Skip to comments.Starving for Religion in 'Hunger Games'
Posted on 03/27/2012 6:46:41 AM PDT by rhema
The importance of religion in the wildly popular "Hunger Games" books and new movie is a lot like the barking of a dog in the Sherlock Holmes story "Silver Blaze."
Holmes directs a police inspector's attention to "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time." "The dog did nothing in the night-time." "That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.
The dog, of course, did not bark.
If you've been cut off from all popular culture for a while, "The Hunger Games" and its two sequels are novels by Suzanne Collins. She creates a dystopian future where the remnants of the United States are ruled by a despot who enforces his rule with an annual "game" that's a cross between Roman gladiator contests and a modern reality TV show. A couple of people from each province are chosen by lottery to enter into a group battle to the death, all televised. Last person standing is the winner.
Eventually, there's an uprising.
The plot is a gumbo that includes elements from Roman history and mythology; "The Truman Show" movie; Robert Heinlein's 1960s novel "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress;" "The Lottery," a short story written in the 1940s by Shirley Jackson; Madeline L'Engle's "A Wrinkle In Time" and who knows what else.
The core conflicts that drive the plot are moral choices when there are no good answers. And yeah, there's a romance conflict.
For my money, it's better written than the Harry Potter books -- more internally self-consistent with much more sophisticated character development. Like the Potter books, it's marketed as "young adult" fare but includes plenty of adult adults in its fan base. The first movie in what will surely be a series opened last week. Critics were generally kind and the box office was tremendous.
So what about religion? There isn't any. Not a prayer. Not an oath. The word "god" does not so much as appear in any of the books. Nobody even says "oh my gosh."
There's no ritual that isn't totally grounded in some materialistic purpose. Not a hint of serious superstition. Unless I missed it, there's not a remotely idiomatic reference to the supernatural.
The story is plenty busy without it, but such an unequivocal expunging can only have been intentional. We learn fine details about fashion and food and weaponry and the shape of furniture and the color of dust and so on and so on. She easily could have dropped in a couple of casual references to faith.
I've not been able to find any interviews she's granted on the topic, but it's pretty clear that, like Gene Roddenberry did when he created Star Trek, Collins wanted there to be zero religion in her world.
Based on her source material, she could have used religion as a positive or a negative. Here in the real world, people have turned to various kids of religion in the darkest moments of history. Victims of the Nazis prayed in the death camps. On the other hand, religion has been a tool of oppression in much of real history, too. From the imposed state faith of the ancient Roman Empire to the Catholic Inquisition to the Muslim theocrats of our own era, faith has been used by despots whose histories parallel some of the villains of Collins' story.
It's hard for me to imagine a real human future where either use of religion vanishes without a trace. But for her own reasons, Collins went in neither direction. It's a curious incident, a dog that should have barked.
A friend of mine who has read the books asked me a much more interesting question than "where is the religion." Where, she asked me, was God in this story? Had he abandoned humanity?
My friend is a person of deep and abiding faith who has survived some hard times. Her question was heartfelt. I thought about all of the real-world examples in human history where one might ask the same question. Theodicy is the toughest challenge for any religion that posits an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good deity. Why does he allow evil to persist? Where is his hand in stories where horrors pile upon horrors?
Is God in the world of the Hunger Games? Religious commentators are trying to find him. There's a book titled "The Hunger Games and the Gospel." A paper titled "The Gospel According to The Hunger Games' Trilogy." "Hunger Games" bible studies.
The authors focus on plot elements that turn on moral questions, on discussions about good and evil characters, on redemption and faith in family and friends. Even though there's not a scintilla of actual religion in the stories, they are able to find aspects that represent their own religious values.
Finding the Almighty in apparently secular details has an ancient and honorable history. Look no further than the Bible and the Book of Esther. This is the basis of the Jewish holiday of Purim. The tale includes violence and romance, sexual wiles and betrayal, despots and heroes. (And like the Hunger Games, the central hero is a young woman.)
What it doesn't have, famously, is a single unequivocal mention of God. Not one. Yet it made it into the canon for Jews and Christians. And generations of theologians have delved into it to find religious meanings.
So maybe it is fair to search for God in the world of the Hunger Games. But given how hard Collins worked to scrub her work so squeaky religion-clean, I wonder what she thinks of the bible studies.
That’s a great example of exactly my point. Being an SF&F nerd and a player of D&D in my youth I was of course a Tolkien nut, tried to read Silmarillion a number of times but it was just way to dense for my teenage brain. Gave up on it multiple times. Finally when the movies came out I decided it was time not only to reread the Tolkien I’d successfully read in the past but to hammer my way through Silmarillion. and I did, because I was in my 30s and finally had the attention span to be able to remember how those paragraphs started when I got to the end. Can’t say I actually enjoyed the book, but it did add some enjoyable knowledge to the other books for me, and I finished the damn thing.
Joyce is really not all that present in high schools. He’s more taught in 300 level college courses. And besides he’s fairly popular. Go to your local Barnes and Noble...they will have him in stock along with books about him. Dublin has tours of the areas mentioned in Ulysses. It’s a popular tourist attraction.
