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?