Recently, an acquaintance of mine very publicly denounced any parent who would take her child to see “The Hunger Games.” She had just begun reading the novel in anticipation of the movie, and I suppose some of the themes were disturbing to her. But when I heard her railing against the book, I found myself gritting my teeth so as to prevent my tongue from saying something I would probably regret. Before I begin with my defense of The Hunger Games, please allow me to get three things out in the open here and now:
- I do not have children–there are numerous children in my life, but I am not actually a parent. Some folks may think this nullifies any opinion I have on the subject… but I don’t think that my status as non-parent makes me oblivious to the welfare of children. After all, it does take a village, and I am a part of that village for many children.
- I’m not telling anyone how to parent their children, I’m only adding my line of reasoning to the public discourse. In the end, it is up to a parent to make that ultimate decision regarding what their child does or does not view.
- When I refer to “children”, I’m only speaking of people under the age of 18. The Hunger Games is not a book written for young children–instead the book and movie are both marketed to the “young adult” reader (teens and twenty-somethings), but are accessible to those of us a tad bit older.
Okay, so now that you know I’m not one of those childless know-it-alls telling you how to raise your child, nor am I encouraging you to take your toddler to a movie with some heavy social themes, let’s get started on the reasons why I am going to see The Hunger Games, and may very well invite my teenaged nephew to join me.
An Appalachian Heroine
Given the systemic discrimination which has led to hunger, poverty, and lack of resources, Katniss Everdeen is already at a disadvantage when the story begins. The very means she must rely on to survive (and to ensure the survivability) of her family, means she is already risking her life. Everything she can do is illegal; and the one legal option she holds for survival entails selling the rights to her life for the grotesque entertainment of others. She has developed a hard exterior. She loves her family passionately, but her love carries a vast cost that threatens to destroy her. She is angry, but because she is in survival mode, she is unable to fully explore or vocalize the source of that anger. Katniss is an expert at living moment by moment, because the present moment is all she’s ever really guaranteed. She has known the pain of hunger. She has known the agony of losing her best resource (her father). And she knows her own limitations and abilities.
Katniss’ disadvantage is evidenced in the cold, hard reality that people from District 12 (or, as we know it in real-life, Appalachia) just do not win The Hunger Games. They do not have access to the weapons, training, and monetary resources others have. And so they are trapped in a cycle of losing. From the word go, Katniss is destined to be a loser, and so she emerges as a strange and unlikely heroine.
No child in our society should be at a disadvantage. They should each have an equal shot at achieving their dreams. But reality tells me that this just isn’t so. I live in one of the poorest counties in the country. More than half of all children in this county live in poverty. A constant decrease in population and economy has depleted the area of its resources. Children are being caught in a cycle in which each generation has a greater gap to overcome–lack of educational resources, lack of transportation, poverty, a drug epidemic, lack of artistic outlets of expression, hunger–with each passing generation, those issues become more and more intense.
Katniss Everdeen offers Appalachian children a hope they may not even realize they have. Katniss was not trying to overturn a system. She knew the system was unfair and she knew it was destroying her and everyone she loves… but she only wanted to live another day. Had Katniss actually stopped to assess her situation, she would have probably realized she had no reason to fight at all. Had reality ever set in, Katniss would have just waited for death to come to her rather than running away from it.
I am reminded of the Apostle Peter, who was able to walk on water for no other reason than he had faith in Jesus’ call… but as soon as Peter looked around at what was happening in the world and what his odds of success are, he began to sink.
No child should look at their current situation–particularly is they are forced into a disadvantaged situation by no fault of their own–and have to face the reality that they are going to sink.
Katniss, instead, takes the skills she has developed in surviving and uses them to her advantage. But through her sheer determination to not be destroyed by someone else’s twisted schemes, she winds up exposing the ugly truth of the very system that his seeking her destruction.
Subverting the System
This earth we live in ain’t heaven. If it were, we’d be hanging out with Jesus and there wouldn’t be any more tears or dying or suffering… But this ain’t heaven. And that’s why so many of our systems are broken and only serve to destroy and hurt. Sometimes, though, people are able to emerge from those systems and use them in such a way to demonstrate the brokeness of them.
