Daryl R. Van Tongeren Ph.D.

Meaning Making

Meaning Goes to the Movies

Why are movies like 'Fault in Our Stars' and 'The Hunger Games' so appealing?

Posted Jul 31, 2014

Certain movies have a way of deeply affecting those that watch them. Some are profoundly moving, others are inspirational, and some take us away to lands of adventure and call us to better versions of ourselves. And then there are movies that can really change the way people look the world and can connect with us in ways that we didn't really see coming.

It seems like the movies that really have an effect on us are the ones that resonate with our fundamental need for meaning. Take, for example, the "Hunger Games." This movie adaptation of the book series chronicles the grim future in which children are selected for a brutal "game" in which (typically) only one child survives. Despite the fact that the movie is set in the backdrop of unsettling adolescent violence, it gained a widespread following, and many fans have widely embraced the entire series. What might help motivate such a strong fan base for these movies? Perhaps it is our desire for significance, for meaning, for considerable purpose against all odds. The primary protagonist not only defies death (sorry for the spoiler) in her first rendition of the games, but also redefines the entire system as she works to overthrow the powers of oppression that sponsor the games. Don't we have similar, though notably more tame, desires to make a significant, lasting difference in ways that benefit all of those other humans around us, perhaps even after we're gone. Don't we all long for some type of remembrance, positive difference, or, said differently, immortality? Because we probably do, we love seeing characters (no matter how fictional) live out the fantasies we have for ourselves.

More recently, "The Fault in Our Stars" was a success among adolescents and adults alike. Another adaptation of a book, this movie details love among the sad journey through terminal illness toward inevitable death. At once reminding us of our mortality and our desire to be fully alive, this movie poignantly captured our desire to live fully and meaningfully in the face of death. Although these teenagers were notably closer to their eventual end than many of us, we all will eventually have to face our death. And one thing that can make this disquieting notion more palatable is the hope that our life was meaningful, purposive, and significant—that we have made a difference.

Admittedly, there are other features of these films that made them successful (e.g., outstanding actors, well-written scripts, clever directing), but we must pause and wonder if the movies that we love the most are the ones that highlight our desire for meaning and showcase those that are living fully.

About the Author

Daryl R. Van Tongeren, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Hope College.

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