“I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them, that they don’t own me.”

ImageThis spring two strikingly-similarly themed movies were released within three-weeks of each other.  Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods and Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games both tell the story of teenagers who are trapped in an artificially controlled environment to be killed by a totalitarian bureaucracy.  Both films calls this killing a “sacrifice”, though Cabin emphasizes this theme more strongly, and both films connect this child sacrifice to representations of violence in the mass media, though Games emphasizes this more strongly.

Thus both films have clear political dimensions, lamenting the way our social systems are designed to sacrifice some of us for the benefit of those in power.  The system is a bit more insidious in Cabin, because the sacrifices are rationalized as being necessary “for the good of society”, but both films play with the ways the system coerces its victims into “freely” choosing to participate in the method of their own death.

(Warning: don’t read any further if you don’t want to know how these two movies end.)

Most strikingly, both films end with two remaining teenagers, a boy and a girl. In both films, the girl is told that she must kill/sacrifice the boy to save countless other people.  In both films, the heroine refuses to kill her friend.  But, despite similar climactic scenes, there are importance differences between the films’ worldviews.  The Hunger Games is much more deeply aligned to Christianity than Cabin in the Woods.

At the climax of Cabin much more is at stake:  by refusing to complete the child sacrifice, the heroes Marty and Dana are condemning humanity to extinction at the hands of the “Ancient Ones”, evil Cthulhu-like gods who ruled the earth before the time of human beings.  In Games, however, the heroes Katniss and Peeta are fighting only for their own survival and ability to return to their families.  (In the novel they are fighting for food for their starving communities, hence the title “The Hunger Games”, but this element is not mentioned in the film version.)  More importantly, Katniss and Peeta are spared and allowed to return home, while Marty and Dana (along with everyone else!) die.

Obviously Joss Whedon is more pessimistic than Suzanne Collins.  Both films allow their heroes to gain some sort of political enlightenment and liberation from the oppressive system.  But in Games the heroes fight the system and survive, while in Cabin resistance is futile.  Yet there is more going on here than simply Collins’s hope in our ability to change unjust political structures.  The most important difference between the films is the way the heroes fight the system.  Though they (reluctantly) engage in violence throughout the film, at the climax of the film the heroes of The Hunger Games reject violence in a way that embodies a kind of Christian pacifism.

In both films, the heroes refuse to kill each other in the end, but they do so in importantly different ways. The heroes of Cabin are apathetic, even nihilistic.  In the end, they don’t fight the system, because they can’t see anything worth fighting for.  When given the choice of self-sacrifice, the opportunity to be a martyr, Marty is unmoved.  He will die as a sacrifice to save humanity or he will die along with everyone else, but either way he’s going to die, and it doesn’t matter to him.  He’s not just being selfish.  He reasons that if the only way humanity can save itself is by constructing a system of torture as evil as the demons the system is meant to keep at bay, then humanity isn’t worth saving.  And so Marty and Dana do nothing.  They rightly see that evil must never be done in the name of fighting evil, and their refusal to participate in the unjust system is admirable.   Yet they are entirely passive.

ImagePassivism is not the same as pacifism.  Christian love does not call us to do nothing to stop evil.  Pacifism is peacemaking.  It is active non-violent resistance, not merely passive non-participation. This is the insight of The Hunger Games.  Unlike Marty and Dana, Katniss and Peeta find a way to act in opposition to the system. Peeta plants the seed earlier in the film when he tells Katniss, “I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them, that they don’t own me.”  Katniss figures out how to do this at the climax of the film.  In full view of the cameras, she and Peeta begin to commit suicide.  If they die resisting the system (instead of dying as participants in the game), they become martyrs and their blood becomes the seeds of revolution.  The politicians running the game know better than to allow this.   They stop the show and pronounce Katniss and Peeta both winners.  But the damage has already been done.  The seeds of revolution have already been sown.

The end of Games isn’t a “happy ending” simply because the heroes live.  The ending is happy, because the heroes have defeated the system; they have achieved liberation.  The heroes of Cabin seem to think of themselves as liberated, too.  They, too, have broken the oppressive system designed for child sacrifice.  But they have won their freedom at the cost of human extinction.

