It’s not often that I find a film to be better than the book, but The Hunger Games is such a one. It’s an effective and engaging film in its own right, well worth seeing – and it confronts the viewer with important issues about our complex relationship with violence, voyeurism, and entertainment.
The Hunger Games, based on the book by Suzanne Collins, is set in a dystopian future in which North America is divided into twelve Districts under the control of the Capitol. Each year, every District must send two Tributes, a randomly chosen boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18, to fight to the death in the Hunger Games as a reminder of the Capitol’s power and a warning against rebellion. The story follows a girl named Katniss, who volunteers to be one of District 12’s Tributes in place of her younger sister.
I’ve written elsewhere about the value of The Hunger Games for the Christian apologist (in the Christian Research Journal) so here I will focus on the way that the film (and by extension the book) challenges our ideas about contemporary culture and our media consumption.
“Bread and Circuses”
Panem, the name of the nation in which the story is set, is significant: it is the Latin word for bread, but in the context of the books and film, this is most definitely not a reference to Christ. Rather, it points to the Latin phrase panem et circenses, “bread and circuses,” from the writing of the 1st century Roman author Juvenal. The phrase refers to the free grain and lavish public entertainment, most notably in the form of bloody gladiatorial games, supplied by the Roman government to pacify and distract the people.
The Hunger Games gives us “bread and circuses” for a technological age: the yearly slaughter of children is made into a media spectacle, shown live on television and hyped in every media outlet. The historical allusion is significant: in ancient Rome, ordinary people enjoyed seeing gladiators hack each other to death and Christians being torn apart by wild animals. It has happened; it could happen again.
How did Panem get to this point? That issue is not directly addressed in The Hunger Games, but the story offers a glimpse into how it might come to pass for us. In the world of The Hunger Games the characters live their lives, care for each other, and attempt to do what is right without any reference to or acknowledgement of a transcendent God. It is therefore a fairly accurate depiction of media pressure in the 21st century to secularize the public square: increasingly, the public good must be defined and discussed in non-religious terms, and Christian art and music is ghettoized rather than forming part of common culture.
The film is clear in showing the consequences of that denial of transcendence. For instance, we see a propaganda clip shown at the District 12 Reaping, in which the Tributes are praised for their “self-sacrifice” and the victor is praised for the “honor” of triumphing in the Games. This manipulation of language is plausible enough: if virtue-language lacks grounding in the transcendent moral being of the living God, why not call the brutality of the Games ‘honor’ and random selection of victims “self-sacrifice”? The film does not allow us to accept this relativism: we see the expressions on the faces of the District 12 people watching the propaganda, and in their resolute lack of “patriotic” response we have all the answer we need. In reality, we know that there is neither honor nor self-sacrifice here: it is children killing children for the amusement of adults. The difference is that the characters in The Hunger Games have no way to articulate the reason that the Games are evil.
Voyeurism and Violence
One of the most significant elements of the Hunger Games series as a whole is its critique of violence as entertainment. I was surprised and pleased to see that this critique is made more effectively in the film than in the book.
In the first book, one of my concerns was that although it ultimately shows the futility and harm of the violence of the Games, the violence is presented in a graphic and disturbing manner, so that the reader is in a sense participating in the very voyeurism that the book is critiquing.
The film manages the difficult feat of both presenting the violence without glossing over it, and limiting the extent to which the viewer enjoys the violence. The fighting scenes are filmed with a shaky camera and very quick cuts, creating a feeling of tension, anxiety, and even nausea in the viewer. There is no doubt that the characters die, and die horribly: we are given short, effective glimpses that do not allow us to imagine otherwise: the grotesquely swollen face of a girl killed by tracker jacker wasps; an image of a bloody brick raised high about to strike a killing blow; drops of blood on Katniss’s hands (which, in a nicely Shakespearean moment, she frantically tries to scrub off); a bloody, raw burn patch on her leg. But in sharp contrast to the book, which describes many events in stomach-churning detail, the film refuses to let us linger on these images — and therefore we never become acclimated to them.
Not only is violence handled more effectively in the film than in the book, but the critique of voyeurism in media is far more effective in the film as well.
For one thing, the film makes it clearer that the people of the Districts are complicit, even if reluctantly so, in the horrors of the Hunger Games. In the film, Gale has a significant line that is not in the book: before the Reaping, when he and Katniss are discussing their fears and the horror of the Games, he asks a simple question: what if no one watched?
Certainly, the people of the Districts are rounded up and forced to stand in the public square to watch the Reaping and the accompanying propaganda film; to that extent, their participation in the Games system is forced. However, as the film continues, we see intercut segments of the people of District 12 watching the Hunger Games on television in their own homes, presumably uncompelled. We are also shown a glimpse of Gale at that same moment: but rather than watching his friends fight for their lives on television, he is out in the woods by himself, looking at a landscape full of natural beauty.
Furthermore, the film, unlike the book, does not stay exclusively with Katniss’s point of view. The book is told in the first person, so once we get into the Hunger Games arena, we experience everything as Katniss does, becoming immersed in the kill-or-be-killed world of the Games.
However, the film frequently cuts back to show us the Gamemaker and his staff manipulating the events in the arena: starting a fire here, dropping in a monstrous dog there. We know these things are happening in the book; we see them happening in the film, and so we are constantly reminded that there is no good reason whatsoever that these children should be killing each other. It is not a regrettable struggle for survival; it is an entirely artificial situation created for the gratification of a well-fed and jaded audience in the Capitol.
That inter-cutting blurs the line between the Capitol audience and ourselves in the theater: we are rendered uncomfortably complicit as well.
Will viewers reflect on these issues? Perhaps, and perhaps not. But it is encouraging to see that a story that so directly and clearly challenges the sick state of our entertainment culture has been so eagerly received by such a wide audience. The Hunger Games does not present any real answers to our culture’s problems, but it confronts those problems and calls them to our attention: and that is something we desperately need. No one cares about answers to questions they have not asked; The Hunger Games may provoke some good questions.