I’ve been struggling to understand why it is that I found The Hunger Games, which I saw last week with my teenage daughter, morally repugnant. The movie, like the young adult novel by Suzanne Collins that it’s based on (which I didn’t read), invites us to imagine a regime so brutal that it annually selects by lottery one child from each of the country’s 12 districts and pits them against one another in a televised gladiatorial combat to the death. Only one participant may survive. The savagery and spectacle of these “hunger games” is, of course, meant to indicate the moral depths to which civilization can sink, but I’m not aware that it’s ever sunk quite this low in real life. Perhaps there’s an intended parallel with the forced recruitment of child soldiers, or, more provocatively, with any government’s drafting of young adults (as most of the kids in the movie look to be) to fight wars not of their choosing. But the first is an obscene form of savagery that no regime dare condone openly, much less broadcast to the public. And the second has been necessary in the past to defeat armies bent on annihilation or conquest.
Watching the film, I had a thought that has come to me more than once while consuming dystopian science or fantasy fiction. Instead of forcing me to imagine crimes against humanity that don’t occur in real life, why not force me to imagine horrors that do? Why do adolescents who resist reading in history books or newspapers or magazines about the sickening things people have actually done to one another in the name of extremist nationalism or religious fanaticism or organized criminality (or some other group-based madness) flock to novels and films that inform them of sickening things that have not been done? If it’s because they crave social commentary, wouldn’t they do better first to acquire the knowledge that would clue them in to whatever it is that’s being commented on?
The headline for a piece by The New Republic’s wonderful David Thomson (“Why I Hate The Hunger Games”) promised enlightenment, and I had high hopes after seeing the film that Thomson would explain my feelings to myself. But it turned out that Thomson’s objections were merely aesthetic. His review wasn’t the articulation of my half-formulated moral critique that I hungered for. Indeed, by Hollywood blockbuster standards I think The Hunger Games, as a movie, is pretty good. I would recommend it as decent entertainment if it weren’t so ... repulsive.
Lacking such guidance, here’s my best shot.
The Hunger Games wants to have it both ways. It wants us to register severe moral disapproval of a society that would require children to hunt one another as if they were woodland creatures. But—because it also wants to be an entertainment with a sympathetic heroine and some good old-fashioned suspense—The Hunger Games also invites us to root for the right person to win the competition by, um, killing other children. If a bunch of kids are going to die, we might as well hope that the nicest and bravest of them ends up triumphant atop the pile of corpses. Yuck.
Because The Hunger Games lacks the courage of its dark conceit, the story line must be contrived in such a way as to minimize any moral objection we might raise against the bow-wielding heroine’s kills. The nice (usually younger) kids, whom she tries to save, all get killed by others. The few she must kill are all nasty preppies apparently raised from birth to be smug, violent and cruel. Nowhere in the film is it suggested that if 12 moral individuals were told to kill one another for no reason other than to amuse the masses, then the only choice consistent with any notion of ethics that I’m familiar with would be to refuse and be executed. Hello? Hasn’t Collins, or the filmmakers, ever clapped her eyes on Rodin’s Burghers of Calais? The Hunger Games wants its audience to experience moral revulsion, but it also wants it to cheer when (I don’t think I’m giving anything away here) our girl wins. You don’t have to be a pacifist to find an entertainment built around this evasion a bit nauseating.