Thursday, August 23, 2012

Redemption in The Hunger Games?

I’m reading James Scott Bell’s The Art of War for Writers again (excellent book) and flipped open to page 104 today: “The writer who understands redemption is on the border of enduring fiction.”

I read this three days after seeing The Hunger Games, a movie that disturbed me greatly—and, truth be told, still does.

I think I’m beginning to understand why the movie so bothers me: No redemption—or is there?

Literary redemption

Redemption Scene from The Shawshank Redemption
I have not read the books. I saw the movie with my wife, a children’s librarian, because I thought it would be an interesting experiment—a movie buff who hasn’t read the book watching the movie with a reader who generally doesn’t appreciate movies. Plus, it was at the bargain theatre.

From Bell’s book: “Flannery O’Connor talked about the need for a story to show ‘grace being offered.’ …  Redemption is bound up in choice. The right choice brings about redemption because the wrong choice will leave the character in a worse moral condition.”

First of all, what do I mean by redemption?

Redemption: The action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil.

This includes, but is not limited to, the traditional Christian understanding of redemption: Where Jesus Christ laid down his life to save humans from their sins, and the price of those sins, eternal separation from God.

Lies and more lies

If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book—and you want to—you may want to stop reading.

Katniss and Peeta considering suicide
At the climactic moment, after being lied to by the games’ organizers that both could survive, Katniss (the book’s main character) and Peeta, a young man from her District and also a participant in the game, are faced with a horrific choice: one of them must kill the other to survive and win the game or they both must kill themselves, choosing to go out on their own terms.

There is no redemption—no way to save or be saved from sin, error, or evil. In fact, what Katniss’ gambit (pretending to be star-crossed lovers willing to commit suicide) does is force the game’s organizers (who are clearly evil) to offer a faux redemption and reinstate the rule change that two participants from the same District could win together. There will be repercussions for all involved.

But wait

Earlier in the movie, after finding Peeta injured and dying, and after hearing the lie that there could be two winners if they were from the same District, Katniss risks coming out into the open to retrieve the medicine Peeta needs to survive.

And even earlier, Peeta, seeing Katniss nearly starving to death and being in love with her, contrives a way to get a loaf of bread to her that saves her life. Self-sacrifice! There is redemption, then.

But Katniss doesn’t really love Peeta the way he loves her. She has another young man back in District 12 she’s in love with. But she knows the “star-crossed lovers battling against insurmountable odds to survive” is a powerful myth that will resonate with the television audience watching the game.

So her love is “ends justifies means” love—she will love Peeta if it means they have a better chance at survival.

What does it all mean?

The phrase the end justifies the means refers to the morality of an action and is based solely on the outcome of that action and not on the action itself. Example: Telling a lie that has no negative effect on anyone, and saves someone grief, is good.

But there can be no redemption in a lie. “O how terrible for those who confuse good with evil, right with wrong, light with dark, sweet with bitter.” Isaiah 5:20 (The Voice)

Think about that quote from Bell again: Redemption is bound up in choice. The right choice brings about redemption because the wrong choice will leave the character in a worse moral condition.”

At the end of the story, all of the characters are in a worse situation than they were before—alive, but morally compromised. I walked out of the theatre, dejected and oppressed rather than encouraged and freed.

At the end of the Harry Potter movies, even the darker ones, good triumphed—often at cost, but it triumphed. That does not happen here.

What do you think? Have I missed something essential by having not read the books?

Michael Ehret loves to play with words and as editor of the ACFW Journal, he is enjoying his playground. He also plays with words as a freelance editor/writer at, where each Tuesday he takes a writer Into The Edit, pulling back the veil on the editing process. He has edited several nonfiction books, played with words as a corporate communicator, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.


Bonnie Doran said...

It's been a while since I read the novels. I agree you don't see redemption. You see Katniss and Peeta win the game by beating the system; in this case, beating the system (and the social structure of Hunger Games). Good wins over evil, but I don't see the characters experience internal change.

Michael Ehret said...

Bonnie, is it good over evil? Or is it lesser evil over greater evil? Not trying to be picky, but I think this is my struggle with the movie.

April Frazier said...

