The Hunger Games looks to be the start of a franchise set to rival Harry Potter in popularity. The post-apocalyptic film, based on the first book in the best-selling series by Suzanne Collins, continues a four-week reign at the box office. It would be dangerous to dismiss this film as an entertainment fad.
With more depth than any summer action flick, The Hunger Games speaks to the very real fears and hopes of the coming generation, and illuminates much about contemporary culture. The film exposes both a horrible idolatry and a desperate longing, revealed in the kinds of motivations and sacrifices which support each side in the battle for cultural and spiritual supremacy.
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It is easy to read The Hunger Games as a political story of youthful idealism in the face of a tyrannical state (and it is that). But it is also a mirror, reflecting both our appetites and our longings. The Hunger Games is us.
Eating Our Young
The stated purpose of The Hunger Games – the televised spectacle at the heart of the film – is to be a reminder of the cost of disobedience to the rebellious, third-world districts that make up the nation of Panem. Each year, every district is required to send two of its children, aged twelve through eighteen, to compete in a battle to the death, hosted by the Capitol. The battleground is chosen and controlled by the rich and powerful Capitol elites. The Games conclude when a sole surviving contestant remains. Not only are the combatants required to slay their opponents from competing districts, but ultimately they must also kill the other person from their own district – someone who might be a close friend, or family member. The slaughter is the price that must be paid for “peace and safety” – and is a way to solidify in the minds of the subjected people that the Capitol is the ultimate focus of their allegiance – not district, not city, not friends, not even family.
Fear is the motivation behind the annual ritual and it is a two-edged sword. The Capitol seeks to instill fear in the districts as a means of keeping them subdued. But the rulers of the Capitol are motivated by their own fear: should the people ever begin to hope for liberation, the Capitol would be overthrown.
The sacrifices demanded by the Capitol, and assented to in fear by the districts, are reminiscent of Molech worship in the ancient Middle East. Molech (or “Melech,” meaning “king”) worship involved the sacrificial slaying of children in order to win the favor of the god. Ironically, Molech’s consort, Ashteroth, was a fertility goddess, so people would sacrifice the product of their own fertility in order to ensure fertility in the land. Molech was worshiped as a “protecting father” – as long as your children were forfeit, he would bring peace and prosperity.
This theme is picked up in The Hunger Games with chilling efficiency, but it also reflects contemporary concerns. Whether by abandonment, neglect, or abortion, many adults in the west daily sacrifice their children in order to pursue personal goals and pleasures. How far can it go? Two medical ethicists, Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva. have argued in a recent issue of The Journal of Medical Ethics for “after-birth abortions.” Their own description of the rationale should leave little doubt that we are seeing modern-day Molech apologists: “Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk.” The kinds of risks they have in mind are expenditure of energy in caring for a child, money, and/or social or psychological circumstances. In fact, they offer no clear guideline for an age at which it would become unethical to slay a child.
Most people recoil by the time they arrive at the far side of this kind of analysis, but even in its earlier, less-lethal forms, the effects of child sacrifice are not lost on a generation accustomed to being shunted aside so that the more powerful adults can pursue their own desires. And it is this pushback that fuels the audience for The Hunger Games. Child sacrifice is wrong. The Capitol bears the larger share of the guilt, but one cannot help but focus at least some of the blame on the compliant parents of the districts, who unwillingly, but faithfully, send their children to near-certain death in return for a modicum of safety and security. In the film, we – the audience – can see it clearly, and we resist. But in our own world, do we recognize when we are guilty of similar kinds of abuse and neglect? And, in some ways, our guilt is worse, because much of our child sacrifice is not compelled, but voluntary. It is a devil’s bargain, and the younger generation knows it.
Seeking a Savior
Even as audiences rebel against the child sacrifice sponsored by the Capitol, they are drawn to the sacrificial love of Katniss Everdeen.
On the day that the districts are to select their “tribute” – the name given to the children whose are chosen by lottery to battle to the death in The Hunger Games – it is Katniss Everdeen’s sister, Primrose, whose name is drawn from the girls to represent District 12. Primrose, a frightened twelve-year-old child, has no chance of survival. She would not last past the Games’ brutal five-minute opening bloodbath.
Katniss is horrified at the selection of her beloved sister. So Katniss does something unprecedented in Hunger Games history: she calls for the right of substitution and puts herself forward in place of her sister. It is easy to think that Katniss, a scrappy sixteen-year-old and a deadly archer, calculates that she might survive where her sister cannot. Actually, Katniss holds few illusions about her chances for victory. She substitutes herself, laying down her own life, out of love.
Jesus told His followers, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). A few years back, in an introduction to an academic panel on the film Titanic, I heard the moderator gush, “I wish that someone loved me enough to die for me.” The act of self-sacrifice for the benefit of the beloved has a long history in fiction because something about it fascinates us and draws us to look.
There is more to this feeling than mere sentimentality; there is a recognition of need. Primrose is staring death in the face. Left to herself, she cannot hope to survive. She does not merely want help, she needs a savior: someone willing to effectively stand between her and certain death. It arrives in the person of her sister.
Everyone who watches The Hunger Games would like to see themselves in Katniss. We all want to believe that, should the circumstances present themselves, we would rise to the occasion and act the role of heroic rescuer. But in our child-sacrifice culture, I fear we are far too often more like the Capitol – purposely sacrificing others for our own gain, or like the citizens of the districts – disliking the cultural arrangement that leads to child-sacrifice, but doing little or nothing to change or stop it.
And when we are not present in the role of the Capitol or the adults in the districts, we are actually more like Primrose. We are all facing certain, inescapable death, and we desperately need someone who would step in to take our place so that we might live. And the incredible, unimaginable, wonderful news is that Someone has. And Jesus did not do so because we were His loving friends. He did so out of His own love for His creatures, even though we were His sworn enemies (Romans 5:10).
After the Show
The Hunger Games is a complex, thought-provoking film, and no short article could begin to open up all of the story lines and metaphors worth exploring. In the character of previous Hunger Games winner Haymitch Abernathy, we see how someone can gain the world and lose his soul. In the President, we witness a calculating effort to defer hope for the citizens of the district with the explicit desire to make their hearts sick (Proverbs 13:12). Young Rue, a twelve-year-old contestant who forms an alliance with Katniss, demonstrates the value of loving your enemies (Luke 6:27-28) and that “two are better than one” (Ecclesiastes 4:9). There is also the disturbing idea that while we judge the inhabitants of the Capitol for televising child sacrifice as entertainment, in an eerie turn, we notice that we are the ones who paid ten dollars or more so that we could watch as well.
But, most importantly, The Hunger Games reveals much that is ugly about our own culture, if we simply have the courage to see it. The film also uncovers the persistent longing that everyone has for a Savior. It is unfortunate, but necessary, that before we can call for that Savior, we must see and acknowledge our complicity in the very acts that require us to need one. We are simultaneously the Capitol, the districts, and Primrose. Our plight is so terrible that no human Katniss will do. But we have Jesus, and He is able to come to our rescue, free us from guilt, and restore us to life.
Marc T. Newman, Ph.D., is the president of MovieMinistry.com, an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations, Bible studies and discussion cards, drawn from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people. Dr. Newman is an associate professor in the School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.