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My Take: ‘Hunger Games’ asks us not to watch
March 26th, 2012
01:44 PM ET

My Take: ‘Hunger Games’ asks us not to watch

Editor's note: Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio is an ordained Episcopal Church priest and author of "God and Harry Potter at Yale: Teaching Faith and Fantasy Fiction in an Ivy League Classroom."

By Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio, Special to CNN

(CNN) - “What if no one watched?” Gale Hawthorne asks at the beginning of the first "Hunger Games" film. What if not one citizen of the dystopian post-American country of Panem watched the annual competition where children from 12 districts compete to the death as penance for their insolence against the governing Capitol?

What if ...

But the citizens of Panem are forced to watch the 74th Hunger Games, in which protagonist Katniss Everdeen competes to spare her younger sister, Primrose. The Gamemakers hide cameras throughout the arena so that no event goes unseen, and every citizen of Panem must stand in their district’s square to watch key parts of the Games, which are televised live for the entire nation.

Watching also seems to be a focus for those who redacted the first of Suzanne Collins’ bestsellers into film: One of the official posters for "The Hunger Games" features the slogan “The World Will Be Watching,” and as part of the promotional push for the film, I received an e-mail from Panem Hunger Games coordinator Seneca Crane informing me that “attendance IS mandatory.”

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A cynic might say that these are clever marketing ploys, not-quite-subliminal messages designed to lure filmgoers to cushy movie theater seats and extra-large tubs of popcorn.

But I think there is a deeper purpose to this watching rhetoric, a purpose that by proxy has curious ramifications for Christians.

As I watched Katniss Everdeen fight to the death, I became aware that I could just as well have been a citizen of Panem, watching the Hunger Games on a giant screen, rooting for favorites, desensitized from the film’s artfully-orchestrated-so-as-to-maintain-a-PG-13-rating-but-still-incredibly-disturbing violence.

In fact, the film’s creators seem to want viewers to imagine themselves as residents of Panem. For the full immersion experience, the government of Panem, the Capitol, has a website with its own government domain, just like the United States or China or Fiji does. On that website, fans can get assigned to a district, after which they receive an identification card and e-mails from various government officials.

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All of this means moviegoers, especially those in the United States, are intended to see themselves as Panem residents. And like the citizens of Panem, who watch the Hunger Games either because the government forces them to or because they consider betting on children’s lives to be good sport, we must watch, which is exactly what I did.

I did not heed Gale’s call to protest the Games’ viciousness. I did not walk out. I even found myself jumping up and down with excitement as I entered the theater with my husband.

Does that mean those of us who buy advanced tickets to "The Hunger Games" — in record numbers — are so immune to the horrors of murder that we are merely voyeurs, watching the ill-timed termination of life with the same salaciousness of those who watched the Paris Hilton sex video?

For Christians, this issue of watching is complicated further. Christians are nearing Holy Week, the most sacred time of the church year, in which the faithful commemorate the death and resurrection of the Messiah.

On the Thursday of Holy Week, Christians keep a symbolic vigil with Jesus, watching with him during his final night in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he asks God to rescue him from fate. On Good Friday, we relive Jesus’ crucifixion by hearing the story of the Messiah’s death or sometimes, even, by watching re-enactments. What would Good Friday be like if once, just once, Christians stopped their church services in protest or stopped a re-enactment of Jesus’ death and took him down from the cross just in time?

Christians don’t do that, of course, because they are remembering an event whose course cannot be altered: Jesus suffered. Jesus died. The only thing that can be done is for Christians to voluntarily bear witness to that reality and to be disgusted by it, so that its carnage motivates them to protest violence.

In that way, watching for Christians on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday serves a purpose: It empowers them to take on Jesus’ ministry as a servant, to become people who protest against injustices in the hopes of transforming them.

As in Christianity, violence in "The Hunger Games" also serves a purpose: It is not gratuitous. It is not voyeuristic. But there’s a difference as well: We the viewers are not witnessing a past event. We feel like we are seeing the Games in real time, that we are part of Panem and, by virtue of sitting in the audience, part of its dysfunction.

That powerful revelation encourages us to contemplate the ways that we are complicit in violence in our own world and the ways in which we do not object.

So perhaps the great irony revealed by the film is that we are not meant to see it. We’re not intended to watch its violence, because this story, as Gale says, is meant to be protested. Which means that, ironically, "The Hunger Games’ " greatest triumph would be an empty theater and streets full of people demanding the kinds of changes needed in Katniss’ world and in our own.

What if we did this?  What if we didn’t watch?

I like to imagine that only then would the odds be truly be in Katniss’ favor.  And in ours.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Opinion

soundoff (857 Responses)
  1. live evil

    Dear DanielleTumminio,

    your crazy...

    Thanks,
    THis Guy

    April 18, 2012 at 7:48 am |
  2. JAB

    Nice little piece of writing there, Danielle, but movies are meant to be FUN. Jeez, can't we just kick back and be entertained anymore, without having the existential implications of our inability to not watch a movie called to our attention.

    April 10, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
    • Chris

      Does this insult your magical man in the clouds? How can people devote their entire lives to a fairy tale and commit their lives and their families to cults?

      Grow up people and come into the 21st century.

      April 11, 2012 at 1:20 pm |
    • mominChiTOwn

      I love movies. But I have to admit my feelings of uncomfortableness in this movie. Is there not enough violence in the world that we have to make movies about children killing each other? Killing for food and survival is VERY real in many areas not just in the USA so I wonder when people say its just a movie. I went I took my son and his friend and at time turned to see my son's reaction to certain scenes worried about what lessons he was absorbing. We will talk about movies after – our own reviews – but after this one I felt compelled to go a little deeper – I guess trying to evaluate how he processed this. I definitely have mixed feelings.

