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Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Philippians 4:8
3. We Bought a Zoo
You might remember a little while ago seeing a movie poster depicting a Zebra with a bow on its head. You may have even seen Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson’s names on it an thought to yourself: Hm. Both of those people are pretty famous. Wonder why I haven’t heard of this movie… And then you might have gone on into the movie theatre to see something ridiculous like Real Steel. Or, you could’ve been like me and were looking for something to watch on date night with your wife. You might have looked it up and thought: Well, at least it’s PG. Might as well. And then you might have walked out of the theatre in tears because it was so good. That’s right. You should go buy this movie, which just came out on DVD.
There is a certain kind of movie. Movies that aren’t always action-packed or suspenseful, but instead are filled with characters you fall in love with. They are real, human, whole-hearted characters. The kind of characters who make you feel like they are a part of your family, simply because you want them to be. These movies are often focused on a range of topics, but more than anything else they are simply about a life well lived. Not scrupulously examined and planned. Not wasted in listlessness, but lived passionately from the heart and a beautiful set of values. I am addicted to these movies, and they only come out ever so often, but We Bought a Zoo is one of them.
We Bought a Zoo is about a Benjamin Mee (Damon), an adventure writer grappling with the death of his wife. Amid the struggle to somehow move on with life while staying true to his love for his late wife, he is challenged with becoming a single father to his teenage son Dylan and kindergarten daughter Rosie. Somewhere in this midst of it all, it just makes sense to Benjamin to buy and save a struggling Zoo. “Why not?” He explains later in the movie that it was an attempt to move on from the passing of his wife but, as it turns out her memory follows him to the zoo. This is most clearly illustrated in Ben’s relationship to Spar, the zoo’s dying Bengalese Tiger. Johansson’s character Kelly Foster is the primary zookeeper who struggles with her affection for Benjamin while trying to convince him that it is time to let go of Spar. Benjamin’s journey to do so eventually opens him up to repairing a strained relationship with his son, and he finally realizes that it is possible to move on from the loss of a loved one with life-affirming hope all the while holding onto the memory of the good that person brought into his life. All it takes it 20 seconds of insane courage.
This is the kind of artwork Paul must have had in mind when he wrote Philippians 4:8. It is life-affirming, people-affirming and it puts the kind of love the Father has for us first. I find it profound how a movie that may have not been made by Christians at all can preach the Gospel by showing it. It is as if God through this film is saying, “This is how you do family when you are alive in Christ. It is messy, imperfect, and utterly human… But it’s sopping with hope. It’s drenched in goodness. It abides by the law of love.” Perhaps the best picture I can come up with to illustrate the heart of this movie is in the end, when we see that the Mee’s along with the zookeepers, who had become a part of their family, are able to open the park. We see a success story not just of a small business but of a family who have become unified in the process. We see tourists enjoying the park while flying red kites, which previously had been described as a trigger for Benjamin. A painful reminder of his late wife. But they had become something beautiful. An ultimate sign that Benjamin had discovered how to celebrate all the wonderful things about his wife, and still move on into a happy future with his children.
I am not suggesting that you go see this movie. I am asking you to please go see it. In the words of Rosie Mee, you’re happy will be too loud after watching it.
2. The Hunger Games, Part 2.
A couple weeks ago, I reviewed the Hunger Games in its incarnation as a book. I hadn’t seen the movie when I read the book and wrote the review, but I promised a follow up after having seen the movie. It’s generally accepted that books are always better than movies, but some stories are more well-translated to film than others. Sometimes this is because of the integrity of the story, sometimes it’s not. I must say, this was a well done translation to film.
Beforehand, I had been told that the movie “follows the book pretty closely,” and for the most part, it did. I could almost name the chapter of the book as I was watching. But it was actually the few departures from the book I found most telling of the film, because to move from a 348 page book to a 142-ish page script is quite a feat without sacrificing precious little pages on a change. So, the filmakers (which included author Suzanne Collins) must have had very good reason to do so.
Some of the more minor changes were for fixing problems that arose from the voice change in the adaptation. Here’s what I mean by that: The book was told in the first-person and movies often have no choice but to be in third-person, because it’s annoying to watch a movie with someone narrating the whole thing. So there were some tricks the director had to pull in order to maintain the story. For example, when Katniss finds herself trapped in a tree and, with Rue’s help, devises a plan to release the tracker jackers on her adversaries, the audience needed to know what tracker jackers are. After all, no normal wasps can kill a human that quickly, so it would warrant some explanation when they do. In the book, we are taken into Katniss’ head, where she explains to us the origin of the genetically engineered wasps, while in the movies we cut to a scene of the show’s commentators giving an explanation of the creatures. Another of these changes was focused on the dog-like creatures in the end. If you remember from my review of the book, this was my least favorite scene, because the beasts just seemed like an anti deus ex machina that came out of nowhere for the sole purpose of keeping the story interesting. In the movie, we are shown a scene of a game-maker working on a hologram of the dog and placing it in the arena. This unwittingly helped the story because it gave us some forewarning.
The biggest change, however, was the movie’s side-plot involving the Head Game-Maker and his meetings with President Snow. In the movie there were many cut scenes involving Snow’s discontent with the amount of hope Katniss was creating in the oppressed people of his country and the Game-Maker’s struggle to contain it, resulting in his eventual failure and execution. I have to say, this side-plot was a game changer for me. I loved it. Not only did it explain the dog-like creatures in a way the book didn’t, but it addressed one of the biggest problems I had with the book, and that was it’s hopelessness. While it was still Katniss struggling against an impossibly strong totalitarian government, the Game-Maker became a definite antagonist who Katniss eventually defeated, though she had not technically even meet him. This made the suggestion for us the audience that perhaps it was possible for good to triumph over evil.
