Hunger Games: Stands proudly with other dystopian tales

Faith-and-film author Edward McNulty began his coverage of Hunger Games with an intriguing list of top dystopian movies. That d-word is showing up in newspaper headlines this week, so millions are freshly reminded of its meaning: “an imaginary place where people live dehumanized lives” or “the opposite of utopia.” In this review of Hunger Games, McNulty helps us see how this movie can fit into spirited discussions about the important themes raised in dystopian tales.
ALSO NEW: Twilight expert Janes Wells is a longtime fan of Hunger Games and shares her film review.
AND: Rodney Curtis (a.k.a. Spiritual Wanderer) on Why Your Mom May Hate This Movie.
Spoiler Alert: McNulty’s analysis does contain spoilers for people who aren’t already familiar with the story.

Hunger Games stands proudly with WALL-E, Lorax, 1984 & Other Dystopias


The wait for the film version of The Hunger Games is over, and the news is: There is a lot in this new film to spark discussion, prompt conversation in your congregation and draw fresh attention if you raise this subject in your newsletter, blog or message this week. In preparation for the debut, I wrote about the provocative genre of dystopian movies—and I would like to hear from you about other dystopian films we should write about. (Email us at [email protected] in coming days. I plan to publish another collection of tips on great dystopian films soon. Stay tuned!)


Hunger Games fans will judge the movie themselves. From what I saw—of the film and the enthusiastic reaction of the audience at an advance screening—the film will match the success of the novel. With the usual pruning down required for a two hour movie (actually 2 hours 12 minutes), some details are lost. For instance, Madge, the Mayor’s daughter who gave the heroine the mockingjay pin she wears is cut. Overall, though, the film presents well the essence of the novel. The major change made by director Gary Ross (and co-writers Suzanne Collins herself and veteran screenwriter Billy Ray) is the change of voice, the filmmaker’s opting for an omniscient camera view rather than the book’s first-person narration by Katniss.  Also we see far more scenes of the Game Master and others back in the Capitol: Their remarks fill in the information necessary to understand the predicament of a character or her action, information that Katniss supplies in the book’s first-person narrative.

For those in the audience who have not read the book, the film is prefaced by a few lines informing viewers  that in the future the nation of Panem survives the old nations of North America. Panem is divided into 12 districts with the Capitol (apparently situated in the Rocky Mountains) taking in the majority of the produce of the districts. As the penalty for a past revolt, each district is required to hold an annual lottery to select a girl and a boy between the ages of 12 and 16 as tributes. Thus 24 youth are sent to the Capitol where they are primped and pampered for four days and then set down in a huge arena where they are to fight and kill each other until just one is left. By means of what must be thousands of hidden cameras the combat is televised throughout Panem, with everyone required to watch.

The impoverished residents of the districts watch the Games with apprehension based on their concern for their own tributes, whereas the bewigged and effete residents of the Capitol, seeming to be a throwback to the audiences of Roman gladiators, delightedly watch the odds posted by each tribute’s name so they can place bets, some of them even joining together as sponsors to send a much needed item to their favorite tribute via a silver parachute guided to the recipient.

Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen, a character somewhat similar to the tough Ozarks Mountain girl she portrayed in Winter’s Bone. Katniss lives with her 12 year-old sister Prim (Willow Shields) and their mother in District 12, obviously Appalachia, as we can tell by the too-familiar shacks and line of men wearing hardhats on their way to a coal mine. Ever since her father died in a mine explosion, sending her mother into an almost catatonic state of despair, Katniss has been the provider of food for her family. She and her male friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), also about her age, 16, sneak through the electric fence surrounding their village almost every day in the search for edible roots, berries, and game in the nearby forest. In the process Katniss has become adept with the bow and arrow and at setting snares for small game.

Then comes the day of the Lottery and it is Prim, not Katniss or any of the other more mature girls, whose name is drawn. The older sister rushes after the guards escorting Prim to the podium as she yells that she will volunteer to take her place. She is accepted, and the drawing for the male volunteer results in the baker’s son Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) being selected. In a later flashback we learn of his kindness. He once tossed Katniss a loaf of bread when she had sat crying in the rain because neither hunting nor begging had garnered any food that day. Their Games mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a victor in the Games many years before, is on the stage, but in the film he is not quite as buffoonish. In the movie, he drinks too much and looks unkempt, but he does not drunkenly fall off the stage. We also see a little more of him in the film version. When the kids are in the arena, for example, he approaches some Capitol denizens seeking their sponsorship for Katniss so that she will receive some medicine she badly needs.

