A land where the trains always run on subjective time. Stories and reflections by Fred Warren.

Hunger and Insomnia — March 25, 2012

Hunger and Insomnia

Further ruminations on The Hunger Games. I don’t know why I’m motivated to write about this at length, other than the fact that my mind tends to wander when I’m jet-lagged and wide-awake at 3am in Germany.

At right is a very cool unofficial map of Panem created by David Arvizu.

I saw a Fox News article today featuring parents who were wringing their hands over the violence portrayed in the Hunger Games movie. Paraphrasing: “Oh, dear. Should I take my ten-year old to see this? All her friends are going.”

Once upon a time, Americans were renowned for their homespun common sense.

No longer.

1. A precocious ten-year-old might enjoy the book if read in the company of their parent(s). Anybody who takes a child younger than 13 to see this movie isn’t thinking clearly. As some of the worried parents correctly observed, on-screen violence is different from violence described in a book. The gap between word and imagination creates a buffer for the mind. There’s no similar cushion in a visual image. It’s the difference between a roller coaster ride and an automobile crash.

2. PG-13 does not mean “pretty good for 13-year-olds.” It means “Parents strongly cautioned: some material may not be appropriate for children under 13. Read the whole definition here. Whatever you may think of the MPAA, this rating should be taken seriously. In my opinion, there are very few movies of any sort that ought to be viewed by school-age children without direct parental supervision and plenty of discussion afterward. This goes for books, too. Having trouble getting your kids to talk to you? I guarantee they’ll want to talk at length about this or any other movie if you keep your cool and treat them like thinking beings.

3. Whatever your childrens’ ages, read the book first yourself, and/or read it along with them. It’s a good story, and by the time you’re done, you’ll have a pretty fair idea of whether your particular children will be able to deal with the film version. If they can’t handle it, don’t cave to peer pressure and send them anyway.  Wait a couple of years and watch the DVD together.

4. For those who would ban the book and movie altogether: We live in a violent world. Thousands of very young children, including some in America, are experiencing real violence every day that makes anything offered on the big screen look like tiddlywinks. We don’t want to unnecessarily and prematurely expose our children to extreme violence, but by the same token, anyone who thinks they can isolate their children from the violence in our world is not thinking clearly. It’s on the news, in the street, and on the playground.  The Hunger Games doesn’t glorify violence. The story clearly shows how violence damages everyone involved: the perpetrator, the victim, and the witnesses. Katniss’ example is inspiring—she is thrust into a battle for her life, but in the end, she doesn’t let it take her soul. Even in self-defense, she knows there is a line she must not cross.

5. Older teens can benefit from the themes presented in this story. For young people living in a free society, the idea of tyranny is, thank God, an alien concept. The Hunger Games is an illustration, admittedly speculative and caricatured, of life under a tyrant regime. According to the author, it’s a modernized retelling of the old legend of King Minos, who exacted an annual tribute from his Greek subjects of their young people, whom he then fed to his Minotaur. This is tyranny. There are two classes in a tyranny—the tyrant, with his hangers-on, and everyone else, the slaves. Tyranny must have its own way, no matter who gets hurt in the process. Tyranny will take your children and feed them to its monsters, just to remind you who’s in charge. Tyranny decides where you will live, how you will work, what you can say, and when you will die. Tyranny is easy to accept and difficult to escape. Fighting tyranny will put you and everyone whose life you touch at risk. And, as in the story, tyranny could take root here, in America, with less effort than we care to admit. It’s a timely warning to our next generation.

6. I said yesterday that the violence in this movie didn’t seem to be polarizing and people are mostly giving a pass to this aspect of the story. I could be wrong about that. In the course of casual websurfing, I’ve seen some marked differences of opinion, though the lines aren’t being drawn the way I expected.  Social conservatives are disturbed by the depiction of child-on-child violence and think it’s gratuitous and possibly traumatizing for children. Reference this discussion at Schlock Mercenary in response to a review of the movie by Howard Tayler, a webcomic artist not unfamiliar with violent action. Liberals prefer to frame The Hunger Games as a bold statement against violence, but some are saying the filmmakers didn’t go far enough in making the bloodshed shocking and repulsive. Compare the review at National Public Radio, which accuses them of moral cowardice. It seems violence in the pursuit of pacifism is no vice.

