Why I Didn’t Like “The Hunger Games”

I finally watched the first Hunger Games movie last night, and unfortunately I was not impressed. Once again — as with Harry PotterTwilight, and Divergent — I find myself somehow missing the enthusiasm and euphoria that so many people (especially my students) have for these stories.

My main gripe is conceptual: I don’t understand what the games have to do with keeping the districts from rebelling. If anything, watching some of their children get murdered seems to increase the likelihood of furious revolt. If spectacle is the point (as in Brave New World), where do gladiator-style deathmatches fit in? If brute force is the purpose (as in 1984), why bother with the elaborate process of drafting kids into postmodern murderball?

In the past when I complain about foundational bits like this (which make it impossible for me to suspend disbelief), I’ve been accused of “analyzing it too much” or clinging to other stories/series that I have emotional attachments to (usually because I found them in my youth). I guess I can’t deny these accusations, but I don’t think they make my problem invalid.

The story itself is fine. Don’t get me wrong — having pre-teens murder each other for public entertainment is great. The iconography of desperation and horrifying thrill of blood sport are well-depicted.

And, as Diane points out, Caithness is a hardcore kick-butt female lead (which is rare for Hollywood). I’m intrigued by the tension of pleasing people you hate in order to get sponsored, and by the Lord of the Flies-esque ruthlessness that shows up once all bets of civilization are off. (Not to mention the class conflict, the power of solidarity that emerges, and the stress of personal vs. family/social responsibility.) I did enjoy those bits enough to want to see future installments (which was not true of the Harry Potter books/films, after I consumed the first of each). 

Some might say that I done goofed by only watching the movie, not reading the book. As an English teacher, I accept that films tend to skimp on the backstory and sociopolitical context. Maybe I will read the book(s) at some point. On the other hand, someone who didn’t care for the movie version of V for Vendetta for similar reasons would not hear from me a demand that s/he read the book. Yes, there’s more depth in the text (much more), but it’s not drastically different from the basic setup in the movie. I suspect the same is true of The Hunger Games.

I will also recognize several other factors contributing to my distaste for this project. First of all, I feel a deep kinship for a long line of dystopian literature (as the allusions above demonstrate). I’ve been a huge SF fan my whole life, and I suppose there’s some resentment in me that this series is so popular, while Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano languish in obscurity. Even Fallout 3 does a better job, in my opinion, of contrasting the opulence of wealth against the terrors of deprivation among the masses. (Of course these comments make me sound like an obnoxious hipster, which frustrates even me.)

I will also admit that I feel sad being unable to join the crowd of people who love a thing so popular. In the same way that I felt powerful joy during the heyday of The Simpsons because I actually fit in with people who liked that show, I — despite many appearances to the contrary — really do want to like things that other people like. I’d love to share the thrill of discussing this story. (In the same way that I get a big kick out of discussing The Wire with Chris. or Downton Abbey with Betsy.) The fact that I’m held back by a small (but urgent) flaw in the story’s setup makes me sad.

Finally I will confess to having awkward expectations here. I expected to find a postmodern Gladiator with kids, and that’s more or less what I got. That’s fine, but I wanted something more. And, just as with Harry Potter and Twilight, I can’t easily put aside the movie I want to simply appreciate the movie I have. I will point out that this is not an impossible task for me — when I first watched the SF film Moon, I wanted something bigger than the setup behind it all. But when all was said and done, I recognized that the movie itself was still great, regardless of the weird hopes/expectations that lurked in my head. I guess The Hunger Games just didn’t pull off the impression that Moon managed to achieve.

Sorry, fans! As I say, I wanted to like this more than I did. Maybe I’ll have a better opinion of Catching Fire.

