The 24 boys and girls selected at random to play in the 74th annual “Hunger Games” are sent off to their likely deaths with the games’ motto, “May the odds be ever in your favor!” This futuristic dystopian society has lost all sense of ultimate meaning in the universe and of any inherent dignity to human life. This motto reveals that the prevailing mindset in this culture is that our destinies are controlled by impersonal, random chance.
My dear, thoughtful wife commented that the film reminded her of the famous American short story, “The Lottery.” Perhaps you read it in school. The following is a plot summary from Wikipedia:
In a small village of about 300 residents, the locals are in an excited yet nervous mood on June 27. Children gather stones as the adult townsfolk assemble for their annual event, that in the local tradition has been practiced to ensure a good harvest (one character quotes an old idiom: “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon”), though there are some rumors that nearby communities are talking of “giving up the lottery.” In the first round of the lottery, the head of each family draws a small slip of paper from a black box; Bill Hutchinson gets the one slip with a black spot, meaning that his family has been chosen. In the next round, each Hutchinson family member draws a slip, and Bill’s wife Tessie—who had arrived late—gets the marked slip. In keeping with tradition, each villager obtains a stone and begins to surround Tessie. The story ends as Tessie is stoned to death while she bemoans the unfairness of the situation.
The author, Shirley Jackson, discussing her intent in writing the story said in a newspaper interview, “I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives.”
Suzanne Collins adds this element for a similar effect, albeit in a futuristic, “advanced” society that in many ways mocks our own. The children are chosen for the “games” in a similar fashion: slips with their names are placed in a bowl, which are drawn at random by the games representative. The story suggests that one can increase one’s chance of being picked by having one’s names entered multiple times as a form of punishment for aberrant behavior.
The central government’s use of this system of chance as a means of controlling the population echoes another dystopian classic, George Orwell’s1984. In Orwell’s portrayal of totalitarian oppression, the government uses a lottery as a means of controlling the masses. Orwell describes the Lottery this way:
The Lottery, with its weekly pay-out of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were millions of proles [common people] for whom the Lottery was the principal if not the only reason for remaining alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant. Where the Lottery was concerned, even people who could barely read and write seemed capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory.
The difference between trusting one’s future/destiny to blind, impersonal chance, or to a benevolent, personal God could not be more stark, nor the implications of this choice more profound. The slogan “May the odds ever be in your favor” function as a kind of blessing, or benediction. Consider the contrast with what is probably the most common benediction in the Bible, cited in church and synagogue service around the world (Numbers 6:22-26):
22 The LORD said to Moses, 23“Tell Aaron and his sons, ‘This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:
24 “‘“The LORD bless you
and keep you;
25 the LORD make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
26 the LORD turn his face toward you
and give you peace.”’
These are also words of blessing, having a similar function in the ancient Hebrew society to whom it was first given as “good luck” or “I wish you well” do today. Such words of blessing reveal who or what a people trust in for a secure, happy future. I would argue that when people believe their destiny is determined by random, impersonal chance, they are much more susceptible to manipulation and exploitation by the government, or by any kind of authority for that matter, than when they believe in a personal, purposeful force that is more powerful than the government that governs their future.
There is even a sense of that in the film. Katniss’s victory in the games is one by her courageous, sacrificial love for the other players. Her faith is not in the odds but in some higher moral reality she chooses to adhere to: one that rejects the kill or be killed ethos of the games and replaces it with one that respects the dignity of human life, and even values the lives of others over oneself. Thus, the central government views her as a threat in the end, not only because they cannot control her, but because they fear that she will inspire hope throughout the country in this same moral reality and thus fuel a national uprising.
President Snow, the presumed leader of the government, recognizes that “hope is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous.” He knows that to maintain political control and oppress the masses, he has to manage the degree and object of their hope. Katniss is dangerous because she inspires a lot of hope. While her message is not overtly biblical, she lives in a way that reflects such moral ideals as sacrificial love, using one’s power to protect rather than exploit the weak, and the inherent dignity of human life, all of which are derived from a biblical worldview. The government is horrified a the prospect of people putting their hope in such ideals, and instead offers them a little bit of hope that the odds will work in their favor.