Are the Culture Warriors in Line for The Hunger Games Film?

So where are the Harry Haters and Twilight bashers in the Hunger Games madness that has overtaken the Public Square? This is an opportunity at least as great as previous manias to make some Culture War points to those captive to an Us-Other narrative in religion and politics. Where are the objections to Katniss and Peeta’s celibate shacking up on the bullet train, an outcry that we listened to about the celibate embraces of Bella and Edward? Why no alarm bells about the in-text and on-screen violence of children killing children without remorse?

The Christian Hall Monitors are still with us, it turns out, but there is little steel in their warnings about Hunger Games. If the books did make the ALA list of ‘books folks object to seeing on library book shelves’ this year, that seems only to reflect their popularity more than objections of any substance. For proof of the surprisingly soft warnings or even approval coming from the ‘usual suspects, see “A Parent’s Guide to the Hunger Games” by Rebecca Cusey, “An Exploration of the Books’ Relevance to Christians” by Janie Cheaney, The Hunger Games and the Gospel: Bread, Circuses, and the Kingdom of God (Kindle edition) by Julie Clawson, and Focus on the Family’s review of the series’ first book.

The last does note that “the h — word” appears once and that Gale and Katniss are a little lax in their Sabbath obligations:

A few times, Katniss mentions having good luck. Rue carries a good luck charm. Katniss says the woods where she hunts have been the savior of her and her family. She says her mother and sister can work magic with herbs (meaning that they’re good at making and administering medicines). Before becoming a tribute, Katniss devoted her Sundays to hunting and trading with Gale.

Besides this, though, the review notes that the violence, drinking, and gambling are largely critiques of excess and a culture gone mad rather than examples to emulate. A conservative journal, National Review, claims the book and movie as red meat for Red State true believers who hate the Capitol as Capitol Hill (The Hunger Games, Politics, and Your Kids – National Review Online).

Three thoughts on this:

(1) There’s Nothing Paranormal in the Panem Saga: The trigger, if you will, on the Culture Warrior’s turf alarm system is anything touching on the psychic or daemonic realm. Harry Potter‘s magic and Twilight’s LDS vampires and Quileute Shape shifters tripped all those alarms and the romance elements of the Forks Saga’s Harlequin moments were just extra weight against it in the balance of theological correctness. Hunger Games has little to none of the paranormal trappings that are the surface show and genre elements at Hogwarts and the Cullen Show.

(2) It’s Hard to Miss the Message: Christians embrace the postmodern message of “embracing the Other” and fighting Nazis who are only about their own pleasures and right to rule over others (that message is essentially a Christian teaching, after all). The Hunger Games is a fairly transparent morality tale, and, if the Focus on the Family crowd have largely missed (again) the spiritual and Christian allegorical elements of the Everdeen Saga, they’d have to be willfully blind not to see that Suzanne Collins is preaching an anti-materialist, anti-hedonist, anti-virtual entertainment culture sermon to her readers.

(3) Lessons Learned: I wonder if the fifteen years of bashing Harry Potter as the gateway to the occult, attacks without anything more than anecdotal evidence of any growth in satanic or witchcraft group membership, and of objecting to Twilight as another celebration of the infernal has left the Cultural Hard Core fatigued and counting the cost of their efforts. Maybe a few have even decided that they were wrong, especially if they have explored one of the significant number of books about the Christian content of these books.

I confess that, while I expect every new ‘big thing’ in YA fiction to follow the Harry Potter fandom model in almost every respect — from online sites names, number, and formats to blockbuster films and ancillary reader’s guides — what surprised me about the Hunger Games conformity to Potter history was the speed and number of Christian apologetic interpretations of the books. When In wrote Hidden Key to Harry Potter in 2002, I was all alone in saying the books were edifying and that their popularity largely sprang from their Christian content. Same thing with Spotlight‘s long look at the structures and symbolism of the Twilight books in 2010.

Contrast that with the four books on the ‘Gospel message’ of Hunger Games in the Amazon marketplace today. I have not looked at any of these books to see if they include our 2010 discussions here at HogwartsProfessor of the allegorical and anagogical artistry of Ms. Collins’ Panem Novels, but I’d suspect they do — and not because of any theft. The Pearl symbolism, the Boy with the Bread, and the Girl on Fire invite this interpretation because of their traditional use in stories reflecting Christian scripture.

