Tuesday, June 26, 2012

My Thoughts on The Hunger Games, Part 1

I finished the last book of The Hunger Games trilogy late last night. Frankly, I feel a bit like a girl arriving late to a party. The movie has been released for some time (which I also saw) and people have been blogging their responses to the books and the film for some time. But, I am a writer and I process things by writing. So, rather than keep these ideas to myself (or drive my husband crazy with my endless pontifications), I thought I’d go ahead and post my thoughts, even if I’m late to the party.

For those who have not read the books, the following post may be a little confusing. It goes beyond the content of the first film in significant ways. I will try not to include any “spoilers,” but I’ll definitely be dealing with narrative that occurs later in the story of Katniss Everdeen and the nation of Panem. (So, let this post be an encouragement to you to go ahead and read the series all the way through, so that you don’t miss a thing!)

I have a blogger friend, Alan Cross, who wrote an excellent post on THG series in which he claims that the series is a work of popular literature that skillfully describes the nature of sin and the consequences of that sin for our world. Here’s an excerpt:

It is not a shiny, neat, tidy story. It is full of violence, treachery, pride, oppression, greed, indifference, tyranny, and the misuse of power. It kind of looks like parts of the Bible that way. It displays what happens when an individual/group tries to create a perfect society using power, fear, and violence as their means to control others. It also shows what happens when people have no hope, how they can turn on one another, and how the desire for personal success, safety, and survival can cause us to do deplorable things to one another and how that evil can drive us mad. Basically, it is a picture of a world without any good news, without any Gospel. It is exactly the world that we would be living in, and that some do live in, if Jesus had not come.

I agree with this assessment in multiple ways and disagree in one major way. In this first post, I’ll explain the reasons I agree with this assessment: how THG skillfully points a finger to the way our world is broken. Then, in the second post, I’ll explain the one place I disagree with Alan. I don’t think that THG is a world “without any good news.” I think there’s some Gospel light in the story, however small, if we look hard enough.

First, THG truthfully depicts the cyclical and destructive nature of violence. In the course of the narrative, violence always breeds more violence, even among those who are seeking to right wrongs and bring justice to Panem. Indeed, the rebels fighting against the Capitol, despite the justice of their cause, go on to commit atrocious acts of violence against innocents—something their revolt was seeking to undo. Even the celebrated heroine, Katniss Everdeen, ends up shedding innocent blood. Toward the end of the series, she kills thoughtlessly and without much regard for the value of the lives she takes. This is true to real life, of course. A violent act leads to retaliation, which leads to retaliation, which leads to retaliation, which leads to retaliation, and on and on ad infinitum. Violence perpetrated by the Capitol leads to a rebellion and the hatred and need for vengeance stored up by the rebels leads to violence against the Capital, including many innocent civilians. “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matt. 26:52).

In my series of posts on the Dexter television series, I offered this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., and I think it remains applicable for THG, too: "The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. ... Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that" (Where Do We Go From Here?, 1967).

The violence of THG was disturbing to many who saw the film and read the books. I heard more than one person ask why we would read a volume about teenagers killing each other or see a film depicting these things. I argued in my first post on the Dexter series that depictions of violence are not, in and of themselves, bad. The real question is the intent behind the use of these depictions. In the case of THG, I think the depictions of violence, both in the film and the books, are essential to the storytelling and most definitely not intended to titillate and entertain. Indeed, the opposite is the case. Whereas the inhabitants of the Capitol, along with most contemporary Americans, are generally desensitized to human violence, THG calls our attention to its brutality in order to re-sensitize us to it again. We should be shocked and horrified by what’s happening in the arena because our society—with televised executions, easy leaps into warfare, and glorifications of “shock and awe” bombing—is not too far away. The response of shock and horror is precisely the point!

Second, not only does THG show truthfully that violence is a “descending spiral,” it also shows the way in which violence is destructive, not only for those suffering at the hands of others, but for those wielding the sword. It seems to me that this is something our society has been unwilling to discuss, even after living through a solid century of national warfare in one place or another. More people are discussing the cost of war for the soldiers who survive battle, as studies on soldier suicide rates and PTSD diagnoses are periodically released, but it isn’t nearly enough. Statistics and charts can only say so much. It isn’t nearly real enough.

THG does not shy away from revealing the way in which killing is destructive to the totality of the human being: body, mind, soul, and spirit. All of the victors of the Hunger Games are depicted as profoundly injured people. Many are sleepless, their dreams filled with fear, bloodshed, and the haunting faces of those they killed or watched die. Some are addicted to drugs, which they use to numb their minds and hearts. Some display in their bodies the way their souls have been damaged: hunched backs, dark-circled eyes, and pale skin. Katniss is the best example of this, of course, as the reader is more privy to her nightmares, flashbacks, and struggles than any other character in the series. Indeed, by the final book, Katniss is clearly a deeply wounded human being—and I think that’s putting it mildly.

