Sunday, March 25, 2012

Why The Hunger Games Is Dangerous

Full disclosure, I haven't read the books. As such, this isn't a review of the books, or a comparison between the two, or a review of the movie insofar as it is an adaptation. This is a review of the movie, as a movie, for what it is in itself.

Here be spoilers.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (whose character, incidentally, bears a striking resemblance to Loretta Lynn as portrayed in Coal Miner's Daughter) is a young woman in a poor, outlying district of a dystopian, fascistic future American society. When she was younger, her father died in a mining accident. Her mother was unable to cope with the loss and all but shut down, leaving Katniss to do most of the providing for the family. Things are so bad this includes hunting for wild game so the family can have enough to eat. Even squirrels.

We are told as the film opens that years before the people had risen up against the government. When the rebellion was suppressed, the Hunger Games were introduced as "penance" for the people's crimes. Every year, each of the 12 districts would put forward two "tributes," one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12 and 18. They are given over into the custody of the government, after which they are pitted against the tributes from the other districts in a fight to the death. The winning district receives not only glory, but food. Perhaps even enough food for everyone to eat relatively well for the rest of that year.

It soon becomes clear that these games serve much the same purpose as the gladiatorial contests of Ancient Rome did, namely, quelling uprising, though they go about it in a slightly different way. They both provide a similar catharsis for the people's violent tendencies, but where the Roman games were a kind of State propaganda, continually reminding the people of the State's ability to conquer against adversity and protect them from harm, the Hunger Games remind the people of the State's superiority over its own subjects. Interestingly, as the President (Donald Sutherland) suggests, they also provide the people with something to hope for. There is a realistic goal. Even though the more wealthy districts train their own tributes, one of which wins almost every year, any district can win in theory, and every one has before. If they do win, their hope is rewarded, but only until next year's games. If they lose, their hope for a better life has been quashed for another year, preventing rebellion.

When Katniss' little sister is selected as tribute against all odds, Katniss volunteers, taking her place. After being whisked away from her family she travels to the capital with her male counterpart Peeta in the lap of luxury. Upon arrival her training commences amidst a series of pageants and public appearances glorifying the event. All the while she begins to befriend Peeta against her better instincts. After all, in the end she'll have to kill him along with all the others in order to win. They are provided with a Mentor for their training, a former victor from their own district, in this case the drunk but devoted Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). It turns out that the most important factor in a victory is the ability to win sponsors who are able to provide you with much-needed supplies in-game.

Immediately the District 12 team begins attempting to capitalize on the notoriety Katniss has already won by volunteering in place of her sister. They appear in public for the first time wearing flaming suits, representative of their district's coal production. Later Peeta confesses on live television to having held an unrequited crush on Katniss for some time, Katniss is furious until Haymitch explains that they can play up the "star-crossed lovers" aspect in the media, thus setting them apart, winning them popularity, and earning them sponsors. Later, Haymitch instructs her explicitly to do what she can to sell the image he will attempt to create from the outside.

The night before the games begin neither can sleep. Peeta admits that he wishes there was some way that he could refuse to play the Capital's game, teach them that they don't own everyone, that they don't call all the shots. It is clear that the only way to accomplish such a thing would be to commit suicide, thus robbing the Gamemakers of their legal prerogative to sacrifice him "for the good of the nation." Katniss replies that she "can't afford to think like that," meaning she has a family to go home to, a little sister and mother to take care of. She doesn't have the luxury of thinking up ways to stick it to the Man; she must win, for her family first, and her district second.

As the games begin, we discover that Peeta was in fact given a kind of "way out." It has been obvious from the beginning that he has no real chance of victory. Katniss is the front-runner, or at least, the front-runner for the distinction of being the underdog against the well-trained and lethal "career" tributes. As such, it seems that he was instructed that his job was to keep Katniss alive, which, of course, he was more than willing to do, first, so that somebody from District 12 can win and its people eat well for a year and, second, out of love for her.

As the game progresses, the two grow even closer together, and Katniss begins to follow Haymitch's advice about embracing the "star-crossed lovers" ploy. It is clear that she is conflicted about doing this, but it is also clear that she has some kind of interest in Peeta. Nevertheless, she is obviously feigning most of the romantic aspect for the viewers' benefit. About midway through the games this leads to an announcement that the Gamemakers have made a rule change allowing two tributes to win together if they are from the same district. Immediately Katniss seeks out Peeta, finding him severely wounded, proceeding to nurse him back to health. In the end, it comes down to Katniss and Peeta versus one of the career tributes who is dispatched by an arrow to the hand and, quite literally, thrown to the wolves.

Just then, when they think they've won, another announcement is made that the prior rule change has been rescinded and the two "star-crossed lovers" must now fight each other in a theatrical final battle. Peeta asks Katniss to kill him, but Katniss produces a handful of poisonous berries and embraces Peeta's earlier idea. They each take some of the berries and prepare for their romantic suicide pact. They count to three, and just as they are about to eat the voice comes over the loudspeaker again and declares them the joint winners rather than allow them to disgrace the Government in this way.

