Dangerous Hope in The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games is a story about hope. What begins as a hope to merely survive turns into hope that a better world is possible.
In the face of starvation, oppressive government, economic inequalities, the people of Panem have very little hope. And the ruling Capitol knows that. As the Capitol reaps children from the districts as tribute for its sick and twisted spectacle of the Hunger Games, it dangles the smallest thread of hope in front of those who have no choice but to go along with the Capitol’s mandates. For even as twenty-four young people are sent into an arena to fight to the death, the Capitol offers the hope of a life of luxury for the victor. All that person has to do is play the Capitol’s game, slaughter the other contestants, and give the watching world a good show and he or she can grasp that better world he always dreamed of.
So I loved this scene with President Snow and Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane that was added to the film version of The Hunger Games –
“Hope… it is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine – as long as it’s contained.”
A little hope can keep people in line. Offer people rewards in heaven someday after they die as long as they are good submissive people now and you keep them subdued. Promise people a secure society as long as we write them a blank check to invade other countries and torture people and you can do whatever you want. Encourage people with, “may the odds be ever in your favor,” and some will actually train for the chance to win the Games.
The Capitol knows how the play the Games. It is a festival in the Capitol and something to be endured in the districts – a perfect balance of entertainment and dread that ensures nothing will ever change. One of the most disturbing images in the film was not of the Games themselves, but of a child in the Capitol opening a gift of a toy sword from his father and then using it to play-act at slaughtering his sister as if he were in the Hunger Games. When death is celebrated to the extent that it is truly child’s play or it is something that must be endured for the chance of survival and freedom – the people are effectively contained.
And we wonder why Jesus made Rome so uneasy that they publically executed him as a warning to others. He offered people real hope. Not just the hope of a happier future someday in heaven, or the empty hope of violent rebellion – but a completely different way of living where no one went hungry, the oppressed were set free, and the marginalized welcomed. His followers were accused of turning the world upside-down and they sparked riots for how they disrupted unjust economic systems. Instead of encouraging the poor that if they too exploited others they could be rich someday, Jesus called the rich to end their practices that took advantage of others. His wasn’t a hope that ensured the status quo never changed; he offered dangerous hope, a spark that kindled into a movement that truly did turn the world upside-down.
This scene with President Snow in The Hunger Games of course sets up the story for the next two movies. The girl on fire becomes the spark that sets the world aflame – plunging Panem into violent rebellion. It is a hope in a better world that cannot be contained. Yet ultimately, as Katniss discovers, it is not the fires of rage but the hope of love that is most needed. The violence only continues the Capitols’ Games, with the districts play-acting like that child with the sword. But just like the Capitol citizens who were so brilliantly portrayed in the film as brightly colored and made-up facades – devoid of any substance or character at all – the violence too proves to be an empty hope.
Winning the games costs everything you are as Peeta later confesses to the people of Panem. It is not worth gaining the world and losing your soul. There is no hope in that. Where hope is found in The Hunger Games is in the image of the dandelion in the spring – the image of rebirth that sustains life. The dandelion is the symbol that one need not trust the Capitol for one’s daily bread, that self-sacrificial love is better than revenge, and that goodness survives even destruction. This is dangerous hope that declares freedom from being a piece in the Games. This is the sort of hope that got Jesus crucified. This is hope that cannot be contained.
For more about how The Hunger Games can help us understand Jesus' message of hope, see my book The Hunger Games and the Gospel: Bread, Circuses, and the Kingdom of God.