obscene violence and guilty pleasures: tuning into The Hunger Games

by Stevie on April 12, 2012

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I’ve been reluctant to read The Hunger Games. The idea for the series and the movie are so disturbing. Essentially a novel about poor, starving children randomly selected to murder one another for the pleasure of the crowd doesn’t play well with my sensibilities. Give me the squishy romance of Bella and Edward or even the playful drama of Percy Jackson any day.

a crowd of spectators gather in front of mounted police at The Mall in Washington, D. C.

a crowd of spectators gather in front of mounted police at The Mall in Washington, D. C.

But something changed when I got a recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine. It featured actress, Jennifer Lawrence, on the cover. She’s the star of the film, currently in theatres. There’s a long puff piece about her but what I really noticed is that they reviewed the movie favorably, and I usually enjoy their recommendations. (They hated the Twilight movies, which I loved, so perhaps they were a bit misguided there. I think The Hunger Games fits better into that pseudo-macho-yet-enlightened style RS strives for better than Twilight ever did.) And then, of course, there’s my colleague at work who is always dialed into this kind of thing. Sara’s the one who initially talked me into reading Twilight, after all. She’s been hounding me about The Hunger Games for weeks. So I finally relented.

Last Wednesday, around noon, I got the first book and by Saturday afternoon of the same week I had finished the third. Hegui and I went to see the film that evening. This was total immersion and I’m still reeling.

There’s much to say about both the series and the movie. To start with the second, I liked it. Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as Katniss Everdeen, and I found Josh Hutcherson to be a delight as Peeta Mellark. The way the Capitol got filmed blew my mind and I was especially enchanted by the crazy hair and makeup everyone wore there: just like the book in a good way. Stanley Tucci is breathtaking as Caesar Flickerman! And I couldn’t help but be amazed by Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket. That’s a tough role as the character seems so two-dimensional yet slowly develops into something unexpectedly subtle and remarkable in the series. I think that Ms Banks is right-on. My only real disappointment is with Lenny Kravitz. To me, Cinna has such a powerful emotional role in the series and I didn’t quite feel it in the film. Perhaps if they had given him a bit more time? So anyway, I liked the cast and thought the movie, with all the little changes that inevitably happen when you transform a book into a screenplay, remained basically true to the original.

Yet the film upset me intensely, even more than the books.

I think that a big part of the story is the impossibility of seeing The Hunger Games as entertainment. Used as a political tool to dominate the 12 districts, thereby keeping them “in line,” the idea that the killing of children for pleasure is morally abhorrent is burned into almost every page of Collins’ remarkable work.

When I read the novels, I feel that I’m right there with Katniss: in the Arena, on stage with Flickerman, clutching hands with Peeta on the chariot, trying to hold back tears when confronting her mother at the Justice Building in District 12, or freezing in a tree guarded from below by the Career tributes. It is incredibly uncomfortable being that close. Frankly, I was traumatized. The emotions are so raw and the situation so dire. I cried at times, laughed erratically and even had nightmares. I can’t get the story out of my head. I started re-reading the series the day after I finished it the first go-round. Now I’m paying more attention to character development as I already know the plot. At least that’s my excuse. Certainly, I’m a fan, though isn’t it also the case that people with PTSD ruminate over their horrific experiences repeatedly? I hope that’s not what’s happening to me because I can’t let it go. My reaction is not pure pleasure by any means. I share Katniss’ outrage at the impossible, spirit-crushing system that sustains the monstrous Hunger Games.

That said the movie’s way more disturbing.

At my local multiplex, I’m not crouched next to Katniss on her incredible, harrowing journey. Instead I’m part of an audience, sitting comfortably with my box of jujyfruits in the soothing dark. The silver screen separates me from the action as completely as if I were some Capitol bigwig dressed in crazy colorful clothes and makeup, dining at President Snow’s mansion, making witty comments and daring bets about which tribute may earn that problem title, victor. That’s intense and really weird. How did I suddenly become one of the silly Capitol elites living opulently off the oppression of the Districts; that, by my indifference, actively condones the murder of innocent, starving children? That’s not me…

The book provides the illusion that I, too, am a victim. The movie cannot. Sure, both are for “entertainment.” Yet, somehow my identification with Katniss in the novel deflects my responsibility for enjoying it. Turns out merely changing my position relative to the action from participant to spectator is all it takes to ruin that safe haven.

Panem doesn’t exist, but we do see televised violence all the time. There’re shows and movies, of course, which are easy to dismiss, as we all know “they aren’t real,” but what about the TV news? Mainly I watch it for the weather report. Beyond that, the news certainly does feature a lot of shootings, automobile accidents, rapes, fires, unexplained disappearances, and, yes, even murders, often detailed in the most gruesome ways imaginable each night. And the beautifully coiffed and groomed TV anchors sit as calm as can be describing all the horrors just as if they were chatting lightly at a dinner party. How is that any different from Caesar Flickerman interviewing the tributes?

It is very troubling when you really think about it. I’ll bet that the people whose lives are touched by these terrible, real-life incidents feel pretty awful. Frankly, I don’t especially enjoy the news myself. Often I find that I ignore it or shut it off. But after this book and movie, I wonder if that’s a reasonable position any more? Sure, you don’t have to watch local news like the citizens of Panem were required to attend to every gruesome moment of The Hunger Games. But that hardly makes the insane violence stop. I don’t know if there’s supposed to be a message in Suzanne Collins’ work, but perhaps, if there is, maybe this could be it: what to do when neither tuning in nor tuning out are enough?

