The Serious Games of Life and Death

Box-office hit The Hunger Games depicts the fight for freedom and dignity in a dystopian future.

One of the most popular dystopian novels in recent literature, The Hunger Games, was released this past weekend as a major motion picture. Critics are estimating the new hit could possibly generate more revenue than either Harry Potter or Twilight. The first weekend at the box office brought in $155 million, so I am willing to bet those estimates are correct. Suzanne Collins’ trilogy has captivated audiences of all ages, and the first movie is a surprisingly good adaptation of the book.

The Hunger Games is set in what we assume to be a future North America, now divided into 12 districts, known as Panem. These districts are ruled by the Capitol, where the Hunger Games—much like ancient Rome’s gladiatorial games—are held each year. One boy and one girl, between the ages of 12 and 18, are chosen at random from each district and then sent to the Capitol to fight to the death in a giant arena. Twenty-four “tributes” go in; only one can come out alive. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in the impoverished District 12. When her little sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), is chosen as the female tribute for their district, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Along with the male tribute, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss must learn what it takes to survive the Hunger Games.

Those worried parents who think this is just another popular-teenage-hormone-story-competing-with-the-Twilight-books-and-now-made-into-a-movie should consider watching the movie, or better yet, reading the book. Admittedly, stories about a bunch of teenagers killing each other for reality television did not appeal to me either at first, considering such stories can be found on television already (if not quite so literally). Not even the popular Katniss-Gale-Peeta love triangle attracted me.

However, I discovered a rather more crucial theme underlying the entirety of the film: the value and dignity of human life in the face of a tyrannical government.  Don’t believe me? Read on.

Jennifer Lawrence steals the screen as Katniss, depicting a strong 16-year-old who has far too many responsibilities, including keeping her family alive. She has experienced starvation and the death of her father, and she does not have the wishes and desires of a typical teenage girl. In addition, not only has she watched the Hunger Games since her birth (as every citizen of Panem is required to do), she has lived in fear from the time she was 12 that she would be chosen as a tribute. Death has been a very close and cold reality to her for most of her life. There is no joy to being alive, because her life is no longer hers. She is the property of Panem, as is every child in the country, and her death would simply add to the entertainment of the Hunger Games. Katniss is struggling to find meaning to her life, and ironically, she seems to find it in the Hunger Games.

Like most of the other tributes, Katniss approaches the games in “survivor” mode. After all, survival will get her back to her sister, so why should she care about the lives of the other tributes? She certainly cannot expect them to care about her. This is where the voice of reason—Peeta—chimes in. The night before the games, he tells Katniss that he won’t allow the Capitol to steal his identity. He says, “I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them that they don’t own me. If I’m gonna die, I wanna still be me.” I think this line sets the stage for the rest of the movie. How can any of these kids show the Capitol that they are more than a tribute doomed to death in the Hunger Games?

In one of the more emotional scenes of the film, Rue (Amandla Stenberg), a very young tribute from District 11, is killed by a javelin. She has been helping Katniss through the Hunger Games, and we get a vague sense that Rue reminds Katniss of her younger sister, Prim. Here Jennifer Lawrence gives a particularly moving performance by singing the song once sung to Prim as Rue lies dying. And to honor the young Rue, much to the Capitol’s dismay, Katniss surrounds Rue’s body with flowers. The camera then flashes to the people watching the Hunger Games in District 11. On the big screen, Katniss makes a sign to them by placing three fingers on her lips and then raising them to the sky. The people in Disctrict 11 repeat this gesture.

Then we see a man in the crowd, whom we assume is Rue’s father, starting to lash out at the surrounding guards. Other people join in, and it appears to be an uprising in the making. By upholding the dignity of Rue’s life, Katniss has re-awakened dormant hearts. The people find themselves no longer able to stand idly by, witnessing to such public brutality.

This act is quite contrary to the Capitol’s purpose of the games, which is to punish the Districts for a rebellion 74 years old.  The tributes are meant to be expendable pawns in a game used for entertaining the wealthy and punishing the poor.  The deaths of so many teenagers no longer hold significance in the eyes of the Capitol, which has become completely desensitized to the pain and suffering of the tributes. As Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Peeta and Katniss’ mentor, points out, these people are only looking for a good show. The lives of others, even the lives of kids, no longer matter.  Katniss’ act only serves as emotional drama for the Capitol, but President Snow, played superbly by Donald Sutherland, knows that it will mean so much more for the other districts.

Some of the tributes, mostly from the wealthier districts, have been training for the games their entire lives and do not seem to have a problem becoming mass murderers for public television. Cato, from District 2, is the most brutal of the bunch, killing many of the tributes in the first several minutes of the Hunger Games. But as the games progress, even Cato seems to recognize that the perverse glory of killing has lost its luster, saying, “Go on. I’m dead anyway. I always was, right? I couldn’t tell that until now.”  Cato realizes that the Capitol never cares who lives or dies, but only that there is a victor. He may have been a favorite, but that no longer matters when he is faced with death. His character is both vicious and sad—no one has taught him the beauty of life, only the dark victory of death. Despite his apparent bloodthirstiness, the audience cannot help but feel sorry for him at the end; he too is only a pawn in the Capitol’s game.

Director Gary Ross does a marvelous job of depicting the horror of the Hunger Games. At no point during the film did I feel happy at the death of a tribute. Twenty-four lives have been reduced to shoddy stardom, and then slaughtered by their peers on television. I think this film brings the terror of the loss of innocent human life into shocking relief. Thankfully, the PG-13 rating kept the violence at a reasonable level for young audiences, but the subject matter is very mature. I don’t know if teenagers will fully understand the film’s implications, but I know that parents will. I find it refreshing, however, that some mainstream entertainment seeks to go beyond shallow teenage love stories, and explores the meaning of human value, dignity, and life. The Hunger Games may not live up to Orwell’s 1984, but I think Suzanne Collins and Gary Ross are onto something.

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About Meryl Kaleida 8 Articles
Meryl Kaleida is production assistant and e-book editor at Ignatius Press. She graduated from Ave Maria University with a bachelor's in theology and literature. Meryl is a wife, gardener, singer, author, chef, artist, and lover of truth. Her website is Kaleida House.