If you haven’t read The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, then you know some one who has. The books and the movie adaptation, which opens today, have been the subject of an enormous amount of buzz for some time now. The series was hugely popular with young adults almost as soon as the first novel was released. Critics, writers and readers alike have been raving about it.
Set in a not-so-distant dystopian future, The Hunger Games is essentially about survival in the worst of conditions. A totalitarian government controls the nation of Panem — what was once North America and is now a vast nation of 12 “districts” and the Capitol. To keep its subjects in the districts in submission, this authoritarian regime holds a yearly tournament called The Hunger Games. Children from each of the 12 districts are required to submit their names for the games. One boy and one girl are chosen from each district by lottery in a ceremony called the Reaping to participate in the Games as “Tributes.” Katniss Everdeen, the 16-year-old protagonist, is the female tribute from District Twelve, the center of Panem’s coal mining industry and the poorest of the districts.
The twist? The Games are a fight to the death in a vast arena full of dangers even worse than the other 23 tributes trying to kill you. They are broadcast on national television and it’s compulsory to watch — to watch your friends, neighbors and children die.
While the children in some of the wealthier districts train for the Games their whole lives, Katniss’ only experience in any sort of combat is hunting (illegally) for food for her family to survive. Facing, and accepting, almost certain death, Katniss fights for her life against not only the other teenagers in the arena, but also against the government itself, which creates and prepares this death match, including all sorts of dangers, like “mutts” — mutated animals engineered for the sole purpose of killing.
Today’s Panem; yesterday’s Rome
In Roman times, entertainment for the elite was not quite so different. The gladiator games were some of the most popular forms of spectacle produced by the empire. Many gladiators were themselves slaves or otherwise at the most despised margins of society — not unlike Katniss. A gladiator, like the victorious Tribute, could become a hero, admired by his fans in the same way a kid might worship Eli Manning today. Like The Hunger Games, the gladiator games were a fight to the death and forced people into a life-or-death situation against their will. Thrust into the arena to face wild animals and other gladiators, they too were facing probable death at the hands of the imperial government for the pleasure of its subjects.
But the Roman games did not just pit gladiator against gladiator. Often, gladiators were put into the arena to fight condemned criminals who had been sentenced to death. These convicts had little to no training before entering the arena, being sent to battle someone who had trained heavily, possibly for years, in the art of man-to-man combat. Then, beginning with Nero after the 64 A.D. Great Fire of Rome, many Christians became such criminals. Eventually, one of the death sentences for Christians was to be thrown into the amphitheater with wild beasts and gladiators. While the persecution of early Christians varied from emperor to emperor, the reigns of Marcus Aurelius, Septimus Severus and Decius saw some of the most widespread and brutal abuse of Christians.
It was during the persecutions of Septimus Severus that St. Perpetua was martyred. The passion text describing the martyrdom of Perpetua and her slave Felicitas survives to this day as an example of the horrors that early Christians endured at the hands of imperial rule. In it, Perpetua is imprisoned and condemned to the arena after she refuses to make a sacrifice in the name of the emperor. As she awaited her execution, she patiently prayed and accepted her fate with four other martyrs. Despite her desire to die in the name of Christ, she still fights valiantly. She survives the attacks of wild animals, and is thus forced to fight a gladiator. Even the young gladiator cannot kill Perpetua — she has to guide his knife to her throat to consummate her martyrdom. As the passion observes, “Possibly such a woman could not have been slain unless she herself had willed it, because she was feared by the impure spirit.”
Perpetua and Felicitas, at the cost of their own earthly lives, refused to venerate the Roman state, instead remaining steadfast in their love of Christ. Katniss, at the potential cost of her life and her family, refuses to accept death at the hands of the Capitol, fighting not only for survival but also for the unlikely prospect of a better life. Perpetua seeks a better life — an eternal life — through martyrdom; Katniss through perseverance and her own strong will.
Even though they might only be stories, the passion of St. Perpetua and The Hunger Games remind us that persecution and cruelty against minority groups is not such a distant terror. The executions of Christians were turned into a form of public entertainment, and most Roman citizens gladly watched. In The Hunger Games as well, while children are forced to battle one another, the people of the Capitol view the games as though they are mere sport. Injustice and tyranny are timeless facts of life and are still all too present in the world, whether we choose to recognize them or not. It is the response to such brutality, however, that truly makes a difference. Katniss is a strong heroine who stands up for what she believes in. The passions of Christian martyrs are a real, constant reminder of wrongdoing, showing how many brave people died for Christians to be free — and they are still all too relevant.
The Hunger Games also reminds us that what we see as cruelty is not in fact so different from our own culture of entertainment, where everything can and will be televised. What we watch, especially reality TV, has the potential to become much more than just spectacle. We love to watch politicians beat each other down with petty jabs and personal attacks in the dozens of “debates” that are broadcast each election season. We take pleasure in elimination-style “reality” programs like The Bachelor. We revel in others’ misfortune on shows such as Hoarders or Intervention. From a safe distance, we watch and say, “I’m not like them,” and feel better about ourselves. But when we watch these people on a screen in our living room, are we really that different from the Roman aristocrats in the box seats at the Coliseum sadistically watching those “lesser” people fight for their lives?