Reading the books does add another dimension to the movie. The books are written in first person from Katniss' POV. So you see a lot more of her internal struggle, and she does develop genuine feelings for Peeta, which creates a love triangle conflict in book 2. But book 3 is terrible. It's long and seems to be written from an author's agenda. And it ends poorly. You're right. I finished the series depressed and discouraged. There's slight redemption at the end, but these books no where compare with the HP series. There was a lot of potential, but Collins didn't deliver, in my opinion.

Michael Ehret said...

April, thanks for helping me make the decision to not put the series on my TBR pile.

April Frazier said...

I really did like the first two books. They were well done. But the third book killed it. And I mean KILLED it. So poorly done. I heard they were making the third book into two movies. A bad decision, in my opinion. It could easily be condensed into one movie (and should be!!). But I'm hoping they rewrite the script, especially the ending, and "redeem" the last book in the movie version. So, the first two books are worth reading. But skip the last book and just watch the movie :)

Peter Leavell said...

I really like this article, thanks Michael. Great point of view. I felt, though out the entire series, Katniss could never get over herself.

One question: how do you reply to people who say 'it's just a story, chill'? There's a lot of that going around right now.

Or is that another article?

Michael Ehret said...

Peter, what I would say is our society is built on stories. Stories are the foundation of EVERYTHING--laws, customs, our expectations--absolutely everything. There is no such thing as "just a story."

claricejames said...

Ah-ha! But are all stories worth reading? Are all movies worth seeing? I keep it simple and try to choose my reading or viewing choices in the light of Php 4:8: ". . . whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." A sad commentary: it eliminates much of what is offered at the box office or on the bestseller's list.

Michael Ehret said...

Clarice, Certainly not every story is worth reading or every movie worth seeing, but I would argue there is inherent value in every story. Discernment is always necessary.

sally apokedak said...

I agree with you, Michael. I didn't see it in the first two books. I thought that redemption was coming. But if you've already seen in the first book/movie that there is no redemption, that's good, because it only gets worse from here. If you think they are compromised in book one, you ought to see them in book three. UGH.

sally apokedak said...

I hated the third book, too, April, and it wasn't just because of the horrid ending. The whole book was so weird. Katniss's little sister was more heroic than Katniss, who was sick or crying or hiding for most of the book. She just wasn't the smart girl that she was in the first two books. I was shell-shocked when I got done.

Michael Ehret said...

Sally, glad I'm not the only one who feels that way. I can save myself the time and money. :)

Rebekah Gyger said...

I have to agree that there is little to no redemption in the Hunger Games, and I think that the movie made every decision seem even more worthless. However, I do not see the books as completely worthless. I think that they can be a great example of what happens when we try to do things on our own and create morals to fit ourselves.

Michael Ehret said...

Rebekah, I would agree with you. All stories have worth.

Dina Sleiman said...

I think you did miss something in the movie. In the book, Peeta's leg wound has reopened during the fight with the mutts, and Katniss has put a tourniquet on it. When they announce the rules changing back at the end, Peeta removes the tourniquet because he wants Katniss to win. He starts bleeding out right in front of her. Katniss could easily have let that be the end and won without even having to lift a hand against Peeta. Instead, she risks her life in a gamble to save them both. Although a bit conniving, it did seem much more redemptive in the book, and it was a very satisfying ending. Plus, as someone else mentions, Katniss does develop real feelings for Peeta.

Mary F. Allen said...

In the book I found redemption when Katniss takes her sister's place for almost certain death; Peeta takes a beating for burning bread, which he purposely does to throw some to Katniss who is on the verge of starvation after the death of her father; Katniss steps up to provide for her family after the death of her father; Katniss submits to the counsel of her preparers because the survival of her family depends on her personal survival; She protects and heals another contestant rather than kill her or let her die naturally; she (eventually)understands that she and Peeta have become symbols of freedom from oppression and have been thrust into roles they never wanted, but upon which the lives of future generations rest. These are in addition to what another commenter wrote. I haven't read book three. I agree there is conflicted ideas here and the movie's references to these redemption threads were so subtle that without the benefit of the book or repeated viewings, it would be impossible to pick up. I have to remind myself that for a general audience who has no concept of forgiveness or redemption, these threads can appear to be major lifelines.

Michael Ehret said...

Mary, those are great insights. Thanks for sharing.