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?

Kindness Saves

Well, the blues passed and today I woke up feeling better again. (Diane’s loving compassion has a lot to do with this.) I decided I was going to snap myself out of it either way, so I washed the dishes and then worked out and then meditated and then ate fruit for breakfast. It seems to be working.

Best of all, I found two awesome things on the internet today. First, a Wikipedian named Gerda Arendt left me (back in August, heh) a lovely Precious Award for my contributions there. How nice!

I also stumbled into a recent Rolling Stone interview with John Goodman, in which he’s asked which role he’s fondest of. Guess who it is?

But my very favorite character is, surprise, from a Coen brothers production – Charlie Meadows in Barton Fink, because he was very sympathetic, for a man who was a snake, that is. He was someone I could sink my teeth into. Homicidal maniac, but kind of a nice guy. You don’t get many of those.

I guess that deserves a spoiler tag, but whatever. Life of the mind!

Four Things I Liked About The Waterboy

As insubstantial as they are, I really like Adam Sandler’s first two movies, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. They have an idiotic charm to them, and don’t take themselves too seriously.

I’ve still not bothered with The Wedding Singer, and it’s clear that by 1998 he was both out of ideas and getting stale with his sudden-anger shtick. So when I found The Waterboy on YouTube, I didn’t expect much.

In general, I was right. It has the same trite plot of every sports comedy ever (including Happy Gilmore), but his goofy-guy guffawing is just painful. However, four things did intrigue me, and fortunately there are just enough silly fun bits to keep it worthwhile. The unexpected highlights are:

1. D’Angelo Barksdale from The Wire

Where’s Wallace at? Apparently he’s in The Waterboy. Not only is the part of Bobby’s football buddy Derek played by Lawrence Gilliard Jr., but his last name is Wallace! How amusing is that?

2. Ed Norton’s girlfriend from American History X

This was a case of staring at the person for several minutes, gnashing my teeth, asking “Where do I know her from!?” Then it hit me: Bobby’s love interest Vicki is played by Fairuza Balk, who delivered a chillingly convincing performance as a neo-nazi around the same time The Waterboy came out.

3. “Tom Sawyer” by Rush

I was amused and confused when one of the many football montages was accompanied by Rush’s classic song Tom Sawyer. If they’re trying to make a cogent point about Bobby’s status as a person, I don’t get it.

4. “Block Rockin’ Beats” by The Chemical Brothers

But the award for Best Song in the Movie must go to the early appearance of the smash hit Block Rockin’ Beats by The Chemical Brothers. It’s so excellent — and works so well in the movie — that I’ll end with it (the song starts around 1:00):

Matt Taibi on Zero Dark Thirty

From his Rolling Stone blog:

Bigelow made it clear that she wasn’t making any half-assed Rumsfeldian claim that what went on after 9/11, in thousands of grimy rooms around the world with thousands if not tens of thousands of people, somehow wasn’t torture. [...]

Here’s my question: if it would have been dishonest to leave torture out of the film entirely, how is it not dishonest to leave out how generally ineffective it was, how morally corrupting, how totally it enraged the entire Arab world, how often we used it on people we knew little to nothing about, how often it resulted in deaths, or a hundred other facts? Bigelow put it in, which was “honest,” but it seems an eerie coincidence that she was “honest” about torture in pretty much exactly the way a CIA interrogator would have told the story, without including much else. [...]

Bigelow is such a great storyteller that she has to know, deep inside, that the “depiction is not endorsement” line doesn’t wash. You want audiences gripped to the screen, you’ve gotta give them something to root for, or against. This was definitely not a movie about two vicious and murderous groups of people killing and torturing each other in an endless cycle of increasingly brainless revenge. And this was not a movie about how America lost its values en route to a great strategic victory.

No, this was a straight-up “hero catches bad guys” movie, and the idea that audiences weren’t supposed to identify with Maya the torturer is ludicrous.

Misleading Movie Descriptions

Perhaps you’ve seen the great description of The Wizard of Oz on the right there. Reddit recently asked for more like it, so I wrote a few. How many can you identify?

1. A young man gets in trouble with the law when he meets a group of bald miscreants who feed him drugs and porridge. They cruise around abandoned tunnels while fiddling with pay phones.

2. A trio of corporate criminals is narrowly rescued from prison when a deranged arsonist reacts violently to the confiscation of a small machine.

3. A brutal gang of high-school bullies attacks the younger boys, then wastes hours with alcohol and drugs, unwilling to appreciate the good intentions of their athletics coach. Meanwhile, their female friends engage in ritual humiliation of teenage girls.

4. An innovative technology company tries to revitalize the local police department with a range of scientific breakthroughs. They are partially successful, but a skirmish for corporate governance complicates matters.

5. A murderer coerces a young woman to drive him around Europe, nearly causing the death of her and her stepbrother as he tries to recover from an amnesiac episode.

6. A naive small-town lawyer defends a man who is convicted of rape, then finds his children mixed up in the violence of revenge and the mysterious actions of a mentally ill recluse.

7. A boy tries desperately to acquire a firearm while his friends dare each other to mutilate their tongues and his father obsesses over a woman’s disembodied leg.

8. An eccentric psychiatrist with a refined palette befriends a timid government employee.

9. A construction worker meets some unusual new friends when he takes a vacation to a faraway land and helps restore an ancient monument created by the locals.

10. A troubled war vet summons the courage to rescue a group of strangers when food poisoning incapacitates the men in charge of their journey.

11. A mid-level manager at a large company goes through some unexpected changes when a routine rezoning activity goes slightly awry. He meets a new friend but finds himself alienated from his wife.

12. A disfigured malcontent brainwashes a young woman and convinces her to dress up as a schoolgirl in order to help murder a priest.

13. A headstrong rich girl finds an unlikely friend in a middle-aged detective who pursues her after she steals a valuable weapon. Meanwhile, her gang-member boyfriend pursues her while the detective struggles with his attraction to a childhood friend.

14. An impoverished freelance detective finds purpose in life when he attempts to find a kidnapped woman, aided by a war vet driven by his religious faith, a friend who loves The Beatles, and an artist who shows him adult films.

15. A hardworking entrepreneur copes with an accident that leaves his son disabled, and forms an unlikely bond with a local preacher. He attends the preacher’s church, then invites him to the bowling alley for milkshakes.