Remember Tamar? She is one of those “faithful women of the Bible.” She married a man named Er, who was famous for two reasons: His father was Judah (as in the Tribe of Judah), and he was apparently so wicked God smote him. Tamar was left without children (namely sons) which was the only real hope for survival that a woman in that time had. So, according to Jewish custom, Judah told his younger son, Onan, to take Tamar as his wife and to “give” her sons. Onan did not like this idea, though. If he bore sons with Tamar, his late brother’s wife, the sons would actually be heirs to Er and not to Onan. So, although he takes advantage of the sexual liberties he has with this woman, he “spills his seed” so as not to provide her with any of the benefits of the union. God doesn’t like this, either. And so, Onan is smote, as well.
Now, here is where the story begins to really show just how terribly broken these systems are. In both cases, Er and Onan were struck down because of their wickedness, but neither man seems to acquire the guilt of their actions. Instead, Tamar is deemed a cursed woman, though there is no evidence that she had ever done anything wicked at all. Judah is spooked by all of this and so he is hesitant to marry yet another son to this woman, although the customs of his faith and people dictate he must do just that–it was Tamar’s only insurance against a grave injustice that would leave her seriously hurting and unable to survive.
So, Tamar follows Judah to the temple one day–she has disguised herself as a prostitute, because apparently she knows her father-in-law avails himself of those sorts of services when he’s in town shearing his sheep. Temple prostitutes were apparently a fixture because she is so easily able to step into that role. She lures her father-in-law into a union that would normally be considered immoral. Through that one event, she becomes pregnant… and when Judah realizes she is pregnant (but still not aware he was the one who had done it), he hypocritically denounces her and threatens to have her killed. Apparently, he can sleep with a prostate, but she can’t sleep with a man.
In dramatic fashion, though, Tamar provides proof of Judah’s paternity… and Judah, not facing any penalties for denying this woman access to justice and not facing any penalties for his own indiscretion with someone he thought was a prostitute, laughs it off and commends her for being so persistent in taking what was rightfully hers. Tamar had used her feminine wiles to guarantee her survival, and in doing so exposed the injustice and hypocrisy of so-called “holy men”.
Katniss is sort of like that. She doesn’t result to protestation. But she has a limited set of skills at her disposal to use as tools for survival… and she uses them to expose an ugly truth. Her tender, loving burial of Rue makes use of the constant camera feed. She offers a moment of dignity not only to Rue, but to everyone who cares about her… and she forces her oppressors to see her and all the contestants as more than pawns in a game, or characters on a television show.
I don’t want to spoil the movie (or the book) for those of you who haven’t discovered them yet… so I won’t reveal any more than that. However, Katniss continues to subvert the system throughout the novel and continues to expose ugly truths.
Tamar wasn’t looking to upset any world order… she was only looking for what is rightfully hers. So was Katniss–but because she was willing to risk everything to take what was hers, she upset the whole order.
A Touch of Reality
Suzanne Collins, the author of The Hunger Games, deals with some heavy issues. Poverty, oppression, corruption of government, hunger, and war are all themes that take center stage in this trilogy of novels. We are a nation that has been at war for more than a decade. We are a nation that has witnessed a lot of violence in our schools, workplaces, shopping places, etc… and it is always televised. We are a nation that is seeing a growing disparity between rich and poor and a growing number of children living in poverty. We are a nation that is considered wealthy by others, but millions of our children do not know if they will have a next meal.
These are not easy issues to discuss. Too often, we sugar-coat them. I’m just as guilty at encouraging the children in my life to “take care of the poor”, forgetting that we can’t actually take care of anyone. We must work with the poor to find solutions, and those solutions should probably be developed by the people who need them, rather than being imposed on them by those of us who are more privileged.
Suzanne Collins explores these issues in depth–and she paints a very real and very detailed picture of how these issues affect the young people struggling with them.
Quite frankly, that is a conversation I want to have with the young people in my life. I want them to know how their actions affect others and how the actions of others affect them. I want them to see how the struggles that might be hard for us to talk about are touching the lives of those who must live them day in and day out. I want them to think about what hunger means. I want them to understand that violence is not something we witness for entertainment, but has very real implications on our collective soul.
So… I have my tickets already. I will by at the midnight showing on opening day… and I will be talking about the themes of The Hunger Games with the young people in my life.