The Hunger Games: Who Wants to Play?

Last Friday evening, for all 2 hours and 22 minutes of the Hunger Games, I was riveted, and not alone. The audience around me gasped, screamed, and hollered almost to match the cast. Yet I left the Hunger Games feeling empty. Standing in the theater lobby, filled with the redolence of synthetic butter glazed over steaming popcorn, surrounded by colors and lights gaudier than the Capitol, the conversations with my friends about the movie were short. It was true to the book, everyone said. The parts that should have been cut were cut, we said. It deserved its sea of red, rotten tomatoes, we all agreed. Then we all agreed on a place for a drink, the 13th Step in the East Village, and the Hunger Games were forgotten.

Yet two days later I can’t forget it. It’s been clawing at my thoughts like a muttation. It’s taken me two days to figure out why: because of how it didn’t make me feel, when it should have. Some of my friends saw it as an action movie, and left the theater pumped. Some saw it as a love story, and left the theater warmed. Others, like myself, left feeling queasy.

The Hunger Games should be a morality tale, or social commentary. It has some of the former, but nearly none of the latter. That’s a mistake. In the first moments in the arena battle, the weakest, most child-like contenders, and thus the most deserving of strong commentary, die in a soft silence. Later, a riot starts in an outlying district in a burst of passion, then the cameras blur till the emotion is a dull smear of shapes and noise, an impressionist’s social commentary, and I don’t get it.

In keeping viewers at a safe distance from the violence, the Hunger Games becomes a meta-dystopian film – a scary look at the potential future of social observation – where awful things happen without commentary. In other words, awful things stop being awful. A child wrung by the neck by another child is an afterthought. The blood spilling from children’s lips is an artistic choice. While I watched these moments in the film, I kept waiting for tears to fall. None did, from myself, nor anyone I spoke with afterwards. Without social commentary, tragedy becomes a spectator sport.

Social observation often occurs this way in our world. For those of us dependent on the web, we see social problems obliquely – a short article, 160 characters, a photo essay – a curated, grainy reality. Even for those of us who dedicate our jobs to change, in many cases, we’re removed from what we’re trying to change. Recently, the non-profit I work for facilitated the collection of over 1 million jeans for homeless youth around the country. That’s awesome. Or so I suspect. I’ve seen pictures of the jeans. They look like nice jeans.

Even beyond work, the Hunger Games reminds me how much of a social spectator I am. On the street, passing a figure crouched in a doorway, passing young people raising money for the environment, or passing a line of protesters facing a line of riot police at Occupy Wall Street. And I continue to pass as a social change advocate.

Life shouldn’t be a spectator sport, nor should the worst be hidden from our view. We are complicit in social ills, and thus are in the position to view, to comment, to make sense of the swift movement of morality humming around us. It’s us or nobody.

Thus, in games and in life, winning requires more than letting the odds lie fallow. In the Hunger Games, Katniss forced the odds in her favor. We should too.

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6 Responses to The Hunger Games: Who Wants to Play?

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  2. Andrea Garfinkel-Castro says:

    I am so glad to see this discussion. I read the first book of the series, The Hunger Games, and found that it’s social commentary comes very indirectly–as some of the best social commentary does. It leaves us to find our own meaning, our own understanding of the social conditions within the story. The risk in that is that we miss it, or worse, find unintended meaning. But if it makes us think, maybe the process is more important than the product. For me, the book was the ultimate ‘planners’ warning—space is used politically, economically and socially to marginalize, stigmatize, punish — and the counter side is true–to reward, idolize….

    In reading this, I was also immediately reminded of my reaction to the movie, Avatar. I was very distressed—in distinct contrast to the millions who adored it. Yes, it had spectacular computer graphics; yes, it was a very imaginative story and setting. But—the different ‘tribes’ only reunited as a result of an attack on their world/life. The found unity in violence and through an enemy—that enemy was us–humans. I think the real enemy is seeing violence as a viable source of unity, and a way to find purpose and meaning. I was soooooo sad about this. Avatar was/continues to be viewed by millions. What a great opportunity to promote unity through non-violence—but then maybe it wouldn’t sell.

    The Hunger Games, I knew, would run the same risk. This is why some stories are better left to our own visualization. Sometimes it just gets in the way of the real story, and the better part of the message.

    I’m even more torn over whether to see the movie or not. The book is remarkable—even more so because it’s directed at ‘young’ readers. I do know that I can’t wait to read the rest of the series!

