There was an interesting discussion this week over at The Personalist Project as to the lack of a sense of the Divine in The Hunger Games. Katie van Schaijik, in a perceptive review of the film, concludes thus:
This lack [of a sense of the Divine] renders the drama unreal in a rather problematic way. In truth, the “breath of the eternal” (to borrow Kierkegaard’s phrase) animates the ethical sphere, and all great human drama, real and fictional. When it’s left out, the inescapable impression is that the author is asserting–or perhaps unintentionally insinuating–something definite, namely this: the question of God need not enter the picture. It’s irrelevant.
These observations are absolutely correct insofar as we are talking about explicit reference to God. Both Suzanne Collins and the filmmakers who have adapted her novel present us with a world that worships no divinity. Yet I would like to contend that despite this failing, The Hunger Games does succeed in depicting a world in which the young, caught up in the tyrannic amusements of the Capitol, are forced to manifest their longing for goods that transcend selfish, controlling desire; and in this way, The Hunger Games–whatever the author’s explicit intentions–opens up a path, obscure and tangled though it may be, to an encounter with God.
To see more clearly what I mean, consider the following passage from Walker Percy’s essay, “Novel-Writing in an Apocalyptic Time” (from his collection of essays, Sign-posts in a Strange Land):
If the novelist’s business is, like that of all artists, to tell the truth, even when he is lying, that is, making up a story, he had better tell the truth no matter how odd it is, even if the truth is a kind of upside-downness. And if it is the novelist’s business to look and see what is there for everyone to see but is nonetheless not seen, and if the novelist is by his very nature a hopeful man–he has to be hopeful or he would not bother to write at all–he then sooner or later must confront the great paradox of the twentieth century: that no other time has been more life-affirming in its pronouncements, self-fulfilling, creative, autonomous, and so on–and more death-dealing in its actions. It is the century of the love of death….
Everyone admits the atrocities of the century, which we like to think of as horrifying, inexplicable, and occurring at a great remove from us. True, every century has its horrors, but what the novelist notices, peculiar fellow that he is, is that in these strange times people, himself included, seem to experience life most vividly, most immediately, remember places best, on the occasion of war, assassination, hurricanes, and other catastrophes. The real question is seldom asked. It is not: How do we prevent the final war? but: What do we do if we succeed? Can man get along without war?
In bringing Percy into this discussion I am not claiming that Suzanne Collins and her cinematic adapters share Percy’s incisive diagnosis of the symptoms and causes and abnormalities of our culture of death. But I think, almost despite herself, Collins hits upon one of the truths Percy mentions in the passage quoted: that what defines a culture of death is that in it one often feels only truly, vividly alive when confronted by the sudden finality of horrific death.
For isn’t this where Katniss Everdeen and her allies find courage, friendship, loyalty, and love: when gruesome death approaches both for them and those they hold dear? A death, moreover, that is dealt out by a Capitol that is grotesquely “life-affirming” in its pronouncements?
Even the friendship portrayed at the beginning of the novel between Katniss and her hunting buddy, Gale, comes about because of their risking death in sneaking outside the confines of District 12 in order to look for food. Of course, too, Katniss and Peeta’s willingness to die together in friendship at the story’s final crisis, rather than compete against one another in a final showdown, is a heroism that only the prospect of a brutal death makes possible.