When we go to the cinema or rent a DVD, our motives are usually fairly simplistic: we seek to be entertained, and most likely we choose a movie because we are specifically in the mood for passive entertainment which requires little or no mental effort on our part. If you are like me, though, you often find that even in the most seemingly fictional places you find a healthy dose of reality. And while you might have had only something light like popcorn in mind, you find yourself with much more substantial to chew on. Popular entertainment often, in fact almost always, revolves around theological questions. This isn’t just a coincidence. We are instinctively drawn to stories containing these themes because, by nature, the story of salvation history is the one of most interest to humanity. We turn to movies, rather than Scripture, because movies generally present these stories in ways more palatable to our twenty-first century, technologically and sensually conditioned minds. In the Bible, very few things get blown up and sex scenes are infrequent and lacking in gratuity.
The Hunger Games movies, based on the books by Suzanne Collins, are great examples of this phenomenon. The third cinematic installment “Mockingjay – Part 1” will open in the U.S. on Friday. Throughout this trilogy I found that I was confronted with, in the disguise of futuristic fantasy, a world ripe with not only real and important social ideas at work, but with specifically religious themes present throughout. The image of the Mockingjay itself, which embodies the main theme of the trilogy, has striking congruence with the Cross of Jesus, its historical circumstance, and its theological ramifications. Additionally, and in a perhaps related way, the Hunger Games trilogy contains a tremendous amount of Eucharistic symbolism for Catholic readers. In it we can not only recognize similarities or coincidences, we are also invited via this imaginary world to see a fictional yet poignant representation of how evil forces seek to breed division within a community and how the power of love overcomes this tendency through sacrificial communion. The violence and division of the “Capitol” in this story meet their opposition in the concrete acts and substance of love and communion which serve as the antidote to oppression.
In the world of the Hunger Games, the controlling group of people (residents of the “Capitol”) retain power over the rest of the population through fear, a fear which they create and sustain in a number of ways. This Capitol clearly carries some semblance of ancient Rome, made evident not only in its style of rule but also blatantly by Roman (Latin) words, names, and terminology sprinkled throughout the story. The name of the nation-state which serves as the backdrop for the Hunger Games is Panem, which is Latin for “bread” (in fact, more specifically, it is translated as “the bread” since it is in the accusative case of the noun). With this in mind, we look at the assembled population of Panem as “the bread,” making it readily symbolic of the Christian mystical body of Christ. This correlation between fictional Panem and the Church is reinforced by the fact that Panem is constituted of twelve “Districts.” The number twelve is rich in Biblical symbolism as the number of Jacob’s sons that generate the twelve tribes of Israel, which constitute the covenant community of the Old Testament. In the Gospels, Jesus calls exactly twelve Apostles to go forth to all nations to spread the good news and baptize in his name, reintegrating the covenant people of God into one body which previously had been scattered; dismembered if you will.
From the outset of the tale, as readers we can clearly see the realization developing and finally dawning on the hero Katniss that if she wants to survive the Hunger Games, both particularly in the arena event but also generally for the rest of her life and in the lives of her family members, she has to be able to reverse the violence forced upon her by the Capitol. Katniss comes to understand that the Capitol is using violence to perpetuate its own strangle hold on Panem by preventing solidarity among the districts. Charity is stamped out in a world dominated by violence because it stands in direct opposition to the workings of the violent social mechanism put into place by the authoritarian Capitol elite. A person caught in this violent machine finds no use for Charity; it is a virtue foreign and seemingly useless to their world.
For example, Katniss finds Peeta’s kindness early on in the tribute training sessions unnerving since she knows she is going to be pitted up against him in a life or death battle. As a result, Katniss wants to avoid all interaction with Peeta. This is exactly the sort of response the Capitol would have wanted, both in this particular case but more importantly for Panem society in general, because it precludes the ability of the Districts to resist oppression. Katniss reflects on the difference between her relationship with Gale, her friend and hunting partner, and Peeta, her fellow tribute. She recognizes that her relationship with Gale was based on cooperation and mutual survival, while her relationship with Peeta was dominated by rivalry and competition forced by violent oppression.
