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Why we need ‘The Hunger Games’ 2

In my last post, I argued that The Hunger Games is nothing new – but that’s a good thing! Young adults need texts like this and they ought not to be censored for early high school readers. In this post, I want to address some specific concerns about the novel. There are a number of articles floating around on the internet. Most of the objections are picked up in this one.

As far as I can tell, there are three main complaints against The Hunger Games and I want to address each in turn and why I think each is actually a reason to engage with the novel.  

1. Violence as the only means of rebellion.

This is the idea that Katniss is painted as a rebellious character. She hates the Hunger Games and only participates in it as her own survival forces her to. But she does participate. However rebellious she may feel, she still buys into the violence of the game. If she’s so rebellious, why doesn’t she challenge the very nature of the games, for example, by choosing passive resistance or even martyrdom?

Let me say, straight off, that I think it’s important to have stories of passive resistance. But it’s also worth recognising that pacifism takes pretty strong, well thought out convictions. For many, these disappear in the heat of the moment as survival instinct takes over. There’s a sense in which having such a philosophy is a luxury. However, I do think we see Katniss struggle with this idea. As she participates in the violence, she describes herself as helpless, a victim of the Capitol. Yet, she’s looking for another way. That she and Peeta consider taking their own lives in defiance of the idea that there must be one victor is one manifestation of that.

So the discussion is far more complex than simply saying that Katniss doesn’t consider passive resistance. Actually, her participation in the violence is part of her awakening to that. Katniss’ violence is the vehicle by which the passive resistance discussion is opened up. I can imagine the argumentative essay topics now: ‘To what extent is Katniss responsible for her own acts of violence?’; ‘If you were in Katniss’ position, what would you do?’, etc. I don’t think The Hunger Games allies violence and rebellion at all. In fact, it does the opposite, constantly challenging its protagonist (and the reader) to consider alternative methods of resistance, even as her pragmatism takes over.

2. Moral ambiguity is heroic.

Because Katniss is a sympathetic heroine, this view suggests that the choices she makes are endorsed. It’s characterised as brave to allow herself to be preened by the stylist; it’s clever to play up her (fake) romance with Peeta to attain the audience popularity and sponsor’s gifts that she requires; it’s necessary to kill, not just for her own survival but for the pride of her District and the admiration of her little sister.

Again, I’m not sure that this view does justice to the complexity of The Hunger Games. I read Katniss as conflicted over each of these decisions and victimised by them to some extent. This is Katniss’ own estimation of the situation as well. She describes the Hunger Games as a reminder  to those in the Districts of their vulnerability and the oppression they must suffer at the hands of the overlords. But most tellingly, the novel’s ending shows that each of these decisions has ongoing consequences, most of them negative. Katniss may be in deeper trouble than when she went in; it may all have been in vain. If she is heroic, she is a tragic heroine. The novel itself begs the question of whether these decisions were foolish after all, or worse, pointless.

3. Our enjoyment of this (violent) text makes us just as bad as those in the Capitol.

The Hunger Games is said to have been inspired by the world of reality TV where destructive behaviour is often exploited for ‘entertainment’. It suggests that our modern obsessions are not that far from the gladiatorial arenas of ancient Rome. And watching a film like The Hunger Games actually participates in that violent obsession.

I find this the most poignant of the three objections because I think it’s true on some level, not just in our willingness to suspend morality for (reality) TV but also as a broader question of how our society functions. In many ways, ‘the rest’ are consistently brutalised by ‘the West’ as by our consumption, among other things, we force the majority of the world’s people to battle to the death for survival. The superficiality of Katniss’ beauticians primping her for the Hunger Games when they have little understanding of the world she’s come from or what she faces is devastatingly familiar.

It’s worth asking, why do we care about Katniss while the plight of child soldiers around the world remains theoretical? Is our consumption of chocolate justified simply because we don’t know about the conditions on cocoa farms or are ignorant of the age of those who work there? But again, I see The Hunger Games as somewhat satirical in this regard, holding up a mirror to our own society, challenging our own exploitation of the weak. Be horrified by the violence of The Hunger Games, but don’t run away from it. Instead, let it lead you to be horrified by more than fictional violence, lest you only care about what happens in the arena and miss the real injustices against those who are marginalised.

