Today my wife and I viewed the film version of The Hunger Games, first in a popular trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins. The premise is quite disturbing - outlying territories of a future North American empire are forced to offer up 12-through-18-year-old children as "tributes" to fight to the death in an arena. This is continuing punishment for the territories' past rebellion. And the entire twisted affair is broadcast for the delight of the imperial society. It is the Roman gladiatorial games meets reality television, or perhaps a sick twist on The Truman Show.
My desire for the characters to survive without being corrupted by their situation drives my appreciation of this story. I recommend it, in spite of it being tough to read and watch. What makes the story most wrenching for me is that this hopeless, senseless bloodbath is perpetrated by children against children. Both in reading the book and watching the film, I felt a sense of dread as the prospect of such violence neared. I think most adults (especially parents!) feel similarly.
However "young adult" children are the target audience both of the books and the movie. I fear that the maturity of some may be lacking to understand the significance of the story. Case in point: I heard a few laughs burst from high-school-aged boys in the theater during some of the brutal killings depicted in the film.
Now do not get the impression that I am wholly opposed to the depiction of violence in the arts. I think at times it is necessary to tell a certain story, or convey a poignant message to the audience. Yet the default purpose of violence in media is entertainment, or worse: glorification.
We as a society are sensitive to violence in the media, though it can be somewhat confused. This past week I saw dueling headlines, some questioning whether The Hunger Games was too violent for its target audience, others alleging that fans may be upset because toned-down violence in the film lacks fidelity with the book.
I find no wonder that our society has these confused views on violence. After all, the same nation which celebrates Martin Luther King Jr. Day also celebrates numerous military holidays. Shocked by the concept of sending eighteen-year-olds to kill sixteen-year-olds? The same could be a characterization of our battles against the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Polite company may hem and haw at children playing violent video games or seeing depictions of war in film, but they constantly inform them of the necessity of such violence.
A fitting distillation of this contradiction is embodied in a hallway in the Portland VA Medical Center which hails the service of noteworthy underage military personnel. "Sorry son, you're too young to enlist, so just go play America's Army for now. But if you do manage to sneak in, we're going to make a star out of you." See? Confusion.
The Trayvon Martin scandal provides another opportunity to consider our nation's attitudes towards violence. I will focus here not on the case itself, but on the so-called "stand your ground" laws which came to my attention as a result. To quote the relevant portion of the pertinent Florida law:
a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if: He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony;
I am of course no legal expert, but these laws (which are on the books in twenty of these United States) seem to legalize dueling. I am only half joking about that. Deadly violence becomes the legally-justified first resort for those in conflict, and they need only claim their lives felt threatened to avoid judicial scrutiny.
I'll offer an alternative vision of "stand your ground:"
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well. And if someone wants to sue you and to take your tunic, give him your coat also. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to the one who asks you, and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you.
At a crucial point in The Hunger Games, the heroine perpetrates a crucial act of non-resistance with a fellow tribute. In so doing she defies and enrages the powers that be, which is the catalyst for the next phase of the story. We as Christians must strive to "stand our ground" and eschew violence. In this we challenge the prominence of violence in our present society and hopefully prevent the downfall into the depraved society depicted in the film.