A Fist Full of Berries: Nobody Reads in Panem?

The Hunger Games movie is coming out on DVD tomorrow.  I remember first hearing about the book.  I’m like, “neat teens book idea.  A little violent sounding.”

The idea sounded silly.  Then I saw the movie.  Then read the book.  Then the others.

On the surface, the idea seems very profane.  Kids killing each other.  For entertainment.  What has society come to?  But if you read these books what you soon realize is that the book is using such a profane thing to ask questions about what entertains us, and what we are willing to embrace and accept, what we are passionate about changing and what lengths we will go to to make that happen, and what the consequences are of those lengths.  And if you think that was a run-on sentence, then you see how oppression and violence can likewise run on and on and on, if we don’t do something to stop it.


This place Panem isn’t that realistic to us.  That would never happen in America.  We have all the ingredients, just not in the same bag.  We have reality TV, football, shallow talk shows, numerous wars, inaccurate reporting, excessive gluttony, tampering with nature, murdering of children by both private organizations and government operants.  Our pentagon calls refugees “ambient noncombat personnel”, enemy troops who survive bombing attacks “interdictional nonsubbombers”, and enemy troops who don’t survive bombing attacks “decommissioned aggressor quantum.”

We just don’t have the Hunger Games.  What good dystopian fiction does isn’t say “what could go wrong later?”  Good dystopian fiction asks, “what is wrong now and what would it look like if we made it even worse”?  Dys fic. is really good when it says, “what is wrong now that we don’t care for but would realize if it was exaggerated and placed at a distance from us?”

So Collins wants to shock us with such a future that we will ask ourselves about the now.  I want to point you to Marty Troyer’s review of the books, from which I will draw discussion.

“A Pacifist View of the Hunger Games” by Marty Troyer

“She doesn’t tell you she’s indicting violence, she invites you to feel the indictment.”  You have to read these books with your thinking cap.  Otherwise you will just end up reading it as another entertaining justification of violence to solve the problem of violence, as if to say, “the good guys need to take up guns against the bad guys with guns.”  Because we know what the effects of violence are on the soul, we comfort ourselves with distance.  If we just watch the violence, we only fool ourselves into thinking it has not damaged our soul.

As Troyer explains, the violence of oppression only goes on so long before revolutionary violence responds to it.  Picture the police force against the howling mob of molotov cocktails.  The mob didn’t come from nowhere just to see if they could take over. The establishment has done wrong, creating the mob, and the reckless mob responds with the only thing it knows works as a form of control: violent aggression.  The cycle perpetuates itself.

Is resistant violence affective?  It certainly is.  It changes things.  But then Collins, being an author, knows that the pen is mightier than the sword.  And a symbol is more powerful than a bomb.  It chatches fire and cannot be put out.  Powerful revolutions have symbols, but the mistake is often made that the symbol is not powerful enough for change, but that the power of violence must be applied.  But in an oppressive society, violence is only used when symbols don’t work, when fear and propaganda don’t work.  If a purer symbol is stronger, it will catch fire without gunpowder.  Silence is a bold dissent, a crowd refusing to clap for a shameful event.  And kindness, like Jesus taught, is more dangerous than unkindness.  Like coals of fire.

[spoiler warning]

Troyer highlights three uses of symbol that require no violence on Katniss’ part.
1. Defying the spirit of the merciless games by decorating Rue’s body with flowers.  The message: This girl did not die a warrior for your pleasure, but a martyr to your shame.  I make you accountable for your crimes.  The body is the testimony.
2. Pretending a double suicide.  The message: We hate your rules, so we’re changing them for you.
3. Giving the district twelve salute to other districts.  Message: Let’s stop killing each other and unite against evil for once.
4. The effigy of Seneca Crane.  The Message: You fools are part of a system that will kill you too if it has to.
5. The Mockingjay.  The Message: You fools tried to control us but you made a freak that works against you and mocks you.

When I read of these and other symbolic acts, I was stirred more than I have been at most every act of revolutionary violence I’ve ever read of or seen reenacted.  It’s the kind of like the stir you get when you see Martin Luther King speak, Ghandi march to the ocean, the flower girl at Arlington, the Tianamen Square “tank man”, the West Nickel Mines Amish community, the Judaeans against Jupiter’s eagle, Stephen, Paul, John, Jesus.  Yeah, maybe I’m wrong.  Nonviolent resistance accomplishes nothing.  Oh, it may lead to the independence of India, the passing of civil rights laws, the removal of imposed religious idols, the open door of salvation to all mankind, and the spread of the kingdom in which it lives.

And of course there is the fiery dress.  And all this creativity takes true power, not aggression.  Says Troyer, “symbol creates and spreads energy, whereas violence subdues it.”  It is Katniss’s way of saying, “You don’t own me, and I shame you in front of everyone for thinking that you do.  Their belief in me will catch fire.”

Violence also subdues the human spirit.  In most movies people kill and the bad guy explodes and the audience claps and the hero just walks off into the sunset because the bad guy is dead.  But Collins’ characters suffer real PTSD, like real soldiers suffer when they return home.  In spirit, every soldier is a casualty in some form.

Troyer gives a quote about Gene Sharp, professor of political science at Dartmouth: “He asserts that violence, even in the service of a just cause, often results in more problems than it solves, leading in turn to greater injustice and suffering; hence, the best way to oppose an unjust regime is through nonviolent action.”

Consider the founding of America.  The colonies of England rise up for independence, then go and take independence away from the tribal nations to the West of them.  What did Che do?  He tainted his cause for a united, prosperous, independent, egalitarian South America by supporting an oppressive communist regime.  And now his powerful symbol is mistakenly used by every armchair revolutionist in America who buys a shirt with his face on it.

And so we get to that final symbolic act, the kill that surprises a nation.  Katniss makes the mistake of killing someone to make a statement, but her statement lasts as a symbol nonetheless.  She says no to the cycle of violence by rejecting the very violent regime she thought was on her side.  She says no to the “eye-for-an-eye” justice of forcing the regime’s children to undergo the games.  She did more than anyone ever did to reject the old system, and she rejects the new for the same reasons.

I doubt the movies will send us the same message.  I’m sure the same twists will remain intact.  When Carrie and I saw the first movie I was glad that nobody cheered any of the deaths.  They weren’t meant to be cheered over, not a single one.  These are children being forced to kill children.  Yes, some of them volunteer, but we must remember that they were conditioned by a culture that tells them this is all acceptable.  Their deaths would still be something to mourn over.

In the last hundred years, according to one article, “major nonviolent resistance campaigns seeking to overthrow dictatorships, throw out foreign occupations, or achieve self-determination were more than twice as successful as violent insurgencies seeking the same goals.”  The Arab Spring isn’t the only example, just the only one most have heard of.  The past decade alone gives us examples like Serbia (2000), Madagascar (2002), Ukraine (2004), Lebanon (2005), and Nepal (2006) succeeded in ousting regimes from power.  In America we just don’t believe in such a thing.  It’s no wonder.  We were pretty much the only Western country that had to go to war to end slavery.

Will the other movies come to these same conclusions, or will the filmmakers merely be focused on a distracting love triangle and the number of ways CGI can make children dying “look totally awesome”?

It’s easy to pick up a gun and shoot the source of your woes.  Well it’s not easy, but when you’re motivated, it looks easy.  But what I’ve been learning for a long time is how much more satisfying the right symbolic statement is.

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