Guest post: The Hunger Games, God, and Teenagers
Editor’s note: We asked several of our regular Resource Book writers to share their thoughts on this weekend’s release of “The Hunger Games.” This post is by Joshua R. Ziefle at Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington
This weekend marks the long-awaited premiere of The Hunger Games, the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling young adult novel of the same name. The book, its sequels, and forthcoming movie adaptation(s) have followed in the footsteps of both Harry Potter and Twilight as literary juggernauts and likely box-office blockbusters.
Having painfully struggled through the Twilight series (books and movies), I can honestly say that The Hunger Games is a superior piece of young adult fiction and, based on the movie trailer, looks to be a much more engaging film. Gone are the days of watching Bella Swan stared longingly at a wall. In the place of the turgid Twilight films the drama—and yes, violence—of The Hunger Games has the potential to draw in both males and females by the droves.
The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian North American continent at some unknown point in the future. The world as we know it is gone, replaced by the land of Panem and consisting of 12 “districts” that labor mostly in poverty in order to serve the needs of the central “Capitol.” These sending districts rebelled at some point in the past, but were brutally repressed by their overlords. In an effort to remind them of their subjugated state and keep them in line, the Capitol (a decadent, media-obsessed city) decrees that each year two teenagers (male and female) be chosen at random from each of the districts and forced to fight to the death while the whole of Panem watches on television. The lone survivor is declared the winner and gets to retire in comfort. The rest of the districts mourn their losses and move on.
The hero of The Hunger Games is Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl who volunteers for the games after her 12 year old sister is chosen in the lottery. Her emotional journey through the novel–and the Hunger Games themselves–make for compelling reading and offer some clear points of identification for our students.
Katniss and each of the teenagers selected as “Tributes” reveal the adolescent sense of insecurity in all its immediacy. For many teenagers high school really can feel like a battle to the death. Yet in the face of this struggle many adults—just like Katniss’s upbeat and empty handler Effie Trinket—simply pat them on the head and send them on their way. The adult population of The Hunger Games is also sadly suggestive of today’s reality, for nearly all of the book’s grownups are absent, inaccessible, or failed human beings. Katniss’s father is dead, and appears only in flashback. Her mother is a shell of a woman that has little impact on her life. Effie, her advisor from the Capitol, is profoundly superficial and oblivious to the world around her. Her coach, Haymitch Abernathy, is an alcoholic veteran of the Games who very often treats her poorly. In the wake of these retrograde examples of adulthood, Katniss the adolescent is often forced to make her own way and create a world divorced from the adults around her…much like many of our youth.
Concerning adults and adolescents, what does it mean that the solution to the adult problems of Panem involves forcing their children to fight? Just as adolescents today are often (sadly) pawns in the machinations of adults, so too Katniss is in many ways not her own. Her fight in the arena, as much as it is to survive, is also to “stick it to the man” who has been trying to co-opt her agency as a human being.
The Hunger Games is therefore a coming-of-age story that simultaneously inverts the whole idea. As a teenage girl whose father died in a coal mining accident and whose mother slipped into a debilitating depression not long after, Katniss was forced to grow up on her own years before the Games. This is similar to the plight many teens face today. By the time their societally-sanctioned rites of passage arrive, they have already grown up much more than we know.
Though Suzanne Collin’s books operate in a relative religious vacuum (God is never mentioned), the themes and ideas contained within are deeply theological and worthy of probing with our students. Take, for instance, the situation of the degenerate leaders of this failed society. Time and again, Collins describes the Capitol as an image-obsessed and vapid society whose desire for artifice, style, and image knows no bounds. There is a persistent sense in the midst of this decadent city that citizens are even beginning to deface even the image of God in their persons…perhaps a final sign of how truly lost they are.
More immediate is the present of death. The Games are violent. They are graphic. People die. They die not because they have to, but because they are forced to. From the Capitol’s point of view, they die in order to keep the population in bondage. They die, then, as a symptom and result of this society of sin. They die not to erase the results of this sin, but to cover it over for a time and patch things together. But just as Cain’s murder of Abel caused the very ground to cry out at the injustice of it all (Gen. 4), so too this adolescent blood points towards a reckoning. There are many opportunities here for enterprising youth workers to use the film as entree to deep conversations about God’s call on our lives in the midst of a world of war, peace, violence, and a society that cares very little for “the least of these” (Matt. 25).
There are plenty of additional opportunities for theological reflection and youth ministry application in The Hunger Games. Indeed, I strongly encourage youth ministers to take advantage of this “low hanging fruit” (as a friend calls it) that our culture has made available. Rather than reinventing the wheel, why not use the lingua franca already available to the teens under our care? One youth pastor I know has adapted their group’s 30 Hour Famine this year with a strong Hunger Games theme. I made the book assigned reading for my “Foundations of Youth Ministry” course this past Fall. Another ministry colleague has reminded me that the main theme of The Hunger Games—being forced to maintain yourself and your vales in the midst of heavy societal pressure to do otherwise—has deep ties to the ideas in the book of Daniel. This sounds like the beginning of a wonderful teaching series to me! Like the ancient prophet, Katniss Everdeen presents a helpful model of “third-way” resistance in the face of oppression: neither 1) violent resistance nor 2) capitulation but rather 3) a different and more measured stand that silently and slowly subverted the whole system.
Whether you are a Hunger Games fan or not (and I think you should be), you owe it to your students to understand the culture in which they are located. By all indications, it is the Hunger Games’ world now; we’re just living in it. More immediate than Harry Potter and more broadly engaging the Twilight, The Hunger Games has the potential to be a cultural touchstone for students who feel disenfranchised, powerless, fragmented, abandoned, and alone. In the midst of that world, we who are called to share good news have been given yet another way to speak a message of life and love to those students under our care.