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?