America is storming theaters this weekend to see the new movie, “The Hunger Games,” based on the explosive bestseller by author Suzanne Collins.

Despite fast and furious debate about whether the book pushed a conservative or liberal perspective, the movie version is remarkably apolitical. And like the book, there is no mention whatsoever of any religion. The easy “tells” of a moviemaker’s worldview simply aren’t there. It is, at heart, a story of the courage and honor of a valiant heroine from a dystopian future who must fight to survive and to stay true to her values, despite being thrown into a brutal and bloody reality TV show.

But that doesn’t mean this movie about children killing children with the government’s blessing doesn’t have some very real parallels to the real world.

The story of the film, which follows the book remarkably closely, is about a future society, where the people of the once-United States had risen up in rebellion, only to be crushed by the central government. Now the “Capital” district retains an authoritarian rule over 12, impoverished, outlying districts, who must each year send two “tributes” – children between the ages of 12 and 18 – to compete in a life-or-death, televised arena called the Hunger Games.

These games not only remind the outlying districts of the complete power the Capital holds over them, but also promise reward for an entire starving district, should its tribute be the last one standing in the arena. It is, therefore, both the carrot and the stick of the central government.

The story then tracks the journey of one tribute, a 16-year-old girl named Katniss Everdeen (played by Oscar-nominated young star Jennifer Lawrence), on her battle through the arena.

The movie is satisfying, if not exactly stunning filmmaking. Some elements, unfortunately, were woefully neglected – like music (why was the score so pathetically blah?) and dialogue (sadly shallow and uninteresting for such a character-driven tale) – and some key moments of the book were not nearly as impressive as I’d imagined from reading it (the chariot parade where we first meet the “girl on fire,” for example, was poorly shot, a reflection of the reality that this film didn’t have nearly the budget it deserved). The directing needed a boost, too, as the choice to film the first 15 minutes of the movie with a hand-held camera was nearly nauseating.

But some fine acting – both by Lawrence and by Woody Harrelson (as Katniss’ gritty mentor, Haymitch) – and the excitements and horrors of the arena will likely leave both the book’s fans and the uninitiated pleased and entertained. The genuineness of Katniss, despite the surreal world around her, gives “The Hunger Games” a strong and memorable heroine that audiences will likely look forward to seeing again and again in the inevitable sequels.

But “The Hunger Games” does more than provide good bang for the box office buck. It presents some interesting questions about the consolidation of power under a central government. It presents an ominous, if veiled, warning in filming the outlying districts to resemble Jewish ghettos in Nazi Germany. And the arena’s apparent combination of TV’s “Survivor” with a Roman gladiator coliseum should make viewers uncomfortable with their own voyeuristic tendencies. Just how much bloodlust do we hold inside? And what really is “entertainment”?

Yet I’d like to focus instead on another parallel to the real world that came out in a conversation between the Capital’s President Snow and the games coordinator, Seneca Crane.

“Why do we have a winner?” Snow asks Crane. If the goal is merely intimidation of the outlying districts, he asks, “Why not just round up 24 children and execute them?”

The answer, he explains, is that allowing one district each year a small taste of victory gives the Capital’s subjects a spark of “hope,” and a little hope satiates the sheeple without inspiring them to actually rise up.

“A spark is not a problem,” Snow explains, “so long as it is contained.”

This devious tactic for retaining power and keeping the masses in line is clearly portrayed as diabolical in the future, yet in the present United States, it is practiced each and every election.

Take, for example, the Republican Party, which each election woos the teeming masses, the all-too-silent majority of pro-life voters, by presenting candidates – whether for president or Congress – who claim to value the life of the unborn. A small “spark” of hope.

But once the pro-lifers have voted the Republicans in, that hope is rewarded only by the proliferation of Republican power and not by any real action.

Do the elected representatives demand Supreme Court justices who insist all humans are endowed by their Creator with first and foremost the right to life? No. Do they battle to use the 14th Amendment to define a “person” as a child in the womb? No. Do they actually call a murder a murder and strive for an end to it like William Wilberforce once did about another evil, whether it costs them their job or reputation, or both?

Or do they instead, like President Snow, say, “Thank you for granting me power, but we need to ‘contain’ that spark of hope”?

By promising a false hope and delivering only small victories to keep that hope alive, the GOP establishment holds on to its power, and the government goes right on sanctioning the killing of children.

In the same way, the GOP elevates candidates who declare the need to rein in the federal government and reduce spending. But even when elected, their government keeps right on growing, and the national debt continues to spiral out of control.

The Dems do the same, by buying off their constituents with promises of “hope” to fix public education and welfare. Yet ultimately, the elected simply throw more and more money at the problems instead of drafting real solutions, all the while explaining why they need more taxpayer money, or, properly translated, why they need more power.

In “The Hunger Games,” Katniss and her fellow tribute, Peeta, spend the evening before the arena wondering if there is a way to beat the system.

“I just don’t want to be another pawn in their game,” Peeta says. “I want to show them that they don’t own me.”

He fears that being cast into the arena will change him, will make him a killer instead of kind. In the same way, I wonder how many of our elected representatives actually mean their campaign promises, actually intend to fulfill the hope we put in them, only to have the arena of the Capital change them.

In the end, Katniss is victorious, not so much over the arena, but over the Capital. It doesn’t change her. And this, more than winning or losing, gives the outlying districts real hope – and more than just a spark.

Jesus told the parable of a father with two sons, both of whom he told to go and work in the vineyard (Matthew 21:28-32). The first son said, “I will not,” but later changed his mind and went. The second said, “I will,” but he did not.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?” Jesus asked those listening.

“The first,” they answered.

Our politicians have become as the second son, saying they will do, but they do not; Katniss Everdeen is as the first.

Content advisory:

  • “The Hunger Games” contains fewer than 10, relatively minor, profanities and no obscenities.
  • The film is very light on revealing attire, showing only a shirtless male and a woman having her legs waxed. Sexuality is almost absent as well, confined to a portrayed romantic relationship between two teens that includes a couple of kisses and some hugging.
  • As for violence, the film is about teens and kids killing one another in a live, televised arena. Wounds and bloodshed are a core part of the story in several places. The brutal nature of the violence is depicted, however, with both realism and respect. It is horrifying, but not glamorized or overly gory. Several characters are wounded and bleeding, others fall dead to the ground in a blur of the camera; the most gruesome death is a boy whose neck is snapped by another, yet even this is done quickly and the camera cuts swiftly away. Some of the wounds, however, are fairly bloody – again: realistic, but respectful.
  • The film contains no religious or occult content outside of the minor profanities mentioned earlier.

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