The fact is that kids tend to dislike *everything* they read in school. Even a writer like Dickens who has massive popular appeal. So giving them trash to read won’t help matters any. It will just insure that they will probably never be exposed to serious Literature in their lives. Many of them anyway. Education isn’t supposed to be fun. It can be but that’s not the goal.
Joyce is the easy picking, he is still taught in some high schools, and being that his stuff is taught (thus a section of the population is FORCED to buy it) it’s availability really doesn’t mean much.
The reason kids dislike everything they read in school is because the school make them read stuff that’s just plain not age appropriate. Teenage brains aren’t wired for the dense Victorian prose that makes up the majority of the mandatory reading list. This turns reading into a chore. Dickens doesn’t have massive popular appeal.
Exposing them to “literature” in a way they’re guaranteed to hate accomplishes nothing. That’s the point you always ignore. Yes I read Joyce thanks to annoying school curricula, and hated every single monotonous overwrought word of it. I might actually be able to like it now that I have a grownup attention span, but because I already have memory of loathing it I will never ever pickup a Joyce book to read again. Had they not forced it on me at a time when everybody knew I, and all my classmates, would hate it I might have picked it up at some point in my life. I’ve enjoyed a number of the “great” books that I managed to avoid having forced on me once I got old enough for that kind of thing, but all the stuff that got forced on me is crap to me.
Education is supposed to be educational, forcing junk they’ll hate on kids teaches them nothing. It’s just wasted time and effort.
Biographies of Joyce aren’t being taught yet there is usually one on the shelf of the local book store. What’s mostly taught in high schools is a short story or two. Not Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake...yet they still manage to stay in print. For what it’s worth, I went through grad school in English and didn’t encounter Joyce once. I read him on my own.
The alternative to “dense Victorian prose” is spare Modernist prose like Joyce and Faulkner which is also difficult albeit in a different way. Dickens is one of the most widely translated writers in history.
Yes because there are lit nerds in the world. Remember the vast majority of the bookstore is aimed at a target market of under a million, that’s in a nation of 311 million, often times you’re looking at a target of closer to a quarter million. Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are taught in college, and I think they’re in public domain, and remember there’s that small target. You’re lucky, my first encounter with Joyce was sophomore year in high school. Just awful.
Joyce’s prose ain’t spare. Joyce is long winded, he’s the 27 word guy. The REAL alternative is to teach kids books they might actually like. Let them get to the classics on their own, when they’re old enough. If they get into reading they’ll get a favorite writer or two, and eventually they’ll read an interview with them where they say they were influenced by Joyce, and they’ll pick one up. Almost every book I’ve ever voluntarily read that was more than 50 years old was because an author I liked referenced it.
Yes Dickens is translated into many languages. But again, target market. Being read by an insignificant percentage of people in many countries is not “massive popular appeal”, it’s being in the public domain so what little money does come in from those sales doesn’t have to be spread far. Also Dickens is pretty good stuff so the handful of people who do read him will enjoy it (thankfully I never had him shoved down my throat in school, all voluntary). If he was massively popular Hollywood would be ripping him off a lot more than they are, and they’d include his name in the movie title.
Well adults who read fiction are a minority to begin with. Especially males. So I’m talking about people who actually do read. Dickens is probably read by more people worldwide then anyone on the Best Seller list right now. And IMDB has 4 productions based on his work dated at 2012.
Joyce entered the public domain just recently...
Ulysses and FW would not be read unless it’s a class devoted to Joyce - which college students would take as an elective (willingly).
And I always have to wonder how many more adults would be reading if they hadn’t been taught that books suck in school. By shoving books at teenagers that teenagers are simply not able to read we lose whole generations. Luckily I was addicted to reading before the school got a chance to ruin it, so instead they only taught me some authors suck. But really if my first reading had been the stuff they push in school I wouldn’t be a reader today.
I doubt Dickens is read by more people today than anybody else. Maybe HAS been because you get the whole generational thing, but as for folks going to the store today to get books there’s a reason the best sellers are the best sellers and the best sellers are in the middle of the store and Dickens is over in the “classics literature” section which almost never has anybody in it. And as for the IMDB list, one of those is a British TV show, one is a short “inspired by” and also British, another is a full movie by BBC films, and finally a “characters” credit for a movie and the only distributor signed up is in the UAE. Like I said, if he was massively popular Hollywood would be ripping him off more.
I’m sure there’s some lit classes throwing Ulysses or FW at unsuspecting youths.
Thanks for the shout-out!
Kids can read junk on their own. They need to be exposed to first rate material in school. I was at a dinner recently where the host’s teenage daughter had recently read The Odyssey in school and kept telling me how boring it was. She would never have picked it up if not for school.
It’s the same reason an Art history class teaches about Michaelangelo and not the guy who draws Garfield cartoons or billboards. And music classes should teach Bach and Mozart and not Top 40 pop tunes.
FW is unreadable to some English Profs much less students. It’s not taught outside of specialty courses. And Ulysses is also way to big and complex too manage as part of something else.