And now we come to the heart of the potential problem with this movie. All appearances are that Katniss and Peeta have fallen so completely in love with one another that they can't bear to be without one another. Later Katniss says this very thing in an post-game interview. Faced with that painful possibility they would rather commit suicide, sticking it to the Man in the process, showing the powers that be that true love conquers all and what have you.

Is this the message we should be sending our children? Should we be telling them that, when life gets rough, it's better to die or to have never lived than to have to live in pain and suffering? That suicide is ever the right answer? To be sure they are presented with an awful, awful situation no one should ever have to face, but can one justify suicide even in such an extreme circumstance? Or should they just allow themselves to be killed by the Gamemakers in retribution for their refusal to comply?

I would argue that, in fact, what appears to be happening in this scene is misleading. First of all, Katniss isn't really in love with Peeta. She has definitely developed a kind of affection for him, but she is no Juliet to his Romeo. All the evidence presented to us in the film is that Katniss has one goal in mind: get home to her family. In the earlier scene where Peeta had first brought up his idea about committing suicide, Katniss' response was firm and straightforward: "I can't afford to think like that." In other words, "That's an interesting idea, but I've got a family to take care of, and I'm going to do my damndest to make sure that happens, whatever the cost." As far as we can see, she never wavered from this position. All the pageantry, all the romantic business with Peeta is all just her playing the part well so she can see to it she makes it out alive.

The suicide pact with Peeta is just another episode in the charade she's created. That is to say, she wouldn't have actually eaten the berries. She may have pretended to for Peeta's benefit, so that he could at least die "happy," thinking she loved him back. But at the end of the day, whatever her feelings for Peeta were, whatever her feelings toward the Government and the Gamemakers were, her only real conviction was of her need to get home to her mother and sister.

This may bear out in the sequel when she is forced to confront Peeta about her real feelings for him. Unfortunately, right now, this is a rather nuanced observation, and I don't think it will be clear to the average moviegoer. Instead, there will be a great many who are convinced that the suicide pact was the best decision they could have made. There will be a great many who see a film where suicide leads to a good outcome.  More than that, a mutual suicide motivated by romantic idealism! And that's dangerous.


  1. Thomas, you should read the books. Not sure where you got your summary but it's off in a few places. No she was never going to eat the berries, and she never wanted Peeta to eat them either it was a ploy because she knew the gamemakers would intervene. Also, the movie was not as clear as the book about how conflicted she was about Peeta the whole time. In the book on the train home she tells him it was all a show, breaking his heart. Also, the Capital does not have any tributes in the games. All the districts serve the Capital. It's just that some districts are wealthier and can train fighters who then volunteer for whoever has been picked that year.There's a lot more to say but I'm tired ;) I really liked all the books.

    1. Thank you for pointing out that I wasn't being precise enough about a few things, in particular, the "Capital" tributes. Of course, they were actually from the lower-numbered, wealthy districts around and especially enamoured to the Capital.

      It may be clearer in the books what her exact plans and feelings were regarding the suicide pact and Peeta, coming at the issue only having seen the movie I think it's a little vague whether or not she's sincere and really intended to eat the berries. I imagine the filmmakers did that on purpose so it would, perhaps, come as more of a shock at the beginning of the second film when it turns out that Katniss was simply playing the game.

  2. Are you familiar with this site?

    Theological / cultural analysis of film - the Twilight talk was surprisingly interesting.

    I've not read the books either and would agree with your analysis - but like Lizzie says, it may be important to understand what the author's intent was - however, once an idea has been put to film - especially for such a popular work (we'll see how long it holds up) it may either indelibly alter consumer perceptions of the intended theme once it has been filtered through a screenwriter, studio, director, etc... differing visions for the material or become the final interpretation of the theme, even if different from the written word.

    Also consider that, like you and I, our only interaction with this material is via the film and it isn't an unfair expectation to think while a majority of viewers (especially opening weekend) will have read the books, that statistic will not always hold true and if it does become a perennial 'classic' it will increasingly not be true. How many people have not read "A Christmas Carol" yet feel they could confidently relate the theme as they perceive it thanks to the various film versions?

    Also - there is a difference in this kind of suicide as opposed to the "suicides" of Frodo, Spock, Aslan, Neo, etc...(which one could argue are not suicides at all actually)

    1. Thanks for the link. I'll check it out.

      I completely agree that the film should be critiqued separately from the book. Even if a film is adapted incredibly faithfully, as this one seems to have been, it is a separate work of art, and should be examined in its own right. For that matter it's a completely different medium, and that can have a huge impact. For example, bec's comment below suggests that much of the content of the book consists in Katniss' interior monologue. In a film that's much more difficult to do. One must rely on action and dialogue to get characters' feelings across, and that is quite a different thing than simply being able to state them outright.

