Monday, March 26, 2012

Is The Hunger Games manipulative in its morality?

Like many of you, I saw The Hunger Games this weekend.  As someone who had never read the books, I rather enjoyed the movie.  I want to issue a fair warning that this post is going to be full of spoilers.

My usual policy is to not read reviews for movies I know I'm going to see, then to binge on the reviews, post-viewing.  Delving into the write-ups, I was unsurprised to see that they trended largely positive, save for the usual whining from book devotees regarding details that were changed or abridged for the sake of adaptation.

Ah, but there was one extremely negative review from Scott Mendelson.  It's an interesting read and I encourage everyone to take a look at it.  He raises a point that I admit, had occurred to me mid-film.  It seemed rather convenient over the course of a fight-to-the-death tournament, the deaths that Katniss causes are all either indirect or in self-defense.

Mendelson makes the same observation:

Almost from the start, the film divides up its contestants into two groups: the 'nice kids' who are almost never shown killing anyone and the 'bad kids' who not only kill onscreen but relish the opportunity.
 Led by Cato (Alexander Ludwig), a tall, muscular young man who is immediately tagged as 'the main villain', half of the surviving contestants formed what can only be described as a 'posse of evil', as they hunt down and trap the other 'sympathetic' contestants. Not only are these kids efficient killers, they seem to be outright psychopaths, taunting our heroes and doing all they can to create audience animosity... At no point do any sympathetic contestants get their hands uncomfortably bloody. 

[...] The film does not ask us to stare point-blank at the horror implicit in its premise, but rather pick sides, cheer for your heroes, boo for the villains, and thrill when the contestants you don't like get bumped off ("Take *that*, bitch!" the audience all-but shouted). Moreover, the sympathetic contestants never have to behave in morally messy ways, with Katniss only directly causing a single (self-defense) death, and indirectly causing another death via bee-sting. Co-survivor Peeta escapes without a single explicit kill to his name (Katniss and Peeta are both involved in Cato's climactic death without either of them being directly responsible for it). After establishing Thresh as a sympathetic character (he spares Katniss's life 'just this once' because she tried to protect Rue), he is eaten off-screen by CGI beasts who show up right at the end purely to allow the two remaining contestants to be killed with without dirtying Peeta or Katniss's hands. 

Remember, these people are not 'good guys' and 'bad guys', they are all impoverished children who have been kidnapped from their homes and forced to fight each other to the death for entertainment of the '1%'. The idea that we should have any favorites or that we should take any joy in the proceedings makes us as culpable as the would-be oppressors. And the fact that the film so readily divides up the contestants as such in order to promote an easily-digestible narrative shows how fraudulent it is no matter what relevant social issues it pertains to bring up.

Is the film manipulative on those points? Yes, that's a fair point.  But I can also easily justify the black-and-white morality to a certain extent.  It makes sense to me that the Tributes would fall largely into two catagories: fighters and flee-ers.  Of course, not every kid who envisions themselves a fighter is probably capable.  Thus, when the Games start, the more pacifistic among them head for the hills.  The rest of the tributes engage in the fight to the death, where it makes sense that the stronger and more brutal would survive.

Cato's pretty cleanly depicted as a sociopath, I won't dispute that.  The blonde girl on his team is equally demented, a blood-thirsty bully.  But I have a hunch that the rest of their pack might just be in it as an effort to survive.  You see this in school cliques a lot - one or two cruel bullies has a crowd of admirers who aren't evil, but just find it safer to join the pack than be an individual and risk becoming the next target. 

It might have been interesting to have Katniss end up facing one of those members, and then we'd really see how far they want to push kill-or-be-killed. But on the other hand, perhaps the "good" Tributes are good because they don't have the stomach to fight directly.  What's wrong with showing that these kids are horrified by The Games?  Wouldn't the kids who dive in head-first necessarily be less morally admirable than the kids just trying to survive?

This is putting aside the fact that early on it's mentioned that the kids are at least as likely to die of exposure than in battle.  I'd say that's a pretty good indication that the Tributes often try to run and hide.  The others, when pushed, revert to a more animal behavior.

