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Meanwhile, I’m talking today about what everybody is talking about: The Hunger Games. After a book club last year, I wrote a little about it. But the movie has revived the discussion.
I’m always pleased when a movie based on a book is well realized—instead of disappointing. That was true of The Help this past year—more beautifully visualized than in my head while reading. And it is also true of The Hunger Games. The family joined in a reading frenzy over Christmas break and early January 2011. We read all three books one after the other, which becomes kind of essential once you start reading.
The books are disturbing, and the description isn’t at all something I would seek for my reading enjoyment: a combination of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Survivor (TV series), and some post-apocalyptic sci-fi stuff. The protagonist is female, and there are late-teen love interests, so this appeals to teen girls. But this really isn’t chick-flick fare. The 16-year-old protagonist is more masculine than feminine: she is the breadwinner and head of household since her father died; she has no expectations of ever marrying and having a family in the miserable world she lives in; she has no time for wistful daydreaming when she’s so focused on survival. She's good at hunting and smart at strategy. Women can be good at all of these things, but they're not usually the theme masses of young girls flock to.
The series was recommended to me first by a friend of my son Economic Sphere, someone whose tastes tend toward Japanese anime (that often makes my eyes glaze over) and over-the-top zombie fighting. But when my daughter Social Sphere picked it up with enthusiasm, I gave it a try. The books are upsetting and intense and will not be for everyone (and are not for pre-teen readers). Nevertheless, I thought they were a worthwhile read.
As for the movie (the first in a series of movies, I’m hoping), it was beautifully cast, maybe perfectly. And in most ways carefully faithful to the book. Very satisfying. The violence, while not what I would call sanitized, was nevertheless not overly graphic. (R-rated violence is simply beyond what I can stomach, so I appreciate the limitations of a PG-13 rating.)
Here’s TMI about me: I used to never cry in movies, ever. Occasionally a book would get to me (Where the Red Fern Grows hit me hard in 4th grade). But I just wasn’t overly emotional well into adulthood. Then pregnancy happened, and my tear ducts got attacked by hormones. When we lived in California in the late 1980s, there was a series of Pacific Bell commercials telling the story of two men and a woman from their young lives into old age. I cried during the commercials. Ridiculous, I know, but I do think they were well done. However, I am resentful of a movie (or book) pressing buttons to get an emotional reaction just for the sake of it—not by getting us to actually know and care about the characters.
I didn’t have any tearful moments reading the books, but I got in the movie, with the story and characters I already knew vividly before me, and the tears came. I cried when Katniss stepped forward to volunteer in her sister’s place—an almost certain life-giving sacrifice. I cried when Katniss and Peeta entered the arena in the fire-blazing chariot (I really can’t explain why). I cried when Katniss said goodbye to Cinna moments before rising on the pedestal into the arena and probable death. Then I pulled myself together and didn’t cry again until Rue fell, which, in my defense, was a perfectly reasonable time to get weepy.
The ending was a little unsatisfying—considering we’ll need to wait at least a year for a second movie. But it did leave us with the unsettling sense that all is not resolved, as the book does. We need to feel unsettled when a world is left in tyranny.
Let’s review what you’d expect from tyranny, according to the Spherical Model. Under tyranny, the state can do anything it wants, and individual freedom is limited to whatever the state decides to grant. That is precisely true in Panem, the post-American collection of districts in The Hunger Games. You can also expect savagery and poverty.
District 12, where Katniss and Peeta live, is a mining community, with pay limited to just above subsistence. Peeta’s family runs a bakery; he has worked there all his life. It is very low-tech, like you’d see in the early 1900s. Very few people can afford anything special, like a frosted cake. Katniss only gets bread when she trades it for a squirrel (meat), which she illegally poaches. A few government officials have a slightly better standard of living, but in general the whole district understands poverty.
Other districts are similarly specialized and limited. Rue’s district produces crops, but the people are not allowed (on penalty of death) to eat their own harvest, so despite food around them, they are on the verge of starvation.
Meanwhile, in the capital, there is opulence undreamed of—along with the decay of boredom, extreme fashion, and triviality. These decadent people are entertained by watching teenagers murder one another—or die due to the cruel creativity of the game makers. This spectacle is supposed to remind the people that they should be grateful for the iron-fisted rule of the government, because the chaos and cruelty of anarchy and famine were worse.
Here’s where the Spherical Model can be helpful in understanding. State tyranny and anarchy are not the only alternatives; they are simply the two sides of the lower half of the sphere. It’s true most of the world’s real history (let alone fictional worlds like Katniss’s) alternates between these two choices. But that is because so many people are blind to the entire northern half of the sphere—the freedom sphere.
What you can expect is that when a people are under extreme tyranny, they will gladly risk their lives to rebel and overthrow the regime. The rebellion brings about the chaos of anarchy, at least for a time. Then someone steps up and says, “Give us power; we can give you safety and order.” And then a new tyranny appears.
The American exception was a deliberate move away from both chaos and tyranny—toward organized and institutionalized freedom. It took an intelligent and righteous people to both come up with the concepts and to live in ways that made the ideas more important than the personal power. George Washington was a man provided by God for such a moment in history. Much the same can be said of the other founders. They risked their lives, their fortune, and their sacred honor—not for a chance to be the next power, but to return the power to the people, where God had originally placed it.
Looking at the character of Katniss and Peeta, they have goodness about them beyond the expectations from their upbringing. But they aren’t the power seekers. So we’ll see if they can bring about freedom-directed change in their world, rather than just more oscillation between the various southern hemisphere tyrannies.
There is one detail about the book that defies belief: the capital has extraordinarily advanced technology compared to the outlying districts. They have hovercrafts. The arena for the games is detailed and controlled well beyond The Truman Show. Medical care and healing are miraculous compared to the very limited resources available to the people (compared to most of our experience today). I’ve talked about this with various people, who solve the question by saying the technology existed before the fall of the previous civilization and rise of Panem. Maybe so. But what we do know is that tyranny limits creativity and invention. You get those things from the interrelationship of political freedom, economic freedom, and civilization—our goal.