      That being said, I'm strongly convicted that the artist's intent shouldn't factor into one's critique of a work of art. The work should be judged as it exists in itself. Otherwise, art becomes mere propaganda, a kind of vehicle for the artist to surreptitiously communicate his political and philosophical convictions to the audience. Certainly works of art have a relation to and take positions on principles of truth, but I would argue they do so insofar as they mirror and are microcosms of reality, not because the artist himself has inserted his own view into the work. If that were the case, we would have to reduce Homer, Dante, and Shakespeare to the level of Ayn Rand, and I'm not prepared to do that.

    2. I thought it perhaps better to separate one discussion from the other.

      Certainly there is a difference between allowing oneself to die in an act of sacrifice and suicide. Spock, for example, would have allowed the rest of the crew to do what they could to save him had that been possible without putting them all in mortal danger. He was forced to allow himself to suffer and die in order that others might live. Similarly with Aslan and, of course, Christ. Frodo I would have to argue with. I would say that Frodo failed and it was only as a matter of Providence, acting through Gollum, that the Ring was successfully destroyed. Of course, he did sacrifice himself by going on the journey, and that is something.

      This is to be set in contradistinction to suicide, which is the willful act of actively causing one's own demise as opposed to passively allowing another to take it. (Of course, there is such a thing as "suicide by cop," where one instigates others in taking such action and is thus ultimately responsible for it oneself.) Simply allowing oneself to die does not amount to suicide, for death is being imposed on you from the outside. You are simply allowing it to happen for whatever reason. Obviously one should do whatever he can to preserve his life, but there are certain situations where other goods outweigh that good.

      Interestingly, this is not the case in Christ's sacrifice. As God made Man, his life was of infinitely more value than all the rest of human life combined. For that matter, all the life and being in the universe could not compare with the Divine Life. The amazing reality is that he gave it up anyway. Out of love. And insodoing, converted Adam's Sin into a felix culpa, and suffering and death into a means of participation in Him.

    3. Lol good point on frodo - he was however prepared to not return from Mordor and fully expected that the journey would ultimately claim his life no? I defer to your superior Tolkien knowledge but that was what I was shooting for - success or failure - he was mentally on the same page.

    4. True. Of course, one cannot say given his ultimate destination that Frodo was truly unsuccessful.

      The genius of The Lord of the Rings is that, when it comes down to having to give up the Ring, Frodo fails. If the Ring is an analogy for Evil (which, of course, it must be), the fact that Frodo fails to reject it is a poignant image for the rest of us. It points to the fact that none of us, not even the best (which is to say, the "shortest," the most humble) of us are capable of rejecting Evil of our own accord. We must rely on the servants of God (Sam) God puts in our lives to help us along the way. But in the end, it is only the Providential grace of God, working mysteriously and paradoxically through the most evil circumstances and beings, which can save us. After all, the greatest, most wonderful thing ever to happen in the history of the world was, somehow, the death of God! God died! Sometimes it's easy to forget that, I think.

      But that is the great mystery and wonder of God's relationship with his creation. As someone said recently, God doesn't want us to be good. He has all the goodness he could ever need; he is Goodness itself. What he wants is us, ourselves, our hearts. After that, he'll give us all the goodness we need, nay, much more than we need, much more than we could ever possibly hold in our little cups.

      In the end, then, Frodo was successful. But not by any of his own merits. Only, as you say, by being willing to undertake the journey in the first place.

  3. i read the books and they made me angry. in fact, by the time i was half way through the second one, i started marking all the places where katniss would whine and talk about suicide being a valid option. by the time i got through the third book, there was a lot of post-it notes. in the books, yes, you see more of an internal struggle over this issue. but, in the movie, ("Full disclosure, I haven't read the books. As such, this isn't a review of the books, or a comparison between the two, or a review of the movie insofar as it is an adaptation. This is a review of the movie, as a movie, for what it is in itself.")she does seem to jump to this conclusion rather quickly in the end and this can be very dangerous for younger audiences who have not read the book.
    anyways, i actually enjoyed the movie more than the books. i found it a relief to get out of katniss' whiny head.

  4. Thank you all for reading, and especially for your comments. It's good to have some feedback.

  5. I had a full response written out, but it got lost while trying to post it. I shall summarize instead. She was never going to kill herself, she does have to deal with the repercussions to the whole Peeta charade later on, and, unless there's a Hollywood sanitization of the end of the third movie/book, no one can say she got a happy ending. I also strongly suggest against reading the books if you enjoy being happy.

    1. Thanks for commenting Darryl. Sorry about you losing what you'd originally written.

      Not having read the books, I'm holding out hope that the nature of both her relationship with Peeta and her true intent in the suicide scene will be made clearer in the next film. All indications from those who have read the books is that they will.

      It's too early to tell yet, but I have a strong suspicion that Katniss will end up being something of a Tragic protagonist. If so, then a descent into the psychic Abyss (a la Oedipus or Hamlet) in the first installment of the trilogy is only appropriate. It's just unfortunate that to the more casual moviegoers it may seem until then that her near (and, as far as they know, sincere) suicide was the answer to all her problems.


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