I got worked over pretty good a while back for suggesting that a Judeo-Christian worldview is essential to good storytelling. So it was with great joy that I read a fascinating article about What The Hunger Games Miss by Katie van Schaijik. She begins by quoting political pundit Mark Steyn’s summary of the film:
It seems to me there is something empty about the Hunger Games. In the end the stakes aren’t big enough for it to quite work. There’s nothing primal at stake in the Hunger Games, in part because I assume the author doesn’t subscribe to any particular transcendent meaning to life. I think there is a kind of absence of that in the book. (emphasis mine)
For the record, I haven’t read the book nor seen the movie. I’m simply commenting on the observations of others to the series and how it applies to the point I sought to further in that post. And the above observation resonates with my thesis. Here’s my conclusion:
The naturalist might believe life is a colossal accident, and that when we die we return to Nothingness. But if that’s the case, not only will my existence be irrelevant, so will my stories. The struggle for survival has little consequence — in the existential or fictional sense — if there is no afterlife, if nothing really eternal is at stake. Ultimately, for the naturalist, the only real dramatic tension is how long she can stave off the inevitable advance of cold complete Annihilation.
Not prescribing “to any particular transcendent meaning to life,” as Steyn put it, removed the bite from the movie. It’s the same reason I suggested that a Judeo-Christian worldview and moral absolutes are necessary to compelling story-telling. For which I got pummeled. However…
Without a “transcendent meaning to life… the stakes aren’t big enough.”
Really, it’s a pretty simple concept.
Interestingly enough, some Christians have extracted significant spiritual meaning from the movie and book. A good summary can be found in Tori Ackerman’s Does the ‘Hunger Games’ have a Christian meaning? wherein some readers articulate biblical themes found in the story, going so far as to compare the main character Katniss Everdeen to Jesus and Moses.
This disparity of opinions is fascinating. Perhaps it’s representative of the nature of art; we bring our own worldviews and expectations into every story. Meaning resides with the readers, as much as the author. Nevertheless, while some see The Hunger Games as a reflection of the Gospel, others see it as lacking any transcendent meaning whatsoever. Ms. van Schaijik is of this latter camp:
The drama takes place on a temporal scale. There are no absolutes. There are no intimations of immortality, no suggestion of the promise of justice in eternity.
…Though the characters are engaged in mortal combat, and confronted with supreme moral challenges, none appears to have any thought of God or the possibility of an afterlife. That human life is surrounded by the supernatural and that our acts and choices may have consequences more ultimate than death seems not to occur even to the most sensitive and self-giving characters. (emphasis mine)
This was the point that some of my objectors missed (or refused to concede) in my initial post. Just because a character is “engaged in mortal combat” does not mean something “primal,” something “transcendent,” is at stake. Sure, your protag might be fighting for her life. But if there are “no absolutes …no intimations of immortality, no suggestion of the promise of justice in eternity [and no] possibility of an afterlife,” nothing really matters. It’s the equivalent of building a beautiful sand castle in the path of an approaching tsunami.
It leads the author to conclude:
Can anyone think of an example of great literature that is similarly bereft of the divine? I can’t.
This lack renders the drama unreal in a rather problematic way. In truth, the “breath of the eternal” (to borrow Kierkegaard’s phrase) animates the ethical sphere, and all great human drama, real and fictional. When it’s left out, the inescapable impression is that the author is asserting—or perhaps unintentionally insinuating—something definite, namely this: the question of God need not enter the picture. It’s irrelevant. (emphasis mine)
That’s an interesting suggestion: The writer who lacks a transcendent moral center may be “asserting—or perhaps unintentionally insinuating” that a transcendent moral center (i.e., “the question of God”) is unnecessary… to life or story. Like her character, the author need only survive until, well, the Existential Tsunami washes her into Oblivion.
Does Katniss’s survival summon something bigger than her? Does her struggle manifest the larger struggle of Ultimate Good versus Evil? Apparently, for some it does. Whether the author intended it that way is another story.
Either way, Steyn and van Schaijik illustrate a larger point about how one’s worldview shapes their fiction. The measurement of a truly “transcendent” story is not one that simply puts a character’s life at stake. It’s a story that appeals to a divine moral urgency, a Beauty that beats at the heart of the Universe, a cause of Justice that is bigger than any one character or tribe. A story without those things is simply… a sand castle.