Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Female atonement images: Hunger games film review

Each month I publish a film review, for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Here is my most recent.

The Hunger Games
“The Hunger Games” is a deeply disturbing movie. The camera opens on a bleak future, a life of subsistent, subservience in slavery to a wealthy Empire. Annually, as some sort of depraved atonement ritual, 24 children are chosen by random ballot, to fight for life in a televised death match. Roman Gladiatorial style human-tertainment is repulsive enough applied to adults, but to conceive of it for children takes a particular chilling imagination.

The film is based on a teenage novel written by American television Suzanne Collins. The transition from page to screen suffers from the common problem, of how to express in a visual medium complex written internal monologue. The result is a beginning too long, followed by a middle too short, shorn of the internal dialogue that makes intriguing the heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). Some redemption is provided, in an ending twisted enough to ensure suspense despite the seemingly inevitable Hollywood style good girl wins.

Technically, the film gains four stars. Well directed by Gary Ross, the acting is tight, the musical score fitting, the scenes a dramatic contrast of high-tech beauty, subsistence squalor and bush-leaved prison.

Conceptually, the dimensions of reality TV ensure this sci-fi future feels uncomfortably close to home, while the giving of gifts by a watching TV audience evokes complex levels of participation in us, the watching film audience.

So what sort of role model is Katniss Everdeen? First, she is a woman. In a film industry dominated by the macho and male, it is pleasing to watch a quick-witted woman emerge a star. Second, Katniss embodies care and character, a willingness unto “death-do-us-part,” to seek another world of possibility.

So what sort of mirror is the film for a watching church? It should certainly provoke discussion around how to understand that central Christian symbol, the cross.

“The Hunger Games” is built on substitution, the willingness for some to die for the peace of all. On screen it beggars belief. What sort of society would sacrifice an innocent few for the sake of many? On screen we are faced with the moral repugnancy that is substitutionary atonement.

Is innocent death really the best, the only way, that God could conceive to deal with human rebellion? Thankfully, even the quickest flick through history is a reminder that substitution is only one of a number of understandings of the cross held through by the church. (Others include Anselm’s satisfaction, Gustaf Aulen’s Christ the Victor and Abelard’s moral theory of atonement).

Intriguingly, the actions of Katniss provide further ways to frame atonement. In a scene of tender drama, Katniss loving lays white flowers on the chest of Rue, one of her dying Hunger Games competitors. Unknown to Katniss, her care for another, an enemy made friend, sparks a riot among the watching. Love liberates, releases a repressed communal desire for freedom.

This surely is the possibility buried in Easter. Love liberates, questions the values, attitudes, paradigms that shape one’s world. In the willingness, even unto death, to live differently, we find another world of possibility.

(For other cinematic reflections on female atonement images, see Kathy in Never let me go and Sue Lor in Gran Torino.)

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Director of Missiology, Uniting College, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of mission and popular culture, including regularly at

Posted by steve at 11:54 PM

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