A telling point made before the games began, and perhaps before Katniss had become conscious of the antidote for the violence of the Capitol, was when their handlers suggested that she and Peeta hold hands during the opening ceremonies. This act of hand holding was aptly described as “a touch of rebellion.” As the story continues, Katniss begins to recognize the rebellious potential of acts of kindness and solidarity. For example, she wonders if one of her and Rue’s conversation about life in the districts will be blocked out on TV because the Capitol does not want districts to know about one another. The Capitol knows that keeping people isolated makes them more fearful; more vulnerable. Solidarity and community consciousness brings confidence and purpose.
In a true Eucharistic community, we must identify with those who have been marginalized and those who are oppressed, standing in solidarity with them in resistance to the evils of the world. It is this type of community that the Capitol does not want the districts to enter into in the Hunger Games, and one that Katniss and others seem to desire and appear to be moving towards throughout the story. For example, Katniss recognizes the need for real solidarity and the shared guilt of violence by those who fail to stand in resistance to it when she recognizes a servant girl at the Capitol who had been abducted by Capitol agents in District 12 after Katniss failed to help her. Katniss recounts her sense of guilt for standing by. This girl, who was apparently targeted and punished as a subversive, was made into what was known as an avox (another Latin term, literally meaning “without voice”) by having her tongue cut out. This is a perfect example of what a violent and oppressive society such as the Capitol desires: silence. Those who are silent cannot bear witness against their oppressors. It is also a lesson for those who, though they are physically able, fail to bear witness and fail to be the voice for those marginalized and powerless ones who have no voice in society.
At one point during the games, Katniss received a gift of bread from District 11 which had been originally destined for her fellow competitor from that district, Rue, but was transferred to her after Rue’s death. This was the first time in the history of the Hunger Games that a gift had been made between districts. This was a sign that the violent hold the Capitol had over the districts was weakening and that their fear was beginning to give way to hope and love. Later in the story, when Katniss unexpectedly came upon two women in the woods who had fled from another district, one of them held “a small white circle of flat bread” that bore the image of the mockingjay in the center. Surprised by this sign, Katniss asked “What does that mean?” The woman responded, “It means we’re on your side.”
Circle of bread … image in the center … friendship … community … common mission … peace … resistance … anybody thinking about the Eucharist? Similarly, in the ceremony preceding the quarter quell the victors hold hands on stage, and we are told that it was the “first public show of unity among the districts since the Dark Days.” Later, during the quarter quell games, Finnick, though seeming to have a momentary interior struggle with selfishness, shares his District 4 gift of bread with Peeta and Katniss. This sharing of bread was a reaffirmation of his commitment to solidarity and cooperation.
Before the revolution had begun in earnest, Katniss had a conversation with a seemingly skeptical Haymich about the feasibility of a rebellion against the Capitol. It turns out later that Haymich was being purposefully deceptive, but at this point he gives Katniss the impression that a revolution in District 12 would be impossible, even though the rebels had reportedly had some success in other districts. “Do you still think it won’t work here?” Katniss asks Haymich. “Not yet. Those other districts, they’re much larger. Even if half the people cower in their homes, the rebels stand a chance. Here in Twelve, it’s got to be all of us or nothing.” In our Eucharistic community, we are inter-dependent. We are all called to lay our gifts down as offerings to Christ at the service of our neighbor. The resources of the devil are plentiful. Satan’s minions are well supplied with willing participants and advocates. It is going to take all of us if we want to enact change in our culture.
Our Lord invites us to find our safety and security in him by accepting membership in his Body through Holy Communion. When we celebrate the Eucharist we celebrate the Risen Victim—the one who was persecuted by man but was obedient to God until death and who was raised from death by the God who is love. The Eucharist proves once and for all that love conquers death every time. With this in mind, we can see how these ideas can be found in the Hunger Games. Katniss and Peeta survive because of love. Their love ruins the plan of the Capitol and ends up destroying the power the Capitol had over its citizens. The Capitol is the kingdom of Satan, which is overthrown by Passion, death, and Resurrection of Jesus. Through Katniss the people of Panem began to overcome their fear, form community, and break out of the system of coercion and oppression that had ruled over them. This is what Christ does for us through his Body: the Church and the Eucharist.