The immorality of The Hunger Games

By Scott Mendelson The Hunger Games, as it exists as a film, is caught between two worlds. One on hand, it wants to be a dramatic thriller about a totalitarian regime that picks children at random and forces them to fight each other to the death for the entertainment of the wealthy masses. On the other hand, it wants to be a series that appeals to mass audiences in order to rack up massive box office grosses and become ‘the next big franchise’.

Note – this is not a conventional review and there will be far more spoilers than usual. So warned…

As a direct result of this conundrum, the picture not only fails as a social/political commentary but becomes an ugly celebration of the very narrative that it should be condemning. By refusing to look directly at its own story and by instead fashioning a convenient morality out of its murderous sporting event, it lets the audience off the hook and even encourages them to enjoy the blood-sport as ‘entertainment’. The film may appear to be mocking reality show conventions and the tendency to emphasize simplistic narratives to alleviate discomfort, but by virtue of what it omits and what it emphasizes, The Hunger Games is a prime example of what it claims to criticize. The film is so afraid to confront the horror of its premise that, in its need to create a mass-audience PG-13 franchise, it makes the cheering audience culpable and every bit as guilty as those who would watch such a thing in real life.

First and foremost, the film fails by refusing to develop or examine nearly all of the 24 Hunger Games contestants. The large number of competitors/victims is actually solved by having eleven of them get slaughtered within the first five minutes of the competition (eight hours in actual time). So the majority of the onscreen competition comes down to thirteen contestants. Other than the lead character (Katniss Everdeen played by Jennifer Lawrence) and her would-be partner/love interest (Peeta Mellark played by Josh Hutcherson), not a single contestant is given any depth. For the majority of the film, we are watching unnamed contestants kill other nearly-faceless contestants. When the cast is whittled down, we are left with the pretty blonde, the cute redhead, the brunette, the tall black guy, the young black girl, the main ‘villain’, and a few nameless/faceless white males. We do spend a few moments with one very young competitor (Rue – the ‘young black girl’), but only so we can feel sad when Katniss fails to save her. It is in defense of that character that Katiniss commits her only explicit killing of another contestant. But that blink-and-you-miss it arrow to the chest is overshadowed by her sorrow over a fallen teammate, and that scene highlights the creepy dichotomy at play throughout the entire film. 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. It is one of them who is responsible for the death of Katniss’s beloved Rue (Amandla Stenberg), yet even they are dispatched in ways that are either quasi-accidental or otherwise morally clean (bee stings, poisoned berries, Cato breaking someone’s neck as ‘punishment for failure’). At no point do any sympathetic contestants get their hands uncomfortably bloody. The closest the film comes to that is the brutal death of Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman), who is smashed against a wall by Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi). But that moment is of course ‘morally sound’. Clove is attempting to kill Katniss and taunts about the earlier killing of Rue when Thresh grabs her and smacks her into a hard surface as ‘revenge’ for the early killing. The audience literally roared with applause.

It is that moment that exemplifies everything that is wrong with the picture. 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.

One might argue that Gary Ross and company are attempting to put us in the shoes of the bloodthirsty audiences as a form of meta-commentary. But there is just one problem with this: the film never shows us the downside. For the sake of a PG-13, we see next-to-no actual onscreen violence and bloodshed. We see not a single grieving parent reacting to watching their child get gutted on television. We see not a single mother or father react with horror as their child murders another child in front of a worldwide audience. We don’t see a single contestant expressing dismay over killing anyone else or, with the exception of Katniss and Peeta, even any disapproval at being put in this situation in the first place. That we see brief snippets of what appears to be a rioting district after Rue dies only makes us question why this doesn’t happen during every Hunger Games? We don’t even see much of the privileged masses watching these games, so in the context of the film, the only ones watching these games are you and me. In fact, the only personal reaction we see to any of the onscreen action is Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) making a sad face when he sees Katniss snuggle up to Peeta. There is clever commentary in the somewhat fake Katniss/Peeta relationship about the need for some kind of romantic narrative in even the most inappropriate of stories, but the film tries to have it both ways by creating a romantic rival in the person of Gale (who is, in the context of this film, an absolutely useless and unnecessary character) and by keeping Peeta alive at the end.

