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.