We are excited to present the third in our 2016 series considering how our watching, writing, and talking about cinema might contribute to God’s unfolding shalom in our communities and world. If you are considering responding to our call for submissions for this series, we encourage you to do so. We have only accepted three thus far, so there is still room for your contribution.
Also, this article includes SPOILERS for the Hunger Games franchise. – Editor
“Oh my gosh, you have to read these books!”
“Oh my gosh, you have to read these books!”
She said this to me with the exuberant earnestness of youth, impassioned by her newfound literary love. The other teen girls nodded enthusiastically, having become evangelists for these popular dystopian novels. I had heard of these books before, about Katniss Everdeen and her violent odyssey through a series of “Hunger Games.” As the girls’ youth pastor, this conversation convinced me I needed to be more familiar with the cultural phenomenon. Just as I had read the Twilight series in their heyday, I borrowed and quickly devoured Suzanne Collins’ young adult trilogy. Reading the books, I understood why these girls were so enthusiastic not only about Katniss, but about sharing her story with me as a significant adult figure in their lives – The Hunger Games series was a parable for their own experience as teenagers.
The film adaptations of young adult fiction have become a mainstream phenomenon. The first three Hunger Games films each set records at the box office, and the series is the 15th highest-grossing film franchise of all time, having grossed over $2.9 billion worldwide. But just as the adults in the Hunger Games’ Capitol exploit the young for their own amusement, when adult audiences embrace these films as forms of dystopian escapism, they risk becoming mere spectators of common, present-day teenage struggles – isolation, anxiety, questions about identity and purpose. We may feel like we “know” young people better because we’ve embraced populist youth culture, when in fact we’ve merely been entertained. Viewing these films may be an unhealthy salve for numbing ourselves to the cultural realties of the exploitation or abandonment of youth
The Hunger Games films are indicative of the sub-genre of the young adult adaptation in both their popularity and their prophetic insight, particularly in their portrayal of the cultural phenomenon of the systemic abandonment of youth. As young adult adaptations grow in the mainstream market, how are we to respond in the North American church? This essay will explore this recent young adult adaptation franchise as both critique and commodification of the relationship between adolescents and adults. Further, these films offer unique insights into the upside-down values of the kingdom of God, a spiritual economy of shalom where “the little ones” of Jesus —children and youth—are elevated and embraced without being abandoned.
In his 2004 book, Hurt: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers, professor Chap Clark coined the phrase “systemic abandonment” as a description for the large-scale isolation he saw among teenagers in youth ministry contexts. Using an ethnographic study of a particular region in California, as well as a historical study of the practices in medieval England regarding the movement from childhood to adulthood, he began to unearth the largely hidden, anxiety-ridden world of teenagers in North American culture. This anxiety stems from the high expectations placed on teens by adults. Parents, teachers, coaches, counselors, and even pastors add pressure to teens’ questions of identity and vocation while often leaving them to figure out solutions to such significant questions on their own. Young people are pushed, challenged, and molded to fit within adults’ agendas and expectations. Teens are left with the belief that, on the whole, adults have hidden motives and agendas for them. Theresa O’Keefe summarizes Clark’s findings:
In response, teens feel responsible for their “growing up.” Furthermore, they feel that adults expect that teens should already know what is needed for adulthood, thus do not need adult direction. Teens find themselves in a double-bind: they want to seek help from caring adults as life becomes more challenging, but they believe they are expected not to need help. Believing that they should already know what they are doing drives teens to spurn adult attention, even as they deeply desire it.
The reasons for this abandonment are myriad. Factors include divorce and the dismantling of the traditional nuclear family; career instability and longer working hours; adults’ own emotional dilemmas and crises; and a disconnect between teens and adults via schools, malls, and marketed entertainment. Clark states, “In sum, systematic abandonment by institutions and adults who are in positions originally designed to care for adolescents has created a culture of isolation” (Clark, 55). As adults deal with their own “adult” problems while also projecting both high expectations and pessimistic sentiments on teenagers, youth feel like they’re left on their own. Sometimes adults deal with their issues by projecting personal dreams onto their teens, a sort of wish fulfillment in an attempt to live vicariously through the societal successes of their adolescent children. This emotional and vocational weight placed on teens becomes overbearing and pushes teens further away. Clark goes on to describe “the world beneath,” a hidden culture where adolescents support one another and navigate their world in relative seclusion from prying, agenda-driven adults.