      April 14, 2012 at 7:14 am |
  3. Wesley Wallace

    There are several lessons learned by the storyline; however, it might be a good idea to actually read the book, because the movie is taken from that storyline. You have to be exposed to the concept to be able to react to it. If you don't read the book, then the theme is never learned. It is also odd that this story is put in the context of fantasy fiction, when it is just fiction. The idea of fantasy being taken out of the storyline is one of its great appeals.

    April 10, 2012 at 7:36 am |
  4. Angry Gnome

    The author of this drivel is a mental midget. I say that because I am being polite. If I wanted to say the full truth, it would make a sailor blush. I hope you haven't spawned. The fact you're all jesusy I suppose explains a lot. The devotion of the deluded masses is astonishing. If you take the briefest of time, you will find how the story of the space ghost's son was lifted from older mythology. You will find that even the ten commandments have also been plagiarized from older books as well. I truly feel sorry for you. Free yourself from the mental shackles that are organized religion. Judaism and Islam get no free pass either. Everything I am saying holds for them as well. Only minor tweaks are needed to fit in with their space ghost story.

    April 10, 2012 at 12:51 am |
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    April 6, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  7. Graced

    I love the post; it's quite deep and I will have to read it again. I am somehow touched by it, but I'm not sure what I'm taking away. I love that as Episcopalians part of our "dogma" is that we have to soul search for ourselves, rather than be 'fed' by a leader (or leaders) who define – without room for discussion – what we believe.

    April 5, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
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    April 4, 2012 at 12:47 am |
  11. Martha Cecilia (Alice)

    Reblogged this on Rabbit Hole Review and commented:
    Here is the CNN article mentioned below. Danielle Tumminio is the same Harry Potter Scholar who wrote "God and Harry Potter at Yale: Teaching Faith and Fantasy Fiction in an Ivy League Classroom. I like these discussions. Not only are they meta–they are pushing those who love the Hunger Games to think about the CENTRAL MESSAGE. This is really gnawing at me!!!!

    April 3, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
  12. topfreecargames.com

    Magnificent points altogether, you just won a new reader. What would you suggest in regards to your post that you made a few days in the past? Any certain?

    April 2, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  13. J.W

    I watched this movie. I think Jennifer Lawrence is the most beautiful woman who has ever lived.

    April 2, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  14. Rational Libertarian

    This is one of those rare times when atheists and believers can stand together in denouncing The Hunger Games as what it is... a poor, tweenie ripoff of Battle Royale for the Twilight generation.

    April 2, 2012 at 5:26 am |
    • Conservative Atheist

      Ug.

      It was a fun movie.

      Don't overthink it.

      April 6, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Older Sista

      I'm 59, been a Christian for yrs......,love to read, am not familiar with Battle Royale but I read all three of the hungar games and although they are written for a younger audience, the story brings up questions that atheists and believers can agree on.....such as, "what would you do (what would I do ) if you were in such an untenable position, required by law to participate in something 100% against your beliefs??" Are we not there already?? On a smaller but encroaching scale?? How do we react? How much do we endure? When and how and to what degree do we rebel/refuse?? These are old questions but new for every generation. You must forgive the frenzy our youth attachs to anything. Harry Potter passed, Twilight passed, this will pass but the questions should be recognized and explored with our kids, not just thrown away as useless or damaging entertainment.

      April 6, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  15. paulc

    I love Jennifer Lawrence and the Hunger Games was a nice story but unfortunately when a movie is hyped so much it is hard to live up to the expectations, I recommend he movie but don't expect an epic.

    April 2, 2012 at 4:40 am |
  16. primatica

    Running Man Light

    April 1, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
    • Conservative Atheist

      It barely resembled Running Man the movie, and wasn't even close to the book.

      April 6, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  17. Clueless in Cleveland

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXJZhNN-Urw

    April 1, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  18. Joshua

    II think that if one reads the whole series and holds out for the whole trilogy then (without spoiling anything) will be able to justify watching the struggle between good and evil. Or at the very least freedom vs. tyranny. I think that there are many concepts (as Lisa says) that are trying to be exploited.

    April 1, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  19. smaug86

    What some of you commenting here may have missed or didn't realize is that any tribute who refuses to participate in the hunger games not only puts their own life at risk, but that of their family members, as well. If Katniss had decided to say no or run away then her sister and her mother and even others in Distrcit 12 might have suffered or been imprisoned or tortured or even killed. So there really is no saying no. The best Katniss could have done was to hide and only fight when attacked. If she had just allowed herself to be killed right at the beginning that still might have put her family in jeopardy. The hunger games was about control through fear; fear of what might happen to those you love as well as yourself. We aren't supposed to enjoy the games as the real audience, but Suzanne Collins wanted to show us that we really aren't all that far away from enjoying these kinds of things just as the romans enjoyed their gladiatorial games of death.

    April 1, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
    • Older Sista

      I agree, the whole story puts the reader in a "what would I do?" frame of mind which provides a very teachable moment for adults and their teens, which is whom the stories are writtenfor. It's very easy to spout off principles when you're safe at home with a belly full of hot stew. It can be quite another when a sword is at your loved one's throat. As an older reader, I saw shades of George Orwell's '1984' in there. It's also a 'coming of age' story; Katriss is nuturing of her family but still, very self oriented and almost always wrong in her judgement of peoples chatacter and motives.

      April 6, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  20. Lisa

    There's plenty of deep concepts to consider in the movie. Unfortunately, it just wasn't that good. I wouldn't recommend anyone waste the money to see it in the theatres. Perhaps wait until all movies come out on Netflix. =)

    April 1, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.