The Hunger Games: Amusing Ourselves to Death
The highly anticipated adaptation of The Hunger Games (2012) fails to get its “core message” through.
In the introduction to his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” author Neil Postman discusses the dystopian prophecy of writers George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Orwell showed how a totalitarian state could take over and rule their people by fear and oppression, while Huxley saw a future where our desire for pleasure and entertainment made us into passive slaves in a prison of our own making. In Suzanne Collins’ book “The Hunger Games,” these two visions of the future are joined together in a nightmare that supposedly was once the United States and Canada, now known as Panem.
During the height of the Roman Republic and on into the Roman Empire, the people of Rome became so debauched that, simply for entertainment’s sake, they threw men known as Gladiators into an arena together, sometimes with fierce animals or other dangers such as fires or floods, and required them to fight to the death. The winner was a “hero,” the losers were brutally murdered one way or another. Often, a Gladiator’s life depended solely on how much of a “show” he put on, how much the audience and the Caesar, if he were present, liked him. This bloodbath was met by thunderous applause in the Coliseums of Rome; all the while the people remained voluntarily oblivious to the very real dangers that they faced as a nation. This desensitization and degradation of the populous was a huge factor in the fall of the Roman Empire. We read of this in history books and we think that we are far beyond such primitive and barbarous enjoyment of death and violence, but are we really? The media sends out increasingly violent fare for motion picture audiences to consume, either in the name of spectacle or realism, and we are supposed to accept it all in greater and greater measure. What used to frighten and/or impact audiences of the twentieth century is laughable to us in the twenty-first century. The largest activity that children participate in today other than breathing, and perhaps sleeping, is watching television, and one quick perusal of the available networks shows a smorgasbord of perversion and violence. Video games are even worse, inviting people of all ages to take pleasure in, and find satisfaction in, realistic combat and exaggerated gore. Are we really beyond such a cavalier attitude towards brutality? I think not.
Based on a best-selling and acclaimed book series, The Hunger Games (2012) attempts to raise that same question, bringing the horror of the Coliseum closer to home. According to Collins’ editor David Levithan the books and movie are “a critique of violence using violence to get that across, and that’s a fine line.” One has to wonder at this method, but we’ll discuss that further on.
The Scriptures are clear that “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17) is law. Even the most antinomian Christians would agree on this. More than that, if you simply search your Bible for the word “violence” and related words it reveals that God abhors the man of violence, who lies in wait for blood. Does this mean that a film cannot contain violence? No. There is a place for it within cinema. For the Christian, the question is 1) does the movie present lawlessness as virtue, 2) does it glorify violence, and 3) is purposeful and judiciously presented or gratuitous and wanton? Those are issues that should be of primary concern to the believer. I would say that, while this film may actually do neither of the first two, yet, because it is gratuitous and is ethically convoluted, for the vast majority of our culture it will make little difference. As to the intensity and amount of violence, that is a matter of judgment that will vary between individuals and households.