Playing the Hunger Games
This phenomenon of systemic abandonment is illustrated in young adult film adaptaion franchises in frightening clarity. In The Hunger Games, the titular sport involves electing two children or teens from the various districts in a dystopian society and forcing them into violent combat for the entertainment of the lavish Capitol. While the games themselves are the central, narrative conflict, what’s culturally significant is the way media is used to depict Katniss and the combatants. The films illustrate this by showing us Katniss’ turmoil over the role assigned to her, her in-the-moment performances, spectators watching her on screens, and her conflicts with authority figures afterwards. Katniss is very aware of her performance for the audience of adults, and uses this to her advantage in key situations. For example, in the first film in the series, The Hunger Games, with only herself and Peeta alive at the end of the game, and only one victor allowed to leave the arena, she proposes a Shakespearian solution to their audience—a lovers’ suicide, a desperate act which subverts the agenda of the game-makers. We see everyone’s reactions.
In Catching Fire, the victors Katniss and Peeta are given celebrity status and toured around the country as images of propaganda for the Capitol. The film shows us both the manipulated images and the behind-the-scenes process that created them. Katniss repeatedly pushes back against this identity forced upon by the various adults in her life. Her mentors and captors give her a script to follow, but in her adolescent differentiation, she refuses to fit into any handed-down agenda. Now a threat to the Capitol, she is placed in a special Hunger Games in order to both humiliate her and destroy her—for the Capitol elite, the underground movement she embodies as the Mockingjay cannot be allowed to perpetuate. During these games, she learns that she’s not the only one manipulating both the situation and how the situation appears to the audience.
Yet this adult-driven propaganda continues even after she is rescued by the underground rebellion of District 13. In the “part-ified” third film in the series, it is revealed that many players within the second Hunger Games, including the gamemaker, were there to protect Katniss in order to save her and make her into the “Mockingjay” figure. She was unaware of the plot, and she doesn’t respond favorably to these schemes for her life. In Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2, she is dressed up and followed around by a camera team to create “propos” (propaganda pieces) intended to inspire and unite the various districts in rebellion against the Capitol. Though outside the Hunger Games, Katniss finds herself in the same position—she is given a script, a forced identity, and left to be responsible for her own survival by the adults who continue to manipulate her. She begins to realize that whether it’s by President Snow of the Capitol or President Coin of the rebellion, she is being used. Even with caring adult mentors like Haymitch, Katniss is nevertheless isolated on her Mockingjay pedestal and prone to topple.
The film series also illustrates this tension between Katniss’ forced and personally-desired identities in the elaborate costumes given to Katniss to wear. She is literally dressed up by others, her own clothes taken away so she can perform in elegant costumes for the amusement of the Capitol audience. Cinna, while a short-lived mentor in her life, is also her tailor and costume designer. If clothing choice is indicative of identity, Katniss’s freedom and autonomy has been removed. Even when she is free from the Capitol and with the District 13 rebellion, new costumes—and a new identity—are placed on her shoulders as the “Mockingjay” symbol. These symbols and costumes were also key in the marketing of the films to audiences; I can still recall standing by a life-size Katniss poster in a theater. Jennifer Lawrence is sitting posed in her impressive crimson Mockingjay costume, a costume that she never actually wears in the film—it was all marketing, a real-life “propo” for the films.
The casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss was also a brilliant way to underscore the films’ theme. Lawrence impressed audiences with her Oscar-nominated role in 2010’s Winter’s Bone as a teenage girl living on the margins of society, forced to grow up far too quickly by protecting her family in a violent subculture of America. Ree was the perfect precursor to Katniss, at once spirited and vulnerable, tenacious in her ability to survive grim circumstances. Both Ree and Katniss are teenagers who have been thrust into the world of adulthood before their time due to the neglectful postures of the adults around them. Both have deceased fathers, mute mothers due to emotional trauma, and younger siblings who need a parental figure to care for them. Both must survive in a world where adults have systemically abandoned the young to fend for themselves. Lawrence has become known for playing these types of characters, from her roles in David O. Rusell’s films (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and Joy) to her portrayal of Mystique in the X-Men film franchise. Lawrence’s typical roles are as feisty, spirited young women who don’t fit within conventional societal roles, holding fast to her autonomy and toppling expectations from others. Lawrence even accomplishes this as a Hollywood starlet. She is known for speaking her mind and saying surprising things that diverge from what Hollywood considers “proper.”
