The Hunger Games: Some thoughts

When my niece Emma first told me the plot of the Hunger Games I was blown away. What a great story to reflect on our contemporary lives. A totalitarian state with media hype and reality TV at its cultural and political epicentre. A couple of kids – a boy and a girl – in the Hunger Games where one can only survive by killing all the others – who are trying to overthrow the bad guys and have a romance that cools off (if it ever heated up) but which they must keep going to improve their chances in the reality TV game. What a fantastic premise for adolescent and ‘young adult’ fiction! What a great melange of metaphors – another take on 1984 themes suffused by Roman bread and circuses (the country in which the action takes place is called Panem as in panem et circenses) and gladiatorial combat.

Anyway, I had a bit of a read of the book, but thought that I’d save some time by watching the movie. I’ve now finished watching the movies – with instalment four and enjoyed them immensely. The highlight is Jennifer Lawrence’s heroine Katniss Everdeen (Virtually all the characters have strange names, even if only slightly. One character is not Hamish but Haymitch). As this review says, in movies “women tend to be sidelined or trapped in the virgin-whore divide”.

If Katniss escaped that old binary it’s because Ms. Collins [the author of the books] created a character who exists outside the traditional confines of the feminine-masculine split, and because the movies have stayed true to that original conception. At once a hunter and a nurturer, Katniss is tough and teary, stoic and sentimental, which give her layers that reflect her changeable inner states as well as her public and private identities as daughter, sister, lover and leader. It’s instructive that she’s worn her most overtly glamour-girl outfits as part of the farcical role forced on her by the totalitarian government that rules Panem, having been dolled up with makeup and smiles for the televised sideshows that accompany the murderous games of the series title. She’s since graduated to basic battle black or unisex clothing that’s suggestive of a Dystopian Gap.

Quite.

Although Katniss is easily the most compelling of them, all the women in the series (and somehow women dominate much of the action and imagination in the film) seem to avoid the virgin-whore business which is great, and, I agree with the reviewer, incredibly rare.

Donald Sutherland is also just great as the bad guy Corolanus Snow. Evil urbanity personified. I doubt a person like Snow exists, but that’s probably just my limited imagination. It’s a magnificent construction. I also agree with the review just quoted when it says:

As with a lot of contemporary franchises, this one stocked the supporting roles with veterans who have given ballast to a largely unmemorable young cast, including the insipid twosome — Josh Hutcherson as Peeta and Liam Hemsworth as Gale — who have wanly bookended Katniss from the start.

Oddly, not a lot of talent unearthed in the younger cadre. But all the veteran actors – Julliane Moore and Woody Harrelson are both good and the (tragically, late) Phillip Seymore Hoffman is luminescent somehow as a backroom guy – what gives him this ability to inhabit such back-room characters while infusing them with such beguiling charisma?

Anyway, as I’ve watched the films, I haven’t been able to help thinking of the way in which the things I don’t like about The Hunger Games epitomises certain things I dislike about American culture. (I like and dislike things about all the cultures I am familiar with, so don’t read into this any general hostility to Americans or American culture for which I have the highest regard).

One relatively small thing is the American iconography of power and politics. It’s presidential. Well that’s obviously no sin. It’s an American story. But there’s a scene right at the end of the last movie where the happy political ending becomes the swearing in of a good president (a black woman) after a false start with someone else. Nothing wrong with that either. Except that it conjures up the peculiarly fantastical relationship Americans and American culture has with its presidency. The kind of thing that sees Harrison Ford in Airforce One playing the President in the denouement of the film doing personal battle with the Arch Bad Guy eventually saying “get off my plane” as he kicks him out of the open door while they both dangle in the 900 kilometer breeze. (The details may be misremembered but not the excruciating infantilism of it all. The President, embodiment of All That’s Good in our Nation, a giant of thought, righteousness and, when roused, an Action Man, ready to battle for truth justice and the American way – who occasionally manages to fit in a little partisan politics because, well nobody’s perfect and you’d want him doing it rather than the Bad Guys.) It’s the same infantilisation of the presidency that has me tuning out from the West Wing, despite how well it’s written and produced in all other respects.

More importantly, if you go back to the first quote above perhaps the core problem for me is Katniss’s ‘tough teariness’, her ‘stoic sentimentality’. Where there should be some growth dialectic between these poles, there’s just dichotomies with the switch flicking to one rather than the other depending on the scenery. The film is ostensibly a journey into the psychology and the ethics of the Hunger Games (where, for the uninitiated, kids are rounded up at random from the various districts in Panem and fight to the death, with the winner being the last person standing) and the polity and culture that has produced them.

Virtually every second scene presents our heroine with some ethical dilemma great or small. Should she follow orders or go her own way? Should she tend the wounds of an enemy? Or the wounds of an ally if it will set back the larger cause? How do the interests of her family members figure compared with her own interests or those of others?

