The Hunger Games: Lessons and Directions for Our Self and Society

This past weekend, we saw movie The Hunger Games, which is now setting box office records. Though I haven't read the books, the film raised some interesting themes worth considering. The Hunger Games depicts a post-apocalyptic dystopian society, though exactly what transpired--apparently decades ago--is never explained. What we do learn is that there were 12 or 13 districts that once rebelled against the central government. In the wake of the rebellion, the government ruthlessly suppressed the populace and continues to do so by selecting one boy and girl from each district every year. The children are forced to fight to the death--only one survivor/victor allowed--while the whole thing is televised for entertainment.

While I don't know what themes the books concentrate on, I see the film as a moderately well-done warning to us all. What really stands out is the almost complete lack of compassion found anywhere in the pos-apocalyptic world of The Hunger Games. It's a world where only power and wealth matter and acquiring these things is the only important goal worth achieving. Those who don't have these things--apparently the majority of society--are relegated to grueling, subsistence level lives, filled with suffering and hardship. The poor and dominated are little more than human robots, their sole purpose is to do the grunt work necessarily for the posh lifestyles of the elite, all while be comfortably out of sight and mind. Except, that is, once a year, when two children from each of the 12 de facto slave districts are trotted in front of national television to kill each other in order to entrain the elites and humiliate the dominated.

It's a society where human suffering is entertainment (a not-at-all veiled statement about our own infatuation with reality TV and the more voyeuristic forms of "journalism" that have become prevalent). It's also a society where the only acceptable attitude that the elites have toward the workers is contempt and pity, despite the fact that the elites need these people in order to sustain their own lavish lifestyles. Yet, it never occurs to most of the elites to respect the have-nots, or even to treat them as human beings.

Just as horribly, the way that the ruling class has set up the rules for The Hunger Games--a fight to the death, only one can "win"--the poor participants themselves are manipulated into also repressing any feelings of compassion. In a game of kill or be killed, it's difficult to summon much compassion for your fellow human--even though neither you nor they have chosen to be put in this situation.

This is a society where everyone is taught to compete, be suspicious of, and even hate everyone else.

Throughout the film, however, we seem glimmers of the antidote to this society: "unnecessary" acts of compassion. Peeta helps Katniss. Katniss helps Rue, then Peeta. Cinna and Haymitch go above and beyond the bare minimum to help Katniss and Peeta. Even one of the elites running the games, Seneca Crane, essentially helps out Katniss and Peeta at one point--though of course he is murdered for doing so.

The point is that whenever something good or hopeful happens in this society, it's because someone chose to feel and act compassionately. They acknowledged their essential human connection towards one another and allowed this to guide their actions, no matter the consequences. Yet, most of the time, the consequences for compassion are positive. And even in those rare cases in which it doesn't work out externally, the person who behaved compassionately has still restored their internal righteousness and true humanity.

Compassion is the bedrock upon which a healthy society must build. No amount of external wealth, political systems, or even technology can act as substitutes. In fact, it's worth noting that the society of The Hunger Games is actually very technologically advanced--far beyond us--yet due to a lack of compassion, that technology is employed only in ways that benefit a small group of urban elites and not the outlying masses. Given how technologically obsessed our society has become, it's important to remember that at the end of the day, these are just tools. Their mere existence guarantees nothing. It's only how we choose to understand and use these tools that makes a positive or negative difference in people's lives.

Ultimately, then, The Hunger Games is a clear argument that a fair, just, and beautiful society starts inside ourselves, in our own hearts and minds. We must located and develop that latent capacity for compassionate feeling towards others and surrender hatred, jealousy, name-calling, and the tendency to de-humanize and mock those we fear or don't understand. Hatred, polarization, and domination--no matter how "right" we think we are in our viewpoints--are the surest possible route to creating a dystopian society that destroys the souls of everyone involved--whether they be the vanquished have-nots or the seemingly elite, "enjoying" every possible advantage.

As a certain well-known spiritual revolutionary of his day once declared, "For what shall it profit a person, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"