I recently got to watch The Hunger Games: Catching Fire with some of the youth from our church. The movie and books series it’s based on are very popular among teens and young adults. I myself read through the trilogy after watching the first movie. It’s a very intense series that looks at a dystopian future where children are forced to fight to the death in an arena each year as penance for a rebellion their ancestors were involved in some 70 some years prior. One “tribute” volunteers in place of her sister, whose names was drawn at the annual “reaping.” The books and movies follow her story.
In the first book, this girl, Katniss Everdeen, manages to survive during the Hunger Games along with the male tribute from her district. He is so in love with her that his sole goal during the games was to keep her alive. When it comes down to them as the final two, they opt to take suicide instead of killing each other. When their plan becomes apparent, the government decides to name them both as winners rather than leave the games with no victor.
However, the seeds of rebellion are sown, and many in the districts begin rising up. The government tries to use Katniss and her beau as propaganda to calm the situation, but it ultimately backfires on them and she and the past victors of the Hunger Games are considered a threat to the authority of the Capitol. Enter the 75th annual Hunger Games.
Many people were surprised to hear that we were watching this movie at a “church function.” To some extent, I agree with the concern, which is why I required permission slips for all teens under 17. Yet the books and the movie are wildly popular, and I wanted to address that.
After we watched the movie I asked the teens what they thought of it. Most said it was “good” or that they enjoyed it. A couple guys said they thought it was too predictable. I then said, “It’s appalling.” I don’t think they were expecting that. I continued, “Still, if you suspend your moral judgment, it can be fun.” That quote doesn’t come from me, but from one of the characters in the film describing a government-sponsored party celebrating the victors. I explained to the students that the whole concept behind the films is indeed appalling. It’s not a story that you want to hear because it’s “fun.” It’s the opposite of fun. It’s traumatic. The movie takes you into the mind of the main character as she experiences flashbacks, night terrors, and psychological torment and trauma. The only way to say this movie is “fun” is to suspend one’s moral judgment as that character in the movie said.
Yet this movie has a strong appeal to youth, and I don’t believe it’s because they are all sadists, finding enjoyment in the suffering of others. I believe it’s because, to some small extent, they can identify with the main character’s confusion, fear, and desperation, and somehow they hope to overcome. Like Katniss, they find out that they must react to events that are greater than they and beyond their control. Just when Katniss thinks she can manage the situation and achieve some semblance of order and control, something else happens that she must react to. Everything she does is a response. Young people can identify with this.
Teenagers go from hearing “You can do anything and be anything” to discovering things like “minimum GPA,” “four year commitment,” and “course not offered here.” Life starts to get scary towards the end of high school when they discover that the supposed “freedom” of adult life offers a lot of limitations. They wonder if they can afford to go to college, but fear that they can’t afford not to. Some look to the military as a way of going to college, but find out that full-time work and full-time school don’t often go together, and there’s that “X-year commitment.” Those who do go to college find themselves limited by the degree they pursue. Changing course after advancing towards a specific degree isn’t always feasible time-wise or financially. Everyone wants a job they love at a desired pay rate. Everyone wants to find true love and to live somewhere as good as or better than where they grew up.
They fear. They doubt. They wonder how well they can cope with these fears and doubts. They wonder if they can overcome or if they should despair of finding peace and happiness. So when they see a character like Katniss, they wonder if she will move past her insecurities. They wonder if she will always be afraid or if she will find some semblance of normalcy and order in her life. They root for her because they are rooting for themselves. In the midst of all the fear and heartache, they want to believe that it won’t always be that way.
In the second book/movie, Catching Fire, we see Katniss descend into despair. She lives her life out of fear. As the story progresses, she is blindsided by the fact that there are other forces at work beyond the Hunger Games. There is a resistance. There is a hope. That hope is most clearly visible in Peeta, her fellow tribute. Peeta loves her. He wants to protect her. As Katniss sees Peeta again and again risk his life for her, willing to die for her, she begins to get a glimpse at something that will come to light in the last part of the story: there’s something bigger worth living for. There’s something bigger worth dying for. Living by fear may preserve your life in the short run, but living by hope preserves your soul in the long run.
We who believe in Christ know what it is to live by fear. That characterized our life before knowing him, and continues to dog at us even now. But in Christ we have a hope that cannot be taken away from us. Our hope springs eternal. Perhaps as we follow Katniss’s story we can learn from Peeta’s hope, and when we look to the gospel of our salvation, we can chose to hope too.