Hunger Games and Humanism

An independent, unsuspecting individual with a tragic past is torn from their home and thrown into a harsh, alien environment.  The individual is taken captive and forced to adapt and submit to the whims of a bizarre race that finds amusement in bloodshed. This person must use their wits and fighting ability to survive in this fierce arena and protect the ones that they love.

Thus goes the story of A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  The summary also fits plot of The Hunger Games, a little-known piece of fiction by Suzanne Collins that you might have seen in a bookstore–or in a commercial–or in an MTV music video–or via one of many online ads or websites featuring the latest news on the upcoming movie.  It appears that people are just slightly pumped up about this book and movie right now.

A Princess of Mars and The Hunger Games have key elements in common. Both feature copious amounts of action and violence.  Both feature main characters who are placed in uncivilized, hostile situations surrounded by bloodthirsty opponents.  Both books, while decently written, could not be considered high literary endeavors.  Both books are strongly humanistic, and do not even deign to imagine the existence of a Creator.

So what does a scrawny teenager from postwar Appalachia got that a buff captain from postwar Virginia doesn’t?

(Besides a much better movie adaptation and better marketing).

It comes down to the amount of water in the glass.

John Carter’s glass is over half-full, where as Katniss Everdeen’s glass is definitely running on empty.

A Princess of Mars is the result of early 20th century optimism.  John Carter displays a strong sense of justice, compassion, and courage.  His is a world of black and white morality, where characters are clearly good or evil, and the hero always gets the girl in the end.  This is a strongly optimistic, romantic view of both human nature, and the nature of the universe.  The best of humans, as exemplified by John Carter, are essentially good and selfless.

In the 21st century, people aren’t nearly so optimistic.  Today, many dirty little secrets can be unearthed with a little creative web surfing.  The clear, straight lines of good and evil from the first and second world wars have been replaced by the murky battle lines of international terrorism.  The influence of media and celebrity are more powerful than ever.

In this day and age, Katniss Everdeen is the perfect anti-heroine.  She is disenfranchised, from a poor district that is severely exploited by the nefarious Capitol.  She isn’t trying to fight the system, however.  She’s just trying to survive.  When she’s thrust into the Hunger Games, it’s only to protect her family, not to make some kind of statement.  While she has some basic ideas of human decency and morality, she isn’t out to spread those ideas.  In other words, Katniss is an average girl who happens to be good with a bow and insanely protective of her family.  The best of humans, as exemplified by Katniss Everdeen, are morally neutral and ultimately self-interested

I really enjoyed both A Princess of Mars and The Hunger Games.  My own personal taste tends towards the fantastical and melancholy (I blame the Russian ancestry).  However, I wonder at the current trend towards darker fiction.  Maybe it’s art reflecting life.  Life is hard.  Many people in the world are just as disenfranchised as Katniss.  God has been reduced to a single letter in an abbreviation.  Belief in an all-powerful, just, loving Creator seems downright unrealistic.

Too much to hope for.

In her blog post, writer Sarah Sawyer wonders if hope leads to cliched fiction. She concludes:

“True hope doesn’t rely on everything working according to some predictable plan in which everything resolves perfectly at the conclusion. Rather, it grows in the most difficult of circumstances, stubborn as a tree burrowing into the cleft of a rock. True hope doesn’t need to ignore dark circumstances, but can shine all the more brightly in the midst of them. And true hope permeates Scripture and the human story–even the parts that seem the most bleak.”

Question is, does today’s audience consider themselves too cool for happy endings or honorable characters?  Have we outgrown hope–crazy, unreasonable, incredible hope that there is something worth fighting for, and dying for, beyond ourselves and our people?