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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. Barbara

    "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."

    Wow. Talk about missing the point. Jesus, the only begotten Son of God and the second person of the Triune Godhead, the sinless one and only acceptable sacrifice for sin against a perfect, righteous, holy God could not have died (the wages of sin is death) but for the fact He who knew no sin became sin on our behalf so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. He took upon Himself my punishment for my sin so that I may live eternally with Him. I agree that to be entertained by violence speaks of heart corruptions, but let's not get the significance of the cross wrong. Even in our communion it is there that we who belong to Him by saving faith remember the His death on behalf of those He will save, until He comes again.

    March 26, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Randle McMurphy

      Nurse Ratched, Barbara needs another blast of shock therapy.

      March 26, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  2. Dig

    “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” -Mahatma Gandhi

    March 26, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • slp

      Please find a new quote. This one has been quoted way to many times. It has lost it's effectiveness.

      March 30, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
  3. River

    Stories have always been more than just entertainment – they were told to pass down traditions, give thought to the unknowable, pass on moral lessons, etc. They were certainly told to entertain and make people think. Just because we classify movies and novels under "entertainment" doesn't mean it shouldn't make people think about their own lives and world. Movies are just another way to tell a story. For those that don't want to think about it, go on to another article. Religion deals with the elements of life and death, struggle, sacrifice, morals, etc. so even if a story does not deal with religion per se, someone can still find plenty to consider from a religious world view with a story like "H.G.'

    March 26, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  4. jack brown

    just saw the movie. I think its worth seeing!!

    March 26, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  5. Joan Rivers

    Those costumes look like they were originally made for an Ed Wood movie. Could they look any cheaper and less real? Was their costume budget $12.79?

    March 26, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
  6. Darlene Buckingham

    So many viewers say its only a movie . Art reflects the times we are in – like nature we cannot separate ourselves from ART. Take a look in the mirror. The Hunger games is telling us something about ourselves. Every movie, every book, every thing one experience is telling you something about yourself. What is the Hunger Games telling you about yourself?

    March 26, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Boy people are stretching on this one!

      So what did the Care Bears movie say about ourselves?

      March 26, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  7. Brent

    Wow, great commentary Tumminio. I feel like the book and the movie appeals to that part in us that gladiator fighting appealed to for Roman citizens. It disturbs me that a part of me wants to be entertained this way. And I'm not sure I will be able to resist the temptation. What does this say about human nature?

    March 26, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
  8. ian

    wow i am simply blown away by how insane this article is, but even if i try to follow your logic, it just doesnt add up. Yes Gale says not to watch the Hunger Games, but this is not a movie in their world its real. They are literally forcing children to murder on another. In our case, we are watching a movie, not real life. I dont see how you can possibly make a comparison. People like you are the reason we need to have books like this. So when one day you and the government try and tell us how to live, what to WATCH, and how to act we know not to surrender our freedom so willingly.

    March 26, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • River

      She is saying we need to stand up and think for ourselves so that we don't blindly follow violence and war. Not sure how you twisted that all around.

      March 26, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  9. No Dice

    Can't speak to the movie. Read the books. They were an engrossing, easy read that was highly entertaining. Collins was inspired, in part, by the stupidity of so-called reality TV. I thought the books hit a mark in that regard. I'm a fan of post-apocalyptic pieces in literature and movies. If you look back, these kinds of books and movies carry the theme of the times. Back in the day it was nuclear war, then diseases, then asteroids, then climate change, now Mayan calendar end-of-world stuff, zombies and vampires. No change in progression here, just better special effects. The angst of the blogge is interesting but a bit of a strain to connect her ideas to what is essentially the latest doom fad that will pass like everything else.

    March 26, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  10. Lovely

    I loved the book, and enjoyed the movie. But I thought this article was interesting because I had a conversation with a roommate last night regarding this same issue. I was telling her to watch the movie, because it doesn't glorify violence. The story is actually about how wrong the violence is, and how people can do cruel and inhumane things for the sake of pleasure and greed. As such, I think this article has a good point.

    Sadly, I can't resist book 1 of the Hunger Games trilogy. It's just written too well.

    March 26, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
  11. Good Person Who Likes Movies

    Not sure I'm understanding why 'Christians' woud/should feel a different way about the movie versus those who have morals and values and do not call themselves 'Christians'. Basically, you're saying only what you consider Christians have a right to morals and values. Or maybe I can't read. Because I don't call myself Christian. Since people like you have ruined it. ;-P

    March 26, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • chrisrapier

      No one is saying that Christians should look at this differently than any other person with good morals that cares about their fellow humans. This person is obviously a christian and was writing this to a specific audience of other christians in the terms of a very christian event and holiday. I don't see anything wrong with that – at no point in the essay did she imply that any other group doesn't have as highly refined morals. Look, I'm a geek (network research). Sometimes I write things with other geeks in mind. When I do that I don't imply that no one but geeks are worthwhile or that what I'm writing about doesn't apply to non-geeks. All I am doing is writing to an audience I know about something in terms of a subject they care about. That's not wrong is it?

      March 26, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Joe

      The author is approaching the subject matter from the perspective of a Christian. I wouldn't take offense.

      March 26, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • Sean

      You're right to ask what's different for non-Christians. But I think the context of this time of year is appropriate. The death of Jesus puts particular focus on violence for many Christians.

