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Hunger Games and Humanism

An independent, unsuspecting individual with a tragic past is torn from their home and thrown into a harsh, alien environment.  The individual is taken captive and forced to adapt and submit to the whims of a bizarre race that finds amusement in bloodshed. This person must use their wits and fighting ability to survive in this fierce arena and protect the ones that they love.

Thus goes the story of A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  The summary also fits plot of The Hunger Games, a little-known piece of fiction by Suzanne Collins that you might have seen in a bookstore–or in a commercial–or in an MTV music video–or via one of many online ads or websites featuring the latest news on the upcoming movie.  It appears that people are just slightly pumped up about this book and movie right now.

A Princess of Mars and The Hunger Games have key elements in common. Both feature copious amounts of action and violence.  Both feature main characters who are placed in uncivilized, hostile situations surrounded by bloodthirsty opponents.  Both books, while decently written, could not be considered high literary endeavors.  Both books are strongly humanistic, and do not even deign to imagine the existence of a Creator.

So what does a scrawny teenager from postwar Appalachia got that a buff captain from postwar Virginia doesn’t?

(Besides a much better movie adaptation and better marketing).  

It comes down to the amount of water in the glass.

John Carter’s glass is over half-full, where as Katniss Everdeen’s glass is definitely running on empty.

A Princess of Mars is the result of early 20th century optimism.  John Carter displays a strong sense of justice, compassion, and courage.  His is a world of black and white morality, where characters are clearly good or evil, and the hero always gets the girl in the end.  This is a strongly optimistic, romantic view of both human nature, and the nature of the universe.  The best of humans, as exemplified by John Carter, are essentially good and selfless.

In the 21st century, people aren’t nearly so optimistic.  Today, many dirty little secrets can be unearthed with a little creative web surfing.  The clear, straight lines of good and evil from the first and second world wars have been replaced by the murky battle lines of international terrorism.  The influence of media and celebrity are more powerful than ever.

In this day and age, Katniss Everdeen is the perfect anti-heroine.  She is disenfranchised, from a poor district that is severely exploited by the nefarious Capitol.  She isn’t trying to fight the system, however.  She’s just trying to survive.  When she’s thrust into the Hunger Games, it’s only to protect her family, not to make some kind of statement.  While she has some basic ideas of human decency and morality, she isn’t out to spread those ideas.  In other words, Katniss is an average girl who happens to be good with a bow and insanely protective of her family.  The best of humans, as exemplified by Katniss Everdeen, are morally neutral and ultimately self-interested

I really enjoyed both A Princess of Mars and The Hunger Games.  My own personal taste tends towards the fantastical and melancholy (I blame the Russian ancestry).  However, I wonder at the current trend towards darker fiction.  Maybe it’s art reflecting life.  Life is hard.  Many people in the world are just as disenfranchised as Katniss.  God has been reduced to a single letter in an abbreviation.  Belief in an all-powerful, just, loving Creator seems downright unrealistic.

Too much to hope for.

In her blog post, writer Sarah Sawyer wonders if hope leads to cliched fiction. She concludes:

“True hope doesn’t rely on everything working according to some predictable plan in which everything resolves perfectly at the conclusion. Rather, it grows in the most difficult of circumstances, stubborn as a tree burrowing into the cleft of a rock. True hope doesn’t need to ignore dark circumstances, but can shine all the more brightly in the midst of them. And true hope permeates Scripture and the human story–even the parts that seem the most bleak.”

Question is, does today’s audience consider themselves too cool for happy endings or honorable characters?  Have we outgrown hope–crazy, unreasonable, incredible hope that there is something worth fighting for, and dying for, beyond ourselves and our people?

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  1. March 23, 2012 at 6:31 pm

    Awesome post! Makes me really want to read both books now. Good food for thought in your question. At first, my reply was that I prefer realistic endings because life is not always “happy-go-lucky,” the good guys don’t always win, the guy doesn’t always get the girl, etc. I’m drawn to fiction (or movie plots) that that paint pictures of reality the way it is. I enjoy throwing plot twists at my readers when I write that are unexpected, and may seem cruel because life isn’t fair and is sometimes very cruel. But is that all reality is?

