Mark Steyn on THE HUNGER GAMES

Having written an essay-length review of the movie (not the book) THE HUNGER GAMES, I am chagrined to read  Mark Steyn, columnist to the world, so adroitly articulate my inarticulate misgivings about it:

What were your thoughts on the Hunger Games trilogy?

MS: It seems to me there is something empty about the Hunger Games. In the end the stakes aren’t big enough for it to quite work. There’s nothing primal at stake in the Hunger Games, in part because I assume the author doesn’t subscribe to any particular transcendent meaning to life. I think there is a kind of absence of that in the book.

You can read the interview here: http://www.hillsdalecollegian.com/2012/03/qa-mark-steyn/

I would make the broader point that Christianity is inherently dramatic, with its unfashionable insistence on the dangers of hell and the promise of heaven, whereas paganism is inherently tragic, or, in the case of Buddhism, inherently dispassionate. Gnosticism, except for the one narrative of the plucky rebel overthrowing the evil oppressive Demiurge, inherently robs narratives of drama, by making everyone an unheroic victim or an unheroic villain, and by insisting that the actions of the drama are either not worth doing, or make no difference in the long run. (And political correctness is a modern materialist version of Gnosticism).

But something was missing from HUNGER GAMES, which in my review I groped toward by saying I did not see what philosophy Panem stood for, or what the point was. Mr Steyn, with more clarity than I possess, identified the missing element as a transcendent meaning.

I am not saying this as a Christian, but as a writer: had Katniss been the daughter of Artemis, hounded by an inescapable fate, fighting alongside Arjuna against Grendel or Hector, some of the grandeur and nobility of the doomed pagan would have been in her tale.

33 Comments

  1. Comment by ladyhobbit:

    I felt just the same when I read this comment by Mark Steyn: so that’s what’s missing! The books felt thin, somehow–not as substantial as they could be. And now I know why!

  2. Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

    I have neither read the books nor seen the movie, so I speak from near-complete ignorance; but that never stopped any politically correct leftist atheist materialist before, so I shall strive to overcome the handicap. Does not Panem represent the doctrine that might makes right and that the purpose of power is power? I think of 1984, wherein O’Brian expounds the true motivation of the Inner Party to Smith. Panem has the right to punish the provinces for rebellion because it has the power to do so; it exercises its right because power not used will fade; it strives to maintain its power in order to retain the right to punish, closing the circle.

    This is not, of course, intended to be a sympathetic point of view; but villains are not required to be sympathetic, only to be plausible. That humans would take pleasure in humiliating perceived enemies is all too plausible. So is a lack of any real philosophical defense of such action. Rationales are constructed when there is some near-peer whose conviction on rational grounds would be useful; not when there are only enemies too weak to resist effectively, and allies. In such circumstances humans fall back, by default, on “might makes right” if the question even rises to their attention at all. It’s only when there is some peer competitor, who might even win an occasional war, that polities put together coherent philosophies of justice, and strive to convince rather than command.

    The provinces, perhaps, would benefit from a considered response. The tactic of setting power against power has, presumably, already been tried, and failed when the rebellion was crushed. Undermining from within by reasoned argument might still work. But going back to 1984 again, Orwell does not give Smith a convincing answer to O’Brian; and this does not weaken the book. Smith, after all, is a product of IngSoc; the Inner Party has very carefully ensured that he cannot have an articulate, well-thought-out answer, but only his inchoate feeling of “There’s gotta be something else.” The reader, then, is expected to supply the coherent reply that Smith, tortured and despairing, cannot make. And does, at great length. Stirling’s Draka tend to have the same effect: Long after reading the book you find yourself trying to construct plausible scenarios for Alliance or even Resistance victories, or “repair” the alternate history by putting in more realistic responses on the part of the European Great Powers.

    • Comment by lotdw:

      “Does not Panem represent the doctrine that might makes right and that the purpose of power is power?”

      That’s not really a doctrine, though. Power is used to do things; it doesn’t really work that well for (total) explanation as a thing in its own right. I was once told that “power” is the reason the US invaded Iraq, but the explanation becomes immediately ridiculous when one wonders why not Iran, or North Korea, or France. And I don’t know a single ruler – even the most extreme dictator – whose only use of power was for more power.

      I think what those who affirm this is a doctrine (or even THE doctrine) of those in power are mistaking an effect for a cause – when one has power, other people are often trying to take it away from you, so you have to exert your power to keep your power. But they want to take it away from you so that they can use it differently, and you want to keep it so that you can keep using it to obtain the things you want.