Categories: Book Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

7 replies

  1. Hi Tamie,
    Unfortunately, much of the ambiguity/confusion/internal conflict is lost in the film, because the book relies so heavily on describing Katniss’ thoughts.
    The complexity you describe about violence and rebellion increases in the next two books.
    Also – there are some interesting reflections to be made about the relationship stuff too – again, nothing so simple as ‘good’ model or ‘bad.’

  2. Hi Tammy,

    Great observations! I’m curious on your thoughts regarding the advantage taken of Katniss’s beauty. Clearly it’s something embraced by the games and eventually, her. I haven’t read the book.

  3. Yes, Hannah, I expect the movie does lose much of this – one of the issues with transferring a first-person narration to the screen. (I think it was one of Margaret’s observations about the film on ‘At the Movies’ as well.) I’m looking forward to seeing how these complexities we’ve been discussing here develop and (if/whether) there is any conclusion to them.

    Andrew, nice to have you join the conversation! I know a lot’s been made about the focus on body in ‘The Hunger Games’. At a most basic level, I think it’s fair to say that Katniss (in the novel at least) views body modification negatively though she’s willing to work within natural bounds to make herself attractive. That said, she credits her own appearance almost entirely to her stylists, not to her own natural beauty.

    In terms of how the issue of body-focus is played out, I think there’s tremendous potential to read this novel once again as satirical, that is, holding up a mirror to our own society and thereby critiquing it. So the author of the article who snarks at Katniss ‘bravely’ not covering herself misunderstands the situation, as she does the entire book (I think) by reading all of Katniss’ actions as laudable.

    There’s an extent to which Katniss is violated by this situation; but there’s also an extent to which it makes her powerful. Today, we’d call this a third-wave feminist perspective but women have been dealing with it for centuries as they’ve been faced with difficult situations that play their bodily integrity off against the power of their sexuality. It raises the question the book is constantly playing with: do the ends justify the means? e.g. Is it OK to sacrifice your bodily integrity for a greater cause? Again as far as I see it, this is an issue well worth discussing, in part because some feminists have argued that this is a false dichotomy.

  4. There’s a similar perspective (on the film, at least) coming from Sophie Lister at Culturewatch: “The Hunger Games is a warning about our capacity to not just accept the unacceptable, but actively embrace it. The film takes us to a deeply corrupted world – and in doing so, opens our eyes to look more wisely at our own.”

  5. I just caught up on the much hyped Hunger Games film and decided to check in here because I know you wrote about it, in a somewhat positive way. I found it absolutely appalling. Everyone I watched it with was bored and found it unbelievable and nonsensical. I don’t know if the film was just a horrendous adaption of the novel but even then it was helmed in a way that makes Michael Bay films seem coherent and plausible. It’s just a bad mashup of all the dystopian fiction I’ve already seen but stripped of any real meaning and it saddens me that children are watching this thinking that it’s this generation’s 1984.

    I can’t help but agree with all the negative comments about the story but no-one really touched on how badly written it is (the screenplay). You could fill a national armory with all the Chekov’s guns left fully loaded on the narrative’s floor – so many fore-shadows failed to materialize. People didn’t act like humans at all in it. So often the intention was unclear and the obstacle was so manufactured. The story has constant deux ex machina moments where you’re just left wondering how much more mundane or ridiculous the writer could be. Everything was told not shown. Maybe there’s a lot that the novel does better but what was the point in the pandering to sponsors (or not really doing so because you’re trying to make Katniss look badass, too cool for that shit) because everyone started with the same stuff, who the freaking heck was Lenny Kravitz’s character. The games rules were so arbitrary from the start, at least in Gladiator there was a way they made sense. People are miraculously healed of injuries and never are effected by them again later, some guy can paint camouflage himself to perfection but can’t cover his bloodtrail, Katniss detonates the mines and is knocked flat whilst the guard who is closer is steadily pacing immediately after (she also is somehow moved 20 feet closer to the explosion in the next shot), since when were any explosives in the game to start with, where the heck did the Wombat-hyena-weillers come from, what was wrong with normal animals because these dogs added nothing new to the monster repertoire well except that sense for conveniently finishing off supporting cast we have no attachment to. If they’re in an arena that can be modified at will by the creators (and thus rules changed on the fly) why did they not have way more fun with that, how did they ultimately piss off the game creators by feigning suicide? I was really hoping they would kill themselves so the freaking bore-fest would end!