In this story, the citizens of Panem live a servile existence, segregated into districts and ruled by fear. The centralized tyrannical government, known as the Capitol, controls everyone. Decades ago, the people tried to rise up against this despotism, but their oppressors were successful in repressing the rebellion. To keep them in line and to insure no further resistance, the government came up with a monstrous plan: they would force each of the districts, the people not living inside, and aligned with, the Capitol to send as “tribute” two of their children between the ages of 12 and 18 to fight to the death in the annual Hunger Games. This is essentially modern child sacrifice to the secular “god” of the state. Right away we see that this is an egalitarian society as they pick both a male and a female to “represent” the district. Gender is irrelevant. Such an idea should be utterly repulsive to us, but much of the audience for this film are attracted by the strong-willed “warrior woman” embodied in the film’s protagonist. To be sure, she is a very good heroine, and you’re happy to root for her, but this does not nullify that fact that a young girl is being set into lethal combat. Ultimately, twenty-four teens are selected for this atrocity. The districts closer to the Capitol actually train their children to be killers so that they’ll be more likely to “win;” while the outer districts are struggling just to keep enough food on the table to survive, so their children are largely unprepared for the mayhem awaiting them at the games. When the time comes for the ramshackle Appalachian district, which is reminiscent of the Great Depression era, District 12 to select their tributes, they do so by a lottery. 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has been fending for her family ever since her father died and her mother fell into decline. Here again, aside from her boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) there is no male protection from the others in the area. Her sister Prim (Willow Shields) has just turned 12-years-old; it is the first time that she “qualifies” for the games, and she is terribly fearful about it. That Collins sees this as a world controlled by “fate” or “luck” is apparent by the maxim repeatedly chanted by characters, though mostly the bad guys, “May the odds be ever in your favor” as well as the fact that Katniss gives Prim a pin with a mockingjay on it (the film’s emblematic icon) as a good-luck charm. When they arrive, District 12’s representative from the Capitol, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) picks Prim’s name out of the lottery bowl. As the frightened child is led silently up on stage in front this girl’s whole community, family and friends, Katniss does the first heroic thing of anyone from District 12 and volunteers to go in her sister’s place. This is admirable and noble, I really like the character of Katniss, but how could all the men just stand there and watch their young girls essentially being sent to their deaths and do nothing? I don’t know. It serves as an example of what happens when we let fear stop us from doing what’s right. Katniss and a young man named Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are whisked away to the glamour, luxury and urbane world of the Capitol, where they are simultaneously spruced-up so they’ll “look good” for the games, and also trained in survival techniques and combat. A previous victor of the games, the only one ever from District 12, a drunk named Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) mentors them; a sympathetic stylist named Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) helps them “make an impression”; Panem’s President Snow (Donald Sutherland) veils his dictatorship in pretence; game director Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) plays-up the hype and maliciously controls every detail from behind-the-scenes; and media host Caesar – ironically named – Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) adds showmanship and frivolity to the whole affair.
One thing obvious and disgusting from this was how the people of the Capitol, who all wear outrageous neon-colored outfits and make-up, had removed themselves morally, mentally, and emotionally from what was taking place. The tributes are cheered like regular athletes at a tournament, Effie is constantly referring to the protocol, manners and “niceties” for wining-and-dining the urbanites, and the idea of killing one another in senseless brutality is thought of as an honor by those who will never have to face such a thing, expect on their large television screens.
To say that this film is violent would be redundant, and yet, though I have not read the books, I’m told the film is quite toned-down. The pervasiveness of teen-against-teen violence, and the attitude of many of the “career tributes,” boys and girls who have been brought-up to be killers, is disturbing. The “situation ethics” of kill-or-be-killed forced on these kids is awful to see, and it is only compounded by the lack of moral clarity in Collins’ essentially atheistic world of luck. You can see that our noble hero and heroine recognize that all of this is wrong, and they make the right decision: they refuse to kill at the government’s whim. Yet they have no moral foundation for these ideas, just a sense of humanity, and “self-defined,” existential morality. Katniss starts out, before entering the games, with a determination to win, (the only way she knows that she’ll make it back to her family alive.) Everywhere she turns people are pressuring her to “win” by murdering others, Gale even goes so far as to tell her that “it’s no different” than hunting animals. Situation ethics, from Nazi Germany to modern day abortion, always involve dehumanizing the victims of slaughter. But the influence of the upright, selfless and genuine Peeta, who repeatedly helps her during the games, and who you never see use a weapon, works on her. As he tells Katniss, “I don’t want to be another piece [or pawn] in their game. I don’t want them to change me into something I’m not. If I’m gonna die, I want to still be me.” He believes it is wrong to kill, and he’s willing to die nobly, but no one ever just says, “You shall not murder.” Together the heroes struggle to survive the carnage. Katniss does her best to stay away from the others and never attacks another, though she does kill twice in the movie in defense of other characters. Due to the fact that there is no law of morality operative in the world of this film, there are instances of contradiction where Katniss drops killer bees on sleeping assailants, and where, at the very end, a supposed “mercy” killing and then attempted suicide gets a stamp of approval from this film. Yet, that being said, the situation is not, as was presented in another review of this film, being stuck in a lifeboat and trying to decide between eating the skinny guy or the fat guy; rather, it’s being stuck in the lifeboat where the skinny guy and the fat guy have no scruples about eating you, but where you refuse to eat anyone yourself. The moral dilemma is how do I survive and make it off the lifeboat without doing anything wrong. They fail to stay consistent with that, but that is the virtue espoused and strived for within the film. Murder is wrong, and that is the point of the film. But according to what transcendent standard? There is none, only humanistic, self-defined morality.
