Social Justice and the Arena- A Review of “The Hunger Games”

I will start by saying that this could more likely be described as a commentary rather than a review in that I may get a bit ranty. Also, SPOILERS.

I have read all of the Hunger Games books at the very insistent pleading of my sweet wife, who has herself read them multiple times. I’m glad she did encourage me to read them because I have thoroughly enjoyed this story. However, some have pointed out that the movie as well as the books fall in a category close to the Twilight series- a sci-fi/fantasy setting disguising a romance story for the ladies. This fact was not lost on me as I read the books and realized how much time was spent in Katniss’ inner monologue of boy-thoughts and not on explosions and weapons. My initial rub with the books was that you’re opened up to this grand epic story of a dystopian future, but the focus remains closely on one character’s perspective. While this frustrated me, I respect the author for sticking to her story as she wanted it.

This focus on the one person caught up in a bigger story is quite common. One example is Braveheart. William Wallace didn’t care so much about the Scottish clans or the dang English, he just wanted to marry his lady friend in peace. But then she was tragically murdered by the very people he was apathetic about and suddenly he’s all about revolutionizing and killing the English. Yet another example is Braveheart 2: Brave Harder. This was released in the States as The Patriot. In this movie, William Wallace’s descendant, Benjamin Martin, tragically loses a loved one and responds by leading a rebellion against the English….again. In both of these cases, the story starts with one person’s tragic loss of a loved one that then forces them into the bigger picture, like The Hunger Games. It takes this one person for us to bond with in order to have a vested interest in the bigger story.

The world that we see through Katniss’ eyes is a very dark and depraved one indeed. Katniss seems to get by leading a relatively peaceful life, but things get really serious at the Reaping. That scene was emotionally wrenching and very well acted and no I did not at all get misty-eyed I HAD SOMETHING IN MY EYE, OKAY?? Things only get worse when you see the sickening decadence of The Capitol. Worst of all is the central focus of the movie- forcing kids into an arena to brutally fight to the death.

On this point I heard some negative things from critics on how the depiction of the actual Hunger Games was treated. I’ve read things like “missed opportunities” and “didn’t go far enough” or a “lack of horror.” And many of these points are well made since the most intense scenes were carefully shot to avoid showing anything too overtly graphic. I suppose these critics think that if they did make these scenes more explicit, it would further drive home the horror of this society. Why not use a theatrical opportunity to show how horrible it is for kids to kill kids?

My hunch is that the graphic action was toned down for a deliberate purpose. When I was reading through The Hunger Games, especially the first one where you are first introduced to this world, I kept feeling angry at this situation. Everyone in the story seemed to be so adjusted and complacent about the overwhelmingly unjust treatment of the districts and their children by The Capitol. My feelings, and perhaps those of some of the characters, could best be described by a Coldplay lyric, “I know I’m dead on the surface, but I am screaming underneath.”

That same internal discomfort is, I believe, what drove those critics to say that this injustice should have been more graphically or dramatically portrayed. They want the injustice to be graphically depicted to ensure that this horrible situation is presented as something truly horrible. In their opinion, the PG-13 visuals take away from how terrible this society really is.

My counter-critique is this- that’s the point.

When you start this journey with Katniss, you’re with her in the poverty-stricken slums and you are very aware of just how off-balance this world has become. But then you go to The Capitol and you meet Cinna and the other tributes. Some of these people you like, some you don’t. The dramatic tension increases as you wonder who is really going to make it out of this alive. Will Katniss kill? Who will Katniss kill? How many will Katniss kill? What strategies will she use? What alliances can she take advantage of?

And suddenly, you’re another spectator.

The way the books and the movie are written reflect the reader’s/viewer’s journey from identifying with the mistreated innocent to becoming a detached onlooker. As the one in the stands, you suddenly care less about the madness of the general situation and plight of each individual and much more about one tribute’s success. Your tribute’s success. By encouraging the audience to dislike certain contenders, the storytellers are pushing you towards a view where you might be willing to think, “Yeah, it’s okay for Katniss to kill him” or “That guy’s a jerk, he deserves to get killed.” Now suddenly you’re a little more comfortable with the idea of one poor, enslaved teenager killing another poor, enslaved teenager. The revolting thought that these teens were kidnapped and forced to kill each other has left your mind.

