The Hunger for Death

Would you pay to watch 24 children kill each other?

I did, this weekend, when I bought a ticket to “The Hunger Games,” which is playing at our local theater in Jamestown. Now obviously no children were actually killed to make the movie, but the movie, and the book it was based on, ask some very serious questions about audienceship.

What does it mean to be a spectator? What ethical obligations does a member of an audience have?

“Hunger Games” is about a society in which 24 children are selected to do battle to the death while a nationwide audience watches, placing bets on the victors and arguing about who will win over the watercooler at work, one presumes.

There may be some spoilers for both the books and the movies below, so if you don’t want to have things spoiled for you, please do not read the rest of this post.

The “Hunger Games” book is in some ways simpler and doesn’t ask the questions about the audience as directly, because it’s written in the first-person, from the viewpoint of Katniss Everdeen. The movie, however, isn’t a first-person piece. There’s no narration from Katniss, nothing to tell us what she thinks or feels directly. So when she’s kissing Peeta near the end of the movie there’s no indication of the fact that in the book, at least, she is doing this because she knows it will be viewed favorably by the audience. Not because she likes the boy.

By not including any narration, the movie makes the real-life audience into the fictional audience, manipulating us into believing Katniss really loves Peeta.

And this is borne out by the rest of the film, as well. While the movie generally follows Katniss, we also get glimpses into things that Katniss has no awareness of–conversations between people Katniss isn’t present for. Behind-the-scenes looks at the filming of the Hunger Games within the fictional universe.

The movie co-opts the audience outside the film into becoming the audience within the film.

And suddenly we realize that we too are eagerly rooting for Katniss. We too are watching 24 teenagers fight to the death. And although the deaths in our reality are not real–they are actors and actresses, and the blood is fake, and they will get up at the end of the shot–we still paid to watch children die.

What does that mean?  What is the difference between the audience inside the film and the audience outside the film, us?

And before you say, “Yes, but no one really dies in a movie,” I would encourage you to recall The Crow. I haven’t seen it, and I don’t know if it was a good movie, but I have very little doubt that much of its fame was due to the death of its star, Brandon Lee, Hollywood royalty who was killed in a stunt accident during filming. Lee’s death was much-publicized, and one couldn’t help but notice the gothic overtones of the film and link the two together.

Then there was xXx. A stuntman was killed while the movie was being filmed, and the director used the footage, though he did not use the moment of the unfortunate man’s death.

Then there’s reality television, which capitalizes on people’s distress in every episode, with people being voted off the island, shouted at, or humiliated in front of others.

What is an audience’s place in all this? Are we tacitly accepting these behaviors? Are we blatantly approving of them by watching?

8 thoughts on “The Hunger for Death

  1. Very interesting thoughts. I haven’t seen the movie, though I have read the first book. (I have not read the second and third – I couldn’t take any more of it and the only reason I read the first was becuase it was for book club.) As I read it I couldn’t help but think of The Lottery (do you remember that short story?) or Lord of the Flies – which I HATED in 6th grade when we had to read it. In fact, my son, who is a 6th grader himself now, began to read The Hunger Games (which I reluctantly agreed to) becuase so many of his friends were reading it that he really wanted to. He got to about page 30 and said, “I’m done. No more.” I did not press him to read more – though usually I hate when he quite a book! It’s such a difficult topic – and why would I want to watch it playing out on screen? Hmmm…I don’t quite understand the nation’s obsession with it…

    • Well, it reminded me of The Giver, but yes, there are certainly similarities. In this case, though, the pressure to kill and survive comes from outside, which does seem more realistic to me than Lord of the Flies.

      What I liked about the series was that it is still hopeful. It isn’t nearly as nihilistic as its concept would lead you to believe, although it takes a while for Katniss’ world to broaden out enough to see that.

      I think in a lot of ways series like these allow adolescents kind of a legitimate figure rebelling against the adult world, which in real life seems often needlessly cruel.

      • You’re a better analyzer than I am! I know that the feelings it gave me were similar to Lord of the Flies! And yes, I actually liked it better than, say, the Twilight books – it is much better written then they are…not that they compare in genre, just in popular lit. Yeah, I’m sure you’re right about the appeal to them for teens…

        • Eh, well. My majors were English and philosophy, so I certainly ought to be good at analysis.

          It’s certainly much better than Twilight was. Katniss has some very real flaws that make her a more interesting character–chiefly, her coldness and her willingness to do whatever it takes to keep her family safe, even if she has to do murder and compromise her own principles in order to do it. She’s also shown hiding from her problems more than once, although she also has plenty of courage to make hard decisions.

          I hated Lord of the Flies, but not really for any literary reason. I just found it too doggone depressing. While Hunger Games and its series are grim, overall the message is one of hope.

          It’s a three parter, and while book 2 ends with the Han-in-the-carbonite moment (to compare to Star Wars), book 3 ends with the return and triumph of the Jedi, though certainly not without cost, and not without thoughtful consideration of the toll it took on the protagonist and those around her.

          On a simple level, it’s a great adventure story. On a more thoughtful level there’s a lot going on there, particularly when you talk comparisons and contrasts with the movie.

  2. the twilight books are better than the hunger games because twilight is drama and sexy and great the hunger games didn’t get you to see that

    • I don’t agree.

      I don’t find it sexy when a 90-year-old sneaks into a high-school student’s room to watch her sleep. I find it pretty creepy.

      I didn’t find the forever-separation from her family at the end of the books to be sexy either. That’s one of the hallmarks of an abusive relationship. I found that creepy too.

      I think “The Hunger Games” was just better. Its heroine seemed like a real person, not a blank slate Mary Sue. There was romance, but it was realistic, and did not include any abusive creepiness.

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