EDIT: Laura Miller wrote a review in The New Yorker which makes exactly the same point as mine:

As a tool of practical propaganda, the games don’t make much sense. They lack that essential quality of the totalitarian spectacle: ideological coherence. You don’t demoralize and dehumanize a subject people by turning them into celebrities and coaching them on how to craft an appealing persona for a mass audience. (“Think of yourself among friends,” Katniss’s media handler urges.) Are the games a disciplinary measure or an extreme sporting event? A beauty pageant or an exercise in despotic terror? Given that the winning tribute’s district is “showered with prizes, largely consisting of food,” why isn’t it the poorer, hungrier districts that pool their resources to train Career Tributes, instead of the wealthier ones? And the practice of carrying off a population’s innocent children and commanding their parents to watch them be slaughtered for entertainment—wouldn’t that do more to provoke a rebellion than to head one off?

What You Got Ain’t Nothin New

I can’t stop thinking about the horror and sadness in this story about three kids who killed a guy because they “were bored and didn’t have anything to do”. Obviously my heart goes out to his family, and I simply cannot imagine the grief and pain they’re going through.

And I also feel horrible for the kids who did this terrible thing, and what their families must be going through. They more or less ended their own lives on that day as well. As Wackle says in Rudy Rucker’s novel Spaceland, “Killing kills the killer.” (Of course their lives were probably pretty horrible before that fateful moment.)

It’s tempting to think about all of this as a post-modern phenomenon, something totally new and unique to our decrepit age. But I’m pretty certain that it’s not. There’s an important scene in the movie No Country for Old Men in which Bell and his Uncle Ellis discuss when Bell’s father was killed in a savage and horrible way. Ellis says:

What you got ain’t nothin new. This country is hard on people. Hard and crazy. Got the devil in it yet folks never seem to hold it to account.

(The conversation is a bit different in the novel, and contains an important story about Bell’s actions in the war.)

I’m also reminded of this comment made by the Chicago writer Nelson Algren, in an interview from 1963:

I think the trouble with American literature is it doesn’t know who it is. [...] American literature is the woman in the courtroom who, finding herself undefended on a charge, asked, “Isn’t anybody on my side?” It’s also the phrase I used that was once used in a court of a kid who, on being sentenced to death, said, “I knew I’d never get to be twenty-one anyhow.”

More recently I think American literature is also the fifteen-year-old who, after he had stabbed somebody, said, ‘Put me in the electric chair — my mother can watch me burn.’

Even more recently, American literature is a seventeen-year-old kid picked up on a double murder charge, two killings in a boat, in a ship off Miami, who said he was very glad it happened, he had absolutely no regrets, his only fear was that he might not get the electric chair. He had no vindictiveness toward those two people he killed. He said they were pretty good about it. They didn’t know, they had no idea, that he was going to come up with a knife. He had, in fact, a little bit of admiration for their coolness.

One of them, finding himself stabbed, said, “Why?” He wanted to know. He said, “I can’t tell them why.” But I know he’s been trying to get out of it since he’s six years old. This is an honors student, you understand, this is a bright boy from a respectable home. He never remembers a time when he wasn’t fully convinced that death was better than life. And now he was very contented, his only worry being that he might not get the electric chair. He’s afraid of that. That’s the only fear he has, that he might have to continue to live. I think that’s American literature.

American literature is The King and Duke selling Jim out in Huck Finn. It’s Cholly doing horrible things to his daughter in The Bluest Eye. It’s Bob Ewell doing horrible things to his daughter in To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s Lenny killing things in Of Mice and Men. It’s the firebombing of Dresden in Slaughterhouse Five.

I want to turn away from this sadness and horror, but I can’t. And I guess it’s a good thing. As Franz Kafka supposedly said:

You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could avoid.

Now I’m going to go do something for someone else, because that’s usually the best way to deal with this sort of thing.

This is just to say

A little something I made today. True story!

Two Pics

Diane makes our home look so beautiful. It’s like I’m coming home to a lush garden.

Also I got a cool action shot of Tito today:

Sack on Mandates

Steve Sack from the Minneapolis Star Tribune won the Pulitzer Prize today for his editorial cartoons. Here’s my favorite of the gallery. I also really like this one.