Who would think of making a comedic drama about the Holocaust, one the most tragic and horrific events in world history, resulting in the genocide of six million Jewish people, as well as other groups, such as gay people and Gypsies?
Well, you may recall that Roberto Benigni’s 1997 film Life is Beautiful takes on such a challenge, portraying a father who turns his harrowingly oppressive and ultimately fatal experience in a Nazi concentration camp into a game of survival for his son. When he and his son are apprehended and imprisoned, Benigni’s character Guido Orefice never lets on to his son Giosue the reality of what the concentration camp means and what is happening, instead convincing him that they are involved in an elaborate game that at times entails playing hide and seek, being as quiet and still as one can be, or marching in line and following orders.
Turning this experience into a game, Orefice rescues both the body and spirit of his son, protecting him from the overwhelming and debilitating terror of Nazi hate and oppression and also finally enabling his survival. As anyone who has experienced terror knows, it is disarming, paralyzing us to the point that it makes taking any action difficult, makes thinking clearly virtually impossible, and defeats the spirit, robbing us of hope and miring us in a sense of hopelessness.
By contrast, when we are involved in a game, the spirit of play energizes and inspires us to think, strategize, and creatively problem-solve. And we have fun doing it; we enjoy it and are spiritually uplifted and galvanized. Think about it. Remember playing Battleship (or pick the game you enjoyed playing as a kid), with your mind fully engaged as you sought to identify the location of your opponent’s ships and sink them. Even as you engaged in destruction and were threatened with your own, you were thinking analytically; your life juices were flowing; you were having fun playing a game.
Giosue is insulated from the horror of history and remains creatively and spiritually empowered because, with the guidance and wit of his father, he approaches this historical situation playfully, in the spirit of a game, as a puzzle to be solved. The play inherent in the comedic spirit counteracts the paralysis and fatality of tragedy.
Moreover, in making a survival a game, Orefice also forestalls the trauma of the Holocaust from being passed down generationally to his son. Typically with Holocaust survivors, the trauma of this tragedy is passed down, affecting and debilitating succeeding generations, impairing the healthiest and fullest life.
The story, critiqued in its day for making light of the Holocaust with its comedic approach, is an important one for the way it teaches us to approach difficult and deadly historical moments of horror, for the way it cultivates a creative, life-affirming, and empowering orientation toward such moments, encouraging active agency rather than spiritual surrender.
When I saw Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle a couple of years ago, Benigni’s movie and his playful approach to history came to mind. And it did so again recently when I saw the sequel Jumanji: The Next Level.
When I talk to people about the wonder of the Jumanji films, I find they tend to think about the films as little more than light, even silly, entertainment, albeit perhaps enjoyable.
These films, however, provide important narratives for surviving, resisting, and hopefully restoring humanity in the harrowing and inhumane times in which we’re living. If not exactly the Holocaust, think about what we’ve been experiencing under Trump’s rule. Earlier this year, Trump withdrew U.S. troops from Syria, clearing the way for Turkish dictator Tayyip Erdogan to undertake a genocidal invasion of territory inhabited by Kurdish people. Trump’s rhetoric has arguably inspired racist mass shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and El Paso, among others; and children are being separated from their families and locked up in cages at the southern border. And do we need to bring up the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville when everyday white supremacists carried torches chanting, “Jews will not replace us!” And let’s not get started on Trump’s assault on people’s healthcare or his administration’s refusal to address and instead abet climate change.
Trump’s genocidal policies and overall assault on human well-being are easily documented. In short, life is simply not beautiful in the age of Trump. It is hard not to feel spiritually defeated and hopeless in this political moment.
The Jumanji films provide narratives and ways of being to affirm life and challenge these forces of death—to make life beautiful in the age of Trump.
The characters in these films (starring such stalwarts as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Danny Devito, and Danny Glover, among others) literally find themselves in a video game and, like Giosue in his game, facing the reality of death. Facing many fatal dangers, they are tasked with restoring peace and order to the land against hostile rulers.
As the characters in the film suddenly find themselves inhabiting characters in a game, they must learn and honestly assess their own and each other’s strengths and weaknesses to meet the challenges they face cooperatively. Each character has three lives; and if they don’t work together and rely on each other, they will not complete the mission and make it out of the game alive.
Divisions and competitions among each other will only ensure their failure. They each have to help each other realize their fullest selves and strengths. And characters realize parts of themselves, talents and strengths they possess, which they had never accessed before. They do this through playing the game—a game in which the stakes are real.
In the world of Jumanji, winning means not competing with one another but helping others be as powerful and creative as they can be, recognizing that helping others develop to their fullest, helps everybody.
If you’re like me, every day with Trump brings some new trauma and threatening development—to democracy, to peace, to human life.
We need stories that help us persist and respond creatively and cooperatively. The Jumanji fulfill this mission.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.