The Hunger Games (dir. Gary Ross, 2012)

by Christopher B. Barnett

I am, admittedly, more than a little behind on The Hunger Games phenomenon. I haven’t read the books, and only recently have I seen The Hunger Games — the first of four movies based on the tripartite book series penned by Suzanne Collins (indeed, the second film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, was released a couple of months ago; the final two installments are set to appear in November 2014 and November 2015 respectively). Given the fiscal success of both the books and the films, it’s hardly a surprise that they have attracted a great deal of attention. I initially supposed, however, that much of this attention had to do with the teen-lovers-in-danger storyline, enhanced for the screen by the attractive and preternaturally talented Jennifer Lawrence. What I was less familiar with was the richness of Collins’ premise, which raises a host of cultural, political, and metaphysical questions.

Set in a post-apocalyptic future, the narrative centers on Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), who comes to represent her “district” in the annual Hunger Games. Though replete with traditions and nuances, the Games have a single purpose — survival. The contestants (or “Tributes”) are, quite literally, locked into a do-or-die cage match, albeit on a grand scale. They are released into a hostile wilderness, armed (pun intended) with minimal supplies and the knowledge that only one of them will emerge victorious. The rest must die. Meanwhile, the nation watches the events on television, not so much desiring the death of the participants as seeking entertainment. For the loss of a few lives is a small price to pay for the social order achieved by the Games, whose festive pageantry amuses and, so, unites an otherwise divided people.

Collins has acknowledged that her story is, in effect, a translation of the culture of the ancient Roman Colosseum into the modern arena of reality TV. Thus it implies that human beings, no matter their socio-historical location, no matter their technological advancement, will tolerate political subjection and moral corruption if they are granted but two things — panem et circenses. (“bread and circuses”). It is an observation that has been repeated throughout Western history, though it has gained peculiar force in modernity. Søren Kierkegaard’s A Literary Review (1846) argued that the rise of the print media has not enlightened persons, as is often held, but rendered them skeptical, bored, and vicious toward ethico-religious ideals. A few decades later, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880) contrasted two versions of happiness — that of Christianity, based on the free yet perilous pursuit of the good, and that of the atheistic state, which would deny human freedom but, in exchange, sate persons with panem et circenses. Neither author, I’m sure, would be surprised at today’s cultural landscape, marked as it is by an excess of information and mindless entertainment. Have we, finally, surrendered our freedom for idle curiosity and material comfort?

It is at this juncture that The Hunger Games points to the thought of another important modern thinker, namely, René Girard. As a cultural anthropologist, Girard is well-known for his study, Violence and the Sacred (1972). As he saw it, human desires are socially conditioned: you want something because you learned to want it; in turn, you come into conflict with others, who want the same thing. Thus tension simmers beneath the surface of human society, always promising to erupt into violence. How can this tension be diminished? According to Girard, it must be done through ritual — that is to say, through a kind of public ceremony, which singles out certain persons as sacrifices (or Tributes!) for the good of the whole. Once these persons have discharged their function, social order is temporalily restored, though the ritual must be repeated if it is to have long-term effect.

For Girard, then, religion is an effective anthropological response to the problem of human violence: its customs bring unity from chaos. Historically, however, it has also committed its fair share of violence, since many rites have involved the sacrifice of animals or even people. With this in mind, the Hunger Games, as portrayed by Collins, can be seen as having a religious function. But there is a catch. In the film’s climactic scene, the Games are brought to a halt, when the love of two characters exposes the contest as a means of unjust violence. In an allusive way, this insight parallels Girard’s understanding of the person of Jesus Christ, whose dedication to the love of God and neighbor stands as a “no” to the violent machinations of society and its religious leaders.

Thus Girard suggests that the sacred cannot be eliminated. In other words, the Hunger Games, despite having no reference to the divine, bear sacral meaning all the same. The question is whether or not persons will accept the violence of ceremonial sacrifice or seek the love embodied by Christ — a nonviolent alternative that opens up the way toward permanent reconciliation.