Hunger Games and Hermeneutics

Perry Petrich at the Jesuit Post has a very different interpretation of the Hunger Games than I do.  His piece begins: “The Hunger Games are all about hope.”  Mine: “The Hunger Games are a tragedy.”  I don’t have a lot to add to what I already posted on his article:

The Hunger Games are not about hope but rather a strongly cautionary tale about the very possibility of constructing human societies that are not built upon deception, manipulation and death. Collins thinks we actually cannot construct such a society. So as a dystopian series they are rather pessimistic. They do give more agency to the individual than most dystopias, such as 1984 and Brave New World, but each character at one time or another is forced to sacrifice their own morality and self. There is no hope in that.

I think the Hunger Games are a caution rather than a proposal. I don’t think Collins ever gets beyond that.

So I think they are really, indirectly, about the need for grace.

That leads to two points I would like to make.

First, why discuss the “meaning” of the Hunger Games?  Can’t they be just a fun series?  Yes and no.  We all construct meaning while we read.  Reading is not just the sequential linking of isolated words on a page.  In between those words, readers are filling in gaps and constructing meaning as they go.  So the very act of reading is an act of interpretation.  The problem is that we simply often do not recognize this very basic fact, assuming that we are “getting” what everyone else is getting out of a book.

This is worth dialoguing about because I think that Perry gets the meaning, at least the meaning that I got from the Hunger Games series, all wrong.  To interpret them as books about hope is to miss the whole point and to dangerously reduce their potential impact to a rather simplistic and humanistic point, since the theological virtue of hope is definitely not present in the series.  Collins’ whole point is:

Any creation that is based on reaction is not creation at all but rather counter-repression.

Such is American politics today.  Such are the realities of the Occupy Movement and the Tea Party Movement.  Such will continue to be the realities of the Arab Spring if it doesn’t somehow recognize this key principle.  Actually, I saw a lot of the reality of the Arab Spring in these books even though they were written well before.  I saw a lot of the waves of protest throughout Europe incarnated in the United States in the Occupy Movement.  And I have witnessed the failure of them since they have so few Peetas and so many Katnisses and Gales.  As long as this is the case, Panem will continue to reincarnate itself in ever changing — and unassailable — forms.

Second, arguments over interpretation reinforce the common trope that the “author” is dead.  Interpretation cannot solely be based upon the intention of the author, since that intention is itself almost impossible to discover — even if you speak to her.  Collins herself has said that her books have a strong message about the environment.  That is definitely in the text, but I’m sure that there is much that people have found in her text that she would have never conceived and herself recognizes to be present only thanks to many readers and their imput.

Thus, the “meaning,” or rather “meanings” of a text are found not only in authorial intention, but also in the complex ways that the authorial unconscious, the idiomatic meanings of words, the context of the writing, the context of the reader, and the reader’s unconscious and intellect all interact.  While there was a long tradition in Catholic biblical theory to cling to authorial intention, this has too given way to more nuanced theories of interpretation.  Ever since Augustine who gave priority, not to the author, but to the inner illumination of the reader, “meaning” will only be discovered in dialogue.

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