The movie, The Hunger Games, comes out in theaters this Friday. It is the first installment based on a trilogy of Young Adult books of the same name. I had been aware of the books for awhile, but since I have a thing against kids getting killed, I was naturally turned off by the bloody premise of a televised game show where kids must fight to the death. However, then I saw the trailer for the movie and decided to give the books a shot. And I’m really glad I did.
For those who aren’t familiar with the trilogy, the basic plot is set in a dystopian future, where an oppressive country called Panem rules ruthlessly over its twelve outlying districts. As a sick and continued punishment for a long ago rebellion, each district is required to provide a yearly “tribute” of a young boy and girl to participate in a televised slaughter for the amusement of the citizens of “the Capitol.” The Capitol is filled with wealthy, privileged citizens who benefit from the labor and the oppression of the districts. Because they live in such an insulated, comfortable world, the populace of the Capitol are generally oblivious to the suffering around them. Instead, they divert themselves with frivolity. They focus an obscene amount of attention on their appearance, embracing over-the-top fashions such as skin-dyeing and elaborate make-up and hairstyles. They spend their time attending parties full of every food one can imagine…and take vomit-inducing pills so that they don’t have to stop eating when they are full. And they are so desensitized to the suffering around them that they divert themselves by watching children slaughter each other.
The genius of Collins is seen in the degree of difference she uses between the Capitol and today’s Western world. Her descriptions of life in the Capitol are just foreign enough for Western readers to easily condemn them, and yet, they are similar enough to then give us pause. For example, here is Katniss’ reaction while listening to her Capitol-dwelling make-up crew:
After they’ve exhausted the topic of the Quarter Quell, my prep team launches into a whole lot of stuff about their incomprehensibly silly lives. Who said what about someone I’ve never heard of and what sort of shoes they just bought and a long story from Octavia about what a mistake it was to have everyone wear feathers to her birthday party (Catching Fire 37).
I thought of that specific passage while I read about the upcoming Hunger Games movie in Entertainment Weekly…and then turned the page and saw this:
Wow, can you see the irony? Octavia can’t stop talking about feathers, and we can’t stop talking about oversized bows. Really?? Really. Were the editors of EW trying to be ironic, or do we truly live in a “Capitol-lite” society? After all,
We don’t dye our entire skin, but we do tattoo and tan it mercilessly.
We may not have as outrageous fashions as they do, but we definitely focus a lot of attention on superficiality and appearances.
Vomit-inducing pills may not be en vogue, but gluttony certainly is.
And while we don’t watch shows where people die, we do love ones based on physical (Wipeout) or emotional (The Bachelor/Bachelorette) suffering. Even though the contestants are volunteers, what does it say about us as a society that these shows are hits?
Plus, I get the feeling that sometimes we (I) are (am) often as oblivious as the citizens of Panem’s capitol. Our lives of comfort can have the effect of insulating us from the suffering of others around the world. The book highlights this obliviousness by forcing the privileged reader to see the world through a poor teenager’s eyes. And that teen, Katniss, clearly sees the vast differences between her lifestyle and the Capitol lifestyle when she is taken there for the Games. Through her eyes, we see the contrast between these privileged citizens and the rest of their world. For me, those differences provided both a critique of my own society and a guide of how to use my privileged position to help others. When looking at my life through the lens of The Hunger Games, I was made aware of two huge privileges I possess, and challenged to use them for God’s greater Kingdom, and not simply for my own personal gain:
Interestingly, one of the biggest differences between Katniss’ life and the lives of the Capitol citizens is in regards to time. She notices this difference when she views an elaborate meal that was prepared for her:
I try to imagine assembling this meal myself back home. Chickens are too expensive, but I could make do with a wild turkey. I’d need to shoot a second turkey to trade for an orange. Goat’s milk would have to substitute for cream. We can grow peas in the garden. I’d have to get wild onions from the woods. I don’t recognize the grain…Fancy rolls would mean another trade with the baker, perhaps for two or three squirrels. As for the pudding, I can’t even guess what’s in it. Days of hunting and gathering for this one meal and even then it would be a poor substitute for the Capitol version.
What must it be like, I wonder to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment? (The Hunger Games 65).
The question she wrestles with here is one that, paradoxically, I also wrestle with a lot, as a citizen who lives in a similarly privileged environment: What do I do with my time? It’s funny because I don’t feel like I have a ton of time laying around. And yet, Katniss’ thoughts here reminded me that I don’t have to go out and get firewood to start a fire over which to cook. I don’t have to kill (or grow) my supper. I have electricity. I have running water that comes out hot and cold on command. I have a washer and dryer and dishwasher. I wonder how many hours a day these blessings give me, hours that others do not have. What do I do with those precious hours? Do I dedicate them to pursuits that are unworthy or meaningless? Of course, a lot of my time on Facebook could easily qualify as unworthy, but even besides that, this book made me pause and consider the things that I normally don’t question as valuable. It made me think that, in the grand scheme of things, some of my “worthwhile” pursuits are less valuable than I imagine. For example, how clean does my house need to be in order to be healthy and functional? Does it really need to be free of dust bunnies, or could I spend more time writing cards to the sick? That’s just one example, but there are several things like that in my life. Reading The Hunger Games, then, challenged me to use my privileged time to further God’s kingdom, instead of my own agenda.
After the Games, Katniss is required to learn some sort of talent. It is comical because she has spent so much of her life trying to survive that she has come to see most hobbies and “talents” as frivolous. She chooses clothing design, but never has the slightest interest in it. In contrast, her stylist, Cinna, is passionate about design. As a citizen of the Capitol, he has had opportunities to pursue skills that aren’t necessary for survival. What is instructive for the reader is how Cinna chooses to use his privileged passion. Without giving too much away, he uses his skill in order to help the cause of the oppressed around him. He uses Capitol privilege to challenge Capitol culture.
Similarly, I have been privileged enough to pursue passions that are not necessary for survival. For example, I like to write and to record things. Had I been born into a third world culture, I probably would not have been able to exercise those passions, as I would have too few resources and would be spending too much time trying to stay alive. But Cinna’s example challenges me to use my passions in a way that further God’s Kingdom. It also opens my eyes to a truth I haven’t been able to see about Jesus and His call to us. So often, I think that Jesus wants me to renounce my position of privilege and to become like the poor. (To be fair, I tend to get this idea from the Man Himself, who seemed big on rich people selling their stuff to provide for the poor.) But thinking of Cinna made me realize something about Jesus: He did not renounce His God-given gifts. Jesus had power. He had the power to heal people and to know people’s thoughts. The great majority of the world could not do that. Even so, Jesus did not give those things up in order to become like everyone else. Instead, He used His power in order to help those who could not heal themselves. Maybe this is a false analogy, but to me, having privilege is like having power. God placed me in this position, and I don’t glorify Him by turning my back on what He gave me. Instead I glorify Him by using it to further His Kingdom.
The Hunger Games really opened my eyes to these gifts of time and passion that I have been given. They made me understand that my time and passion are part of life in a privileged culture. And they challenged me to use my citizenship in the Capitol for the good of all the world’s citizens, not just my own.
That’s pretty good, for a young adult trilogy!
Have you read The Hunger Games? What did you think of them?