Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Hunger Games and secular religion

Like everyone else in the country who hadn't already, I've just finished reading The Hunger Games. If you haven't read it, you should probably skip this post, because there will be spoilers. Also, I'm going to assume that you've read the book, because I'm still reacting to it myself and don't have the capacity to explain plot points right now.

The Hunger Games isn't presented as an element of religion, but in many ways it is. There is ceremony, and ritual. There are people with supreme power who make the rules, and people who need to follow them. The children sent to fight are called "tributes." There is the randomness of fate, and the communal element of watching something as a nation. The reaction to the games is presented as binary in the book: those in the Capitol love it, and see no humanity in the competitors (except for a few residents whom we get to know a bit better.) Those in the Districts see it for what it is: a hopeless bloodbath set up to keep them in their places.

But of course, that reaction is unlikely. Many in the Capitol would dislike the games and do small things to disrupt them: it's one motivation for being a sponsor, and it is clearly Cinna's motivation in asking for District 12 and everything he does for Katniss from then on. Anyone with a fair dose of brains and compassion would find enjoyment of the Games difficult; even if one had never met anyone from the Districts and thought of them as less than fully human, the barbarism of the Games must be clear.

Conversely, there would be those in the Districts who enjoyed the Games. Clearly not the families of the Tributes, but others. Some of these others would be people who were somehow unaffected by the games: single adults who couldn't themselves be called, who had never been called and who perhaps disliked all of the people their age who had been called. But there would also be some in the Districts who believed themselves superior. It can't be helped--it's human nature. And some people would develop superstitions and rituals to keep themselves safe. There would be some kind of underground religion (a pity that Collins didn't think of this, as it would add a wonderful layer to the world of the book) that people followed, believing that it protected them and their loved ones from the Games. This would be more like Christianity than the secular "religion" of the Games, and would rely on a deity and a complex system of sin and reward that would account for the randomness of the system the Capitol has put into place. As a result of that, these people would believe that those in the Games had sinned somehow, and this belief would free them to see the Games in the same way that those in the Capitol do--as a sport to watch and gamble over.

In all of this, though, there are positive elements of secular religion to be found in The Hunger Games. Katniss is comforted throughout the book by her familiarity with the rituals of the Games. She knows what to expect, and she understands and anticipates the audience reaction to every moment of the process.  She is pleased to speak to Flickerman because he is the friendly face of the Games, and she again knows what to expect from him. Every item she encounters in the arena has a special significance, from the birds to the food to the horrible creatures sent to kill her. Each thing sets off an emotion in Katniss in a special way that only really good symbols and rituals can.

So what can we take from this? Surely there is nothing to emulate in Panem. Setting the residents against one another is the worst kind of politics, and there is no glimmer of human dignity in the Games or the Capitol. But what if those elements--the songs, the rituals, the food, the symbols--could be used to harness the power of people and advance the cause of dignity around the world? What then? Is it even possible? And how would we begin?

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