If the film was over three hours long, maybe it would have been possible to explore some of the kids in depth before the Games begin, thus giving us an appreciation for how this barbaric situation corrupts some of those players.  At the end of the day, though, this is Katniss's story and all that really matters is how this affects her.

Is the depiction of the other players manipulative? Sure. But is manipulative always bad? Maybe not.  If Katniss reveled in her kills, she wouldn't be Katniss.  Her character is consistent and in the end, she's ready to basically commit suicide rather than kill in cold blood a combatant she care about.  That right there should tell us that the only situation where she'd kill is where she has literally no other choice.

I admit - it IS convenient that this is also the course that preserves her likability.  But hey, it's justified in the story.

Just my thoughts - what do you think?  (And let's try to confine discussion to the events as depicted in the film rather than the book.)


  1. All of this is true, and I would have found it a more engaging film if there was more complexity to the situation the children found themselves in ... especially let down when the boar-dogs came to finish the players off. But - here is one explanation for the bully kids, as a non-book-reader. It is briefly mentioned that some of the districts were more wealthy and privilidged, and that the children go to special schools their entire lives to train for the games, then volunteer when the time comes. They are the kids of the 1%. They are trained to be blood-thirsty and confident that they will win, as it is stated that the winners usually come from these groups, with the poorer districts rarely represented. It was also hinted at that the government prefers these kids to win to preserve the social order. They are ready to kill off Katniss for succeeding and not engaging in the brutality of the game, but good TV wins out in the end.

  2. (Also an accurate critique of the American education system re-enforcing class, as the kid who attends the elite private prep-school is going to have an edge in college admissions and job prospects over the kid stuck in an underserved, impoverished rural/urban public district.)

  3. BSR - I side with you on this. Even Cato, the clear cut bully, is shown in his final moments to be a victim. And all those saying that Katniss never has to face the dilemma of murdering someone outside of self-defense is forgetting the final moments of the games. She is given the option to kill an undefended player in order to survive herself. She chooses a third option - one that defies the Game itself - and that is what makes her worthy of becoming a hero.

  4. Everything in the movie (as pertains to this discussion) is straight from the book. And yes, more morally ambiguous 'kills' would have made for an even more compelling story, but this IS a YA book, and while you can get away with your main character doing morally ambiguous THINGS, you can't have them killing people, especially other impoverished kids, without making them unsympathetic. While it was very convenient how all of the deaths Katniss had to cause were in self-defense and/or from a distance, this didn't bother me, but instead made me smirk at Suzanne Collins' cleverness at accomplishing this, at least from a logistical storytelling point.

    The books go into far better detail (it's told first-person) as to the psychological effects having to anticipate killing another kid, or being killed, have on Katniss, and a lot of that moral ambiguity is clarified.

    And one major thing the movie left out, inexplicably, as it would have only added a sentence to the overall movie, was that the district from which the eventual winner came from received extra food rations for a year, hence the NAME of the event, The Hunger Games. That little tidbit really goes a long way to explaining why the people don't argue about it TOO much. "Too bad about those other 23 kids, but at least WE won't die from starvation for a year."

  5. I don't think the problem is that Katniss only kills in self-defense, I think that's actually a natural reaction to such a gladiatorial event: establishing a set of morals that defines what you will and won't do to win.

    I think the story is decent enough, but its restrictions and focus make it little more than a Disney movie.

    I think THG would have been much better as a Lord of the Flies kind of societal case study, dealing with the horror and primality of children forced into an arena and told that only one will be allowed to leave alive. The cannibal nature of man revealed through the eyes of innocent and unjaded children.

    The problem with The Hunger Games is that the setting itself has potential to be primal and dangerous, but the story that Collins devised is sanitized and safe.


  6. I haven't read the books, but I enjoyed the movie. You're right that all the kids are victims, but they did say that the kids from districts 1 & 2, who made up that evil posse, were trained as killers from a very young age, and were also volunteers,. The fact that they volunteered themselves up to play the game made it easier for me to root against them as being pure evil, even though they were all still kids.

  7. Just saw this last night... did anybody think the movie was slow? Both the prep leading up to the games and then the games themselves... I often felt I was wandering lost in the forest.

  8. I also thought this should've been R-rated.