WARNING SPOILER AHEAD!
This post originally appeared in the July edition of The Garden.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by The Hunger Games (which came out on DVD in mid August). Don’t most dystopian post-apocalyptic movies explore the deep issues that confront humanity?
The story takes place in a country called Penam, which is ruled by the Capitol with 12 surrounding districts. Every year the Hunger Games are organised by the Capitol. In each district two teenagers, one boy and one girl, are picked by lottery to represent their district as “tributes”. Originally organised in response to a rebellion by a now destroyed 13th district, the Games are meant to represent an act of atonement on the part of the remaining districts, as well as a means of control by the Capitol. However, all of this is now caught up in a media-driven frenzy with every piece of the action and death broadcast to the masses.
In an interview Suzanne Collins, the author of the original book, has told of how the inspiration for the story came to her one evening when she was channel surfing between reality TV programmes and actual war coverage. Feeling tired, the two started to blur in a very unsettling way. She also confirms that the story line is based on the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, in which the King of Athens is obligated to the king of Crete to send in tribute each year seven young men and seven young women to Crete, where they were thrown into the labyrinth and devoured by the Minotaur.
There are also other resonances. For example, the famous American short story “The Lottery” in which one villager is chosen to die each year by stoning for the sake of a good harvest; the Aztec practice of choosing a handsome warrior from an enemy tribe, who is wined and dined for a year and then sacrificed to the Gods; and the Roman gladiators fighting in the Coliseum – being used by the political establishment to control the people through deathly entertainment. What all these “stories” have in common is the need for some kind of human sacrifice.
Rene Girard, the French literary critic and philosopher, talks about the scapegoat mechanism at work in many cultures. According to Girard, this mechanism is used to deal with certain tensions within society. In order to deal with these tensions the community chooses someone to blame, isolate and punish and thus discharge their fears and anxieties onto that person or group. In this way a certain peace is achieved and thus it is often sanctioned by the state or by religion.
For Girard, the mechanism can be seen in Christianity with Jesus being the scapegoat. However, rather than sanctioning the violence like the religious authorities do, God can be thought of as identifying with the victim. In this act, the real injustice and violence of the scapegoat mechanism is unveiled and disempowered and a new vision of life emerges. Not one based on violence, but rather one based on love, forgiveness, compassion and identification with the victim. In other words – a way out of the cycle of violence.
Something similar happens at the end of the movie. The two main characters, who remain alive (both tributes from the same district), are not willing to kill one another and give the Capitol the satisfaction it wants. They challenge the system by both agreeing to take their own lives by eating poisonous berries, thus taking away the possibility of a successful Games. They are vindicated when at the last moment the rules are changed. Ironically, it is through the willingness to give up life, that the system that seeks to control through death, is subverted. A new vision of life emerges.