This past weekend I watched the Hunger Games, the hit movie based on the trilogy by Suzanne Collins. I confess I dragged my feet a bit, although my two older sons convinced me I'd like it. And I did.
In the genre of dystopian futuristic societies, this is a powerful story of the worst and the best that humanity has to offer, steeped deeply in the lessons of Darwinian evolution. Although the narrative is somewhat juvenile, the movie is exquisitely shot. The cinematography is superb, and the acting, mixing old stalwarts and new faces, is excellent. Stanley Tucci does a phenomenal job as the snaky master of ceremonies. So do Donald Sutherland as President Snow, and Jenifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, the heroine.
Far in the future, power has been centralized. While few live in an opulent, decadent society driven by fantastically sophisticated technology, the vast majority inhabits the outskirts, divided into 12 districts. Barely surviving under miserable conditions, their sole job is to provide to those in the "Capitol," the heart of Panem. All similarities to the Roman empire are not a coincidence.
In fact, the games are a reinvention of the gladiators and the gruesome encounters in the Coliseum between man and man, and man and beast. Every year, each district must provide two representatives, selected from a group of 12 to 18 year-olds. To the delight of the people of the Capitol, the 24 youngsters must battle to death, until the last survivor, who is free to return to his/her district. Although I haven't read the books, I'm told they get even more gruesome than the movie. When I asked one of my sons why this isn't a video game yet, he said, "children cannot be killed in video games. That's a gold standard." Such morals never restrain fiction.
Weapons and supplies are provided, although getting to them can cost your life. The organizers make sure of it. The games become an exercise in the survival of the fittest, where "fittest" does not necessarily mean strongest or fastest. (Although these qualities help, especially when balanced.) As the story progresses, we see alliances forming against a powerful opponent. The twist, of course, is that in the end these alliances are bound to fall apart, since only one must survive. You enter into a group knowing only too well that anyone can stab you in the back. You can only trust yourself. Unless, of course, someone is willing to sacrifice for you.
Sacrifice may make evolutionary sense if it benefits the survival of the group. But what evolutionary purpose does it serve when there is no group and it's each for his/her own? Is sacrificing for someone else the greatest expression of love?
Even love can be a useful strategy, and we may wonder if the few instances of real affection between two of the players were genuine or self-serving. (A cynic would say that all relations are self-serving. I tend to hold my opinion of our species a bit higher than that.) Of course, the real test of these relationships could only be performed after the games, which is an impossibility. The one between Katniss and her male companion from District 12, Peeta, seems to be quite one-sided.
Stories like this explore a sad perspective on humanity: although we are able to develop remarkably sophisticated technologies—to the point of turning virtual reality into reality—morally we remain as primitive as the hunter-gatherers of our ancestral past. I commend Steven Pinker for his take on our collective betterment as a species in The Better Angels of Our Nature.
I hope that all the people that read Pinker's book or watch The Hunger Games will take this lesson home: that our moral betterment starts when we collectively make the choice of turning the protection of life into our banner.