Due to the subject matter, this movie will be one to be cautious about, and is not appropriate from younger viewers especially. Thankfully, the makers deliberately used filming techniques for the scenes of violence that were quick, jerky and indistinct rather than long, drawn out scenes of gore; yet the impression and the affect of the violence is there. It’s gratuitous only in the sense that the entire movie is about violence, but the specific instances of violence are mostly off-camera, inferred through sound, indistinct images, and such. There is a little blood, and a few graphic on-camera acts of murder. Swords, bow-and-arrow, throwing knives, spears, killer bees, and more are all weapons used by these “competitors.”
In spite of the heavy and dark premise, there are moments of great love, friendship, loyalty and sacrifice. The relationship between Prim and Katniss is particularly touching. However, this film shows a sad depiction of the family, which is practically non-existent within the story (probably that’s how things got so bad in Panem. If you destroy the family you’ve destroyed the basic pillar of society.) Both Katniss and Peeta seemed to have bad relationships with their mothers, Katniss’ father has died and if Peeta has a dad you never see him.
The film gives a strong anti-totalitarian message as Katniss defies the status quo of the Capitol several times, encouraging others to wake up and fight for their liberty and their future.
This film is weighty and raises a ton of ethical questions, many of which are answered unsatisfactorily due to the writer’s own moral confusion. Still, this is the first installment in a series of three, and I don’t know where Collins takes it from here. The Hunger Games is supposed to be a critique of an entertainment and violence-driven society, of authoritarian statism, of sports-worship and slavish submission to “the game” of wicked men; yet the film is in no position to offer such a critique because of its humanistic worldview. Even if it were, will modern American audiences get it? I think that they are not. They are getting in line to watch the violent, emotionally stirring, ethically surprising, spectacle of a motion picture adaptation of a popular novel. Aren’t they cheering the very thing that Collins was attempting to make them horror-struck by? The “critiquing violence with violence” method doesn’t appear to have worked. Instead, people will file into the theater and shout approval: “let the games begin!”
The film is extremely well made, well acted, and has some salient points brought up in its story line. The characters are fascinating and well developed, the ideas treated are deep, and yet a faulty foundation of humanism has failed to provide the needed answers. This film will dazzle audiences hoping only to be entertained, will provoke thought (and disgust) from those willing to think, but desensitizing aesthetics will defeat the supposed good intentions of the makers when it comes to the majority of Americans.
Regardless of the conclusions it comes to, whenever a film peddles situation ethics to young people it is dangerous, as is any film without a rock-solid moral foundation (i.e. Biblical Christianity).
Are we better than the Romans? Are we better than the cheering crowds in the Capitol of Panem? I think Gale’s words in the opening scene of the film hit on the right thought, “What if everyone quit watching? They wouldn’t have their games then.” I’m not suggesting that we all need to quit watching films with violence or that you can’t necessarily enjoy a film like The Hunger Games, but at what point do we draw the line? Will we let Hollywood continue to push that forward so we can be entertained? At what cost? We need to pray that God would give us all the wisdom to discern even the most exciting of movies, or we run the risk of amusing ourselves to death.
Reviewed by: Isaac R. Arthur, filmmaker and student at Blue Banner Media
Click here to go back to “Movie Reviews”.