      I do think it’s possible to become so far gone that one becomes addicted to power and mistakes the use of it for the end of it, of course. “Might makes right” and “the purpose of power is power” are circular (empty) doctrines that explain nothing.

      I don’t know if I’m necessarily disagreeing with you, but I’ve seen too many people who believe that EVERYTHING is just about power that I had to drop the comment here.

      • Comment by Nate Winchester:

        I think what those who affirm this is a doctrine (or even THE doctrine) of those in power are mistaking an effect for a cause – when one has power, other people are often trying to take it away from you, so you have to exert your power to keep your power. But they want to take it away from you so that they can use it differently, and you want to keep it so that you can keep using it to obtain the things you want.

        TANGENT: I think a lot of it arises from a leftist belief I’ve seen expressed (no really, I can find quotes if you want) that what really matters is “motives” or “aims”. The actual results aren’t quite as important as what you were trying to do. (you’ll see this especially in political discussions)

        Thus, leftist have painted themselves into a corner when it comes to villains. They can’t have a villain with noble, even laudable goals – because then they’re caught by their own tautologies and such a person isn’t a villain. So they are forced to make people who are evil for evil’s sake (such as the business man who “cares only about money” but then does things that would actually cost them more money than the alternative – or those who want power just because) which are thus, unrealistic.

        Hmm… maybe John should create a new post for us all to discuss this.

        • Comment by Rade Hagedorn:

          This reminds me somewhat of a movie criticism I’d read some years ago. I no longer recall the movie, it might ave been DOWNFALL, but the again it might not have been, but the reviewer wrote, “it goes too far in humanizing Hitler.” To which I thought, but Hitler was human wasn’t he?

          The critic may have simply used a poor choice of words but I’ve noticed similar sentiments in the past about certain people (most notably Hitler) where there is a desire to strip them of all human motive, thought, and background and portray them as an incarnation of fully developed evil mysteriously deposited on Earth. I think that this is a bad idea because it blinds up to how real evil looks and acts in the world.

        • Comment by Alan Silverman:

          I know they’re out there, but I’m having a mental gap at the moment. What would be a few good examples of a villain with laudable goals?

          • Comment by Nate Winchester:

            Well I think the antagonist of Count to a Trillion was quite disturbing with how hard it was to argue his point.

            Then there’s just this trope:
            http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/VisionaryVillain

            A lot of the recent changes to Mr Freeze (Batman’s villain) are an example of this working in a positive direction. Then there’s Ozy from Watchmen.

            HMm… will think on more.

            • Comment by John C Wright:

              All my villains have some sort of good, or at least good-sounding, motive, except, perhaps Morningstar from MISTS OF EVERNESS.

              Let me list:

              The point of the Nothing Sophotech from GOLDEN AGE was to preserve mankind past the heat death of the universe, and the point of the Hortators was to avoid the horrors of interstellar war. Oberon from LAST GUARDIAN OF EVERNESS was to usher in Utopia, and preserve mankind from various demons and horrors. Azrael de Gray wished to restore the reign and monarchy of King Arthur and the Table Round. The Olympians of ORPHANS OF CHAOS wished to preserve the cosmos from destruction at the hands of the Uranians and creatures of Chaos and Old Night. Enro the Red of the Greatest Empire sought stability, rule, civilization, order. Blackie DelAzarchel desires space colonization and a monarchy stable enough to guide mankind to the next stage of evolution, so that ours will be the race to rule the Galaxy, the Local Group, and eventually the Virgo Cluster.

              So you might see a common theme running through my villains. All of them support Caesar, or are Caesar, and all of them support the status quo. At first it seems an odd choice for a conservative writer, does it not?

              • Comment by WyldCard4:

                Hm…

                Nothing Sophotech, definitely interesting from that perspective. It gained power entirely legitimately. The Olympians are too complex to easily qualify.

                Oberon, Azrael de Gray, and Blackie DelAzarchel are all people who personally overthrew previous governments. Oberon was said to have taken over from an older power. Azrael made King Arthur’s monarchy himself, using his own family and powers. Blackie conquered the world with supertech.

                Not saying that there is not something deeper going on in the essence of storytelling or such, but many of them started out as rebels who gained their powers through force. They are as conservative as Mao.

          • Comment by lotdw:

            Ozymandias from Watchmen is the first that came to my mind. Also: Mr. Freeze, Roy Batty, Norma Desmond, King Kong, Gollum, Magneto, Javert, the assassin from Serenity…

            “Laudable” might be extreme for some of these, but at the very least “complex” or “sympathetic” or “understandable” works for them. I would call them “antagonists” instead of “villain,” too, because “villain” invokes begging the question if a villain is defined as evil.