Just as in many of the real-life competitions that vie for viewers in American prime-time TV these days, these Hunger Games competitors are groomed to appear telegenic. Then, they are transported to an arena that is essentially a dystopia within this larger dystopia: a vast area with forests, a lake, streams and mountains that is under the total control of the Game Master and his large corps of technicians who keep watch over each tribute through tracking devices and a myriad of cameras.

Each of the tributes is raised from beneath groundlevel and stands on a small platform until the signal is given for the Games to begin. They form a large semi-circle around a big metal Cornucopia that is filled with provisions. All kinds of foods and tools, even an archery set, lie before them. However, Haymitch has strictly told his charges not to run to the Corucopia because the strong tributes, some of whom have been training for the Games all their young lives, will turn that area into a killing field. That is precisely what happens, although Katniss makes a choice that gets her safely into the forest. A cannon booms for each death, and an image of the dead child is projected high up over the arena.

How Katniss slowly is transformed from victim into victor is well told, with Peeta playing an important part in her development. Both book and film do a wonderful job of bringing out the humanity of the two. Early in the film, the two talk one night on a rooftop and Peeta tells Katniss, “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. ” (For a fuller version of his desire to be “more than a piece in their game” see pp. 141-142 in the novel.)  I think Katniss begins to understand this more when she forges an all-too-brief alliance with Rue, the young girl from District 11 who had helped her elude a band of tributes that cornered her up a tree. During this sequence friendship takes the place of survival in the heart of Katniss. Then, when a further tragedy strikes, Katniss expresses her real love for this new friend. People back in Rue’s District 11 react with deep emotion as they watch what unfolds on their screens.


At this point in the film, I wasn’t pleased with the filmmakers’ choice of an added scene that unfolds in District 11 and, instead, I wished that a missing scene from the novel, involving a gift of bread to Katniss, had been included in the movie. If you discuss this film with youth or adults who are familiar with the storyline or have just seen the movie, ask about this point in the film. Ask about the violent District 11 reactions we see in the movie vs. the passage in the novel where District 11 responds by sending bread. This is just one small example of the many moral and spiritual questions ripe for conversation.

Here is another example: In the book sequence chronicling the friendship between the two girls, I had hoped that Suzanne Collins  was heading toward an ending in which Rue, Katniss, and Peeta would sit down in front of the Cornucopia and refuse to fight each other. This would be a powerful way to follow up on Peeta’s thoughts (repeated on pp.236-237). This way of “saying no” to the Games’ rule that the victor must kill all opponents would be in the spirit of the peacemakers profiled in Daniel L. Buttry’s  ReadtheSpirit’s book Blessed Are the Peacemakers. The three would be like the early Christian martyrs tossed into the Roman Colliseum but who refused to pick up a weapon to defend themselves. For those martyrs this willingness to be killed rather than to kill was their way of showing that Caesar could not, in Peeta’s words, “change me in there. Turn me into some kind of a monster that I am not.” (p. 141) In case you are thinking that there would have been no sequels if the book had ended with Rue, Katniss, and Peeta’s martyrdom, I would contend that they might not have been executed. The audience had already been made to root for the District 12 pair by their handlers’ promoting them as star-crossed lovers. By including the elfin Rue in their pact not to kill, they would have projected to the audience a love transcending that of boy-girl, a selfless love that sometimes can persuade an enemy to change, as Blessed Are The Peacemakers shows in some of its mini-biographies.

Want more fuel for thought on this theme? Read Eric Frank Russell’s classic 1951 tale, “And Then There Were None.” Russell describes a Gandhian society resisting occupation by a Terran Empire force and the whole story is now available online.

Collins does venture just a little way in this direction with Katniss and Peeta. Their Romeo and Juliette-like act of resistance is a clever and emtionally satisfying denoument, maybe not as profound as the one I would have liked, but then Collins wrote a book to entertain, not to be a peacemaking tract.

The movie version of her dystopian tale is one of the best science fiction films to be released in a long time, well deserving to join the company of other great dystopian tales from Hollywood.

PLEASE, email us at [email protected] with your thoughts on dystopian films. Edward McNulty will return soon with another fascinating list of this genre’s best movies.

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    (Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.)

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