Having forcefully expressed my strong opinions about The Hunger Games in a lively facebook exhange with friend and film critic, Babara Nicolosi, it seemed like maybe a good idea to actually see the movie. So, I went last week with son, Max, and cousin's son, John Paul. Both boys had read and loved the books.
My bottom-line take-away is two-fold: The movie far surpassed my worst anticipatory criticisms. I don't think Catholic parents need worry about their teens seeing it. On the contrary, it's got lots of stuff for important conversations. Still, fundamentally, I come down with Mark Steyn's assessment:
It seems to me there is something empty about the Hunger Games. In the end the stakes aren’t big enough for it to quite work. There’s nothing primal at stake in the Hunger Games, in part because I assume the author doesn’t subscribe to any particular transcendent meaning to life. I think there is a kind of absence of that in the book.
The movie is not without its good points: [spoiler alert!]
- Evil and violence are in no way glamorized; they are shown to be hideous. Viewers effortlessly grasp that the plight of the people of the districts is not just tragic, but profoundly wrong. It's not okay for one class of people to subdue another, using them as slaves.
- There is nothing admirable about life in the Capitol. Its tastes are ghastly. Its material riches are portrayed as seductive, but empty (and worse than empty) in comparison with real goods, like friendship and simple human kindness. (My son thought the filmmakers had maybe even gone too far in this respect. In his imagination, the inhabitants of the Capitol are superficial and tasteless, but not disgusting. In the movie they're definitely disgusting.)
- The only meaningful relationships to be found in the film are among those suffering in the districts. The people of the Capitol seem to be cut off by their dessicated moral condition from the very possibility of love and friendship. Though no one would choose to live in the material deprivation of the districts, we recognize intuitively that it's a better fate than the spiritual atrophy and vacuity of the Capitol.
- Early in the action, the protagonist, Katniss, offers herself in place of her younger sister, who had been chosen to be among the 24 "tributes" who fight to the death until only one remains. It is a heroic act of love and self-sacrifice, calling to Christian minds the familiar verse, "There is no greater love than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends."
- And scattered throughout are moments of tenderness, compassion, generosity, self-denial and insight. Meanwhile, lust plays no role. (How rare and refreshing is that in a movie made for teens?!) When Prue, who had saved Katniss's life, is killed, Katniss surrounds her body with flowers in reverent ritual. The essential antidote to totalitarianism is neatly summed up in the implicit personalism of Peeta's declaration, "I want them to know they don't own me." And later, he demonstrates his unhesitating readiness to die rather than kill Katniss.
- I was grateful that the violence was presented with some discretion. The gore is minimized. Who can bear to see children killing children?
But for all that, I still say something key is missing. As Mark Steyn put it, there is no indication that the author subscribes to any vision of a transcendent meaning to human life. The drama takes place on a temporal scale. There are no absolutes. There are no intimations of immortality, no suggestion of the promise of justice in eternity.
To see what I mean, watch (or imagine) it a second time, assuming there is no God and no eternity. Note that nothing changes. The movie has exactly the same dimensions, makes exactly the same sense it made before. No more, no less.
Though the characters are engaged in mortal combat, and confronted with supreme moral challenges, none appears to have any thought of God or the possibility of an afterlife. That human life is surrounded by the supernatural and that our acts and choices may have consequences more ultimate than death seems not to occur even to the most sensitive and self-giving characters.
- There is no Moses or Gandhi or Havel or Yoda-like figure anywhere in the districts. No one among the adults whose sufferings and moral reflection have led to wisdom about the nature of evil and oppression and the possibility of moral victory. The only alternatives offered are hopeless, inhuman subjection or violent rebellion. (The moral decency and sweetness of characters like Peeta and Prue is real, but seems to come from nowhere and point to nothing beyond itself.)
- There's no in-breaking of the Divine. Conscience is reduced to the best judgment nice people can come up with in terrible circumstances, rather than Supreme and Fearful Commanding Authority really found there, in universal human experience.
- No one prays, even in rudimentary supplication. There are no acts of worship.
- The natural beauty that surrounds the bleak world of the districts and the sterile, garish Capitol lends contrast, but no real depth dimension. It helps the characters recognize the ugliness of their present life and speaks of the possibility of a better earthly existence. But doesn't tell of the glory of God. It doesn't communicate the divine, as nature in reality does (to those whose hearts are open.) Consider, by way of contrast, the role of nature and its relation to the various characters in the beautiful Iranian movie, The Color of Paradise.
Can anyone think of an example of great literature that is similiarly bereft of the divine? I can't.
This lack renders the drama unreal in a rather problematic way. In truth, the "breath of the eternal" (to borrow Kierkegaard's phrase) animates the ethical sphere, and all great human drama, real and fictional. When it's left out, the inescapable impression is that the author is asserting—or perhaps unintentionally insinuating—something definite, namely this: the question of God need not enter the picture. It's irrelevant.
I have a smaller point of criticism, too. I was annoyed by the passivity of Peeta. Typically of Hollywood lately, masculine virtues are emodied in the female protagonist, and feminine virtues in the male. I hate that.
And one other thing: All the vicious characters are white, and all the black characters are good.