Friday, March 9, 2012

God in the Hunger Games

Several months ago, thanks to the encouragement of some of my family, I started reading the Hunger Games Trilogy - and 6 days later (it would have been faster but for priestly duties) I finished.

They really are fantastic books, and I can't recommend them enough, especially if you are looking for a fun read over Spring Break. Two weeks from today, the first of the books will make its much-anticipated appearance on the big screen. You can watch the trailer for the film here

Let me quickly fill you in on some of the details of the story (nothing I say here will spoil the books for you - I'm just setting the table). Post-apocalyptic North America is split into 12 districts all subservient to "The Capital." In order to continually remind the districts who is in charge, "The Capital" hosts the annual Hunger Games. Each district sends a boy and a girl into the arena, and the last one standing is the victor. The entire event is watched live from cameras that have every angle in the arena. Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her sister's place and she is joined from her district by a young man named Peeta Mallark. you are caught up on the basics.

Let me say that I can't recommend the books strongly enough, even to junior high children. There is some definite violence, but it is handled appropriately and is certainly not glorified (as we'll get to in a moment).

I wanted to offer up some reflections on how themes raised in the book are certainly in line with the Gospel and the Church's teaching throughout the centuries on several important topics.

1) First of all, the book is beautifully crafted and artistically written. Every chapter is a cliff-hanger and so you can't read fast enough and it is difficult to put down. Suzanne Collins, the author, has produced something that is very aesthetically beautiful as well; I have reread the last 20 pages of the final book probably 10-15 times and especially there I am struck by the beautiful writing; it is so well done that it almost takes on the quality of poetry! Things that are objectively beautiful, as we'll discuss in a minute, are always worth our time, as the Church has consistently taught through the years.

2) Another important theme is that of poverty. Katniss' home "state", District 12, is the poorest of the districts, and Collins does a great job of painting a picture of what poverty and hunger look life from the inside and from the perspective of a very sympathetic and teenage heroine.

3) The most important theme of the book is that of the dignity of the person. Collins said (either in an interview or on one of the dust jackets of the book) that her main impetus in writing the books was to look at the effect that war has on people. After having read the books I would say "mission accomplished!"

There is a very important conversation between Katniss and Peeta in the book that occurs on the roof of the training facility where they are preparing for the games. This conversation is important not so much for the plot but for bringing up a very important discussion on the dignity of the person.

Here, a brief aside. The Church teaches that we are the only created beings who can CHOOSE how HUMAN we are. Cats can't choose to be a cat, nor do they have the capacity to choose to be less than a cat - they are just a cat.

Humans, on the other hand, can choose to be human or to forsake that humanity. Every sin, every failure to do what we know we ought to do is a giving away of a percentage of our humanity. Saints aren't angels, they are human beings who lived and embraced their humanity. I was listening to Catholic radio the other day and a priest said "When we get to Heaven, God isn't going to ask us "Why weren't you more like Mother Teresa or Terese of Lisieux or John of the Cross"...He's going to say "why weren't you more like YOU!" AMEN!

So back to the roof --- Peeta tells Katniss that he doesn't want the games to change him into SOMETHING HE'S NOT - and that is a very important theme throughout. The games don't change Peeta, he doesn't let who he is be affected by the situations he happens to find himself in - even when other human beings are hunting down hoping to take his life. This isn't to say that he lives out the old 8th grade yearbook scribble "don't ever change!" it is to say that he MAINTAINS HIS HUMANITY despite his environment, and I believe Collins is really holding that up as the ideal (as does the Church). Katniss at one point sees herself during the games and notes that her hair is matted and she looks more like a wild animal than a person, rabid and crazed. Many of the other participants in the games forsake much more of their humanity than Katniss does. Some of the young people have been training their whole lives for the opportunity to be in the arena and are actually excited about it, so there is the whole range of people living out their humanity and differing levels, some forsaking it entirely.

4) Along the lines of human dignity another key scene that carries through the other books as well is when a friend of Katniss' is killed in the arena. Instead of pragmatically and strategically moving on with the games, Katniss reverences her dead friend's body by decorating it with flowers and offering a short "funeral" service. Because the entire nation is watching live, Katniss' actions spread a flame throughout all of the people. As art and beauty ALWAYS DO, once again in this situation it reminds all the people watching of the dignity that ALL people have, and the people watching are reminded that FULLER and MORE WORTHY HUMAN LIVING is possible. That image is one that continues to stir the people to action throughout all three of the books.

5) Of course the very important and very well-handled issues of teenagers trying to figure out love and Katniss being the last one to realize that she is a heroine (as it is with lots of saints through the years - they are the last ones to recognize their holiness). These themes would make it commendable in and of themselves for parents and their children to read and discuss together.

The kids are reading these books and DEVOURING them. Will we seize the opportunity to help show them the deeper truths that Collins is trying to call our attention to, or will we let yet another opportunity to reach our young people go unheeded?

Again, give the series a read. You won't be disappointed. If you have kids, it is a great opportunity to read the books as a family or have some opportunity to discuss the deeper themes present in a beautifully crafted and important work of fiction.