Teenage Homicide (Don’t Do It): Thoughts on Violence and The Hunger Games

I didn’t really want to see The Hunger Games. This will be news to my boyfriend, who I dragged to the theater at noon last Friday. This will be news to the class of seventh graders on a field trip who sat behind me and who overheard me discussing the merits of Gale vs. Peeta. This will also be news to the people who noticed and commented on the (complimentary) “I watched The Hunger Games in Cinemark XD!” button that I wore in public the rest of the weekend. But it’s true. Even though I loved the books, I wasn’t looking forward to this movie.

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To be honest, part of me was worried that the movie was going to be bad. Please don’t think I’m being overprotective of the novel–it’s not that I was worried about whether the film could “do justice” to the text (after all, we’re not talking about Middlemarch here). But I did want to avoid being stuck in a theater for three hours watching something insipid (like, say, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1). The good news, though, is that The Hunger Games isn’t bad. It’s fact, it’s a lot better than I expected. It’s also a lot better than it needs to be, considering that its raison d’être is the mass transfer of teens’ allowances to a handful of multinational corporations (Mission accomplished!).

Indeed, it’s a skillful, affecting movie. Some highlights for me:

  • For the most part, the exaggerated “visual style” described in the book has been toned down and this is a good thing. The look of District Twelve is perfect–a kind of tribute to Dorothea Lange, without excess sentimentality. And sure, the costumes of the Capitol are ridiculous; but less so than in the book.
  • The acting is surprisingly good. Unlike most heroines in Young Adult movies, Jennifer Lawrence is not playing a model who also happens to be the heroine. While the sum total of Kristin Stewart’s acting in Twilight seems to be the optimal display of her facial angles, Lawrence isn’t worried about showing off her cheekbones. She may look pretty on occasion in this film, but that’s not the point.
  • Similarly, the film is not primarily interested in romance. The incipient love triangle is played down–teen love is just one of the plots in this story, and not the most interesting or important one. Despite the fact that a Team Peeta vs. Team Gale discourse has sprung up amongst fans (probably unavoidable in our post-Twilight era), the film doesn’t seem particularly interested in stoking these flames of competitive teen lust. (Besides, neither choice looks very good to me in this film: Gale is apparently forty years old and Peeta looks like a very determined animated turtle. Could I join Team Cato instead?)
  • There are several genuinely moving scenes. And I don’t just mean Rue’s death (oops, spoiler alert?). In fact, I even found myself wiping away a tear when the people of District 11 express their solidarity with Katniss by starting a riot (but maybe that’s just because I’m a sentimental old communist).

But did this movie need to be made? I will admit that is my default question for almost any film adapted from a novel. Obviously there are films that use novels as a starting point to do something slightly different yet equally interesting (The English Patient comes to mind). But when it comes to films based on best-selling contemporary novels (most of which are written cinematically anyway), the purpose usually seems to be a straightforward re-telling of the most important plot points from the novel. And this usually means that I find myself sitting in a theater for two hours thinking, “I already read this movie.” I felt this way about most of the Harry Potter films (but not Cuarón‘s splendidly odd Prisoner of Azkaban). This is not to say that there aren’t moments in most books that I wish I could see in a film. After all, who didn’t think that Quidditch would be awesome when it was translated onto the big screen? And the fact that we were all wrong, that Quidditch was definitely not awesome, well, that doesn’t mean our original desire was necessarily wrong.

But what scene(s) from The Hunger Games novel do we want to see reenacted in The Hunger Games movie? Is the work of our imagination somehow maddeningly insufficient when it comes to picturing teens killing each other in the woods? And while we learned recently that many readers (and I’m using that term loosely) did have a serious imaginative failure while reading the books, that failure isn’t really a justification for making the film or going to see it (although I’m glad that those “readers” did see the film and that it pissed them off). So let me return to my question and rephrase it: did you ever think to yourself while reading the book, “I would really like to see that kid die.”? That’s the question that was bothering me as I sat through the previews at last Friday’s matinee.

And that’s the question that continues to bother me about The Hunger Games movie: the question of violence, of teens killing each other onscreen in multiplexes, and how (or if) this matters. But what’s important here, I think, is not whether this film offends my delicate sensibilities (and I’m still not sure that it does), but why this question keeps coming up. And not just for me. Indeed, the violence in the film has become one of the central lenses through which reviewers approach this film. Consider this review by Will Leitch:

This movie has a lot of on-screen child murders. Now, maybe on the page, this was less jarring, with the whole inherent textual not-having-to-look-in-the-cold-dead-eyes-of-a-slain-child advantage. But on the massive screen, I gotta say, it takes a lot out of a viewer to see a 13-year-old girl impaled by a trident. Maybe I’m too sensitive? Maybe child murder is all the rage these days? (Apparently, since all this child murdering only earns a PG-13 rating.) It is one thing to read about a competition in the Not Too Distant Future in which young adults have to kill each other to survive. It is another altogether to watch the life slowly drain out of a cute kid’s face.

