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Ever since I heard about the The Hunger Games being made into a movie, I
believed it was A Very Bad Idea. It ran counter to the human tenancy that
the books criticize, human suffering being made into a pageant or a
spectacle. And yet I felt protective of the books and so I was one of a
crowd of young people treking from the Fenway T stop to the movie theater to
see The Hunger Games opening weekend. I wanted to determine for myself
whether the movie does justice to the books before conversations among my
peers might prejudice me about the movie.

I think the movie does as good a job as a movie can in bringing the books to
life. The movie necessarily misses the clarity about Katniss's inner voice,
her rationale for (mostly) pretending to be in love with Peeta, because we
aren't privy to it in the same way we are in the books, although Jennifer
Lawrence does a great job. Peeta is more central to the plot and the action
than he is to Katniss’s inner life. I liked the addition of notes from
Haymitch in the silver parachutes to indicate the messages that Katniss
intuits from the gifts in the book. I liked the change in the significance
of the Mockingjay pin, making it less political and more personal. I also
liked the addition of the segments from Seneca Crane's point of view, since
it sets up the politics of book two and especially three. Of course, the
cost of fealty to the book was a two and a half hour movie, which, judging
from one comment I overheard on my way out, may not have been appreciated by
moviegoers who did not read the books.

I was less enthralled by the handheld, quick cut cinematography. I feel like
it has become a way for filmmakers to indicate they are being edgy while
making the films harder to watch. This should be a film that is hard to
watch, but not for that reason.

There is a little too much going on, from a political philosophy point of
view, in The Hunger Games books as a criticism of modern America. It is
problematic. The dystopic government in its world uses barbaric reality TV
to reinforce its own political power in a demonstration of control over
subject peoples. I think there are three separate elements there--barbarism,
reality TV, and government control--and examining the relationship between
any two elements would make a good critique of modern America. Barbarism and
reality TV as a reflection of the desire that brought people out to view
people battling to the death in Roman arenas connect. Barbarism and
government control connect in war (apparently, Suzanne Collins got the idea
for the books flipping between coverage of the Iraqi War and reality TV one
night). The government benefits when people fritter away their time watching
television and become apolitical or invested in the status quo. However, all
three dynamics are connected at most indirectly in modern society. They do
not operate together by design because no one interest group benefits
equally from all three dynamics. Of course as a work of art, The Hunger
Games is welcome to combine these elements, but it doesn't necessarily make
for a coherent critique of modern America.

I find a person on planworld's claim that “The heart of Suzanne Collin's book was the
idea that our society.. has the ability to absorb unspeakable horrors
through socialization devices as banal as reality television” compelling,
but that isn’t the only thing going on in the world of The Hunger Games. The
Hunger Games are also a tool for the government to demonstrate its power to
the people in the districts. In the books, the people in the districts are
forced to watch the children that represent them die on-screen. Attendance
at screenings is mandated by the government. One gets the sense that
attendance at the screenings normalizes government violence, but it doesn’t
mean that the children participate willingly, or that the parents in the
district would let this happen to their children if they could prevent it.
The Hunger Games may normalize violence to children for people in the
capital, but not as completely for people in the districts. (In fact, one of
the problems with the Hunger Games as a criticism of modern America is that
in modern America, the same people who vicarious consume other people’s
lives through the screen are the same people who want to gain fame as
participants in reality TV. There isn’t a difference between the decadent
consumers in the capital and the (mostly) impoverished tributes from the
districts.) Again, the Hunger Games book seems to have one too many moral
critiques of modern America and it ends up tripping on its own feet as one
moral gets in the way of another.

Packaging all of these critiques up into in an action movie, a genre in
which violence is normative, and an on-screen spectacle, which by definition
won’t criticize itself, makes the story loose much of its moral punch.
Instead, it becomes a story of survival against all odds. There’s nothing
wrong with telling survival stories per se. But then setting it amidst a
story of 24 children forced by their government, by adults, to battle to the
death? That is, as some of the people I heard talking about it as they left
the theater said, “fucked up.”
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October 2013

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