'I volunteer as tribute!' The voice of teenage heroine Katniss Everdeen reverberates around a packed but silent town square, setting in motion a chain of events that will almost certainly lead to her death.
Katniss has just volunteered to take her sister's place in The Hunger Games, a twisted TV show that keeps the proles of post-apocalyptic America in their place. In Suzanne Collins' phenomenally successful teen fiction series of the same name, and in the recent inevitable film release, Katniss' sacrificial act is the catalytic moment for one of the most thrilling fiction plots of recent years.
The Games themselves are a shocking and macabre creation - 24 teenagers drawn from the 12 outlying districts of a country renamed Panem are sent into a gigantic arena filled with weapons and traps, and forced to fight to the death until only one remains. The film has taken many by surprise. It is without question the year's biggest film, and with at least two sequels already in development, looks set to be the cinematic franchise of the decade.
Katniss Everdeen isn't meant to symbolise Jesus, yet her character arc - like that of so many literary heroes - echoes Christ's story in so many ways. She gives her life freely, volunteering to take the place of her condemned sister; embracing death so that another might live. She subverts the system of her country's oppressors by navigating a different path through the games - building friendships, sparing lives, mourning those who have died - all in full view of the entranced television audience. Most importantly, she becomes a symbol of hope for an entire nation; a fleck of light in the prevailing darkness.
The film is superb at bringing to life the two sides of Panem - the drab, poverty-stricken districts and the vibrant, hideously luxurious Capitol. The divide between rich and poor is unbearable to watch; those in the outlying regions dress in rags and survive by eating rats; the lucky few who live in the city wear bizarre, expensive outfits and gluttonously devour more food that they need. Moreover, in the Hunger Games themselves, the rich sit back and enjoy the televisual spectacle of watching the poor die.
It is a stark picture of rank inequality; the backdrop for revolution, but also a mirror to the real world. How different is this image - albeit slightly overblown - to the contrast between the rich and poor in our world? Don't we in the West also stand by in our comparative opulence and watch the poor die from a safe distance - from behind a screen?
Like the citizens of the Capitol, we put different values on the lives of the rich and the poor. Western children are priceless; our great hope for the future; to lay a finger on one would be the greatest sin of all. Yet the children of the two-thirds World are implicitly given a different value. Their deaths are a tragedy, and yet not the kind that brings about change. Let's not kid ourselves - we do have the resources to eradicate poverty. Like the Capitol, we choose not to use them, and so we allow the children of the developing world to participate in a different kind of Hunger Games, while we watch from behind the safety of our television screens.
The Hunger Games is the most important narrative of its kind in recent years. A primarily teenage, Western audience will be forced to consider: what kind of world do I want to live in? Panem is a horrific vision of what could be, and yet in some ways it only reflects our present reality. That realisation is the true horror; it could also be the catalyst for change. If people young and old are able to see the not-too-subtle link between reality and fiction, then perhaps it could inspire a whole generation of real-life Katniss Everdeens to stand up against injustice and yell, 'I volunteer.'