I think the only “haters” out there about Hunger Games, then, are those who are uncomfortable with this message of sacrificial and redeeming love, the Cultural Elites rather than the Christian Warriors. Those who relentlessly bash Twilight are the same people who hated Titanic, a movie I have to confess I have never seen and doubt I ever will. Arabella sent me this Entertainment Weekly article about the Titanic Haters, though, which I suspect has something to tell us about Hunger Games holdouts:

What gave the movement [to bash Titanic the movie] its motivating force? What made the fragments band together like angry iron filings? If Titanic was one of the original lightning rods for hater culture, part of the reason that the film made such a perfect target is that what the haters were really attacking wasn’t “bad dialogue” so much as a huge, powerful, ambitious movie, by a geek-god filmmaker, that actually dared to be innocent about love. For if there’s one thing that Internet culture, with its immersion in hipness, control, technology, and a certain masculine mystique that binds all those things together, cannot abide, it is romantic innocence. It can’t abide the feminine spirit entering into the machine. And that’s the essence of what Titanic was. It was a movie that found love in the machine, even as the machine was destroyed. No wonder the haters hated it. Their real identification was with the machine. They didn’t want to see a movie in which the heart — but not the ship — goes on.

I suspect the reason Hunger Games is loved by internet mavens as well as Christians with a track record of despising the good in popular culture is that it threads the proverbial eye of the needle. It is loaded with what seem feminine and masculine virtues in the popular mind — cracking sharp criticism of Capitol elites alongside exemplary and edifying entertainment in which we can transcend ego and a narrow world of individual advantage and disadvantage.

I covet your comments and corrections, of course, in the com-boxes below. Thanks to Arabella for the links!


  1. Mockingjay was the book that most concerned me since it sure was not an easy ending. However, I saw Coin’s regime as very socialist and hopefully the arrow helped usher in a new regime. Gorbachov rather than Stalin possibly.

    It did point out that a democracy was heaven compared to the choices. I did not see American imperialism at all, but rather much more controlling, hopeless regimes, take your pick.
    It was really interesting to see the author stress how images , not content are everything.
    The writing at the latter part of the book, as Katniss disintegrates reminded me of the complete horror of Holocaust survivors, as they struggled to find any reason to go on. Eli Weisel would understand.

  2. Renee Jones says

    THG is getting a very cold reception in the Catholic blogophere, even by peeps who love Harry. The euthenasia and lack of spirituality are the main gripes but there are others, as well.

  3. Thanks for linking to my Parent’s Guide to the Hunger Games.

    As thrilled as I am to be included in “the usual suspects,” I have to point out that my credentials as such are iffy. I loved Harry Potter, and was even taken to task for it by name on movieguide. org, something that I wear as a badge of honor.

    I also loved Hunger Games, although I am troubled by the ending because of its pacifist at all costs ethos. You can check out my review if you don’t believe me. It’s a big story with big ideas, well-told. It’s also something of a Rorscach test, isn’t it? People tend to see different things in it. All of these things are hallmarks of good literature.

    So as a thinking Christian, I appreciate you keeping the dialog open about big books and big ideas. We all are better for them, I believe.

  4. I think a big part of the reason for the tepid hating is how the studio/publishers handled their public discussion of the story. Perhaps I am remembering inaccurately, but as I recall, there were lots of comments along the lines of, “Well, we don’t really know ______, because it has violence and a violent premise of kids killing kids…” They acknowledged the subject matter, theme, and various levels of meaning right up front.

    So like a politician announcing his crappy marriage, there is no story, nothing to fight against. It’s public crisis management 101: find the truth, admit the truth, express remorse.

    Compare with Stephenie Meyer’s absolute and categorical denials of any and all meaning whatsoever, aka “it’s just a kid’s story,” and you see why there has been such a strong and prolonged backlash — because now it behooves others to point out the “truth.” Once that happens, the public discussion/media response is out of your hands, and the condemnations (continue to) rain down.

    In the HP world, wasn’t the initial response to the hating along the lines of, “Hey, it’s just a kid’s story — relax?”

