As usual, I'm a bit of a "Johnny-come-lately" to The Hunger Games. I finished the book this past Saturday just in time to see the movie last night with a friend. The movie kept pretty close to the book, a rarity for such transitions. Cinematography was spot-on, as was the casting. Let me just say: Donald Sutherland creeps me out for no other reason than simply being Donald Sutherland.
My interest has been piqued by a lot of conversation bubbling up around the over-the-top violence chronicled in the books, highlighted in the horrific notion of kids killing kids. I must admit this reaction suprises me to an extent. We live in an actual world marred by immeasurable violence where kids are killing kids every single day - not just one day out of the year in some manufactured sporting event. We know this exists, and yet most of us simply ignore it. And yet we get our feathers ruffled over a book?
Okay, stepping off the soapbox now...
The thing that stands out for me in The Hunger Games is the way it engages (albeit brutally) a common motif in children's literature and movies: the nature of "good versus evil." In that regard, this trilogy has a lot of company. You don't have to look too far back to see Harry Potter in your rearview mirror. C.S. Lewis' Perelandra and Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle In Time are other trilogies in the same vein. Even the Star Wars saga of my generation - and the new trilogy of the current one - follows suit.
In a sense I guess it shouldn't surprise us that this theme continues to crop up in media intended for a younger audience but experienced by all. Kids are much more perceptive than we give them credit for and much more in-tune to the brokenness of the world in which they live. One night a few weeks ago, my youngest son and I were flipping channels and happened upon the story of the American solider who murdered women and children civilians in Afghanistan. Before I had a chance to quickly switch it to something else per my protective parental instincts, my son pipes up: "Daddy, why did that man do that? That was wrong." I tried in my feeble way to unpack some of the purported reasons, except things of such a horrific nature don't have a nice, neat answer. Likewise, we're left racking our brains as to how President Snow and the Capitol can wield their complete power over the twelve districts and fully engage their sadistic cravings in The Hunger Games. There is good and there is not-good; and sometimes we're one and sometimes the other. Try explaining that to a seven-year old.
In truth, stories like The Hunger Games appeal to our young people - and society in general - because they tell a story of unexplainable violence, power struggles, abuse of power, hunger, poverty, etc. that is part of the world they're trying to grow up in. I'm inclined to think that's a big part of the reason why the books have sold so many copies and the movie made $25 million in its first night. We don't know what to do in the face of that kind of "evil;" and in some ways we find ourselves sitting right next to Katniss on that fallen tree in the arena, bawling our eyes out.
So, two thoughts. First, I found this article particularly helpful - a review of the movie written by a pacifist, nonetheless - that talks about how these books do a fabulous job of indicting violence by portraying violence. Worth a read.
Second, I can't help but think back to a very different movie that came out in 1991. Grand Canyon didn't have sadistic dictators, evil wizards or man-machine hybrids with a strong tendency for the dark side of the force; but it nevertheless dealt very poignantly with the nature of evil in one particular scene. Near the beginning of the movie, Kevin Kline’s character has his car break down in a bad part of East L.A. and is waiting on a two truck when five young men drive by, stop, and tell him to get out of his car. Things are about to take a turn for the worst when the tow truck finally arrives. The driver, played by Danny Glover, recognizes what's going on and asks the one in charge to let him do his job. He tells him he's crazy. And that's when a tow truck driver offers this little tidbit of wisdom on the streets of east L.A.:
You know, the world ain’t supposed to work like this. Maybe you don’t know that, but this ain’t the way it’s supposed to be. I’m supposed to be able to do my job without you asking if I can. That dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you ripping him off. Everything’s supposed to be different than what it is.
(Note: There's a great YouTube clip of this scene, but it's totally in Spanish. Just my luck).
Stories like The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Star Wars and many others appeal to our young folks - and people of all ages - because in their own way they echo Danny Glover's words: Everything's supposed to be different than what it is. We enjoy reading about those who seek to act on this - people with names like Katniss, Harry and his friends, Luke Skywalker and others. What's even better, though, are those in the real world who are trying to do the same thing. Hopefully books and movies like The Hunger Games (and I'm over halfway through the second book) will help us cherish these folks more, and perhaps even inspire us in some small way to add our own name to the list.