            There’s a big list at TVTropes: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AntiVillain

    • Comment by lotdw:

      Oh, and related to the books themselves, Steyn and you can both be right. Your comment shows that the bad guys have a doctrine (of some sort), but what would be actually problematic is if the good guys don’t have one, or the author doesn’t. I haven’t read the books, so they/she may.

  3. Comment by Edward Willett:

    Interestingly enough, this post of yours showed up in my reader right underneath at post at GetReligion.org about the “God-sized hole” in The Hunger Games, which seems related: http://www.getreligion.org/2012/04/hunger-games-the-dog-that-didnt-bark/

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I think this only shows the world-girdling power of the New Space Princess Movement, which, at last count, still consists of me and I think you. GetReligion is no doubt afraid to offend our potent movement. Ad astra!

      • Comment by Edward Willett:

        I think you’ve nailed it.

        Hey, isn’t it about time, o classical scholar, that you coined a Latin motto for our movement?

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          I was trying to think of one, but I do not know how to say ‘Absolute Sovereign Power and Bare Midriff’ in Latin.

          We should be careful to note that our unstoppable literary movement only deals with young and attractive and alluring princesses, like Aura of Mongo or Deja Thoris of Barsoom, not with plainjane married middleaged space princesses.

          I don’t even know if there is a word ‘princess’ in Latin. ‘Regis Filia’?

    • Comment by JJ Brannon:

      I would contend they are wrong. In the books — I cannot speak to the film except second-hand as my strongly Christian cousin whom I asked felt the movie weakened key themes in its production — the nuclear/biological war which destroyed all but North American civilization is only implied [Heinleined] in passing.

      Equally implied is the totalitarian suppression of religion. Auctorially, this is accomplished for two reasons that I can adduce: 1] it provides fewer reader speed-bumps for those young who are allergic to any overt preaching of Christianity and 2] allows the author to sneakily insert positive Christian motifs.

      Without beating the reader over the head, it’s pretty clear to me that Rue’s family and community are secret Christians, maintaining their faith under the eye and lash of despotism.

      The author, to the best of my knowledge, is a practicing Roman Catholic adept, after years of writing for TV and theatre, at negotiating the pitfalls and landmines of secular media publication for mixed-belief, general audiences.

      The novels are crammed with emblematic characters and circumstances. Look at “Katniss Everdeen”. The former reflects the arrowleaf plant and the latter can either be seen as a combination of “[For]ever” and “dene”, which may be derived from the Latin “decanus” by way of the Old French “doyenne” — a leader of a band of ten — or from the Semitic “din” for “religion” [in Arabic] or “faith/law/judgment” in Hebrew. The main character is literally the “arrow of eternal justice”.

      She is the instrument by which God frees the people of Panem from the bread and circuses despotism. Yet her reward is not material glorification. Her reward is finding her soul when she believes herself in the dungheap of Golgotha, by the power or redemptive love and, in the blooming of flowers, the promise of renewed and eternal life.

      Is it the best crafted work in the world? No, but it’s engaging and offers more than superficial thrills.

      YMMV, but I contend Collins has invested the series with YHVH.

      JJB

      PS: Yes, I know Everdeen can be as well explained as an English place-name.

  4. Comment by Nate Winchester:

    Of course Christianity is dramatic. It’s founding document is essentially a multiple thousands of years retelling of Taken. Satan kidnaps & holds hostage the beloved creation of God. God goes on kick ass rampage (ranging from overt to subtle) to get His beloved free.

    (and of course, the star is Liam Neeson, who played God in Narnia – coincidence? I don’t think so.)

    Seriously though, I think the source of all drama is “What do you [fight] for?”. (with “fight” being whatever action is pushing the plot – survive, endure, create, whatever)

    That was the one thing Matrix 3 got right (well, asking the question) even though it’s answer was pathetic. Christianity has a multitude of answers – and their all the best ones. (faith, hope and love, anyone?)

    • Comment by Manwe King of the Valar:

      “Of course Christianity is dramatic. It’s founding document is essentially a multiple thousands of years retelling of Taken. Satan kidnaps & holds hostage the beloved creation of God. God goes on kick ass rampage (ranging from overt to subtle) to get His beloved free.

      (and of course, the star is Liam Neeson, who played God in Narnia – coincidence? I don’t think so.)”

      Rofl, that was great!

  5. Comment by basx:

    John,
    Yup. I read the books because my sister raved about them. The 1st was good but by the end of the 2nd I was really irritated by the series and just skimmed the 3rd. My take was it was a retelling of the transformation of Europe from paganism to Christianity but that Panem missed out because there was no Christanity. So in a few decades, the cycle will return only more vicious.