  5. You’re spot -on again, Mr. Granger. Last week I just had the conversation with some fellow teachers on how I thought the typical ‘down with it if I can’t easily and obviously find God in it’ crowd would eventually react to a book that has absolutely no citing of the words ‘God’ or ‘Church’ in it. To me, the obvious absence of both indicates the obvious and extreme importance of both, as they both abound in the very essence of Collins’s message. As you’ve aptly pointed out, the difference between now and then is in the story baselines–specifically that Christians really believe in an apocolyptic-ever-after where persecution abounds and the morally upright are challenged until the final bloody showdown in a deep green valley. They do not believe in moral vampires that sparkle in the sun, fight their evil urges while also encouraging abstinence. They do not believe ‘magic’ performed by a human under the direction of a eccentric (dare I say gay here?) elder headmaster can be anything but suspect of the morally downtrodden as well as the occult, regardless of the intention or type of magic performed.

    Being an offshoot of a truly spirtual and religious family tree myself, as well as Appalachian and an educator, I feel I can say fairly securely that this new tide of the warriors of God only weakly searching for the ominous stirrings in The Hunger Games saga is mainly because–well, because the kids just want to read it, dang it! They want to see it, dang it! It was made here, depicts our Southern roots somewhat, and ties strongly to that American/Rebel underpinning of the ‘don’t roll over, be a fighter!’ mantra so many daddies teach their children in places not so much economically better or farther away than the fictional District 12. So the thought might be, “If there’s no wand waving, no half-clothed adolescents making bad decisions, no glittery souless wandering through the tales, then let’s allow the kids a little fun, huh? We’ll find a way to fit it in to Sunday School lessons later.”
    There is another good side, though. Call me an optimist, or perhaps Gary Ross in a rescripting room, but this is actually a time in our real world in which hope does need to fell fear, and in which people need to feel something a little more like community pride. And while it might be through fictional tales of teenagers escaping the grasp of a totalitarian governement somewhere in the future, these are teenagers who think, who hope, who doubt, and who, with sheer determination and fortitude, find small victories over thier mighty foes day to day. What good Christian or otherwise haven’t ever wanted to be or do the same?

  6. “I think the only “haters” out there about Hunger Games, then, are those who are uncomfortable with this message of sacrificial and redeeming love, the Cultural Elites rather than the Christian Warriors.”

    I’m somewhat confused please define what you mean by “Cultural Elites?”

  7. Arabella figg says

    There are vociferous Christian HG haters out there; just as with Harry and Twilight, they’ve neither read the book nor seen the film. Yet they cast themselves as spiritual and moral authorities on the book’s content, question the faith of those who like HG and see meaning (including spiritual) in it, and cast Collins as satanic. Alas, some things never change.

  8. I don’t think that’s what he means by “Cultural Elites,” it seems to me that his definition is specific to those individuals who are bothered by religion in the public sphere and/or atheist/non-believers. Which is disturbing in the sense that he seems to be claiming the moral high ground for the religious, and we all know that is most certainly NOT true. Whether religious or non-religious or mostly/somewhat/or not at all religious, no one group can claim to be morally superior to another. I personally am an atheist, nonetheless, I enjoyed Collins work and am well aware of the fact that Katniss–the soul–is inherently sinful and can only be redeemed through unquestioning acceptance of the Christ–Peeta the bread of life. Collins the “Gamesmaker” agenda seems to be framing the argument in absolutes, and therefore, misses the shades of grey that are most certainly a aprt of life.

  9. Dr. Mellark says

    As someone who would not identify as a Christian, but who loved C.S. Lewis, Nichomachean Ethics, Harry Potter, enjoyed Twilight, and has had trouble putting down the Everdeen Saga, I would have to agree with Anthony. I have not seen Titanic, and won’t because I have no interest in what I felt was one of the first big CG blockbusters to cash in on one of the biggest tragedies of its time – the unthinkably horrible death of so many due to the hubris of men – for what, a love story? If I want to learn about the Titanic, I would rather read one of the new books recently out (to commemorate the 100th anniversary) that detail primary sources and have scholarly research on the subject, not listen to what Hollywood wants to sell me – not even in 3D. Call me one of the Cultural Elite if you want, but I still can see the beauty in virtuous love, in sacrifice, and in redemption/salvation without claiming religious moral high ground. Perhaps the reason that there is very little backlash against this Saga is that (as John said) in the absence of the supernatural, the moral message of the series is essentially unassailable.

