This past week I took my kids to see the second movie in the Hunger Games trilogy, Catching Fire. While it is a violent series, I cannot think of a better movie or book series to open the door to moral and political discussions
with our teen and preteen kids.
For those unfamiliar with the Hunger Games, it is the story of a gladiatorial competition in a futuristic totalitarian regime, which requires each of 12 isolated districts to select a teenage boy and girl by lottery to fight to the death until only one “victor” survives. The story centers on the heroine, Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers for the Hunger Games to save her younger sister, Prim, when her name is drawn. At the start of the Games, the evil President Snow tells the people that the games are a reminder of the futility and immorality of “resisting the Capital.” The first two movies of the series are very true to the books. They introduce concepts of justifiable (self defense and defense of others) and unjustifiable homicide and war. They unlock thoughts on the kinds of totalitarian regimes which would perpetrate such horrific crimes against their people. As the story unfolds, symbols of freedom and unity emerge from acts of love and compassion in the face of evil, just as they do in real life.
Unlike so many movies in which the characters engage in gratuitous violence strictly for entertainment’s sake, the Hunger Games series does not. This may sound like an odd statement given the gargantuan levels of gladiatorial
combat Katniss engages in. But in her struggle to survive her first and supposedly only round in the Hunger Games, Katniss makes moral decisions which raise her above the games and elevate her to a popular symbol of defiance to
Katniss’s first moral action is one of sacrifice when she volunteers for her younger sister. In the games she befriends Rue, a young teen from another district who reminds her of Prim. They help protect each other from the professional gladiators from other districts until Rue is killed by one of the “pros.” Katniss also forms alliance with Peeta, the boy from her district who is in love with her, and they follow the same pattern of defending each other from the “pros.”
Throughout the Games, every act of violence Katniss engages in is in self defense or in defense of others. In their final act of defiance, Peeta and Katniss vow to take poison berries and sacrifice themselves for each other, rather than allowing the other to be killed so that only one of them survives.
Many of the symbols of resistance rise from these actions in the Hunger Games and come to fruition in Catching Fire. Before she departs for the Capital for the first games, Prim gives Katniss a small pin bearing a mocking jay. (The mocking jay is a genetically modified bird which the regime created to spy on the rebels during the previous revolution. It is able to remember and mimic long conversations, but the rebels quickly learned to fill the mocking
jays heads with conversations full of false information.) The mocking jay pin, along with Katniss’s hair style, becomes a popular icon. Then there is the tune Rue whistles and sends through the mocking jays in the arena as a signal to
Katniss. It becomes a musical symbol of resistance. Finally, there is the simple blowing of a kiss with a three fingered gesture Katniss makes as she bids farewell to Rue’s body as it is lifted from the arena. This small expression of love, becomes an act of defiance so challenging to the regime that it earns people immediate executions for its display. In Catching Fire, Katniss becomes the human embodiment of all these symbols and they serve to unite the peoples of the various districts in resistance to the Capital.
There are many true to life correlations in these movies. In Catching Fire, the character Cinna, Katniss’s wardrobe designer, earns a terrible fate for a dress that turns Katniss into the Mocking Jay. A similar thing happened in East
Berlin in the late 1960s. The divided city of Berlin became a symbol and show case of the capitalist system of the west and the communism imposed by the Soviet Union. In the years immediately following the destruction of the city in
World War II, the US, British, and French controlled sectors of West Berlin quickly rebuilt and became a show case for a modern and vibrant European city with brightly lit thoroughfares and skyscrapers. Soviet controlled East Berlin, on the other hand, remained pockmarked and skeletal with the exception of a few city blocks near the Brandenburg gate. Things were so bad, the Soviets had to build a wall around the western sector to keep all the people from leaving East Germany. In the 1960’s, in an attempt to build a modern symbol to serve as a propaganda counter weight for the overwhelming economic success of capitalism contrasted to the dismal misery of communism, the communist leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht ordered the construction of a television tower that would be the tallest structure in Germany. The story circulating in the diplomatic community in Bonn in 1982 was that the designer had only agreed to build it if he could put a cross on top of the nearly 1200 foot tower. The communists agreed to allow a half meter (18 in) cross on top. After some reluctance, the designer agreed and the tower was constructed. However, when the sun reflected off the mirrored ball in the middle of tower, it produced a very prominent cross that could be seen for miles. The story concluded with designer getting seven years in prison.
