Adventures in Cultural Consumption:

The Hunger Games: Somewhere, Michel Foucault is saying "I told you so!"

Went to see the movie this weekend, and had what can fairly be described as an "intensely negative" reaction to it. Call me old-fashioned, but watching a bunch of kids get killed is not my idea of a good cinematic experience.

What interested me the most was that it was a pretty clear example of a type that's been of concern to me for awhile, the movie that attempts to decry the violence that drives the narrative and provides the spectacle. I've previously noted this phenomenon in The Dark Knight and No Country for Old Men, both films whose most important characters are also the worst, and whose violence is both the central part of their appeal and the thing which is formally, if ambiguously, condemned at the end. There's an undeniable fascination in watching a crazy person at work, and this is no doubt part of it, but the glory of violence is too central to the plot of both.

The Hunger Games seems problematic in a worse way: I'm not sure how one watches that movie and develops the necessary attachment to Katniss without having the same reaction as the fictional characters in the movie's world. To want Katniss to win is to want the others to die: some of those deaths will be sad and played up for the narrative quality of their sadness, and some of them will be deserved and so, when the bad kid (kid, not 'guy') gets eaten by dogs, that's a deserved comeuppance rather than a tragic end.

Now, I'm clear that the Games themselves are supposed to stand in analogically for something, which, in the descriptions I've read, is usually something like our own interest in the spectacle of reality television, taken to an extreme end. (I'm leaving aside the politics for the moment). So we're supposed to recognize the cruelty and lack of humanity within the Games themselves; the tragedy comes from those who are forced to play it. And so we're supposed to think the Games are bad, and be glad that Katniss emerges relatively uncorrupted from the whole process.

But it also seems like the movie is forced to re-inscribe all the human reactions the Games are there to critique: the whole thing only works by developing rooting interests, etc. Without accepting the narrative, constructed no less than the various storylines of the Games, that Katniss is good and so should survive, the narrative frisson is gone. And if it's gone, there's nothing left of the movie. I don't intend this to be a critique of movie violence per se, though it seems important that in, say, Die Hard all of Bruce Willis' violence is as a reaction to violence first done to others, nor do I mean it to be a critique of violent movies with political messages: Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead are both good examples of violent movies with political themes that avoid this problem: you can appreciate the analogies being drawn and the context of a zombie movie in which to draw those analogies, or you can simply enjoy them as zombie movies. If you strip the level of critique out of The Hunger Games, all that's left is a pretty horrifying plot.

And it's the second level that I'm not sure exists in the movie itself: the argument of the thing would be strengthened if the viewer was supposed to recognize in their own reactions as perverse and the sort of thing that would make the fictional world possible. But I'm not sure that's the intended reaction, and I'm much more sure it's not the reaction of at least the people I saw the movie with. Which, it seems, leaves one in the awkward position of just having rooted for children to die.

But, as the girlfriend pointed out, I haven't read the book, so there's a definite upward limit on my knowledge of the story. Does the book handle the problem of spectacle and the reader's reaction in a way that anticipates or responds to some of this?


rosebriar said...

In a word, I'd say yes. When I saw magazines talking about interviews with the actors, all I could think about was the audience's reactions to the interviews in the books, and how I was just like the horrible audience, enjoying the horror of it all. Maybe that's unusual, but I think it told me that the message had been effective. (Oh, and Cato's death is much more upsetting in the book too.)

Katherine said...

I think you have to read the books to get a sense of how truly rotten the society that spawns these games is. I have not seen the movie but the NYT reviewer lamented that the movie does not allow the viewer to relate to Katniss the way the book does. The movie is much more focused on the (forgive me) pageantry of the the games. I must say the Hunger Games was one of the better books I read last year, and for the usual reasons: characters I cared about, a plot that was relatively fresh, and pacing that had me reading faster as I went along. Is it a classic? No, but it's pretty darn good, and I don't say that about many books--as you well know.

Phoebe said...

Please do get into the politics. Is the movie (haven't read the books) a Sarah Palin parable? The nice girl from the not-at-all-cosmopolitan provinces hunts and is wholesome, and is a fish out of water among evil, evil cityfolk (media elites!) whose crimes aren't just violence-promotion, but also going around with interesting hair and clothes.

Nicholas said...

On the politics: they are mostly omitted from the movie (there's a three-minute-ish aside about how there was once a rebellion and the Games are intended as punishment, but that's it). But from what I understand of the backstory, it's the opposite of Sarah Palin: there was once a great environmental disaster which led to the collapse of society and to a totalitarian state; so it's rather more like "this is what the Bush Administration will lead to."

Nicholas said...

And thanks also for the other reactions: I will apparently have to go read the book now. As far as problems go, having to read something is one of the better ones to have.

rosebriar said...

Oh, I am reminded, I'm not including you in the group of people I automatically distrust when they say, "Call me old fashioned" (in case you saw that status). :-) Not wanting to see a bunch of kids get killed on screen is not a bad kind of old-fashioned.