Oh the hoops the film jumps through to keep Peeta alive! Despite a premise that should logically climax with Katniss tragically killing Peeta in order to ‘win’ the game, despite the fact that said action and her likely emotional reaction to it would arguably atone for at least some of the above-noted issues, the film goes out of its way to keep Katniss’s fake love interest alive at the end of the movie. Why? Well, so she can be forced to choose which two devoted boys she will pick in the next book, of course! By not focusing on the violence inherent in its ‘sport’ and by not giving depth to any of the supporting characters, the film by-default becomes about how Katniss first ‘met’ and fell for Peeta. It’s not about the government oppression of the impoverished underclass. It’s not about Katniss’s personal arc as she competes in the games, because she does not grow or change AT ALL during the course of the film. It’s not about the Hunger Games in any real social context, since it creates the very sort of easily-digestible and crowd-pleasing narrative that it claims to mock. It’s not about how an underclass reacts to the ritual slaughter of its young, because we basically never see any reaction. So, by default, the only ‘story progression’ is Katniss’s would-be romance with a local boy who joins her in the games. For all the hub-bub about how the film is some kind of feminist triumph because it’s a female-centric action picture (and I can’t help but wonder if her passivity was due to not wanting to show a *girl* killing people), in the end it’s still about a girl who meets a new boy, with the implication that a would-be love triangle (WHO will she choose?!) will be the primary focus of the next chapter of the story.

The film is well-acted by all, even if only Woody Harrelson shows any depth and casting Stanley Tucci as ‘exposition man’ is a crime that should merit jail time. The dialogue (save useless exposition) is fine. The film feel longer than its 142 minutes even while we can’t help but wonder what ended up on the cutting room floor (there is so much that goes unexplained about how their world operates, such as why it’s called ‘the hunger games’ or how the populace reacts to grand-scale cheating). But while The Hunger Games is not a badly-made film, it is a well-made monstrosity by virtue of its construction and editorial choices. I cannot speak to the source material, so perhaps Susanne Collins deserves much of the blame (although a good adaptation takes what’s good and changes what isn’t). But be it due to inherent flaws in the source material or a need to distill the film into crowd-pleasing comfort food, the film as it stands is a prime example of condescension to the point of immorality. It presents an inherently terrible and tragic situation, but constantly looks away while framing its story in simplistic good vs. evil terms so that the audience never confronts what they are embracing. It is an example, not a commentary on, a society that packages difficult situations into conventional, easily-digestible, and comforting narratives so as to not confront any inconvenient truths.

It is a prime example of commerce triumphing over art, even in a case where (due to pre-release hype) commercial success was already assured. It presents kidnap-victims being forced to kill each other for a chance to live in a fashion that will have audiences cheering when one victim thoughtlessly slaughters another. By virtue of omission and by virtue of simplistic and/or non-existent characterization, it negates whatever symbolism it claims to posses and inherently endorses said state-ordered murder. The Hunger Games is worse than a bad movie. It’s an immoral movie, possibly even an evil one.

To read more go to Mendelson’s Memo

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  • March 24, 2012 | Permalink |

    Would your reaction to the movie have been different if you saw it in an empty theater? I think mine might have been.

    I was there on opening day, and there were a lot of “juvenile” reactions to the movie. Inappropriate laughter, excited whispering when the movie differed from the book, wolf-whistles when Gale appeared on screen, talk about whether Peeta was “hot or not.” (Though, no cheering at deaths in my case.) The reason for this is that 80% of the audience were actual juveniles. And 80% of them had read the book. (I’m making that statistic up, but I bet it’s close.)

    I can assure you, the books are brutal and depressing in all the right ways.

  • March 24, 2012 | Permalink |

    Wow! It appears that you are the one who has missed everything that should have been taken from the film. Obviously you haven’t read the book either. I get what you are trying to say how their shouldn’t be sides and “they are all the victims,” but they aren’t. The people labeled “the bad guys” are bloodthirsty killers, transformed to that by a life of watching this killing competition each year. They are called Careers for a reason, they have been raised to kill without emotion. Also, if you had read the book you would know that Katniss isn’t just crying for Rue, she is also crying for having to have killed that boy. You are also a hypocrite. You criticize the audience around you for cheering at certain deaths, etc. but then you WHINE about how there wasn’t enough violence and blood.