Defiance in the face of tyranny can take many forms.
Photo from flicker: http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=Fernsehturm+Tower&Form=IQFRDR#a
A simple musical tune can also have great impact. Dr John Lenczowoski, who served as the Soviet and East European Desk Chair in the Reagan Administration and was one of the architects who helped bring about the dissolution of the Soviet Union, led the effort to upgrade the crumbling infrastructure of Radio Free Europe and Voice of America broadcasting into the former Warsaw Pact countries in the early 1980s. He tells of the power of a single song for people who feel isolated and alone under the weight of political oppression. A Polish gentleman once recounted to him how he boarded a bus in the early 80’s while whistling a tune. He was not thinking much about the tune itself, nor what was going on around him. He paused in a brief moment of terror as other people around him on the bus began whistling the tune also. The tune could only be heard on Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. It was forbidden from broadcasts on Soviet approved radio and he feared that he had exposed himself to arrest for anti-Soviet activities. But as the whistling spread throughout the bus, he realized that the other passengers were of a similar
mindset and that he was not alone. In that moment, hope caught fire for a group of strangers riding a bus.
Then there are the real life acts of defiance in the face of violence. Some are successful. Such as when the young Bishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla faced down the water cannons, truncheons, and guns of the secret police as he began a tradition of holding an outdoor Midnight Mass in the “communist paradise” of Nowa Huta in 1959. He later succeeded in having a church built for the parishioners. He essentially became Poland’s version of the Mocking Jay when he was elected Pope and took the name John Paul II. His rise to the Papacy stood in direct defiance to the attempts of the Soviet regime to exercise domination over the Church and the peoples of Eastern Europe and was a major factor in the end of Soviet rule.
Other acts of defiance fail, leaving only images of their hope and bravery. Such was the fate of the Chinese students crushed by the tanks of the Peoples Liberation Army in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
True bravery in the face of oppression: A young man armed only with a brief case in Tiananmen Square attempts to block tanks from crushing the student protests in 1989. Several protesters were ground into the pavement under the treads of the tanks, manywere shot, and many thousands were sent to the laojiao (Chinese concentration camp system) for “re-education.” Photo from:http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=tiananmen+square+protests&id=C052BF633C1B522E06E390E95266D50CD69FC9E4&FORM=IQFRBA#view=detail&id=BFD9254EA7E318ED3126E949FD4FB923F75595B2&selectedIndex=1
The great thing about the Hunger Games series is the correlation the moral issues and symbols from this science fiction story have to real life issues in the study of history and current events from the Roman Empire to modern day totalitarian regimes. The series provides a means to introduce the real meaning of political and moral principles to teens and preteens as they start to become politically aware. It is a teaching tool to make them aware of the levels of anti-capitalist, anti-Christian, and anti-family symbolism which they are bombarded with everyday. It provides the perfect vehicle to help your young teen understand the very real existence of evil regimes in which families are property of the government and governments use children to punish and threaten the parents. It opens them to viewing and understanding documentaries like Access to Evil about North Korea.
The Hunger Games series provides a great inroad to getting our children to think about the Source of human and individual rights, and to determine when support for or resistance to government authority is justified. It can be used to lead them to a meaningful and thoughtful reading of our nation’s founding documents and a truer understanding of what freedom really means. Perhaps in a generation of students inundated with political correctness from kindergarten through their current grade, a new spirit of Liberty will start catching fire.