'Hunger Games': Warning for Our Culture, Opportunity for Christians

Jennifer Lawrence portrays Katniss in 'The Hunger Games.'
Jennifer Lawrence portrays Katniss in 'The Hunger Games.' (photo: Lionsgate Films' Facebook page)

“I just want them to know that they don’t own me. If I’m going to die, I want to still be me.”

– Peeta Mellark, The Hunger Games

Those are chilling words for readers of young-adult fiction. The whole premise of young people forced to kill each other for sport is disturbing. It echoes the days of the Roman Empire, which pitted gladiators and wild animals against Christians in the Colosseum for the citizens’ entertainment. The Hunger Games, both the books and movie, is an eerie reminder of where we’ve been — and that we are capable of going there again.

In his YouTube commentary on the film, Father Robert Barron calls it a “dangerously prophetic story.” I agree: It is what our culture could become if we don’t change it. It shows what would happen if we completely erase God from our culture.

Our society has tried wiping God from the public sphere for years. The name of God is erased from public schools and even our Pledge of Allegiance. We are obsessed with reality TV and entertainment. Just take a look at how much money the box office makes. The dignity of human life is constantly under attack with issues like abortion and euthanasia. These issues are almost so “normal” we don’t really think about them anymore, and, if we do, we are often too afraid to actually make a change.

This relevance to contemporary issues is what makes The Hunger Games so successful. It is also why many young people like me resonate with it so much. Our culture is saturated in technology and entertainment, and young people face attacks on the worth of the human person unlike at any other time in history.

Many are concerned about the violence in The Hunger Games and whether or not people — particularly young people — should be exposed to it. Violence is messy, and it’s an ugly reality of the world we live in. Father Barron contends the film didn’t show enough violence, as if it watered down the messy realities we face.

Yet it is understandable for us to be wary — for more than 2,000 years, the Church has promoted peace in the face of an increasingly permissive culture.

However, if we view The Hunger Games with a missionary mentality, we can discover that it includes meaningful content that can motivate Catholics to keep up the good fight and provide opportunities for discussions with non-Catholics.

We should welcome these opportunities. “So though I was not a slave to any human being, I put myself in slavery to all people, to win as many as I could. … I accommodated myself to people in all kinds of different situations, so that by all possible means I might bring some to salvation,” says St. Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians.

We can use The Hunger Games to discuss how its issues are similar to our own and how Katniss Everdeen, the main character, provides a good example for how we are to respond to these issues.

Consider the following:

First, the dark, violent atmosphere of the story itself serves a purpose. Immediately, we understand that we are not going to view some pretty, ribbon-tied piece of entertainment. We are shown a world that is an ugly mess — one in need of drastic change, like our own. Through the story’s Godless culture and through the horrendous attacks on human life, we are confronted with the reality that the world is unjust.

The Hunger Games prompts the question, “How can we explain the lack of justice in our own world?” Catholics can provide an answer.

Second, the film treats violence in a way that emphasizes the sacredness of human life. The violence against human beings in the books and the movie is not glorified. Many of the characters who engage in violence are portrayed as victims who choose to be violent only because they must survive or resist the injustice they face.

The signature injustice of the violent government in The Hunger Games is its disregard for all human life. As one character  says, “[The government] sends out a very clear message: ‘Mess with us, and we’ll do something worse than kill you. We’ll kill your children.’”

Katniss experiences firsthand the injustice promoted by her government, even upon young people, as her younger sister is chosen — against her will — to participate in a fight to the death. Citing the film, the books or both, Catholics can show how an oppressive government and a culture of death arise from a disregard for human life. We can try to show how our nation’s current trends are setting the stage for a government and culture depicted on screen.

Third, The Hunger Games portrays the beauty of self-sacrifice. Katniss and her friend Peeta Mellark, who is in the games with her, refuse to play the game the way their government wants and won’t kill each other; rather, they team up and sacrifice themselves for one another. When Peeta is badly wounded, Katniss decides to get him medicine, exposing herself to the other players. It’s basically suicide.

Peeta protests, saying, “Katniss, you’re not going to risk your life for me. I won’t let you.” Katniss responds, “You would do it for me, wouldn’t you?” The characters make the right choices — even if it means losing their lives. Catholics can use these characteristics of Katniss’ personality to show that society needs people who battle a selfish culture of death with self-sacrificial choices and actions.

Finally, in the character of Katniss, The Hunger Games offers an example of an honorable person battling against an unjust culture. She uniquely proves that one weak and very human person can make a difference. The virtues she exemplifies provide a stark contrast to the self-centered ethos that defines the dominant culture in the Capitol — and ours.

Many of us realize, “Yes, we are young. Yes, we are weak. Has that ever stopped God’s work?”

Like Katniss, all of us, young and old, can be countercultural and embrace the path of self-sacrifice rather than selfishness. We can do whatever it takes to do what is right, even if no one else is doing it. That’s what the early Christians did.

Father Barron said that it was Christianity that kept Roman civilization from completely unraveling and from fully embracing the practice of human sacrifice.

Today, Catholics in the United States can help keep our culture from turning into the one in The Hunger Games. We can transcend our own fears and narrow preoccupations and proclaim the Gospel, even if it means losing our lives. That might not be necessary, as it was in Roman days, but it’s not beyond our frail human nature to repeat history’s mistakes.

Therese Aaker is a sophomore at Benedictine College. Originally from Apple Valley, California,

 she hopes to become a movie critic.

Contact her at [email protected]