      March 26, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  12. Dustin

    What if we skipped the Hunger Games?
    2 things turned me off about this film. Firstly, it seems like a ripoff the Running Man film with Arnold(like Avatar ripping off Dances with Wolves). set in a dark future with totalitarian state that stages a life and death reality show. Secondly, the protagonist is a teenage girl. Come on, stop with the female action heroes, especially kids.

    March 26, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • dsavio

      Really? Too many female action heroes? Even with a few recent exceptions the VAST majority of action films are starring men. Talk about a non-complaint.

      March 26, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
  13. Newt

    Saving my hunger games money for PROMETHEUS. THAT is the distopian future I want to live in. THAT is the distopian future I am am creating one cell at a time on this earth NOW. :: Paid for by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation ::

    March 26, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  14. ZarGoth

    Wow... Get your medication adjusted & try to relax & have some fun instead of taking this FICTIONAL stuff SOOOO seriously...

    March 26, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • svscnn

      Yep. Her husband is clearly dropping the "relaxation" ball.

      March 26, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
    • txalan

      I couldn't have said it better ZarGoth. It's just a movie, don't read cultural change into it. Good entertainment for a couple of hours, nothing more.

      March 26, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • chrisrapier

      Actually, the author specifically wrote the book to promote cultural change – so it would make sense to look at the book and movie in terms of cultural change. I don't know if you know this but it is possible for something to be entertaining and have a meaning.

      March 26, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
    • RussG

      and animal farm is just a story about animals..London Bridges Falling down was just a childrens song, catch 22 is just a war story. Thats what makes this a and many other stories great. you draw parallels with the current world, and since it is fiction you can analyze the current world through this story ...its why authors write. The Christian stuff is a bit far fetched..if it makes you think about morals and ethics then good and make you think about that real horrors are going on in the world great. All people can learn from that. I enjoyed the books and the movie.

      March 26, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  15. SeparationofChurchandState

    Please folks, don't watch. This movie was TERRIBLE. It was as if the producers tried to take something that could've been a fantastic movie, with a great story, and tried to make it "TWILIGHT". This movie has all of the Abercrombie model wannabes, bad acting, and horrible love-story of the aforementioned series. It was even as if they tried to copy some of "The Fifth Element" with their falmboyant Victorian-esque costumers.... only problem is that they were missing Jean-Paul Gaulthier.
    .

    As a die-hard Sci-Fi fan, this fell way short.

    March 26, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • hello

      you are an idiot! it was a great movie. nothing like twilight.

      March 26, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      did you read the books before going to see the film?

      March 26, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
  16. Shaggy

    This movie was completely religion free, not even making passing references to a fake future religion. Please don't add your Christianity into it just because your mind is so small you cannot process anything without Jesus being involved.

    March 26, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • Hallelujah

      ...and amen brother...

      March 26, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
    • kyalea

      I agree – I didn't notice a religion it was more about fearmongering, totalitarianism - the inherent right or wrong of killing which could be argued by some as a basic religious tenet didn't play into it as much as the understanding of death - the idea that we are mortal and are going to certain death and there is no real saving grace that is very unreligious when you think about how many religions promise a life after death scenario. I haven't read the books so I don't know if there was more religion in the books. Personally, I feel it was much more my teen niece's style than my style, but I didn't feel it was a total waste of time. I am glad that the basic humanity came through - the girl Rue who helped Katnis, etc. but it was still pretty viscious and at times too disturbing for me, as I don't normally watch a lot of violent movies, I am not all numbed up to it.

      March 26, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • chrisrapier

      Sigh, she's not inserting religion in to the movie. Show me where she said that anything in the movie was a religious symbol. Please, show me that sentence. She is writing about an important topic (violence and war) in terms relating to Christians during a period important to Christians using pop culture as a touch stone. Please tell me how that is inserting religion in to the movie? She's doing the exact opposite.

      March 26, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  17. svscnn

    Somebody is taking her entertainment choices a bit to seriously.

    It's only a movie, Mrs. Tumminio.

    ...a movie

    ...nothing more.

    Jeesh.

    March 26, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
    • chrisrapier

      You do know the author wrote the series as social commentary right? Oh wait, it's just a book so we shouldn't see anything in it more than mindless entertainment. Maus was just a comic book. Schindler's List was just a movie. etc etc etc...

      March 26, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  18. sancho

    Okay, I'll skip the movie. Doing my part!

    March 26, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
  19. Andrew S.

    Overall, this article was an interesting read. But it was a bit factually flawed: "...the government of Panem, the Capitol, has a website with its own government domain, just like the United States or China or Fiji does." Actually no it doesn't have its own domain. The .pn country code is assigned to the Pitcairn Islands. You may want to do a bit more research in the future.

    March 26, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • chrisrapier

      Yes! Excellent point and, obviously, it completely undermines everything else she has to say.

      Pedantic much?

      March 26, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • River

      Sure it does – I clicked the embedded article link and it took me straight to the site. The sounds are coming through my speaker as I type. /thecapitol.pn/ Do a bit more research next time.

      March 26, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  20. Rob

    IT"S A MOVIE!!!!!!!

    March 26, 2012 at 5:03 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.