Father Robert Barron says the storyline in the blockbuster film “The Hunger Games,” based on the widely popular young adult book, warns of what can happen when a society becomes totally secularized.
“There is something dangerously prophetic about 'The Hunger Games,'” said Fr. Barron, founder of the media group “Word on Fire” and host of the PBS-aired “Catholicism” series.
The movie, which has already brought in $214 million worldwide since its March 23 release, is based on the young adult book of the same title by Suzanne Collins. Set sometime in the undefined future, “The Hunger Games” tells the story of sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen's struggle for survival after she volunteers to take her sister's place in her country's annual “hunger games.” Ruled by the wealthy and authoritarian Capitol, the impoverished Twelve Districts within the country must annually offer its children as tributes to take part in a live television broadcast of an arena battle to the death. The gruesome killings between the children serve as a reminder of the Capitol's absolute power and as punishment for the Districts' failed rebellion decades earlier. However, as the events in the arena unfold, Katniss and her teammate Peeta begin to rise against the Capitol through attempting to maintain their humanity.
In a March 29 interview with CNA, Fr. Barron said he thought the movie contained elements of modern French philosopher Rene Girard's theory of “human scapegoating.” He explained that scapegoating has been used throughout history as a means of discharging “all of our fears and anxieties” by assigning blame to an individual or group of people.
This practice is seen as far back in history from civilizations such as the Aztec and the Roman empires and as recently as Nazi Germany. However, Fr. Barron said, Christ undid the need for humanity's scapegoating by taking on the role of victim himself in his Passion and Resurrection. “The Hunger Games” shows not only “how very consistent this theme is in human history” and in “human consciousness,” but also what can happen in a totally secular society. “When Christianity fades away,” Fr. Barron said, “we're in great danger because it's Christianity that holds this idea at bay.”
Just as Christ's sacrifice was the ultimate “undermining” of humanity's scapegoating, Fr. Barron noted Peeta and Katniss' defiance in the arena is a disruption of human sacrifice in their own culture.
“Christianity,” the priest said, “is the undoing of the scapegoating mechanism which lies behind most civilizations.” Some critics have said that the book's plot is too graphic for the young adult audience at which it is targeted because it focuses on children killing other children. As a result, much of the child-on-child combat is toned down in the movie. Youth violence is unfortunately a “human reality,” Fr. Barron said, “it's called war.” Although he does not think violence should be shown just for entertainment value, Fr. Barron said he thought that “there wasn't enough violence” in “The Hunger Games.”
He understood why the producers would want to make the film more age appropriate, “but there's something about revealing to people what's at stake here that I think is important.” Muting much of the teen killings “was a bit of a weakness” on the part of the film makers, he added, because “it's actually good to let this violence be seen for what it really is.” The film was rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens.”