers of the Capitol.
     Overall, as a movie, it was good. Despite the blurry, shaky picture in parts, and the lack of character development, I enjoyed the themes developed and the social commentary that the movie included. I wouldn't go out and buy this movie to watch over and over again, due to the violent nature of the movie, but I did find it interesting.

The book:

     I have only read The Hunger Games so far, Catching Fire is still on reserve at the library. For those of you who have already read the entire trilogy, bear with me! I'm a little behind here, and will be going entirely off of the first book.
     Overall, The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, was well written. The greatest strength of the book was also its greatest weakness: the perspective. The present tense nagged me a little as I read; it was good once I got used to it, but every once in a while I would trip up on it again, and when it did I was wishing that it had been written in past tense. Perhaps it would have lost some of its power if written that way, I just had a hard time getting used to it.
     Unlike the movie, the book did have some character development, thanks to its first person perspective. I appreciated the author's use of first person for various reasons. First, Katniss is not an especially emotive person. She has incredible self-control, and she tends to outwardly either hide or shut down emotion (in real life), or create false displays of emotion (in the game). Thus the first person helps us to know who she really is, and what she is feeling, whether she shows it or not. Second, we get the character development that the movie somewhat lacks. We watch her realize things about herself as she goes through the game, and we see her responses to the extreme stress. She thinks deeply about her own past experiences while in the game, and I felt that she mentally and emotionally matured through the course of the story. The first person helped to strengthen the story because it helped us to know the character.
     This perspective, though one of the book's greatest strengths, was also one of its biggest weaknesses. When a story has a fight to the death at the center of its plot, a necessary factor in that story is suspense. There must be some suspense that your favorite character is going to die. With the first person, you lose 90% of the suspense that Katniss might actually die. When the book is in the first person, you can't exactly kill off that person whose perspective you are taking. And if I know that there are two more books coming, I'm pretty confident that Katniss is going to make it out alive. Though I don't think the book should have been written in third person, with a third person omniscient perspective you have a different reaction as a reader. You hope the character will make it, you root for them, and when they do make it out alive, you feel a stronger sense of relief because there was real suspense in the first place. What would be a practical solution to this problem? A changing perspective. I have only read a few books where this was well donefirst person of one character most of the book, but every few chapters the reader gets either a third person perspective or another character's perspective of the story. If well done, I think this sort of writing could have strengthened the suspense without losing the strengths of Katniss' perspective.
     In conclusion, the choice of first person perspective was something that really stuck out to me, and I walked away thinking a lot about how it helped the story, and how it hurt the story. Beyond the present tense, the first person helped with character development and kept the book from being too violent and apathetic, though it detracted from the suspense of the story.

The Hunger Games and the Gospel


     Many Christians have pointed out "Christian themes" in The Hunger Games, everything from the theme of redemption when Katniss volunteers for the Games to take her sister's place, to Peeta's injury, near death, three days in a cave, and re-emergence with a "new lease on life". As I was thinking about the characters in the book and movie, however, what stuck out to me was not a sense of Christian allegory, but a pattern. As I though over what I had read and watched, a pattern that emerged strongly and consistently from both was a clear sense of what the characters were worshipping. Katniss worships life. Peeta worships identity.

     Katniss, at the core, worships life. Survival. She loves Primrose, but she idolizes life. Her fear of death is obviouslife, simple survival, is the ultimate goal. There is nothing in her life that captures her worship which is higher, better, more righteous than herself. The governmenet is unjust, but why? Because it makes it difficult for those in District 12 to survive and thus violates the altar of the god Life? There is no sense of a higher law, a truer justice which justifies the sense of outrage at the government. Katniss rebels in some small ways, but we need to ask, why? What is her standard that makes the actions of the government unjust? The story lacks a vision of something better that we are aiming forKatniss has no "New Jerusalem", so to speak.
     The promise of the Gospel is New Creation. Something to hope for, where justice is served, grace is given, all that was lost is restored, where Jesus takes his rightful place as King over all of Creation, and all is subjected under his feet. That is our goal, a goal that The Hunger Games lacks. Death doesn't have to hold fear anymore, for there can be life beyond this. We don't have to despair of hope, for even in death we have a sure and certian hope.
     Peeta is torn between two idolshimself and Katniss. Though it is hard to tell how real his love for Katniss is, you have a sense that it is in fact quite real. He idolizes her in his love. And yet his hopes are placed falsely, and we can see in the last chapter of the book that he has built his house on sinking sand, so to speak. Katniss herself hardly knows if she returns his affections genuinely.
     His "self-worship", to call it what it is, comes out most clearly in this quote from the book.
     '"My best hope is to not disgrace myself and . . . " He hesitates.
     '"And what?" I say.
     '"I don't know how to say it exactly. Only . . . I want to die as myself. Does that make any sense?" he asks. I shake my head. How could he die as anyone but himself? "I don't want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I'm not."
     'I bite my lip, feeling inferior. While I've been ruminating on the availability of trees, Peeta has been struggling with how to maintain his identity. His purity of self. "Do you mean you won't kill anyone?" I ask.
     '"No, when the time comes, I'm sure I'll kill just like everybody else. I can't go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to . . . to show the Capitol they don't own me. That I'm more than just a piece in their Games," says Peeta.'
                                                                                                         (141-142)
At the root, Peeta cares more about mainting his identity than living, especially in a situation when the chances of coming out alive are slim. As I read it, I admire his desire to show the Capitol that he is not merely a pawn in their Game, and yet as I think about about it, I realize that unless he is part of something bigger than himself, he is merely a piece in their game. If there is no God, if there is no standard, no source from which we determine right and wrong, then the Game could be called "good", if you choose, and he is just another piece in it. Like Katniss, he lacks a belief in, or tie to, something outside himself, something with meaning. Niether Katniss or Peeta have encountered anything so beautiful, so meaningful, so just and pure and full of hope that it is worth living foreven losing your self foreven dying for. And thus not only would their deaths mean nothing, but their lives lack purpose beyond basic survival. The will to live is admirable and good, but it is not enough.
     In itself, the plot of the book hardly seems redeemable: children forced to fight to the death. Though the premise of the book would seem to be the injustice at the heart of such a Game, the injustice of the Capitol that would enforce such a brutal Game, without a so-called "moral compass" at its heart, The Hunger Games fails to cast a vision for something outside of our human weakness, something outside the mere struggle to survive. It brings to surface the anger at injustice, but casts no vision of a more perfect justice.

 We desperately need the Gospelthe hope that it offers in death, the vision and purpose that it casts for life, and the meaningful worship of a God who knows our sufferings, who lived among us and suffered a death reserved for the worst of us, who rose again and defeated death forever. We need the life of Christ, which is not only worth living for, but is something worth dying for.
    

Question: Did you read or watch The Hunger Games? What did you think? Do you agree? Disagree?

3 comments:

  1. Wow Jessica, this was really good! :)
    I have read the trilogy and seen the movie (I just bought it yesterday haha!). I really enjoyed both, but never really thought about the point of view of the book, and that was a really interesting take. I also agree with your thoughts about Peeta and how he was idolizing his identity. This is a very interesting post and got me thinking about alot! Good job :)

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  2. Jessica,
    You are an exceptional writer!
    I really like your blog.
    I enjoyed reading this review, as I had heard so many derogatory responses to The Hunger Games, but desired a bigger picture painted for me, so that I could arrive at the conclusion of whether or not to rent the movie.
    God Bless you, Jessica.

    Sincerely,

    Janet Demas

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  3. Thanks for your feedback! I'm glad that you found this helpful, even if it was a little late. :)

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