    For one has a personal relationship with Christ, isn’t hope crazy, unreasonable in human terms, and incredible? Our God is the only god who cared enough to share His glory, honor, and love with us when He created us, when we failed and fell into sin, He provided a way out and sent His only Son to die for us a brutal, bloody criminal’s death, taking our sins upon Himself, was buried in the ground for three days, and resurrected from the grave, conquering sin and death, victorious, redeeming and justifying us, making us clean, pure, and whole, and then ascended into heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father to prepare a place for us in eternity, and then sent His Holy Spirit to us to guide, comfort, and strengthen us all because He loved us that much. If that isn’t an extraordinary view of hope, then I don’t know what is.

    As I’ve been working on my novel (in many ways, an allegory for spiritual warfare), even if I am trying to create a realistic world, bleak and hopeless without Christ, I am struck by the need to continually inject the crazy, radical, ever-purifying love of God and the insane hope we have in Him by the world’s standards. I don’t think we’ve outgrown happy endings or honorable characters. I think we’ve outgrown the seeming cheesiness of many stories and are searching for deeper meaning, but we’ll never truly find it until we look outside ourselves and beyond this world. I think we’ve been blinded by harsh realities without God. I think we’ve been force-fed humanism by the mass media – that our only hope is within ourselves, not in a Higher Being (aka Jesus Christ), and we must merely survive this life.

    1 Peter 1:3-9 reminds us that God has given us “new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” It continues to say we’ve received an undying, pure inheritance kept in heaven for us, and through faith we are shielded by God’s power, and we are to rejoice even when we “suffer grief in all kinds of trials” because this will prove the genuineness of our faith, resulting in the “praise, glory, and honor” of Jesus Christ. We have living hope in God through Jesus Christ evidenced in our life by the Holy Spirit. Our life story should reflect that, and the stories we write should reflect that.

    Okay, long rant done now. :o)

    • April 21, 2012 at 3:30 am

      “I don’t think we’ve outgrown happy endings or honorable characters. I think we’ve outgrown the seeming cheesiness of many stories and are searching for deeper meaning, but we’ll never truly find it until we look outside ourselves and beyond this world. ”

      I like this! Good thoughts. And the difficult thing is, because God’s love is just so radically amazing, injecting it into a story is going to automatically make that story seem “unrealistically hopeful”, even if the content is still quite gritty. However, maybe that will also draw people to the Greater Truth that is Christ Jesus.

      • April 21, 2012 at 7:33 pm

        But the reality is in Christ, we can hold onto that “unrealistic hope” by the world’s standards and yes! I think absolutely it can be used to point back to just how wonderful it is to be secure in an intimate and personal relationship with Jesus Christ!

  2. March 28, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    Interesting comparison, Janeen! I haven’t read Princess of Mars, so I can’t speak on the difference between it and the Hunger Games, but I know one of the reasons I stopped reading the Hunger Games after the first book was its bleak outlook on life.

    If you look at what’s happening in the world right now, it’s easy to become pessimistic, and dystopian fiction reflects that view taken to an extreme. Despite the popularity of the genre, I believe people want a reason to hope. They don’t want simplistic answers, but they have a desire to believe that good will win in the end. And we have the privilege of showing a reason to hope!

    By the way, thanks for mentioning my post.

    • April 21, 2012 at 3:33 am

      No problem! You tend to have intimidatingly deep thoughts in your blog–might as well bless others with them. ;-)
      I agree that people still want a reason to hope. Perhaps that’s why there’s such an interest in dystopian love stories. Acceptable realism, and yet that injection of ridiculous romance that gives the heroine something (someones) to hope in…and also stress out about, but that’s another issue.

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