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Barbara April 12, 2012 at 4:05 am

So glad you wrote this, Stevie. I, too, am put off by the premise. And so have neither read the books nor seen the movie. I wondered if it was my age…I’ll have to ask my friends if they’ve gotten into it. I would guess not, because they aren’t talking about it. Haven’t heard my daughter mention it either, but she’s coming for a visit this weekend, so will ask her as well.
Almost downloaded the book last week. but I think I’ll hold off.

cmichaelscny April 12, 2012 at 5:51 am

I would guess it is some survival mechanism that is kicking in from people and the kids wanting to read and watch it. People are hugely competitive.

Chloe April 13, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Ever noticed how a lot of futuristic films are completely dystopian, with a totalitarian govt, almost complete surveillance of ‘the people’, etc etc? There’s a theory that this is preconditioning. Yesterday’s science fiction is today’s science fact, a lot of the time. (For more on this, and the symbolism around us, in movies and music, etc, you may like the Vigilant Citizen site. It’s got an article on The Hunger Games.)

I haven’t read/seen ‘The Hunger Games’, so won’t have a lot of credibility about discussing it; but it is horrifying that a lot of very young people are being exposed to this. And to other incredibly violent/unpleasant images. There’s also the openly sexual/S&M content of some of the music videos around today. Sex and violence are constantly being put out there.

To those who think none of this has an effect: some of the world’s biggest, nastiest, most streetwise and most money-hungry corporations, pay billions on advertising. Because it works. Humans are adaptable: open to new experiences. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t have survived this long; nor have made the advances we have. (‘Oh, look, a round thing. Nah, let’s leave it alone, and keep on hauling things by hand …. ‘) But this openness leaves us vulnerable; and it certainly leaves children vulnerable.

A lot of ‘entertainment’ these days is downright vile. It wouldn’t be allowed in a more (for want of a better expression) morally upright society. (NOT the kind of outwardly ‘moral’ society that sent kids up chimneys; kept the gulf between rich and poor vast, but the real deal.) Children killing children for the sport of the wealthy? It would be seen as an evil thing; too evil to watch. But now – it’s ‘just entertainment.’ ‘Entertainment’ that puts the idea out there …

Like a lot of other people, I’m worried by the constant drip effect violent media ‘entertainment’ is having. It makes things seem acceptable that wouldn’t otherwise be tolerated. I love a lot of Hollywood movies; but there’s no doubt; they glamourise violence and revenge. It does us no good at all. You see the nice guy being ripped off/abused, and you end up being relieved and glad when he punches the bad guy in the face. And that seeps down to: you’ve gotta get your own back to be cool; acceptable. Imagine the effect if Hollywood had glamourised peace, and the goodness involved in walking away; discussing things. (NOT in an unrealistic way; but less of the revenge-is-sweet motif.)

Finally: ever watched the reality TV shows (esp. ones like ‘I’m a Celebrity’), and wondered how far they’d go? Ben Elton wrote a novel – ‘Dead Famous’ – on the same theme, satirising the reality show; the film ‘My Little Eye’(?) had sort of the same idea.

It’s not as if fighting to the death for public entertainment hasn’t been done before – it was a big thing in ancient Rome; it’s still part of our consciousness of what can be done.

These sorts of films/music videos appeal to/trigger the part of our psyche/biology that deals in survival fear/violence/revenge/mindless, loveless sex, etc etc. It’s not a part that should be glorified, let alone triggered, let alone the way it is now, pretty much every day.

A few adults are saying the movie horrified/traumatised them/gave them nightmares. I’d guess there’s a lot of symbolism/below conscious-level programming, in there. I wouldn’t want my vulnerable, developing child to be exposed to this kind of sh*t.

It’s hardly the end of the world, though, if you or your child has watched it. The problem is that there’s SO MUCH of that kind of thing out there now. Kids really need adults to sit down and tell them that this ISN’T real life; they need other kinds of exposure – to goodness, decency, equality, etc etc. The worry is that a lot of them are being exposed to The Hunger Games mentality, and left to deal with it by themselves …

It’s not just Hollywood. The reporting on the ‘war’ in Iraq and Afghanistan is equally skewed and vile. It never shows the real horror done to these countries; rarely shows the devastating physical and psychological effects suffered by the future generations of Iraqi and Afgan civilians. Nor does it show the devastating guilt and PTSD suffered by the military themselves. And so the message goes on going out there: war is good. “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength…” The Hunger Games may be a step ‘forward’ on this path – but it’s a path that’s been laid out for humanity for a very long time, and promoted as ‘glorious’ …

More than time to step off it. There’s a vast panorama on either side …

OysterCulture April 15, 2012 at 5:43 am

Wow, what a review. I saw the film a few weeks back and was blown away. I’d not read the books and only heard about it in passing, mostly from my mother in law that had read the book and since the movie read the subsequent books as well and totally is sucked in. It was a powerful experience that doesn’t stop when you leave the theater.

I thought the movie is a strong political and moral statement and am surprised its a youth book as I think the concepts are much more mature than that, I think to the point of Chloe.

Stevie April 15, 2012 at 11:49 am

The subject is intense. Certainly Chloe does have several excellent points. I don’t feel that Suzanne Collins is attempting to glamorize violence by any stretch. Rather, to me at least, the series is more about the horrors of violence while at the same time, underlines how we humans are drawn to it in an almost seductive way. So sad.

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