What We Watch When We Watch ‘The Hunger Games’

My first experience with The Hunger Games (2008) was March 12, 2012, a full four years after the final book was published and long after the movie hype machine had turned up to eleven. My mother called me and informed me that my hometown of Murfreesboro, TN was doing a “One Book, One Community” thing, and the person who headed it—a good family friend and poet—had selected The Hunger Games.

Quick background: my parents are avid readers, though neither is professionally involved with the written word. Being a financially idiot child of relative privilege, I was a creative writing major in college. The best illustration of this strange household dynamic is the fact that my father bought two Salman Rushdie books before I’d even heard of him, but I read both of them before Dad so much as cracked a cover. We have a symbiotic relationship this way. I’m a frequent choice to advise my parents’ book club, and they frequently inform me about things I never would have picked up if they didn’t speak so glowingly about them (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2005) is the most recent example).

My mother read The Hunger Games and was completely appalled. She called, wondering how the hell anyone could get enjoyment from this book, how in the world could it be chosen for Murfreesboro’s first One Book, One Community, and ultimately, what was the difference between literature and this piece of shit? (Note: my mother doesn’t typically curse, but I knew what she meant).

My initial response was based on the trailer for the movie, the whispers I’d heard of the books, and what my mother told me. It mostly boiled down to this: children are brutally murdering each other, the world views their violence as a sport, and everyone has weird names and wears crazy costumes.

So I saw it and loved it. I hope they make more movies of this quality. Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, that creep from American Beauty (1999), Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, and, especially, Jennifer Lawrence turn in remarkable performances. The set design and costumes are awesome. It’s a riveting story told at a deliberate pace, and the ending is gripping. My best friend describes The Hunger Games as “The Most Dangerous Game” (1924) crossed with Lord of the Flies (1954) and says that it has value as a piece of fantasy work, and he’s absolutely right. When I got home, I read Wikipedia entries on the other books, desperate to know more about the story and this wild, fictional world.

Why did I read Wikipedia pages instead of heading to a library? For starters, I’m reading three other books right now. Mostly, though, it’s because Mom wasn’t wrong. Say what you want about metaphors of totalitarianism, classism, straight-up evil, the things humanity is capable of, it’s horrible to watch children between the ages of twelve and eighteen brutally murder each other while being cheered on and “sponsored.” For the non-Mockingjays (fans call each other that, right?), getting sponsored means having an audience member like you enough to send you food, medicine, weapons, or anything else you might need while you’re starving to death in the frigid cold with a half-burned off leg (and you’re fourteen). This implies that anyone rich enough (as in, anyone who lives in the Capitol) could save any Tribute’s life, which makes everyone culpable for the annual deaths of twenty-three people from the same age group that gets Jerry Sandusky hot and bothered. When Rue—the twelve-year-old (black) stand-in for Katniss’ sister who kept Katniss alive through an acid trip and gave her pointers on how to destroy everyone else’s food and weapon supply without so much of a thought of her own well-being—takes a knife to the chest, I bawled my eyes out, because she’s a child, for crissakes.

My point is this: defenders of The Hunger Games will point to its social commentary, satire of reality TV, and theme of resilience and survival at the heart of the work. They’re not wrong, but why is it so much easier to talk about social issues in the abstract? For instance, Hotel Rwanda, the 2004 film starring Don Cheadle that doubles as everything Americans know about the Rwandan genodice, grossed a total of $23,530,892 in the domestic market. The Hunger Games banked a cool $152.5 million on its opening weekend. Junot Díaz’s novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), which documents the horrors of Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008, has sold 254,742 copies as of 2009. In sharp contrast to Hotel Rwanda and Díaz’s novel, The Hunger Games books have sold over 36.5 million copies, and Amazon has announced that Suzanne Collins is the best-selling Kindle author of all time.

David Simon’s HBO drama The Wire (2002-2008), which centers on Baltimore’s drug trade, dying industry, politics, and public school system, is one of the most critically acclaimed shows of all time. It’s a detailed portrait of how changing industry, institutionalized racism, corruption, and greed eat away at some American cities. There are hard truths about humanity, emotionally gripping deaths (involving children, too!), and no shortage of characters to love and cheer for on all sides. Yet it battled low ratings and wasn’t even nominated for an Emmy until its fourth season. How is it that the truths of The Wire are harder to face than the allegorical truths of The Hunger Games? The Wire has strong youths who are resilient in the face of danger and violence—why can’t it be shown to children?

This is not to take anything away from the enjoyability of The Hunger Games. As stated above, the imagination of the film’s fictional world is astounding: from the lavish costumes of Capitol citizens, to the wild, ever-changing arena, to the giant ravenous dogs at the end. It’s a captivating world, made all the more captivating by the way everyone gets so excited about the Games year in and year out.

Yes, The Hunger Games is a young-adult series. But by making government-sanctioned, televised murder of children its main conceit, it’s clear that Collins wants it to be more than just entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with highly fictionalized social commentary and satire – the influence of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley on Collins is clear. Books of this nature can be instructive and useful.

But why is it so much easier to get people talking and thinking about stories involving overblown dystopian nightmare-scapes in which twelve-year-olds are slaughtered for blood sport, and so much harder to get people talking about actual atrocities throughout history? How is it that The Hunger Games makes $152.5 million in its opening weekend, but The Wire never wins a single Emmy? Why is it so much easier to say “look at what we could be capable of” rather than “look at the horrible things we’ve actually done?”

My theory is that it’s a self-defense mechanism. Once the credits roll, we can all breathe a sigh of relief – hey, the world’s going crazy, but at least we’re not that crazy! The audience is secure in its knowledge that it’s not there yet.

When I left the theater, I saw two mothers with a mess of kids turn to each other and excitedly say, “Did you like it?” “Yeah, it was great!” This kind of positive reaction doesn’t happen if you watch Schindler’s List (1993) or Precious (2009). If you watch these films, you suddenly have to realize that human beings actually do terrible things to each other. You’re not as comfortable. You have to start thinking about where the world actually is. It’s not as fun and nobody’s beards are as cool, but it’s worth doing what audiences in the Capitol should be doing and examine what you’re watching.

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6 Comments

  1. Read the book, It has a bitter sweet ending and loads more social commentary than the movie. If you're the avid reader you say it will probably only take you a few hours cover to cover.
    The Hunger Games as a book rose to fame in the void after Twilight and Harry Potter. Harry Potter and Twilight got children and young adults reading and the Hunger Games continued it.
    They removed 90% of the social commentary from the book when they made the movie. It's because of this that the movie so successful. You can ignore all of the social commentary in the movie if you like. My only hope is that the movie causes more to read the book and see that hinted at social commentary.

  2. Great article. So true.

    It's also funny how the masses are going crazy about a movie that mocks the masses going crazy. Did the Hunger Games just become the Hunger Games? Russian doll irony.

  3. Definitely think you need to read the books — all three of them — and revisit these thoughts. I don't think they cut the social commentary — for one, they actually put hints of what happen in the next two books into the first movie, to set up for a sequel — but most of it does appear in the other books. The first is more to introduce you to their world as it stands at that point in all of their lives. I for one was struck with thoughts of how easily their world could evolve out of ours… while it is a dystopian future, parts of it are disturbingly familiar. And yes — it shouldn't take you long to finish them. While working and sleeping a normal amount, I read them all in 3 days.

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