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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