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?