The Hunger Games- The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Goes to a Popular Movie




My son and stepdaughter have both read the first two of the three Hunger Games books.  Last night my stepdaughter who had already seen the movie was sick on a night the family had planned to go to the movies.  So my son and I went to see The Hunger Games.  I knew from the commercials and from what the kids had said that this would be a bloody and – if this distinction can be made – violent odyssey.  I anticipated that it would be grim and that I might find myself hating the ways in which I would be drawn into a post apocalyptic spectacle.  Instead I found it to be a delightful, if as bloody as advertised, coming of age movie that rang truer to my current personal experience than I would have expected.

The premise of the movie is that two children are chosen from each of twelve districts to represent those districts in an annual reality show akin to Survivor – except that here those who don't survive do, in fact, die, - frequently killed by the other "players" who are armed with weapons to murder each other.  The premise had been aired in  commercials that gave the impression that there was a sado-masochistic relationship between an all-powerful elite and a destitute and disabled set of underlings.  And yes, this movie does explore that, but it equips the underlings – not with masochistic tendencies (OK, some of them have those), but with skills and more importantly virtues that contrast with the morally vacuous standing – and just simple cunning – of the tyrants. 

This, then, is a story of good versus evil, but with a twist.  One of the good guys wants to “win”, not by surviving, but by retaining his integrity, by not letting the bad guys alter his essential approach to living.  His partner – and it is complicated but also necessary to have partners in a fight to the death – cannot retain her integrity if she or they are to survive.

On a much less life and death scale, I feel like I have been fighting the institutional hierarchy to wrest from them the necessary resources to have my program survive.  Simultaneously, and in ways that are apparently unrelated, the President has decreed that employees of the institution will no longer have birth control covered by our health insurance.  In both cases I feel firmly on the higher moral ground (and there is more than a little irony there) and thoroughly outgunned.  And the struggle to use what weapons I have available to me – including allying myself with entities that do not have my interests in mind, dovetails more neatly than I had imagined into the plot of the movie.

On the analytic front, I have been reading the works of Donald Winnicott.  He was a British Physician, originally trained as a pediatrician, who used his insights about kids and parents to help psychoanalysts learn how to set up the treatment space as a play space – an idea first introduced by Freud (since writing this I have learned that Freud's space was actually a little more like a battleground than a playground).  But Winnicott clarified in an essay about location of cultural space that the play space is a space that is intermediate between the external, outside space of action – the behaviorally determined space of reacting to a world that evokes behaviors – and the cerebrally determined internal space of the mind – a space that pulls us to withdraw into its infinitely compelling dreams, fantasies, and constructions. 

Winnicott’s position is that we need to find a space to play – a space to engage both behaviors and fantasies – to engage simultaneously with ourselves and with others – in order to integrate ourselves and to discover who it is that we are.  He proposes neither that the unexamined life is not worth living, nor its opposite, that the unlived life is not worth examining, but a dialectical fusion of these ideas – that the well lived life involves engaging both our private, internal, vulnerable selves and our external, active, powerful selves in a stimulating, fun, engaging middle ground where we play, feel, and touch each other while also remaining connected with those aspects of ourselves that can’t be seen touched or felt by others.

The intersection, then, of the movie with my world is just such an interstitial space.  It allows me to imagine my vulnerable self - the one that is beset by the administration - endowed with powers - to shoot an arrow, to run fast and hide, to retain my integrity, that will allow me not just to best the other lower level administrators that I am pitted against, but to expose the corruption of the higher administration.  My sense from the excitement of both my son and stepdaughter about this movie is that it is connecting with a similar space for them – it may mirror for them the struggles that they have against oppressive others like their parents or school authorities, or whoever it is that would tell them to march to the beat of an external drummer while they are feeling within themselves their own pulse and there own pace, which in turn is what the movie is portraying being enacted by the protagonists, each in his or her own way.

The Hunger Games’ Chief oppressor uses the games to maintain dominance and is very aware of the potential for the games to empower those he enslaves.  The victor from years past from our hero's district, now dissolute perhaps from guilt, who is an assigned mentor and who responds to the capacities of this year’s crop of a boy and a girl "tribute" from his district (the participants in the games) becomes transformed and genuinely supports them as he gains hope that they will actually win.  The two star crossed tributes – he who has the luxury to love wholeheartedly and thereby to retain his integrity, she who has greater obligations that necessitate compromise (compromise that, because of the politics of power, my son assures me will lead to unimaginably more awful consequences than any victory could ensure – but he has read the second book…); each of the principle characters is playing with the intersection of their internal world with the world that they encounter.  And each achieves a particular outcome with its own consequences.

My issues of supply have not yet been resolved.  I have lost some of my dignity, if not my integrity, already in what looks like it will become a prolonged battle.  We will see whether one can retain integrity and win the battle, despite what the Hunger Games proposes.  We will also see how the birth control issue gets resolved.  Our President, and his bishop, are attempting to enforce on us what the church has been unable to enforce on their own parishioners.  If those who are most educated and most devout are most likely to use contraception within the church, I think the bishop and my President – who I believe has lost credibility as a Jesuit by trying to impose health benefits that do not include birth control on faculty and staff who come from many faith traditions – will not win the war with this faculty.  But again, the Hunger Games, at least through two volumes, would suggest otherwise. 

I will ask my son and stepdaughter to get to work on the third volume while I continue tilting at the windmills of academe…

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Comments

  1. Your article was provocative and informative, except when your commentary ventured outside of your expertise regarding birth control. While I am a student of human behavior and not moral theology, I have the impression that Catholic moral theologians understand primary narcisssism and its vicissitudes better than we might.

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    1. I am intrigued, but also a little puzzled by your response. If you mean that Catholic theologians are onto something very powerful about our wish to procreate, I think you are probably right.

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