These depictions speak powerfully about the human consequences of violence, more so than even our own news media cares to say. They reveal the truth that taking human life—even in the case of just causes—is fundamentally at odds with God’s created order. It runs “against the grain of the universe,” so much so that it results in our own demise. Even in the cases where most would affirm that violence is “justified” in the name of protecting innocents, people cannot escape the consequences of violence against another human being. THG shows that human nature—the entire physical, psychological, and spiritual person—eventually crumbles under the weight of taking life. Either one gives in to the cycle of violence, becoming an unfeeling, cold, and calculating killer (almost more like a predatory animal than a human [i.e., President Snow or Cato]) or one becomes a damaged and forever haunted survivor (certainly still human, but bearing in one’s body the consequences of one’s deeds [i.e., most of the victors and rebels of the resistance]). 

This leads to the third, and perhaps most controversial, point I’d draw from THG. It seems clear to me that, in the third book, THG calls into question the possibility of “just war.” In Mockingjay, the rebellion against the Capitol, led by District 13, doesn’t take long to spiral into using the same kind of vicious tactics employed by the Capitol against them. In their hunger for justice, the rebels are willing to use unjust and cruel means to achieve their end. In this way, the rebellion becomes a macrocosm of the Hunger Games arena, where despite the desire to do otherwise, most of the tributes willingly adopt the ruthless and brutal methods of the “Careers” in order to preserve themselves.

The human embodiment of this quick descent into "total war" is Gale, Katniss’ best friend. Despite his ubiquitous railing against the cruelty of the Capitol before the rebellion, Gale very easily slips into using the same logic and proposing the same plans as used by President Snow himself. And, in the end, it is one of his bombs, designed to explode twice—once to kill and maim the target population and then again when medics and other caregivers rush to the wounded—that causes Katniss the deepest and most lasting wound of the series. In his pursuit of justice, Gale uses obviously and painfully unjust means.

In this way, I think Suzanne Collins is very directly asking us to look long and hard at our practice of warfare. Is any war really just? The Christian religion has a long history of a just war tradition, which theologians and ethicists like Thomas Aquinas, Elizabeth Anscombe, Paul Ramsey, and Oliver O’Donovan (among countless others) have expounded upon at great length. I don’t have the space or time to go into this matter in any depth, but there is no doubt that powerful and insightful Christian minds have answered this question in the affirmative and argued for it winsomely for centuries.

Still, there is another tradition in Christianity, the nonviolent, pacifist, or Anabaptist tradition that has pushed against and contradicted the just war tradition for just as many centuries. They have challenged proponents of just war to show how violence can accomplish anything more than additional violence, how war can do anything else but breed more war. They have questioned whether human motive and intention to use violence is ever really just and whether any human being can be brushed off as merely “collateral damage.” And, most pointedly, they have asked whether followers of the Crucified Messiah and citizens of God’s Kingdom have any business killing human beings made in God’s image for the sake of an earthly kingdom.

These questions are very uncomfortable, no doubt. And, I’m honestly not making an argument for or against Christian nonviolence in this post. But, the critique of the nonviolent tradition is something that evangelicals do well to endure and consider thoughtfully. For too long, in my estimation, evangelicals have quickly and easily joined in the drumbeats of American warfare, with little reflection beyond patriotic platitudes and sloganeering (“God and country!”). I think THG series is a work of literature that adds to the nonviolent critique of the just war tradition (or, at the very least, popular notions of just war) in significant ways. And, it makes its case rather stealthily, within an engaging and compelling story.

I have one more thought about THG and the just war tradition before I close. And, I hope this doesn’t get me into too much trouble. If you asked an average person on the street whether or not there is such a thing as a “just war,” I think most would say “Yes” without hesitation. In this regard, World War II is often used as an obvious illustration. How can you get more just than a war against Hitler and Nazism? I’m not going to debate the relative merits of WWII as a just war here. (Really, I’m not!) But, in Mockingjay, when I read the account of the rebel bombing outside of President Snow’s mansion, perpetrated by the rebels on innocent children in order to bring a swift end to the war, I couldn’t help but think of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I wonder how many other readers saw a parallel, too. 

Our national memory of WWII often leaves out the use of two atom bombs, the decimation of two Japanese cities, and the catastrophic loss of innocent life (not to mention environmental destruction). Even our most prominent example of a just war, waged against a truly vile and evil enemy in Hitler’s Nazism, was concluded with a horrific, cruel, and knowingly unjust (as in, violating the “rules” of just war theory) nuclear attack. Again, we’re forced to ask: Is there ever really a just war? I don’t have an answer right now. But, I think the question is an important one for American Christians to ponder.

This concludes my thoughts on the ways that THG trilogy speaks truthfully about our world. As my friend Alan said, even though it is a compelling read, THG remains a very dark and depressing tale of human depravity and failure. In this way, it is in concert with much of the Augustinian strain of Christian theology (which tends to emphasize human depravity), as well as (I think) the nonviolent Christian tradition (which calls into question the Christian use of violence). In my next post, I’ll unpack the way I think THG points toward the Light of the Gospel, even if it never fully arrives.

Read Part 2 of "My Thoughts on The Hunger Games" here.

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