And contrast it with this review by David Edelstein:

If the movie’s director, Gary Ross, has qualms about kids killing kids he doesn’t share them with the audience. The murders onscreen are quick and, apart from a mean girl stung to death by wasps, clean. The cutting is so fast that you can hardly see what’s happening, which has already won Ross praise for his restraint, his tastefulness. Tasteful child-killing! In spite of the body count, the rating is PG-13. Think about it: If Ross had made the murders agonizing and tragic — truly horrifying — he’d likely have gotten an R. But by taking the sting out of death, he has a made a slaughterfest for the whole family.

Not only do both reviewers remark about the violence in this film, but they find it remarkable enough to necessitate a moral judgment. (And if you think these are two isolated reviews, just Google “hunger games violence” and go from there). This concern with violence seems a little strange, considering that violence (even graphic violence) is more-or-less endemic in blockbuster movies these days–even PG-13 movies (after all, let’s not forget which film was the impetus for the creation of the PG-13 rating in the first place). As Edelstein notes, the violence in this movie isn’t even particularly graphic. And while much is being made of the body count in this movie, I think it actually compares favorably to the final installment of the Harry Potter franchise. (I have to wonder if part of this anxiety is tied to the sex of the main character. Consider this article that facetiously rates Katniss’s killing skills. Does this piece get written about Jason Bourne? Is his killing even worth comment?)

It’s pretty clear that for both Leitch and Edelstein (and many other reviewers) the film is morally problematic. But their ideas of what makes the film morally problematic are also problematic. As you may have noticed, it’s not just that they make moral judgments about the violence in the film, but that these judgments are driven by exactly opposite conclusions about the violence. For Leitch, the murders in the film are too horrible, too wrenching; for Edelstein, they are not horrible or wrenching enough. Leitch can barely bring himself to watch the spectacle; Edelstein is angry at the film’s director for making the spectacle so easy to watch. So which is it? Is the violence too ugly? Or is it not ugly enough?

While there are obviously individual differences in (shall we say) squeamishness, I think the confusion and anxiety here have a lot to do with narrative form: specifically, the difference between how the novel tells the story and how the film tells the story. One of the central issues in the story is the disconnect between the grim necessity of Katniss having to kill or be killed and the narcissistic sociopathy of the fans who gleefully watch teens kill each other for entertainment. It’s the conflict between the participants and the spectators. Because the novel is narrated in the first person, we always view this disconnect through the eyes of the participants. We are always in a position of critique with regard to the Hunger Games and the culture of spectacle that enable them. This is not to say that we don’t also enjoy the spectacle sometimes, even through the eyes of Katniss. But it is harder to do so when we have her voice constantly reminding us of the horror of it all.

The movie, though, puts us in a much more ambiguous position. There is no first-person narration (which, from an entertainment perspective, is actually a good thing–first person narration in movies is usually clunky). And while much of the movie is focalized through Katniss, meaning that we follow her experiences and see what she sees, there are a number of scenes that break away from her perspective. Sometimes these non-Katniss scenes put us in the position of the proverbial “fly on the wall.” How else would we have access to President Snow’s secret garden as he threatens Seneca Crane and his precision-flocked beard?  This kind of scene weakens our connection with Katniss.

But more importantly, there are also several scenes in which we are addressed directly by the Hunger Games commentators themselves, as if we were the audience for these games all along. As Stanley Tucci’s character looks out from the screen, we as moviegoers suddenly realize that the same ridiculously bewigged harlequins who perform the smarmy play-by-play for the Panem rubes are doing the same for us. It’s a vertiginous moment, a brief flash of self-awareness when you’re not sure whether you are watching The Hunger Games or the Hunger Games.

This is not exactly a subtle move (although I’d be willing to bet that most of the seventh graders behind me didn’t notice). In a movie that is about the potential cruelty of spectatorship, it’s easy (and perhaps a little cheap) to implicate the viewers themselves as spectators to cruelty.  While The Hunger Games is hardly the first film to do this, it’s almost certainly going to be the most popular film ever to do so (to date).  But cheap, obvious, common, it’s still unsettling–as the hand-wringings of critics attest, even if all of the discomfort will be a distant memory by the time Titanic returns for its three-dimensional victory lap next week.

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One thought on “Teenage Homicide (Don’t Do It): Thoughts on Violence and The Hunger Games

  1. Pingback: Mr. Pizza: A Menu Planned by a Five year old, Executed by a Multinational | Abrupt Departure

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