The nihilistic implication of Cabin in the Woods is that human civilization, indeed creation itself, is founded on an original evil that cannot be defeated.  We will never be able to have a just social structure.  The best we can hope for is to “get off the grid”, to take a small group of friends and hide out in the wilderness.  Of course, this hope turns out to be illusory, because the system extends even into the woods.  The Hunger Games, on the other hand, has faith that creation is founded on an original goodness and dares to hope that through non-violent resistance, motivated by the power of self-sacrificial love, humanity can be saved.  God does not demand child sacrifice, and the oppressive system has already been defeated by the Resurrection of Christ.

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7 thoughts on ““I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them, that they don’t own me.”

  1. Pingback: The Cabin in the Woods: I don’t think we’re in Sunnydale anymore… « LiturgiGal

  2. Pingback: The Cabin in the Woods | Grooooovey Moooovie

  3. “The end of Games isn’t a “happy ending” simply because the heroes live. The ending is happy, because the heroes have defeated the system; they have achieved liberation.”

    Forgive my momentary cynicism, but I disagree that Katniss and Peeta have defeated the system; they have merely created a glitch in it. What we are left with is little other than a “feel good” moment that, akin to The Matrix, offers the author and filmaker a most perfect opportunity for at least one sequel, if not more. I believe it would have been a more profound ending if indeed they had eaten the berries together and defied the powers that be. In this alternate ending we would have not been [superficially] satisfied, but would have been able more clearly to contemplate the kind of social shift that would have more likely followed.

    What was even more unhappy with the ending was Katniss and Peeta agreeing to keep up the façade of happy romance. Yes, this perhaps lends itself to the inevitable sequel, but without a certainty of this, the falseness strips these two of their triumph.

    Love your insight, filmphilospher, but I think you missed it on that point. The Hunger Games, for me, fell short of the hype it burdened itself with. No question it was entertaining, but entertainment alone does not get me back to watch a film a second time nor recommend it to others.

    • Thanks for your comments, traildawg. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think “The Hunger Games” was a very good movie, either. I liked “Cabin in the Woods” much more. I was only thinking about the ideology of the two films. I guess I’m not as cynical as you about the happy ending in “Games”, though. I agree that the filmmakers are setting up a sequel (two actually). But, though I have not read the books, I do know enough about how Hollywood trilogies work to suspect that Katniss and Peeta’s moment of resistance will probably become the turning point in the fall of the oppressive government. We already get a hint of revolutionary riots in the first film. True, Katniss and Peeta haven’t completely defeated the system yet. But insofar as they have, in your words, “created a glitch in it”, they have achieved at least the first taste of liberation to come. … Or so I assume. We’ll have to wait for the sequel to find out for sure.

      • Hi John,
        I’ve not read the book(s) so I don’t know what to expect. The cynic in me appears in reaction to my wanting the film to stand on it’s own rather than pointing—clumsily, I think—to a sequel. The population of District One is immoral in its complicity with the oppressive government, but (again the cynic) I expect the sequel will take the easy way out by focusing on overthrowing the big bad government. There is a much richer, more complex, and ultimately more rewarding transformation for Panem that would likely prove impossible for most filmmakers (and authors, for that matter).

        Thanks again for getting my gray cells firing up. I was guided to your blog through your post on Terrence Malick’s film “The Tree of Life.” I’m glad for the visit. Paul

  4. >He reasons that if the only way humanity can save itself is by constructing a system of torture as evil as the demons the system is meant to keep at bay, then humanity isn’t worth saving.

    This is what makes the movie an effective satire: it makes the assumption that the threat that the establishment claims that it is suppressing, and justifies its actions and manipulations, is real – very real – and the consequences of its loosing are total. Its answer is to say that even if the worst consequences imaginable, farther than any analogous claim made in reality, are the result of ending that system, then so be it. To have the horror be defeatable, and to have some loophole or deus ex machina that allows the characters to have their cake and eat it too would make the thesis incomprehensible.

    But to say that the film is claiming that the ancient ones actually are waiting in the wings is to miss the point. The film is claiming that *even if they were*, this system wouldn’t be justified. And to say that Marty and Dana are passive is to miss that Marty and Dana (though Dana had a crisis of doubt at the last moment) actively fought to destroy the world, when all that was needed to save it was passivity from Marty, an honest loser character who was unmanipulated by the system – wasn’t secretly on full academic scholarship or a smart brunette – just a pothead who we thought was already dead a half hour ago, and who knows he will be dead at the end of the movie no matter what. He’s willing to possibly sacrifice the world in order to destroy the system that keeps it going. His only regret is that he won’t get to see it happen.

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