    This story feels like it was written without outline, where events were just made up as they went along and were never reviewed to see how they fit in coherence (well except for a flashback here and there).

    What I really felt was how this writer has a really messed up picture of God. A meddler trying to control us with intermittent interaction into our world for his own controlling pleasure. There was no reference to anything greater except for the ‘hope’ line that was totally missed by everyone else I watched it with, inspirational stuff there…

    All the reasons that you say this story is important for are completely refuted by just how irrational it is. If children see anything to emulate, it’s wielding a bow and arrow like a bad ass, talking smack to your mum and selling out is necessary to get you places, not the moral questioning because that’s so confusing they disconnect with it. It’s weird because Katniss is neither a hero nor a tragic hero, really she’s a non-hero. She lucked out into winning because the writer wanted her to, not because she really did anything to get there.

    Gladiator, The Mist, Red Dawn (the original Tomorrow When The War Began), Battle Royale, The Road, even old Metropolis make so much more sense, are much more interesting and carry so much more meaning within them. This series feels more like Planet of the Apes but then again it makes that look more sensible.

    All I know is I am not wasting any more of my time on these stories and hope to show much more engaging and thought provoking films to this world.

  6. Hi Casper

    My comments were about the book only. My understanding is that the film changed things substantially (e.g. the line about hope doesn’t exist in the book; nor do we see any scenes in the control room) but I normally find book/movie comparisons pretty fruitless.

    As for the picture of God, even a negative picture can provoke discussion..

  7. Ok, I think after reading through and extended synopsis of the book, they utterly butchered it in the film. Unfortunately it looks like the book was too successful prior to the film’s production that it was so over-inflated and lacking unity that now I’m left to imagine what it should have looked like directed by Fincher with some decent actors in the lead roles and suitable writing portraying the events of the book in context and with the leading focus on the plot and not the art direction.

    Still, I find it odd why this is so praised as a story. I do think the primary plot points are pretty weak and it’s characters not the ones I could relate to. It’s not portraying a real world, and it’s fictional world isn’t believable for me. Without relating to it, it’s lost it’s power.

    I think one place where the book has succeeded is being vague enough in what it’s trying to say that everyone can read what they want into what it’s meant to mean given some of the reviews. It’s a very post-modern product in that sense. I know you’ve now used it to try to explain how the Western world abuses the developing world but is that even what it’s about? Is it about Reality TV? Is it about High School society? Is it about how our modern narrative of relationships today is just about using people? Is it really anything more than a mish-mash of all the more deeply considered dystopian stories before it? — I actually think this is why the film became so unclear around what was happening, they were just trying to follow out plot points without them building around a core (unlike adaptions of Lord of The Rings and Narnia).

    I see some people are able to argue that the book supports their self-narrative of it being a dog-eat-dog world so do whatever it takes to survive and flourish, I see others arguing that she does good things and it reinforces their desire for preserving life (admittedly no-one seems to go beyond the her substitution and some flower placing on that count).

    Really the question is where does it transcend? Where does it portray anything to show a way forward? Where does it after revealing the evil of humanity show how we are really meant to be? I didn’t see that in either the film or the book synopsis of The Hunger Games and I think this is why it sucks. It’s the ambiguity that weakens it.

    I think God can be found in everything, every debate is an aspect of God we’re trying to wrestle with. We can debate further about what it means and what people hold to as the moral of a story, but what matters at the end of the day is what we actually believe. How did this story shape that belief?

    Jesus told stories that were meant to be confusing to those who were spiritually deaf and blind but they had a blazing clarity of message for those who heard. I think that stories are not amoral and either edify or confuse us to who God is.

    The Hunger Games whilst being reflective of culture and has elements for discussion did little to actually clarify anything about good and evil, nor was it’s unrealistic society anything to leave us a genuine reflection on our own. I would rather tell people of the ones that did exist and failed brilliantly than a fiction they know not what to think of. As I write, no matter how fictional, it’s critical to tie things back to reality, things people can relate to, to what we experience to reveal something deeper we haven’t yet seen about our own world and to reveal it in a manner that deconstructs lies, gives hope and builds faith.

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