In all four of the Hunger Games films, Katniss shares a common conflict: she is expected to perform. Whether it’s within the Hunger Games themselves or for the cameras of the District 13 rebellion, there is an agenda set for Katniss by the adults in authority. What makes Katniss’s story so compelling—particularly for the emerging generation—is the personal identification with the young heroine’s struggle against the identities placed upon her, climaxing with the emergence of her own autonomous values and principles which defy the expectations of those in control.
Be a “Haymitch” to Your “Katniss”
The Hunger Games saga falls into the same genre as biblical prophecy in its use of vivid imagery and storytelling to combat injustice, call a society to repentance, and promote shalom for all. The actual Hunger Games in the films are simply the result of the entire dysfunctional system within society, a system where the wealthy are comfortable and protected while the poor are marginalized and oppressed. So many of the biblical prophets call the people to repentance, to “stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:16b-17). This call to “take up the cause of the fatherless” is an appropriate exhortation for both the Capitol and our own culture, where youth are made fatherless and motherless by divorce, distraction, and indifference. The prophets remind us that we cannot experience shalom if our children and youth are not included.
Yet the common adult response I’ve seen to The Hunger Games is similar to the common adult response to youth culture – it’s intriguing when it makes us feel like we’re young, but it may not have the desired effect of a prophetic message. The young adult adaptation is indicative of this. With the success of Harry Potter, Twlight, and The Hunger Games, a significant number of young adult novels are now being adapted into films in the hopes of achieving similar blockbuster success. The goal doesn’t appear to be to foster empathy with teenagers or cause us to rethink our societal practices regarding the young; the goal is financial success. In this, The Hunger Games’ prophetic message inviting us into shalom may have been lost in the marketing. We need another invitation from someone who practiced shalom with children and youth.
Once, Jesus’s disciples approached him with a question: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He responded by inviting a child to approach him, saying,
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:3-5, NIV)
Instead of systemic abandonment, Jesus treated young people with a radical approachability. Children felt like they could approach Jesus without fear or hesitation. He recognized their lowly position within the greater culture; he also recognized our adult tendency to overlook their greatness or to brush them aside as nuisance or distraction. He offered a harsh warning for those who would set obstacles in the way of young people, for those who manipulate or hurt them, for those who abandoned them (Matthew 18:6). In the economy of the kingdom of heaven, the child and teenager are viewed through the lens of compassion and grace, as bearers of the image of God and capable of immense good. When Jesus said, “The kingdom belongs to such as these” (Mark 10:14), it is an invitation for adults to examine our role and responsibility in the lives of young people.
Just last week, I sat down for coffee with a high school senior. We knew each other from church, and I wanted to hear more of his story. He brought up the subject of movies. We chatted about the new Star Wars film, about the brilliance of Harry Potter, about how horror films scare us. Then we began talking about young adult adaptations—the Divergent series, the Percy Jackson novels, and especially The Hunger Games—and the role these stories have played in his life. It was more than just chatting about our opinions on films; the adult/teen divide dissolved for 90 minutes, and we could simply share about our hopes and dreams, our fears and questions. It was a tiny glimpse of shalom, a breaking-in of the kingdom of heaven for “such as these.”
I think of the teenage girl who shared her passion for the Hunger Games novels in her hands. She approached me because I was seen as approachable. I knew her, and she knew me. Yet I wonder how many teenagers in North American neighborhoods feel truly known by the adults in our churches. I wonder how many middle school or high school teens are on our radars. Perhaps each adult could prayerfully identify one teenager in his or her context. Perhaps the adult could become the advocate and a listening ear, someone in the teenager’s corner, a less-drunk, more-present “Haymitch” to his or her “Katniss.” Perhaps our culture of systemic abandonment would change.
These young adult adaptations offer a sobering picture of dystopian societies that practice an ethic of abandonment instead of approachability with their young people. May we watch these films with a renewed vision for their prophetic call, an invitation to practice shalom, to right the wrongs and practice justice for the marginalized. May we have the wisdom and grace to pace alongside and learn from the youth in our culture, to approach them and become approachable ourselves.
Joel Mayward is a pastor, writer, youth worker, and film critic living in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of “Jesus Goes to the Movies: The Youth Ministry Film Guide.” You can find Joel’s writings on film and spirituality at www.cinemayward.com. Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelmayward.
 O’Keefe, Theresa, “Growing Up Alone: The New Normal of Isolation in Adolescence.” The Journal of Youth Ministry. Vol. 13, No. 1. Fall, 2014. 64.