A movie can be evaluated by its internal features, things like dialogue, cinematography, acting. It can also be assessed by its connection to the wider culture, the way it reflects and resonates with its contemporary world and moment. On the first metric The Hunger Games is nothing out of the ordinary, I would even say fairly pedestrian. On the second it is absolutely gripping, a total phenomenon for our present human landscape.
Our collective relationship to this movie makes The Hunger Games an unprecedented cultural event.
It is the only movie I have been to that was still sold-out on the second weekend of release and with four screens showing in the multiplex. It looks well on track to finish its U.S. run with $350
to $400 million in ticket sales, topping the first Twilight and Harry Potter films. It ended its first full week with
about $190 million, a record for a non-sequel.
From the opening frames you feel a visceral audience reaction, a kind of complicity brought by the public into the cinema, prompted from the advance publicity and buzz about the film.
The story is a relentlessly brutal sacrificial progression from start to finish. Set in a post-apocalyptic future it tells how a capital city populated by a privileged elite requires annual "tributes" of young people from outlying districts. These young women and men fight to the death within a digitally-controlled hi-tech arena where the action is televised at every point for the entertainment of the populace. That much everyone knew before their ticket stub was handed to them, so as the movie opens there is a palpable sense both of dread and fascination.
But there is something more besides. There is also a recognition of our actual cultural condition. We too have a sacrificial celebrity culture played out against a backdrop of distant arena wars: in each instance a steady supply of young people are sacrificed to the machinery of death. We watch this movie to experience virtually what we already experience...virtually.
But is that the only pay-off? It has been noticed that there is no religion in the movie (and none in the trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins behind the movie). Diana Butler Bass in an article in The Washington Post said this was because the books rejected any religion of collusion with sacrificial empire. She believes that "(U)ltimately 'The Hunger Games' argues for a human future of love and non-violence." Diana identifies the character of Peeta in the movie as the figure representing this hope.
In the books, however, the narrative is always told from the perspective and voice of the female protagonist Katniss, and Peeta is there essentially as her foil. Yes, he is the character suggesting an alternative of compassion, but this role and the potential of this emotion are never developed. Peeta never exercises any plot agency beyond his consistent resolve to help and protect only Katniss. For this reason the structural message of the books seems to remain the brute human destiny of sacrificial killing.
In itself this is a huge revelation. The cultural event of The Hunger Games is a massive disclosure of the sacrificial principle. It is many, many times more significant than Shirley Jackson's short story, The Lottery, published in 1948, with which The Hunger Games has the key device of a terrifying sacrificial lottery in common. As a cultural phenomenon it far eclipses Jackon's piece which is recognized as one of the most famous short stories of American literature. Now with The Hunger Games just about everyone knows clearly about sacrificial killing as a fundamental way of ordering society.
At the same time, however, I believe the movie cannot just be about sacrifice. Despite its bleak formal structure the cinematic event implies the compassion of Christ standing behind it. It is the cross of Christ that has relentlessly brought the sacrificial principle to the surface and made a liberating consciousness of it tolerable. Peeta is not in the story by accident and I do not think it is a coincidence that his name is a form of Peter. Peeta is the point where the full character of Christ's revelation threatens to break through. He is the Christological nonsacrificial principle, repressed in the narrative, but nevertheless dynamically essential to make the disclosure of sacrifice work. Christ stands behind Peeta and the Hunger Games like the radio-opaque dye in an MRI, rendering the isolation and identification of the cancer possible.
Diana Butler Bass is therefore not wrong. The Hunger Games looks toward "a better world based not in sacrificial violence but in sacrificial love." But it does so not out of any sense of principle, rather because of the deep revelatory and transformative agency of Christ himself bringing to birth the possibility of a new way of being human on earth.
Tony Bartlett, Theologian-in-Residence