The Vanity Games

If you haven’t heard of the Hunger Games (Susanne Collins, 2008, Scholastic), you soon will. The movie comes out March 23rd. It will be the most anticipated movie of the year (until the Hobbit comes out in December). Go read the trilogy, then come back, because I’m skipping the review/synopsis to get to the point (think reality TV’s “Survivor,” for kids, meets Ridley Scott’s Gladiator starring Russell Crowe, but as an emotionally tumultuous teen girl instead of a Roman general).

The Hunger Games is remarkable in many respects, and the themes will be widely discussed. There’s the warning of a dystopian post-apocalyptic North America where humanity is reduced to possible extinction, the “bread and circus” metaphor explicitly spelled out by the author in the third book, the coming-of-age during war saga, and the confusing feelings of a center-of-the-universe princess courted by two princes (why is it that the heroine of teen books is always somewhat ordinary, yet headstrong and quirky, and nevertheless earnestly desired in a non-sexual manner by every male character? Hmmm…).

The theme I find most fascinating is the theme that isn’t there…at least not on purpose. The books never mention religion. There is no faith, no religious customs, no priests, no priestesses, no pagan gods, no emperor worship, no animism, nothing. With one drug-induced exception, there is absolutely no mention of any afterlife. In contrast, the Gladiator’s General Maximus Decimus Meridius understands that “what we do in life echoes in eternity.”

It’s as if we’re seeing Suzanne Collins unwittingly accept the secularization hypothesis, that as nations modernize the societies abandon religion. After all, Panem is North America in the distant future. Probably she’s just trying to leave religion out of a children’s book, but this makes it terribly unrealistic. The premise that children offered as tribute to a tyrannical government must fight to the death is more realistic. Things like that have happened. But there has never been a secular society. Not even communist Russia or China, which were officially atheist states. Remember that China during the Cultural Revolution outlawed all religion, but ended up with weird emperor worship instead, as well as a lot of illegal religions. Like the 100 million Christians that sprang up from seemingly nowhere.

So on the one hand, there are very few atheists (perhaps 4-5% of Americans), and no possible world in which faith, religion, and afterlife are not a driving force in culture, society, and people’s lives and motivations. Which leads to my second point: Hunger Games unwittingly echoes Ecclesiastes. By creating an future North America with no religion, Suzanne Collins writes a tale of life “under the sun”—that is, life without God. Life without God becomes meaningless, and the trilogy can easily be viewed through this lens. Katniss learns near the end that her allies are no more virtuous than the dictatorship she fought to overthrow. There is no ultimate purpose to any of the suffering. Love of family is held up as the ultimate ideal and motivator, but even a cursory examination of this “bedrock assumption” finds it groundless (e.g., “family” is just an accident of time and biology, and what about adopted children? Or friends like her “cousin” Gale?). This gaping hole in the plot thus rips the rug out from under any true meaning to the struggle, and results in a hollow victory (read the Epilogue!). On the other hand, this accidental Ecclesiastes provides a great launch pad to discuss the ultimate futility of every endeavor in a world with no God.

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher,

“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”  (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2)

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