  • March 24, 2012 | Permalink |

    You need to separate reality from fiction, like every other normal person in this world.

  • March 24, 2012 | Permalink |

    Hello Scott,

    You actually missed a key detail: the kids from the wealthier districts are trained killers who volunteered to be in the competition. They think that it is their duty to represent their district. The kids from the poor district do not volunteer. So, the rich kids in this case really are psychopaths.

    Of course, as we see at the end when Cato has his monologue, he represents the barbarity of it all, yet to save her friend she shoots him in the wrist and he falls to the dogs. This really was a “thinking movie.” Maybe the audience you saw it with was just a bunch of crazies, but this really did show the barbarity of it all. When Cato broke the young boys neck for disobeying orders, the crowd I was with actually shrieked in shock. This was not viewed as “just a game” but a truly barbaric display.


  • March 24, 2012 | Permalink |

    Before you criticize a book-to-film adaption, please actually read the book. The books let you know the injustice and true evil of the Capitol. It shows you the depth of the characters. Gale is more than just a pretty face thrown in as a useless character. Gale helps make Katniss into who she is. Read the books, and then feel free to judge.

  • March 24, 2012 | Permalink |

    Thanks, you got this one right. I found the movie cynical and disgusting in its lack of moral compass. I haven’t read the books, but after this experience I’ll have to skip it. The idea that i live in a world that finds this garbage to be entertaining is so depressing. How unlike William Golding, who was commenting on innate human evil. I don’t know whether or not he got it right, but at least he was asking real questions.

  • March 25, 2012 | Permalink |

    I completely agree with lots of this article. Yes, I’ve read the book and yes, the kids from districts 1 & 2 are trained killers and the Capitol is truly evil and everything, so I’ll vouch for people on that. But the thing I can’t agree more on is the good guys never really having to do anything bad.

    Even when I was reading, I was dying to know Katniss’s thoughts on whether she would be willing to kill, and that subject matter was mostly eluded. Yes, she kills for self-defense, but no, it isn’t gruesome and it is justified since Rue was killed. Since Katniss “promised Prim she would win for her,” winning in most cases means committing murder, and I was eager to see if she would have the guts, in a most gruesome way, to commit murder for the sole reason of winning. However, the need for this is again, evaded as most tributes die without Katniss’s help and when she does cause reason for their death, it is because she has literally no other option.

    I also found the book/film to be extremely predictable and the politics to be somewhat of an annoying addition to the narrative: omnipresent but never the most pressing issue. The whole “okay, two tributes can win!” and “LOL, we were just kidding guys” frustrated me beyond belief because I never expected two tributes to be able to win anyway.

    And the romance. Oh, the romance, always a necessary addition to any popular teen franchise. I completely agree with Gale being utterly useless except to pout. I never found Peeta very endearing either, even in the book. The whole plot with Peeta was fake and forced and predictable. I expected to finish rooting for them to be together or something, but they just didn’t convince me at all; not even Peeta’s crush on Katniss. I agree that it would have been more emotion-provoking and convincing if she had to kill Peeta.

    So, yeah, a few things might be cleared up if you read the book. But neither the book nor the movie greatly impressed me. It felt afraid to be gruesome, though that’s the whole point, right? And I feel out in the dark with my opinion when everyone else seems to looooooove the Hunger Games. But I just can’t.

  • March 26, 2012 | Permalink |

    I was borrowed the first book from a co-worker. I read the first book. I did not like it. Too dark, sad, and evil for me. I did not read the rest. I like the happily ever after books and movies! I did and will NOT go see the movie for that matter.

  • March 28, 2012 | Permalink |

    Please read the books before you review any more of The Hunger Games. You missed the entire point of the book. Also, I agree with Tyler. Learn to separate fiction and reality. There really is a method to all the madness. There is a reason for the story and how it went the way it went. And please learn to discern from side characters and villains. Yes, Cato is quite sadistic and crazy and even on the villainous side, but he is not the villain. I can understand why people don’t like The Hunger Games trilogy. It is dark and murderous and sad. I can understand why people want to escape to a happier fantasy. But PLEASE get your facts straight and then you can continue hating on something you now understand.

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