There’s a big gap between reading junk and reading literature they won’t like. And forcing stuff on them they won’t like accomplishes nothing. Your dinner party girl is learning nothing from being forced to read the Odyssey, other than books suck. Let her read something she might actually like, there’s plenty of good books out there, respectably literary, that teen could actually connect to. I personally loved the Odyssey but I got hooked on mythology at an early age and read it as part of that. Actually I’d just finished the last mythology book our public library system had about 2 months before my jr high English class started the mythology section, which actually made that section kind of boring, but easy.
Art history classes are about HISTORY, thus not teaching anything modern, meanwhile art NOT history classes teach a lot of modern stuff that’s better than Garfield. And actually music classes tend to teach a lot of more modern stuff, it’s hard to teach a kid how to play an instrument if they don’t know what the end result is supposed to sound like. Sure eventually they’ll move into the classics, but there’s a lot of top 40 early for a lot of reasons, familiarity, enjoyment, and let’s face it, it’s easier. Start them with something easy, and move them to the harder stuff, it’s a pretty typical way of teaching and generally gets positive results. Except of course in the English world, where they dump hard to read stuff teens can’t possibly connect with on them, and then complain they come out with no appreciation of the classics (just like your young friend). It’s funny how addicted they are at throwing books teens won’t like at teens. My freshman year they made us read The Old Man and the Sea, now Hemingway is good stuff, often very exciting, but do they throw any of that at us? No, they throw at a bunch of 14 year olds a book about an old poor guy flashing back to the life he’d led before; the book in his catalog we’re probably LEAST likely to be able to connect to, not that it’s a bad book, but we were 14, there’s nothing there for a 14 year old to grab onto. There’s an old joke in the software business about commenting (not) commenting code that goes “it was hard to write it should be hard to read”, that describes the seeming goal English departments have, throw books at them that will be as hard for them to read as possible.
The problem is you and the teachers have a self defeating, and frankly moronic, all or nothing approach. You think that if they aren’t teaching the “best” then they aren’t teaching anything. I’m pointing out what should be taught is the “best stuff they’ll actually ENJOY” and trust that some of them will learn to like it and go voluntarily read the “best” later in life when they can actually appreciate it. The problem really boils down to reading being taught like math. Both are getting taught under a method that worships repetition, an approach that doesn’t care if they like it, but makes them do it assuming they’ll learn something. The problem is reading ain’t math, repetition by force teaches nothing other than loathing of the activity. They need to grasp that there’s a big section of literature that only the right type of nerd can possibly appreciate under the age of 30, and they should stop trying to push it on teens, nothing is accomplished. If the goal is to TEACH then they need to skew the material to something teens can actually LEARN from.
The fact is that they already try to focus the curriculum on something students might like. The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Animal Farm are all fairly user-friendly and very common on high school syllabi. So including a few challenging works isn’t going to hurt them. Whining that something is “toooo haaaard” is a good time to explain that something worthwhile can be difficult at first. A great artist creates their own world and you have to come to them. And you will never come up with something that everyone likes anyway. For instance, I didn’t think it was possible to dislike ‘Treasure Island’ yet a female friend of mine said she read it as a kid and thought it was a “boring boys book”. That will go the other way around for boys reading ‘Little Women’. A lot of times they will teach great writers’ weaker works because they are short (A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist). ‘The Old Man in the Sea’ isn’t weak but it’s taught because it’s short. And a good English course is also a history course - literary history. Especially if its focused on say American Lit. You probably start with Washington Irving and Poe and move forward.
But the problem is they aren’t “challenging” works they’re works that teens not of a specific nerd type just plain won’t connect with. See you did fall on the “it was hard to write it should be hard to read”, and it’s just as bogus in teaching literature as it is in the software world. They don’t necessarily all have to like it, but you should give them a chance, at least throw books at them that involve characters they have some chance of connecting to. Otherwise the books just go in one eye and out the other, nothing gets retained. Your friend that is hating The Odyssey right now will remember not one word of it by July. That’s why it’s important to try to throw things they can connect to at them, forcing them to “read” the words when you know they’re just gonna forget it all 5 minutes after the test. If the idea is for them to LEARN something then the books need to be focused to what they can learn from, if the idea is simply to have their eyes see certain collections of words (which is really what’s happening) that’s a bad goal.
Identifying with characters is a synthetic way of reading to begin with. One should identify with the author - see the work as a whole.
But either way, Catcher is taught because of the connection teens might have to it. Animal Farm because it’s short and easy to teach. In short - we already do that. One could make the case that kids will never identify with anything outside of their immediate experience and era so we shouldn’t teach anything older than 40 years or so. So no Shakespeare, no Huckleberry Finn...
But it’s how people get into books, especially young people who haven’t developed a reading habit.
We do it some, but not always. Maybe half the lit books we throw at teens are ones they can identify with. And I’ll just ignore your silly slippery slope because it’s dumb and you’re better than that.
They used to argue for a ‘Hundred Year’ rule where nothing more recent than that would get taught. Someone advocated here once. Even I think that’s too much.
Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses(games) - Juvenal, Satire X