7. Although the mainstream critical reaction has been mostly favorable, the movie geek community is tut-tutting over inconsistencies in the world building. Example: “How can a society with such advanced technology not have cell phones?” Well, civil war has a way of destroying infrastructure, and in a tyranny, or any other centralized government, money dissipates exponentially with distance from the leader’s crib. These folks are also dismayed that we’re not watching more intellectual movies from France and Sweden, with subtitles.

All right, enough already. Maybe there’s an Ingmar Bergman film playing somewhere on TV, though I expect it will have German subtitles.

Harry, lad, we hardly knew ye… — July 15, 2011

Harry, lad, we hardly knew ye…

So, it seems we’ve reached the end of the Harry Potter saga, with the release of the final cinematic installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. I suppose I ought to say a few words, in memoriam.

My initial reaction to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books was, “Oh, this is a school story.” Something on the order of Owen Johnson’s “Lawrenceville Stories,” or Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Ann of Green Gables books. Setting the magic aside for a moment, It takes a fairly average orphan boy living with put-upon relatives and sends him to boarding school, which opens up a whole new world of opportunities, and obstacles. He has to deal with the usual problems of getting to class on time, managing his studies, coping with a couple of teachers who hate him for no obvious reason, standing up to bullies, and playing sports. Yeah, the teachers can turn you into a newt, and the sports involve chasing homicidal soccer balls whilst perched upon flying brooms, but the basic issues are pretty much the same. 

We watch him grow up, one semester at a time. He finds a couple of true friends who stand by him in both good times and bad. He learns that lying and cheating may simplify his life short-term but always come back to bite him in the end. He finds mentors who teach him about courage, loyalty, and honor. He learns to be clever and resourceful. He discovers strengths, and weaknesses, he never knew he had. We like this kid. He reminds us of us, on our better-than-average days. We want to know more about him.

But it doesn’t end there. Harry discovers there’s evil in the world more dangerous than some bully shaking him down for lunch money, and this evil threatens him and everyone he cares about. The evil seeks power for its own sake and uses people as a means to that end. It’s a serious evil, deadly, humorless, and focused. It’s not enough for Harry to hide or run away from it. The evil has to be confronted and defeated, and he’s the only one who can put an end to it, once and for all. We know the stakes can be this high in our world, but it’s the kind of situation we might encounter in a war or a civil revolution. The sort of situation we hope never to experience. Better Harry than us. We read on.

Coming back to the magic, it’s an odd sort of magic–a technological magic based on exotic chemistry and the power of words. It’s used mostly to simplify tedious, mundane tasks and create elaborate practical jokes. Anybody looking for Witchcraft 101 here will be mightily disappointed. Substitute ray guns for the wands, and you’ve got a passable science-fiction world.

The most powerful magic in the story isn’t magic in the conventional sense at all. Love, unselfish and sacrificial, turns away the supposedly unstoppable evil without the benefit of incantations, potions, or charms. This same love sustains Harry throughout his journey, rescues him again and again against impossible odds, and is the key to his final victory.

This, for me, is what raised this series above the conventional school story or frivolous fantasy. There’s truth here, if we have eyes to see, and it clearly resonates with a culture starved for truth, even if it’s veiled in fiction. It’s the heart of the story. The Boy Who Lived, the boy evil couldn’t kill, who overcame death through the power of a love brave and generous enough to lay down its life for others.

Sounds familiar, somehow.

For additional reflections and retrospective on Harry Potter, check out E. Stephen Burnett’s posts at Speculative Faith, commentary from Andrew Peterson at The Rabbit Room, and a nice article by Sarah Pulliam Bailey at


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