Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #057. First published in the St. Cloud Times Apr. 24, 2012

Times Writers Group columns can’t be reviews. I submitted one once; it got promptly returned.

But movies sometimes can be mined for meaning in a way that isn’t an entertainment appraisal. Two that I’ve seen recently have set me to thinking about how we understand our life, both as individuals and as a society, especially in this election year and April being National Child Abuse Prevention Month.

“The Hunger Games” has set several attendance records in its first few weeks of release. After seeing it, I made a point of renting an earlier one, “Winter’s Bone,” an Academy Award Best Picture nominee in 2010. Its protagonist, Ree Dolly, is played by Jennifer Lawrence (Best Actress nomination), who also has the role of the lead character in “The Hunger Games,” Katniss Everdeen. Talk of “the next Meryl Streep” isn’t far-fetched.

Ree, 17, and Katniss, 16, are trapped in dysfunctional cultures — the former in the rural poverty of today’s Ozarks, where her father has vanished after getting out on bail for meth production, the latter a century from now in the nation of Panem, a 12-district police state where the U.S. used to be. Both Ree and Katniss are gutsy, resourceful, brave, and instructive.

Ree has to deal not only with her father’s disappearance (which puts the family’s house at risk), but with her mentally ill mother, making her in effect the guardian of her 12-year-old brother and 6-year-old sister. Ree’s skills at hunting and scrounging are all that stand between the family and catastrophe, because the interrelatedness of all the surrounding kinfolk produces only suspicion, rivalry and resentment, not Amish-style communal barn-raisings.

Katniss is caught in the 74th edition of Panem’s fiendish transformation of “reality TV” into a gruesome, yet entertaining punishment for a revolt many decades earlier. Each of the dozen districts must supply every year one boy and one girl, between 12 and 18, to compete in a survival scenario that can be controlled by producers and editors like a Star Trek holodeck, and which everyone in the nation is required to watch. “The Hunger Games” conclude when only one of the 24 “tributes” (as they are called) is left alive.

Despite beatings, Ree makes it through, and doesn’t lose the house. Katniss returns home (along with Peeta, the other District 12 tribute, thanks to a last-minute rule change), mutedly triumphant, traumatized but not really guilty of murder, and poised for the next installment in the narrative.

“Winter’s Bone” and “The Hunger Games” are many-layered, with echoes of Greek myth and the Bible and Shakespeare. What most struck me is the resonance with two questions a recent writer says are unavoidably posed by the Titanic, another classic mythical event that has been inescapable in this centennial month: “Who will survive?” and “What would I have done?”

“Who will survive?” is of course the engine that drives “The Hunger Games.” Part of the appeal to the people of Panem is that there is a definite answer, no loose ends or shades of grey (which makes the extra-legal dual survival of Katniss and Peeta a political problem). You know when the Games are over, and then you can go about your business for another year without a thought to the tributes who didn’t make it.

I’d like to think that my answer to “What would I have done?” would be like Katniss’s, who volunteers to substitute when her younger sister’s name comes up in the lottery. But the more plausible self-portrait is in a chilling scene where the aristocrats, feasting in what amounts to their luxury boxes, are casually wagering on who will win while the adolescents are engaged in lethal conflict.

Ree Dolly, in the bottom 1 percent of the 99 percent, survives through pluck and a measure of luck. A society shouldn’t be structured in a way that forces her to grow up so fast, just as it shouldn’t drive Katniss Everdeen into a zero-sum game of life and death.

“What would I have done?” Here’s what I will do in this National Child Abuse Prevention Month and until November: Ask candidates for office, both state and federal: “What will you do to make sure that Ree and Katniss can be kids?”