This blog contains spoilers, both of the 80s movie "Dead Poets Society" and the recent publishing fad Hunger Games trilogy. If you haven't seen the movie, and want to, and/or if you have not read all three books in the series, and want to, you probably don't want to read the rest of this.
I am in the minority of people my age, especially those who graduated from my high school, which was also attended by the author of the screenplay for "Dead Poets Society" and which ostensibly is the basis for the school that serves as the setting for that movie. I am in the minority because I do not like the movie. I think it serves up a lot of potential and sets the stage for something great and then falls flat. I feel exactly the same way about The Hunger Games trilogy. My 15-year-old daughter got me involved in the first book, called The Hunger Games, and I read the last two, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, on my own. They have a great potential and set the stage for something great. And then the bottom falls out.
So here are the spoilers. In the movie, after all its talk about individuality and standing up for what is right even against great odds, the students all chicken out when it matters. When Robin Williams's character Mr. Keating is fired, the students can do nothing more than a semi-dramatic stand in an attempted protest. They cannot muster any sort of real defiance, much less any action. In short, they have not learned anything. They have quoted a few famous lines of poetry when it was cool among their little "society" to do so, but when the chips are down, they have nothing in the tank. One student even famously commits suicide rather than actually challenging authority. They are all, in short, pitiful.
The trilogy is much the same. Through the first two books, we follow with care several characters, most notably Katniss, through struggles with totalitarianism, hatred, slavery, and manipulation. There is some really good writing here, and we no doubt care deeply about Katniss and her closest friends. As the third novel, Mockingjay, progresses, it is clearly the best of the three, not only being the most engrossing but also leading the reader to what we expect will be an important point of view. And then, without explanation, something happens. The last fifty pages are not only out of character, they invalidate everything that came before. At the climax, after the death of her innocent sister, Katniss becomes everything that she has hated for 2 and 4/5 novels. She kills a minor character, Coin, essentially because she can. She retreats from reality to a place of despondency. She gives up caring. She intentionally chooses not to look for either reason or goodness. She just quits.
Let me give both works their due. Perhaps their respective endings are not failures. Perhaps the writers really do believe that there is nothing to all of the great values that their characters examine through most of the stories. Maybe they really are sending us the message that all is worthless, that virtue is pointless, and that fighting for those difficult-to-fathom values is meaningless. Nihilism is, in some circles, a respected philosophy (although I expect a true nihilist would laugh at the idea of its being a "philosophy"). Shulman, the screenwriter of "Poets," and Collins, the author of the Games trilogy, may be clever perveyors of nihilism.
I don't think so. I think they are trying for something great and just do not know how to finish. I think they swing and miss. Badly. And that's a real problem.
If you endeavor to portray truly heroic qualities like civil disobedience, noble resistence to evil, and fighting for truth and love, you better know what you are talking about. You better be able to show a solution when the going gets tough. And neither the movie nor the novels are able to do that. In both, despite some high-sounding rhetoric, the characters demonstrate when the chips are down that they have learned nothing. And that is worse than not starting.
In comparison to these kinds of failures, the struggles of Scout Fitch, Huckleberry Finn, Samwise Gamgee, Anne of Green Gables, and other great characters of literature - and even movie characters like Luke Skywalker and Rick Blaine and Oskar Shindler - shine. These are characters who learn - truly learn - ideas and virtues that in fact enable them to face seemingly insurmountable odds and to triumph. Learning some lines of poetry and talking about individualism mean nothing when you knuckle under at the first challenge. Winning some games and learning to rely on your innate abilities, finding your friends, and challenging tyranny are nice; but when you become what you despise, losing all sense of love and reason in the process, and ultimately settle for a life of mediocrity and defeat, your struggles mock you and all who follow you.
The ending we want from these stories is, of course, the story of the gospel. There is no promise that all will work out, and there is certainly no assurance that the nice words you have learned will pave the way to easy defeat of the challenges that face you. In fact, we are promised a walk through the valley of the shadow. We are told that we will be hard pressed. The One who is the center of our story cried out "My God, why have you forsaken me?" But the story does not end there. There is the power to overcome. There is understanding. There is victory. There is resurrection.
I am not asking every movie or novel to reflect the gospel. I enjoy a good adventure story as much as everyone else. But I do expect a writer who dares to take on issues like these to follow through. Don't promise transformation and deliver conformity. Don't offer transcendence and then present nothing beyond the expected, the ordinary. Don't advertise victory only to write about defeat.
Nihilism is, by definition, empty. Life promises more.
The gospel guarantees more. Learn something. Move forward. Follow the One who delivers.