Sometimes this works well, if a little melodramatically and unrealistically. In one scene in the final film a soldier from Snow’s side grabs and immobilises her placing a gun to her throat and asks her why he shouldn’t kill her. She says there’s no reason why he shouldn’t kill her. It’s a good line. She explains that he want’s to kill her just like she wants to kill him because they’re on the opposite sides and then talks him round to an understanding that that’s what they’ve become, that they’re just killing each other. And why? Because of Snow. They’re all the pawns of Snow’s power plays. Like I said, over the top and definitely unrealistic (this takes place in a major battle which kind of stops at attention for this exchange). But it makes the point about moral heroism as stepping outside the frame of the ordinary to find and assert insight and the preparedness to act on it.

It’s definitely compelling, though you’re probably also seeing how this is starting to become very American. American as in films where the Bad Guy has an (inexplicable) epiphany at the end and everyone lives happily ever after. (Then again it was Dickens who offered the template of this in A Christmas Carol, and he wasn’t American – but there you go. In any event perhaps that aside offers me a way of further elucidating my theme. Perhaps what I’m calling American sensibility is excessive, indulgent sentimentalism.)

In any event, the film’s tension between the tough and the teary, the stoic and the sentimental never goes anywhere. Katniss is tough, and constantly confronted by moral dilemmas, but never does anything wrong. That’s not a way to develop a story about ethical dilemmas and living through them. It’s a way to show you don’t understand what’s at stake. This is constantly the case in the Hunger Games – which poses core questions about us using fantastically compelling metaphors and then cops out presumably from lack of insight and lack of art, perhaps helped along by the cash. tumblr_m59mbtlNxv1qei38z

Of course the Good Guys in Harry Potter don’t do the wrong thing either, despite going through the wars. I can’t quite put my finger on why that’s not an affront to me there, but is here. Stabs at it are that Hazza is a kids’ adventure story. It raises questions of good and evil, but it’s preoccupations are more social – political, sociological and (social)psychological. They’re not about the (personally) ethical. Hazza and friends Hermione and Ron are not posed huge ethical dilemmas at the heart of the story. They’re scared in a physical sense many times, but, as with the genre of kids adventures, it’s not existential. They’re not wrestling with who they are.

In Harry the choice of who’s side you’re on comes down to who you are, and what that means about what you have to do. In Hunger the world-weariness of Katniss and the other characters – their immersion in the poisonous totalitarian world they are trying to somehow fight their way out of – suggests some need for growth and transcendence which never comes. Instead of some dialectic of growth between Katniss the stoic and Katniss the sentimentalist the switch flicks between one and the other depending on the scenery. Denim or Lace? Katniss would look good in anything.

I saw the film last night in the Very Groovy Westgarth Cinema recently bought out by the arthouse cinema chain Palace. Admittedly the audience were far groovier, luvvier, older and wealthier than the demographic that I presume the Hunger Games are directed at. But it brought home the differences in sensibility between American and Australian audiences. The people there were predominantly young adults but not ‘young adults’ as in pre-university. Anyway the movie ends, a little like Harry Potter some years after all the dramas of the past but where in Hazza it serves to tie together loose ends, and suggest eternal recurrance with the kids reenacting the key railway station scene with which the series began, in Hunger there’s a family scene with a moppet 3 or four year old and a baby looking lovingly, wholesomely up at its mother as if she were breastfeeding it, though it’s just lying there beatific. This was more than the audience at the Westgarth could take and the snickers turned to open giggling and general derisive laughter, though it seemed good natured rather than being too superior. I doubted that it would have been so in America, but who knows?

I’d be interested in any Troppskadillion views of these movies . . . The best comment will receive a trip in the Troppo troop carrier when it’s delivered by the Chinese.

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paul frijters
paul frijters
6 years ago

yes, the first book was great and the whole concept is fantastic.

I agree with the over-sentimentalism. Also the penchant to reduce a life in a few pivotal moments, with the rest apparently not mattering, is a feature of American mythology and this book series.

I found the third book a bit depressing. A study of loss, mental madness, and despair. Not much joi de vie about it!

As a political commentary, the created world is not realistic enough to take seriously. With the kind of technology available that they presume exists in that world, you wouldnt have a few childless ‘peacekeepers’ with guns to control the rest.

Still, great fun.

paul frijters
paul frijters
6 years ago

I dont mind any of that and see that as a form of entertainment: the media pageantry of the Hunger games is a form of laughing at ourselves in many ways.

The main thing that is naive is the pure badness of the Capitol. Their cruelty is dysfunctional and stupid. Unsustainable. Empires that oppress other regions are smarter about it than that. The unrealism of the oppression taints the larger storyline, even if all the individual storylines are, as you say, great metaphors.

So I read it as entertainment, not political commentary.