Will I be at the midnight showing of The Hunger Games this Thursday? I hope so! Back in 2009, Mockingjay- er, Mockingbird- contributor JDK wrote a fantastic piece on George Orwell and Law/Gospel, noting an important link between dystopian literature and life after the fall. The genre has proven to be a fairly bankable one in Hollywood (from Total Recall and The Matrix to I Am Legend and The Walking Dead and everywhere in between), a trend which shows no sign of slowing anytime soon. Indeed, the latest high-profile dystopian fantasy to hit the silver screen is the most hyped movie of the year thus far. I am talking, of course, about The Hunger Games, the adaptation of the first book in Suzanne Collins’ young adult trilogy, and heir to Twilight/Harry Potter teen sensation throne. With the first book devoured in one sleepless night, and parts two and three on order from Amazon, I thought it might be timely to revisit the dystopia genre in relation to the gospel.
At their best, post-apocalyptic stories pack a one-two punch. First, they tell the story of a dehumanized, terrifying (if fascinating) future. Whether it’s the oppressive government of 1984 or the book burners of Fahrenheit 451, or even the soma-addicted society of A Brave New World, the genre gives you that same sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach that you get during the climax of a good horror movie–only it lasts from beginning to end. Second, a good dystopia pulls the rug out from under you with its social commentary, using the worst-case projections to shed light on present problems. Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, for example, critiques the inane instant gratification of lowest-common-denominator commercial media by depicting an absurdly dumbed-down America of the future. The 1927 silent film Metropolis doubles as a pointed critique of exploited workers. The list goes on.
One of the most frustrating elements of a good dystopia is that those in the midst of it cannot see it for themselves as such. To borrow JDK’s language: “‘Like OT prophets, these works—from the ridiculous (Zardoz) to the sublime (Brave New World)—latch onto a particular area of contemporary unease or unrest and project it into the future with ominous foreboding: ‘If you don’t take a look at yourself and change XYZ,’ says the prophet, ‘then look out: innocence will be forever lost, love will die, beauty will be destroyed, the machines will take over and the world will explode’.” The prophet Nathan certainly springs to mind, telling his dystopian parable of a rich man stealing his poor neighbor’s sheep to King David, concluding “You Are the Man!”
Enter The Hunger Games. An oppressive government uses humiliation to control a formerly rebellious people by annually demanding a handful of teen “tributes” for a televised fight to the death. Yes, for all Japan-o-philes, it does steal heavily from the premise of the 2000 movie Battle Royale. But where Battle Royale reveled in gratuitous teenage violence, The Hunger Games is a well timed dystopian fantasy about dehumanizing potential of the consumerist media, the ability of power to corrupt, the unequal distribution of income, not to mention the effects of war on all levels of society. Again, like Nathan the Prophet, The Hunger Games points to a contemporary American audience and proclaims: “You Are the Man!”
What marks The Hunger Games as teen lit, of course, is the obligatory love triangle. As heroine Katniss Everdeen’s descends into the violence (and frequent makeovers) of the Games, she is torn between two suitors, Peeta and Gale. Love in the midst of survival, in fact, is a major theme of this first book. How can one find love, whether that love is romantic, familial, fraternal, or even simple trust, in a world seemingly devoid of compassion or sympathy? Perhaps the same theme can be applied to Genesis 4, where outside of Eden, human life takes its first post-Fall steps. You likely know the story: Cain kills Abel, God curses Cain, and existence is soon filled with pain, despair, and suffering. Cain’s descendants attempt to make lives outside the garden–some as metallurgists, some as musicians, others as nomads. However, the familial memory of Eden is still in the forefront of their minds, as well as those of the readers of Genesis. Where is love in the midst of the dystopia of Genesis 4?
Where is love in the midst of our own personal dystopias? As I suggested before, the most frustrating part of many dystopian stories is that most of the characters refuse to acknowledge that they are indeed living in a dystopia. How can love possibly work in a fallen world? Whether the dysfunction(!) takes a primarily internal form, such as addiction or compulsion or powerlessness, or a primarily external one, such as crime, tragedy or exclusion, it isn’t a stretch to suggest that the world could benefit from, like Neo, “taking the red pill” and seeing the world as it is.
In the case of Genesis 4, the answer comes in John 3:16, where God saves the world in loving self-sacrifice, sans condemnation. How Collins resolves the same question is something I can’t wait to find out. Sure, I’m secretly hoping Katniss ends up with Peeta over Gale, but I’m more interested in seeing how self-sacrifice and love continue to play out thematically in the rest of the trilogy. After all [slight spoiler alert], it is self-sacrifice and love that keeps Katniss alive during her first games, both the giving and receiving of it. But revolution is brewing in Panem, and until the next two books come in the mail, I’ll just have to wait and see.