    There’s a scene in the 3rd book where Kantiss has deep misgiving about the rebels’ policy to copy the powers that be’s cruelty but she can’t articulated it properly because the authour doesn’t take natural law seriously even though to develop an exposition.

    I also didn’t like the ending of the book where Kantiss is so reticient to become a mother. I found it deeply grotesque because there was despite all that she’s been through she’s hopeless. And it merely confirmed my view that the human sacrifice cycle will start again ion a few years time.

    Too bad the authour didn’t introduce a mashup of Cortes in Mexico that would’ve been an excellent conceit

    xavier

  6. Comment by lotdw:

    I must say that, while there was no religion in Harry Potter, there was a LOT of religion in Harry Potter.

  7. Comment by sciencegirl:

    The major weakness of this trilogy is that the author can’t commit fully to either the heroic journey, the tragedy of the fatally-flawed hero, or the war-is-hell arc and straddles the three, mostly awkwardly. Katniss is, for all the reasons you mention, not really a hero, and I think she is not supposed to be. But she isn’t a good tragic figure, either. Imagine if, after “1984,” the tortured hero and heroine elope and get married but just can’t really trust each other any more. Imagine if “Brave New World” ends, not in suicide, but with the Indian becoming a banker who avoids orgies, but has a concubine. Imagine that in “Bridge Over the River Kwai,” Lt. Colonel Nicholson is, from the beginning, ambivalent about the role of the British in the war and unimpressed with his men’s engineering skills. Imagine the main character in “Full Metal Jacket” dislikes the thought of killing the Vietnamese, but is quite sure that he will. Imagine the “Masque of the Red Death” ends with everyone coughing and then recovering after a couple nasty weeks in bed.

    I loved “The Hunger Games” trilogy despite its flaws, but when I read your article and the ones you linked, I had to agree with your criticisms. The dystopic tone and the tortured thoughts of its morally ambiguous heroine set up either a redemption arc or a tragic arc, neither of which really occur. I think “The Hunger Games” wants to be a full tragedy, but pulls back because of the young adult audience. It wants to be a war-is-hell arc, but the war parts are the worst written. It wants to have the fatally-flawed heroine be the author of her tragedy and the savior of her world at the same time, and neither really happens. Other people are the authors of every tragedy in her life from the beginning to the end of the series, and every act of her heroism is weakened by the villians.

    It ends up being depressing, rather than tragic.

    Maybe that was the author’s goal, to have a “realistic” depiction of a teenager facing an unjust world, but it turns out as a weak dystopia and a weaker heroic tale. I think, in the end, she was going for some sort of wartime realism, with PTSD and shattered personalities, but doesn’t quite make that work because the tone varies too much.

    I love the trilogy for all the moments you liked and for several other great moments and detailed characters in the following two books. I don’t think your opinion will change on reading the books because I thought the movie was an excellent adaptation to film. The best thing about the books and Katniss is that Katniss tries to maintain humanity and decency under a regime that wants to deny it. It’s also great that she is still a naive teenage girl who can be repeatedly exploited by adults who are working on a level she doesn’t understand. These are not books that are supposed to make you cheer, but they aren’t fully tragic, either.

    I think it’s best the author did NOT include religion, because I doubt she could have handled it any better than she did the ethical quandaries.

  8. Comment by John Granger:

    When you’ve read the third book and want to explore the Christian symbolism of the series, please visit HogwartsProfessor.com:

    ‘Unlocking Mockingjay: The Spiritual Allegory’ On Katniss as a Soul Seeking Perfection and Iconological Reading

    ‘Unlocking Mockingjay: ‘The Literary Alchemy’ On Literary Alchemy and Peeta as Postmodern Christ

    ‘Unlocking Mockingjay: Katniss’ Apotheosis’ On the Alchemical Arena and Katniss’ Perfection in the Inner Sanctuary

  9. Comment by John Granger:

    ‘Unlocking Mockingjay: The Spiritual Allegory’ On Katniss as a Soul Seeking Perfection and Iconological Reading = http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/unlocking-mockingjay-the-spiritual-allegory/

    ‘Unlocking Mockingjay: ‘The Literary Alchemy’ On Literary Alchemy and Peeta as Postmodern Christ = http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/unlocking-mockingjay-the-literary-alchemy/

    ‘Unlocking Mockingjay: Katniss’ Apotheosis’ On the Alchemical Arena and Katniss’ Perfection in the Inner Sanctuary = http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/unlocking-mockingjay-katniss-apotheosis/

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