    • Bob Filbin says:

      Thanks so much for your comment, Andrea. I agree – violence as a source of unity, and a way to find purpose and meaning, is tenuous at best, and really, downright dangerous. One thing that the Hunger Games movie does well is to show that the bonds created in the arena are only temporary, and that bonds built around violence tend to dissolve, as violence begets violence. On the other hand, unity around violence seems like such a fundamental biological concept – that groups form around violence and protection. This is true for all types of species, including humans. But there are much more valuable things to unite around. For example, uniting around equity, like with Occupy Wall Street. Or uniting around a book, like Harry Potter or the Hunger Games. Uniting around literature? Almost always a good thing. (Though Twilight is an exception to the rule, in my opinion.)

  3. Bob Filbin says:

    Hey, Mauricio,

    Thanks for your comment. I would call what is in the film weaker than social commentary. It reaches the brink many times, and backs down. Social commentary occurs when we are pushed to feel strong emotions – in the case of the Hunger Games, they should have been horror and empathy. I think those can arise from the film, but not necessarily.

    Social commentary would have been to let us see the fear in the eyes of the children as they rise to the surface of the arena, knowing they are probably about to die. Social commentary would have been to show the suffering of people in the districts, rather than letting bleak colors and a loaf of bread serve as a proxy. When Peeta tosses Katniss the bread, she looks tired, or forlorn, not starving. We never see a person starve. Social commentary would have been to have us feel empathy for Cato on the cornucopia, while he reflects on how he has been built to kill. But the scene moves too fast, and all we are offered is understanding of how he came to be.

    Most importantly, social commentary would have been to show the film from the perspective of people in the Capitol – a position that I believe the majority of viewers (in the real world) of the Hunger Games fall into. This film allowed viewers to decide their perspective – by showing the extremes of people in the Capitol and the outlying districts, it was possible for viewers to choose their allegiance, without necessarily seeing themselves in either. It was an opt-in form of social commentary. And who would believe they are like the Capitol? Maybe a few of us. Most, I think, would not, unless the film put us in that position. Without horror, without empathy, I think the limited social critiques in the film were softened, and for the most part lost.

    • I think I would call it “social commentary light”, which given the gravity of the subject matter (children killing children for entertainment of the masses), is insufficient to me. For example, the colors and costumes used for the citizens of the Capitol imply that these are people of extreme privilege who take advantage of the people in the districts, surely. But their over-the-top costuming didn’t implicate me at all. The people in the Capitol seemed so far removed from anything I could identify with that I didn’t see myself in them, but judged them as if I was completely removed from them. I only identified with Katniss- felt the oppression- I didn’t see myself reflected as a viewer of reality TV. If there was a person in the Capitol who carried a small dog in a bag, or other signs of recognizable privilege, I think I would have felt that sting, and complication… would have felt my place as both oppressor and oppressed. I don’t think all movies need strong social commentary. However, I do think that if you are going to take on the subject of children killing children, there is a responsibility to complicate the situation more than this movie did. Otherwise I think rather than feeling as though we may be no better than these Capitol citizens in real life, we actually are not too much better than these Capitol citizens while sitting at this movie.

  4. Bob–
    I think I disagree. I think the movie was brimming with social commentary.
    I think the colors, I think the outfits, I think the train and Effie’s giddiness–I think they’re all social commentary.
    When we left the movie, my mother turned to me and said: “It’s scary. I think we live in a district, and the gamemakers are playing with us just the same. They manipulate us with oil and with fear. They make us buy things we don’t need.”
    My sister, who had never read the books, asked me why District 12 was a concentration camp.
    Isn’t that social commentary?
    And what about the reality-tv-like-aspect of the games?
    “Ooh, let’s see if she can figure out the booby trap here,” Caesar Flickerman says. And just like in reality TV when the host explains to us that the next task the contestants have to do is XYZ, the audience is one step ahead of the main character and we become enthralled in the drama. That was social commentary for me. How much of a difference is there between Survivor and the Hunger Games? The Survivor cast applies for it and doesn’t die, but so do the careers, usually.
    I think that just by showing the excess, the crazy hair and the done up dogs and contrasting that with the poverty in District 12, that just by showing Katniss’ disgust and fear and Effie’s pride in the Capitol and all it has to offer the movie is critiquing the way we live and the way we view our world.
    Maybe there wasn’t a conversation about it in the movie–not literally–but surely metaphorically.
    Remember Katniss smelling the one piece of bread Gale gave her and wondering if it was real? And remember the plates of bread on the train, almost too full? It made me wonder, as I drove home, what excess I have and what I could give away–it made me want to live in District 12, enjoying the proximity of the woods, and not in the Capitol.

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