The government is run by sleek, despicable rulers. It is housed in a hi-tech city of luxury, but the sheen of the city is not bright enough to cover up the Empty caged in its midst. The city’s dwellers are heavily made-up and dressed in outrageous, gaudy clothes. They cheer delightedly, sickeningly as they watch the lead up to the new hit movie’s title event. For 74 years, the government has been holding “Hunger Games,” in which they select one young man and one young woman from each of the country’s 12 districts to fight to the death. The heroes are from an impoverished coal miners’ village in a working class district.
The potential for social critique seems enormous: A critique of social stratification and the wealth gaps fostered by cruel capitalism, a critique of totalitarianism and governments’ attempts to control people through fear, and, most importantly, a powerful critique of violence. Indeed, the movie’s violent premise almost makes you gag: children being forced to slaughter each other so that a government can maintain its rule of terror. Sounds sort of like wars in Sub-Saharan Africa, the worldly observer might muse. That, or war in general: kids being sent to kill each other so that government[s] can maintain power.
Great, thinks a young believer in nonviolence like myself, a hugely popular movie critical of violence. What could be wrong with that?
Well, not much, except that the movie is not critical of violence: it is in favor of it.
Katniss, the movie’s heroine, is pulled against her will into the “game” when her frail younger sister is selected as district 12’s representative. She is paired with the kindhearted Peeta, who doesn’t want to fight and seeks, throughout the games, to save Katniss’ life. The other kids are made up of a handful of sadistic bully-like figures and some more-sympathetic minor characters. The bullies seem to enjoy themselves as they slaughter the more-sympathetic minor characters. Of course, despite the fact that they are put in this woodsy arena and told to kill or be killed, both Katniss and Peeta never kill any of the sympathetic characters.
They only kill the bad guys.
Maintaining their high moral standards until the end of the movie, Katniss and Peeta decide to commit joint suicide rather than fight one another, and are stopped at the last moment by the omniscient government, afraid of the revolutionary symbol the death of both Katniss and Peeta might ignite in the noble hearts of the working class peasants, who had already begun to revolt in District 11 when Rue, the extremely cute main-minor-character is killed by a bad guy kid and Katniss gives her a tragic burial.
There is something so deeply, horribly, obviously-and-yet-subtly wrong about this. In a situation in which kids are placed down in a game/war-zone, given weapons and told to kill, there are no good guys and bad guys. If this were to have been a real critique of violence, Katniss should have killed Rue, and the bad guy kid should have broke down sobbing and vomiting after stabbing the curly hard blond boy. Enemies also have younger siblings and are scared of spiders and like to play with lint and sing in the shower. The kids on the other side like to play soccer also, like in the devastating story of the “Christmas Truce” between German and Allied soldier-kids during World War I, in which the kids on both sides called off killing for a day to play soccer with each other.
By making some of the kids into “bad guys” and others into “heroes” the Hunger Games makers- or perhaps it was the author of the book, which I have not read- forfeit all potential for meaningful critique of violence. The movie is obviously leading up to sequels in which Katniss will lead a pleasant peasant revolt against the government, wherein no the good guys will, following Katniss’ lead, kill no innocent people. Instead of critiquing violence and war, this movie falls in line with familiar violence-glorifying narratives, perhaps (but probably not) in the form of Marxist revolution in which peasant violence is hailed as redemptive (and that’s gone real well throughout history, huh):
Or, alternately, the movie may simply be pushing forward a simpler war-narrative of good guys versus bad guys, of US kids versus Iraqi kids. Or of Iraqi kids versus US kids. It doesn’t matter. There aren’t many bad guys or good guys in war, and if there are any, there aren’t enough to make up a whole army, or even a whole unit, and when thrown into something like the hunger games, I doubt that many kids -myself included- could maintain the moral purity of Katniss and co.
Come on. Chill out, Rothman, it’s just a movie, right?
No. I really don’t think that is right. Movies are not made in vacuums, and contribute to political discourse, societal morals, and all of our understandings of and beliefs about the world.
Fine, so what’s so bad about this one specifically? Why is it any worse than, say, Lord of the Rings?
I think what is so wrong with this one is that it seems like a powerful social critique. Maybe the same argument could be made about Lord of the Rings, with its armies of light fighting hordes of darkness, made up mostly of Orcs with a few Orientals sprinkled here and there, but I think Hunger Games is more problematic in that it deals with political themes head-on, and seems to be something that it is not, namely, an anti-violent social critique.
In fact, I was reminded of that stupid movie Avatar, which also had such potential for powerful social critique- in that case of colonialism and Western domination and environmental degradation and militarism- and blew it by “going Hollywood” (happy ending! Just like how real colonialism ended, right?) and by bringing in a sort of White Savior Convert character to lead the Natives to a violent- but of course only violent against bad guys- salvation.
A final note on this movie’s failed feminism, then I’m done. Some have been lauding the Hunger Games for its feminism, in that Katniss is a strong, determined woman who can hold her own and more with all of the rough, tough, violent boys. I guess it’s nice that a young woman is given a role as hero, but I’m not particularly impressed by Margaret Thatcher-style pseudo-feminism which states that women can do violence just as well as any man.
Like in all of my arguments, maybe I’m wrong, and maybe in this case even more than usual, as I’m straying far from my comfort zone by writing a sort of movie review, which I’ve never done before, and not mentioning the words “Palestine” or “Israel” even once. Maybe viewers will leave theater feeling disgusted by violence and in search of another way. But my suspicion is that this movie will only reinforce the commonly held views of good guys and bad guys, pure violence versus evil violence. And that all of the potential pro-socialism the movie holds will be neatly melted away by the movie’s high-grossing Hollywood sheen.