Friday, March 23, 2012
I've recently become an admirer of "The Hunger Games" phenomenon and went to see the local premier of the film last night – really, early this morning. In a macabre sense, the release of a film depicting the senseless, ritualized murder of children was timed perfectly for a week where the senseless murder and abuse of children has been a most disturbing reality, in Toulouse, France, among Kony’s oppressed legions of Africa and, allegedly, in Sanford, Florida. This is also the week when Jews begin reading the book of Leviticus, which focuses our attention on that now-defunct ritualized killing known as the animal sacrifice system.
In “After Auschwitz,” Richard Rubenstein writes: “Sacrifice is the drama of man’s hatred of God and his ultimate submission to him … Men achieve catharsis by symbolically acting out that hatred through ritual violence against the sacrificial victim, without being consciously aware of what they’re doing … In sacrifice, we overcome God, and, at the very same moment, we submit and recognize His inevitable victory….With dramatic force … the terrible lesson is born in on the community that it has only the choice of controlled, regulated violence or irrational and uncontrolled violence.” He says sacrifices allow us to channel our natural drives toward violence, hatred and subsequent guilt into an organized, contained ritual.
The short story “The Lottery” places these urges in a more modern context, as a community brings random, ritualized death on an innocent in order to placate the gods and channel their own destructive inclinations.
Several years back, I wrote about channeling violent urges toward children in an article describing the circumcision of my son: No parent should be denied this experience, even vicariously, of inflicting upon his child a ritualized blow so intense as to make him both shake and recoil, yet so controlled that no damage is really done, to signify that this will be the worst the child will ever know from his parent's hand. For it is from the father's hand that Abraham's knife dangles, every moment of every day.
So there is something innate in us that seems to crave violence, a drive piqued especially by brutality toward children. That’s why the Torah, before teaching almost any other lessons, makes it clear that God does not desire child sacrifice. Abraham learns that lesson when he binds Isaac to the altar and the Torah explicitly distances itself from Molech worship, which involved the killing of children.
In “The Hunger Games,” God takes the form of a totalitarian government ruling what was once called North America – there is no religion, per se – and the leaders of Panem are sadistic in their normalcy. (See a plot summary here) The level of their evil is so banal, so commonplace, as to barely be noticed. The people’s spirits have been beaten to a pulp after 73 years of ritualized child murder, or so we are led to believe. This is what the Third Reich would have looked like had it lasted another half century. Its leaders no longer strike fear – the President is played by Donald Sutherland, not Ralph Fiennes; the fashions are more bizarre than scary. No one screams in horror at the prospect of children being thrust into a nationally televised killing field. No one flinches when the kids are tortured with fire, starvation and genetically altered creatures that would have made Mengele proud. Only the snarls of the killer dogs sound remotely Nazi.
Into this world gone mad lands Katniss, the heroine, whose moral compass was set far from evil’s ground zero, the Capitol. Put in the most extreme situations, Katniss makes all the right moral choices and never let's that madness change her. She is forced to kill but never murders. She risks her life to save others, rising above the “Lord of the Flies” jungle into which she has been thrust. In a world where Jews seem to have become extinct, she is a worthy heir to Judaism's most lofty values. If there are Jews in Panem, we don’t them crying out against the evil. Therefore, there are no Jews.
The theater last night was packed mostly with young adults and teens, primarily girls. No surprise, although the books have had much more crossover demographic appeal than the “Twilight” series. What I liked was how the film’s positive moral message was reflected in the behavior of the crowd. Some wore Katniss pony tails or t-shirts representing the various districts ruled by the Capitol – but there was none of the weirdness of costumes worn at other cult mega-hits. There was some cheering and hooting at the beginning and the expected oos and aahs at Katniss’s first kiss. But for most of the film, there was silence. The viewers were rapt – dare I say, reverential, as they watched kids killing kids. When Cato, the most vicious of Katniss’s opponents, met his bloody demise, there were no cheers of the sort you might hear when the Wicked Witch melts or Voldemort is finally overcome. There is something deeper going on here than a simple victory of good over evil, and the young people present were tapping into that. I’ve been to jingoistic political events where adults were far less attuned to the banality of bloodlust. It made me wonder just how much this group saw Katniss as fighting their fight and bleeding their wounds. Whatever the reason, this room filled with several hundred young people was as quiet as a cathedral at the end.
There was little reason to cheer. Katniss is not so much a victor as a survivor. The evil apparatus remains in place. The gods of the government will demand the blood of more children next year, as expiation for the sin of rebellion. The ritualized deaths of the innocent will once again be the price for staying alive. The controlled, abuse of the young will keep chaos at bay. The kids seemed to intuit that, to an extent, what they saw on those killing fields of the Capitol goes on around them every day. Not just in Toulouse or Uganda, but everywhere, everywhere where children become invisible and human life becomes expendable.
In the end, “The Hunger Games” celebrates the indestructibility of the human spirit and the unquenchable thirst for freedom. Just in time for Passover.
(See a nice article from Tablet Magazine exploring Jewish connections to the series, and another tying it to Holocaust themes.)