  10. bj pearce says

    I have seen the movie and I was very distressed to see so many young people actually laughing and rooting for someone to be killed. there is way too much violence today not only in young people’s literature, but particularly in their video games. you would have to be an idiot to not realize that advocating this kind of violence being rained down on our youth will not eventually take its toll in the form of aggression. there is plenty of research out there to prove that fact. you cannot inflict massive amounts of this kind of violence and killing without it leaving an impression. i for one have watched teenagers playing “World of Warcraft” and was shocked at the violent outbreaks of language, i.e. “Die you MF!” and worse uttered by a 16 year old. people need to stop and think about the diet of aggression that is being plentifully fed to our youth. this movie was created by Hollywood and its author to make money and they obviously don’t give a damn about the lasting effects!

  11. As a non-religious person, I love the lack of supernatural/spirituality in HG and the emphasis on humanity, change, and compassion. I’m interested in the spiritual readings/symbolism some see in the books, but I’m not persuaded that those messages were Collins’ ultimate goal. I see this trilogy, if anything, as a work of secular humanism, about the power of the collective human spirit. I’m more surprised at the lack of outcry over its anti-capitalist bent.

  12. I tend to think that the lack of organized religion/supernatural belief in THG has less to do with promoting a secular society and more to do with a realistic world-building decision on Ms. Collins’ part. In order to survive, a government like the Capitol, just like Soviet Russia, would have to ruthlessly stamp out any teachings about a power higher than the state. I think they would understand that real religion in the hearts of courageous people is less of an opiate and more of an adrenaline injection – as long as such beliefs existed, there would be people who would refuse to lie down and submit to a regime like the Capitol’s. I think we can see hints of an older spiritual awareness in some of the small cultural details Collins includes, such as the use of “good luck charms” and the folk songs that seem to indicate traces of belief in an afterlife. There were many moments in the books when I felt that Katniss was dancing on the edge of a kind of spiritual understanding without realizing what she was doing, such as when she talked about the forbidden “Hanging Tree” song.

    I agree with the posters above who mentioned that the seeming lack of religious faith in THG only serves to let its spiritual and moral message shine through clearer. A lot of fantasy and sci-fi novels include mention of various religious beliefs and they often come off as proselytizing in one direction or another, and as a result whatever message they were trying to send gets lost in the din. The lack of such detail in THG allows the actual message of the book to appeal to a much broader range of people, some of whom would be turned off by more explicit religious content. As a result, the people who object to THG are going to be, as John originally wrote, the people who object to that core message, rather than the people who object to its outer trappings, as they did with HP.

    (Although Laura, I do agree that it’s very interesting we don’t see more opposition to the anti-capitalism. A lot of the people caught up in the celebrity buzz over the movie seem to have missed that part of the message entirely…)

  13. Lauren,

    I don’t think the trilogy is especially anti-capitalist. Although it is very clear in the series that the government has great power (at least over the people in the districts) and abuses that power, the economic system is very vague. I think that people who are suspicious of government control in economies tend to read the series as being about a control economy. People who tend to trust more in governmental control tend to read the series as critical of consumerism run wild. Either group reads the series as a critique of the opposing group.

  14. I’ve actually read this book twice (both times were start to finish readings) and I liked it every bit as much the second time as the first time.

    The only downside to reading it the second time was the same as the first: the book ending with the words “end of book one”.

    Fans of Scott Westerfield, “The Lottery” or “Lord of the Flies” should be interested in this. Anti-establishment wrapped up in teenage angst and a “Battle Royale” style setting all mix really well. I was immensely surprised.

    I have the fortune of working at Barnes and Noble and being able to read advance copies of books, which is how I laid my hands on “Hunger Games”. The description was enough to catch me, but nothing prepared me for how engrossing this book was from the first page to the last.

    As you can tell from the length of this comment, I’m a huge fan.

    Collins’ other work doesn’t seem as interesting or easy to get a hold of, but I’m definitely curious given what I’ve read in “Hunger Games”.

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