Why The Hunger Games Is Like A Teen Dance Movie

The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) is, of course, the film based on the first book in a trilogy by Suzanne Collins. I haven’t read the books, and went to see the movie after reading positive reviews and buzz, and because I like the idea of using dystopian futures and harsh circumstances to explore the human condition.

I was entertained by The Hunger Games, but moreso, I was surprised. Surprised by some of the creators’ choices. Surprised by the lack of moral dilemma. I should again note that I don’t know how the books handle this, though a film stands on its own and should be analyzed as such. Also, I haven’t seen Battle Royale, which I understand does tackle the issues I thought this movie would be about.

To cut to the chase: Gary Ross and his creative team have managed to make a shocking, disturbing (and interesting) subject — children being forced to fight and kill each other — almost entirely ‘Hollywood clean’. It deftly avoids moral ambiguity and repulsive images. I guess this is quite an achievement in itself, but personally, I don’t understand why you’d want to make a film about a shocking, disturbing topic that raises interesting moral questions, if you’re not going to actually make a shocking, disturbing film that investigates these questions.

The natural question raised by this story is: what do harsh conditions do to a person? Can they make you do things you wouldn’t normally do? Evil things? Can you hold on to human dignity when you’re about to die? Will you still be human, or perhaps something different, more animal-like? In other words: what would you do if you were thrown into the Hunger Games?

But while one of its characters explains that most contestants in the Games die from starvation, the film doesn’t show any of these harsh conditions. The biggest dangers main character Katniss has to face are external factors, summoned by the game masters who run the Games. In the meantime, there’s plenty of safe spots, too: as long as you’re in a cave, or covered in leaves, you won’t be bothered for days.

The ‘bad’ kids are so underdeveloped, character-wise, it’s scary. They didn’t decide to do whatever necessary to stay alive and win, they were just trained – programmed to be evil – by adults. Or they follow those who were trained by adults, simply to avoid getting killed themselves. This is telling the viewer: don’t worry, we don’t think children can be this bad, really. They’re good at their cores, and right now, they’re just misguided!

Worst offender is Katniss herself, who despite being in a deadly arena, being hunted right from the start, never strays an inch from her moral high ground. She never kills anyone except by self-defense, making her a pretty lame hero, winning only by good fortune. (Or divine intervention?) There’s one segment in which she takes the initiative, blowing up the bad kids’ food supplies, and it’s easily the film’s most effective sequence. But, lo and behold, the plan gets Katniss’s friend Rue murdered. After which she quickly returns to Passive Mode.

You’d think that the hardships of the Games would challenge Katniss’s convictions. At least make her think twice about her world view, then come out stronger afterwards. Instead, she doesn’t change at all in the course of the film. She starts out 100% good and never strays.

Well, actually, she does develop somewhat, but only in the way you might see a teenage girl transform over the course of a dance movie: Katniss wasn’t sure that people would like her, but in the end she’s gained some self-respect.

Apparently, millions of people watch the Hunger Games, somehow voting for or ‘liking’ the contestants, in an interesting parallel to today’s kudo economy on social networks. But all this goes largely unseen as soon as the competition starts. We don’t see the audience at home enjoying kids murdering one another. We never see the viewers who are supposedly fine with the group of bad kids camping to kill Katniss.

It’s implied that Katniss has to behave in certain ways to become more popular, but we never see the pay-off. So how does the audience react to her romance with bland and inscrutable Peeta? We’re left in the dark. Her sponsorships (which cause bonus items to be dropped in the arena), a supposedly tangible result of her popularity, seem to come mostly from Katniss’s mentor Haymitch’s haggling.

There’s the dance movie again. This is all teen logic, transplanted to a science fiction setting. Katniss has to be popular because all girls her age have to be popular, like those who rushed to theaters by the millions, to buy The Hunger Games tickets. Nothing more, nothing less.

In fact, the film signals from the very start that no sensible people actually enjoy watching the Games or accept their existence, even though they live in a future where these Games have been held for more than seventy years. Descriptions of the movie say that people are ‘forced’ to watch, but this is at odds with Katniss’s boyfriend Gale, asking at the outset: “What if everyone just stopped watching?” To which Katniss replies: “They won’t.” So which of the two is it?

The moral simplicity of the film extends to its depiction of the people at large. It never challenges the viewer’s world view, instead going out of its way to reinforce that, yes, human beings are essentially noble creatures. I understand that the second book is about a rebel uprising. Unfortunately, it seems that Katniss doesn’t have to do anything to enable one. Because this is not a dystopian future, this is not a world in decline. This is simply corrupt leadership.

In the end, this is a teen movie about teen problems. It’s not social commentary. It’s no survival experiment. It could have been about a descent into moral grey, but ultimately says nothing about the human condition. Well, let me rephrase that. The Hunger Games may say something about the teenage girl condition. But even that is pushing it.

Also listen to the Salon Indien podcast in which I talk about The Hunger Games with Bram Ruiter (in Dutch).