Once we realize that we’ve become comfortable cheering this on from the sidelines, that’s where the story points back at us. This meta-message states that not only is this situation terrible, but we’re terrible for both watching the games and allowing them to happen. Yes, I know we’re not actually allowing the Hunger Games to actually happen, because they’re not real. But what do we allow to happen? The social commentary derived from this story begs the question- what do we find entertaining and who must suffer to provide that entertainment?

The Hunger Games have many close parallels with “reality” TV as we know it. Both seem to be tightly controlled and meticulously scripted to provide a neatly edited rendering of something we want to pretend is raw and dramatic. We are nowhere near as bad as the future society of Panem since we still raise a huge ruckus when kids are forced to take up arms and act out in violence. But are not lives still put at risk for the sake of our entertainment? The hearts of children aren’t literally being pierced with spears, but heartbreak is a common staple of reality entertainment. Sure we don’t want Jon and Kate’s family to crumble, but darn it all if we don’t go ahead and make a media circus out of it anyway. The ones suffering the most are those children. Why were they asked to put their lives on TV in the first place? Because we find it entertaining.

Reality TV is a minor example, and I certainly don’t intend to judge or criticize those who enjoy watching reality TV. Heck, if Survivor or is the worst we can do to entertain ourselves, we’ll be alright. But that’s not the worst we have done or are doing. I will argue that even now, we are not free from this pattern of entertainment at the expense of the suffering of another. Around the time I saw The Hunger Games and started thinking about this review, I listened to a sermon from a series about marriage. This particular installment was about pornography, the porn industry, and how it adversely affects a marriage. This sermon brought to light many disturbing facts about how large this industry is and how much money is poured into it by our society.

The most disturbing fact was that the former porn star being interviewed for this sermon stated that she entered into that business out of desperate need for validation. Her decision was also connected to abuse and trauma in her past that left deep scars and changed how she viewed herself.  What’s worse is that she came to learn that her past was very similar to the others she knew in this same industry. These women were essentially told by an older person, family member, significant other, etc. that they’re not really good for anything other than a sexual object. This massive yet hidden slice of our entertainment industry manages to find these vulnerable people and offers to pay them to act on their deeply rooted feelings of worthlessness.

I know that (for the most part) people enter this industry voluntarily, but I can’t help but think that this industry is built by the twisted exploitation of those who have already been hurt and mistreated. I can’t imagine that any participant in this industry truly values the individuals being filmed as precious, treasured members of God’s creation. These actors and actresses are seen as one-time disposable images used as a means to an end that is quickly forgotten.

And so we return to The Hunger Games. Do the people in The Capitol really care about the Tributes? They’re paraded around and interviewed, but ultimately they’re just fresh meat with weapons, waiting to get slaughtered so the audience can get that bloody money shot. With the thriving success of an industry like pornography, is our society much better? Who are we willing to devalue and exploit for the sake of our entertainment?

1 Timothy 4:2 talks about those whose “consciences are seared” and I believe that’s what we’re seeing in the people of The Capitol, and what we should be looking out for in ourselves. The subdued presentation of the horrific events in the world of The Hunger Games is a meta-commentary on our own seared consciences when it comes to our entertainment. I view this story as a cautionary tale of what we could become if we are not more aware of our entertainment sensibilities and injustice towards the innocent, mistreated, and hurting.

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2 thoughts on “Social Justice and the Arena- A Review of “The Hunger Games”

  1. Awesome thoughts. I too, had a great deal of discomfort with the lack of a moral view in the series (I really didn’t think that we had much of a moral discussion until mid-way through the third book, and then it felt like too little, too late) but I love your thoughts about our voyeurism… excellent way to look at it.

  2. Pingback: Today’s round-up is busting at the seams, like my new size four jeans | The Cute Conservative

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