The recent release of the first movie based on the Hunger Games trilogy has renewed attention to the wildly popular franchise from author Suzanne Collins. From a Christian perspective, one of the striking things about the film and the book series is the absence of explicit religion or references to God. As Jeffrey Weiss has observed, “The word ‘god’ does not so much as appear in any of the books. Nobody even says ‘oh my gosh.’ There’s no ritual that isn’t totally grounded in some materialistic purpose. Not a hint of serious superstition. Unless I missed it, there’s not a remotely idiomatic reference to the supernatural.”
Weiss’ analysis about the lack of religiosity is borne out by examining the Hunger Games through the lens of hope. Hope is a rich theological concept that has been the basis for deep reflection and significant experience throughout the history of the church. Thomas Aquinas identified hope as one of the three “theological” virtues, inspired by the apostle Paul’s declaration that “these three remain: faith, hope and love.” If there’s little faith in a religious sense in the Hunger Games, we might also ask if there’s any hope.
Even in a land without any conception of a deity, there is an undercurrent of hope throughout the story. The dynamic of hope and hopelessness makes its first and perhaps most significant appearance in Katniss’ recollection of her interaction with Peeta, the “boy with the bread.” Katniss, who has become responsible for providing for her family after her father’s death and her mother’s withdrawal from the world, has reached the end of her resources. Katniss wanders around scavenging for food. “I couldn’t go home,” she recalls. “Because at home was my mother with her dead eyes and my little sister, with her hollow cheeks and cracked lips. I couldn’t walk into that room with the smoky fire from the damp branches I had scavenged at the edge of the woods after the coal had run out, my hands empty of any hope.” In the world of Panem’s District 12, bread means hope. Food represents hope for freedom from hunger, if only for a little while. When Peeta sees Katniss and her suffering, he takes mercy on her. He intentionally burns some bread from his parents’ bakery and throws the bread to Katniss, who is huddled outside in the rain. As Katniss reflects, “just throwing me the bread was an enormous kindness that would have surely resulted in a beating if discovered.”
In Peeta’s act of mercy we have a concrete expression of love, which results in hope. Later on, as Katniss thinks about the meaning of this interaction with Peeta, she says, “To this day, I can never shake the connection between this boy, Peeta Mellark, and the bread that gave me hope.” She continues to another memory, reflecting on a flower, “the dandelion that reminded me that I was not doomed.”
In the film version, there’s a meaningful scene between President Snow, the oppressor in chief of the regime of elites running the Capitol, and the lead Gamemaker. Snow asks the Gamemaker why he thinks there is a winner. Snow’s answer? Hope. “It is the only thing stronger than fear,” he says. “A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.” For the elites of Panem, hope is used as a method of control.
One of the key dynamics of the Hunger Game trilogy, then, is what happens in a world where all hope seems to be lost. Through small acts of kindness hope can be sparked, and a spark can turn into a blaze, a “girl on fire.” In this way Katniss comes to embody the hope of a better world, a liberated Panem. As Julie Clawson, author of The Hunger Games and the Gospel, writes, “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.”
The only hope that the residents of Panem have is in themselves. The best they can hope for is that perhaps someone might repay a good deed with one in return. As readers of the novel or viewers of the film, we also want to find hope in whatever situation we encounter, real or fictional. We see flashes of goodness in people and the order in creation and believe that better things are possible. How does this hope persist in Panem or in our world? Why does the idea of hope resonate with us to such a great degree?
The theologian J. I. Packer draws an important distinction between what might be called secular hope, or “optimism,” and Christian hope. He writes, “Optimism is a wish without warrant; Christian hope is a certainty, guaranteed by God himself. Optimism reflects ignorance as to whether good things will ever actually come. Christian hope expresses knowledge that every day of his life, and every moment beyond it, the believer can say with truth, on the basis of God’s own commitment, that the best is yet to come.”
In this sense we might say that the “hope” contained in the Hunger Games is really a form of worldly or secular optimism. The ending of the first book, and even the trilogy, leaves the reality of a better world ambiguous. When Katniss and Peeta survive the games and return to their home, they still don’t know what will await them next, in their district or in their relationship. Their ordeal hasn’t seemed to bring about any real changes for those who live in Panem. In a world where all they have is hope in themselves, Katniss and Peeta remain uncertain and confused. Do they have any real hope for the future?
Christians, however, have reason for hope as we see God’s faithfulness on a daily basis. Even in times of trouble, because we have seen it with our own eyes so many times, we know that all things will come together for good for those who love the Lord. Our hope provides a motivating force for our daily work, whether we write or mine coal, grow grain or nurse people back to health. We are confident that whatever we do in God’s Kingdom can have eternal significance, that it might be part of the “wealth of the nations” that will be brought into the new heavens and the new earth when the Lord returns.
The Christian’s hope is not based on calculations about the effectiveness of worldly reform or of our own ingenuity, however. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, the Christian’s eternal hope in the resurrection and the new heavens and new earth orient us toward risk and responsibility in this life. “The Christian’s field of activity is the world. It is here that Christians are to become engaged, are to work and be active, here that they are to do the will of God,” he writes. “And for that reason, Christians are not resigned pessimists, but are those who while admittedly not expecting much from the world are for that very reason already joyous and cheerful in the world, for that world is the seedbed of eternity.”
Jordan J. Ballor is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty and a visiting professor of business and social ethics at Kuyper College in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Todd Steen is Granger Professor of Economics at Hope College in Holland, Mich.
Jordan J. Ballor, “Secular Scapegoats and ‘The Hunger Games’” (Acton Commentary)
Rev. Robert A. Barron, “The Hunger Games: A Prophecy?” (NRO)
Julie Clawson, “Dangerous hope in ‘The Hunger Games” (Mennonite World Review)
Jeffrey Weiss, “Starving for Religion in ‘Hunger Games’” (Real Clear Religion)
Values & Capitalism, The Hunger Games Roundup
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