There’s no way to get around it. The subject matter of the Hunger Games story is grizzly and brutal. It goes beyond the question of simple violence, because it isn’t just about enemies fighting for something they believe in. It’s about kids forced to become enemies over something they don’t believe in, or else be killed. This subject alone makes a case for questioning this film as a follower of Jesus, because this is not a subject that is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or commendable. However in light of the full story, we do get some elements of good vs. evil, and the struggle not to succumb to the manipulation of evil men. I would say that if there is some line between what we should be for and against in the media, this is on or close to the line. I would certainly not want my children to see it if I was a parent. There is, of course, a concern raised over the portrayal of violence in film, as well as sexuality and I have to say, I was pleased that this movie was not as gruesome as it could have been, and there were even a few scenes depicting Katniss and Peeta kissing that I have concerns over. Not because they were inappropriate, but because Hollywood tends to over-sexualize things until they are inappropriate. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case in the Hunger Games. Still, consider yourself strongly cautioned for the violent and brutal nature of this movie’s theme. And please, leave the kids at home.
1. The Hunger Games, Part 1.
I’ll state the obvious. You’ve heard of the Hunger Games. You may have read the book or seen the movie, but more likely, you’ve seen your friends ranting and raving about it on facebook. You might even have friends who, in a thrill of glee over the movie’s release, adapted their profile picture to look like an ID card from District 12 itself! And all the hype is for good reason: It’s a well written book with an intriguing plot and a well-timed procession of action. But is there more to this book than just a good story? And what about those of us who hold ourselves to the conviction of Philipians 4:8? “Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, or worthy of praise; dwell on these things.”
The Hunger Games is the newest in a line of wildly popular young-adult fiction series that began with Harry Potter, and then turned to Twilight. Suzanne Collins clearly knows what she’s doing. She’s been writing all her life as a television script writer. (You might even recognize her in the credits of Nickelodeon’s Clarissa Explains it All.) And her first book series, The Underland Chronicles, though not as popular as The Hunger Games were New York Times best sellers in their own right. There is no question in regards to her professionalism as a writer.
The Hunger Games is the story of Katniss Everdeen, a stoic and brave young woman who volunteers herself as a tribute to the Hunger Games in place of her younger sister. Set in a dystopian future the nation of Panem, which has taken the place of the destroyed United States of America, requires each of its twelve districts to provide a male and female tribute every year to fight to the death in a nationally televised event called the Hunger Games. Much of the action of the book focuses upon her climbing the ranks to eventually win the tournament.
Stop reading here if you wish not to know any key events in the narrative.
While reading this book I had mixed feelings. I loved the writing and found myself drawn into the story. I finished it in about 3 days and I’m not the type to read an entire book in just a couple sittings. But all the while I found myself asking what, if anything, Suzanne Collins was getting at. I’m an overall fan of art for art’s sake–simply for beauty–but I also believe that art flows from the depth of who we are, and we are creatures capable of both wonder and foulness. I think it’s important to prevent that foulness from running unrestrained because it can use the power of art to destroy peoples’ lives.
What I found with the Hunger Games was that it pit simple, identifiable people into an impossible situation. A situation in which they were expected to loose themselves and behave in an animalistic way. The most compelling parts of the book were the times when the characters defied all odds, such as Peeta’s starlit contemplations about dying as himself and not as some creature the Capitol would have him be. And of course he shows us just that in his selfless and, at times, Christlike protection of Katniss at the cost of his own peril. And of course the grand finale of the book, when Peeta and Katniss challenged the Capitol by nearly poisoning themselves to leave the game makers without a victor. My favorite scene is when a mournful Katniss dresses the slain Rue’s body in flowers, an effort to show some shred of decency in an otherwise barbaric game.
Still, the overall tone of the book was one of defeat. Listlessness. There is only so much the characters could do because the evil Capitol was simply too big, too powerful, and there is no escape from its clutches. I was having a conversation with an artist friend of mine earlier today, who was able to put it in better words than I could: It came primarily from a place of hopelessness, not hope. Perhaps I owe the second and third books a read before I slam my gavel in final judgement, but for now it seems to me that this book is more about the dangers of the darkness of humanity, which is greater than any light. From the hopeless Avox girl, to Katnisses unescapable predicament. Even the genetically engineered wolves in the end seemed for a moment to be an entirely random plot device and a poor choice, but I eventually came to see them as a symbol of evil’s power to unleash its own twisted Deus Ex Machina whenever it pleased.
This book is certainly commendable, an example of excellent writing, and worthy of some praise, but I question the impact it may have on its audience. Remember, it is written for children in junior high. It is a violent book, but my greatest concern is not its violence. My pastor often says, “we are made for love and war.” In this he means love for our fellow man and our God, and war against the forces of darkness. So, I think there are times when a depiction of violence is appropriate in media. Certainly, this book pits us against evil. We are on the right side, that’s to be sure. But is our side winning? Certainly, Ms. Collins is allowed to write a book in which the bad guys win. There is value in that, for she stands with George Orwell and calls out in a prophetic voice to warn us: “This is what we’re capable of!”
Ultimately, I would say this book is by no means anything that should be shunned. But it should be read in the mood of vigilant thinking, a wrestling with our values, and a discretion about with whom we to share this book.