The Hunger Games, the Movie, and the Problem of Film Violence

After a particularly emotionally exhausting day last week, I asked my husband to tell me something that would comfort me.

“In a few days you get to see kids kill each other on screen,” he promptly replied.

It’s true that I’ve been eagerly anticipating The Hunger Games movie for weeks, if not precisely for that aspect of it—but the patent ridiculousness of the statement made me laugh, which was the desired effect. Yet this exchange illustrates one of the biggest dilemmas for The Hunger Games franchise: how do you visually represent teens being forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of a TV audience without making movie theaters across America a mirror for Suzanne Collins’s dystopian society? Or do you completely pursue the meta angle, “implicating” viewers in the violence by making them realize that they’re just like the Capitol viewers in their hunger for adolescent gore? The latter approach, I think, is often a pretentious and fundamentally dishonest cop-out. Furthermore, I don’t think it would really work in a film whose primary audience is, like it or not, young teenagers.

Marketing for The Hunger Games was surprisingly sensitive to the hypocrisy of selling the movie based on violence. Marketing director Tim Palen determined that the trailers should show almost nothing from the Games themselves, focusing instead on the Reaping, in which Katniss volunteers as a tribute to keep her younger sister from being sent into the bloodbath of the arena. “These kids are victims,” Palen insists. He and his team also worked to prevent the phrase “Let the Games Begin” from being used in publications covering the movie, believing that it would imply eagerness for a competition that shouldn’t be glorified. (Palen doesn’t seem entirely consistent on this point, though, as he also says, “Everyone liked the implication that if you want to see the games you have to buy a ticket,” suggesting that withholding the violence from the trailer would make the movie violence itself all the more desirable. We are the Capitol, and there’s no escaping that. But it’s nice to see at least a half-hearted effort not to be.)

Is the violence in the movie itself handled with at least comparable semi-sensitivity? The short answer is yes, and no doubt some viewers will find that disappointing, for a variety of reasons. I, for one, am relieved that director Gary Ross aimed for depictions of violence and death that steered clear of emotional manipulation. The tributes’ deaths are not used, either to titillate us or to teach us a nice lesson about how bad violence is. They just happen. You see snapped necks and dead bodies, but the camera doesn’t linger. (The one exception, of course, is the character in whom we feel an emotional investment, and even that scene was dealt with far more matter-of-factly—or at least hastily—than in the book.)

The Hunger Games’s filmmakers wisely decided to include a scene before Katniss arrives at the Capitol, in which she catches televised footage of previous games. The way that commentators Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith milk the most out of the moment when tribute kills his last standing competitor (Katniss switches off the TV in disgust) forms an effective contrast to the way the movie itself handles the subject matter. To include a bit more biting satire, it might have worked to interlace more inappropriate and manipulative commentary from these two with the actual scenes in the arena (they’re already used to fill in a few details—such as the fact that tracker-jacker venom is extremely painful and causes hallucinations—that were revealed through Katniss’s first-person narration in the book). This approach might easily have backfired, however.

While still largely preserving Katniss and fellow District 12 tribute Peeta from moral responsibility in the few deaths they (sometimes unwittingly) cause, the film adds a couple of touches of welcome ambiguity. In a scene following Katniss’s first direct kill, she rubs blood off her hands, suggesting guilt, even if her actions were in defense of another. More surprisingly, “career” tribute Cato, who has spent his whole life training to compete in the games and emerge as victor, and who generally comes across as a one-note bully, has been given a speech in which he questions whether he too is a pawn of the Capitol.

Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss is masterful in conveying both her reluctance to take part in the games—or to reveal anything of her true self to the Capitol audience she so despises—and the survival instinct that sometimes overpowers this reluctance. Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta, is, unfortunately, less complex, though it’s not clear how much of this is due to the acting and how much of it is due to the script (which would be odd, considering that Collins herself was one of the screenwriters). Either way, movie-Peeta comes across more as hopeless and lacking in self-confidence (that cardinal millennial dilemma) than strong in his determination to sacrifice himself for another.

As an adaptation of the book, the movie served as a reminder that the most memorable aspects of the book were also the most unfilmable. A certain tear-inducing gift parachuted to Katniss makes no appearance in the film: it would require too much explanation. Instead, the repetition of a symbolic gesture from earlier in the movie conveys something of the same sense of humanity triumphing over the games’ brutality. Katniss’s ability to know what her mentor Haymitch wants her to do in the arena by the timing or withholding of his gifts—which in the novel struck me and at least one other reader as incredibly reminiscent of how God communicates with us—can’t be translated well into film, and so his gifts appear with notes. I won’t say too much about the other noticeably missing moment for fear of spoilers, but for the initiated, let’s just say: don’t be looking for faces on the muttations. I don’t see how this could possibly have been rendered without being cheesy, so I’m glad it was omitted.

Ultimately, I’m left with respect, if not awe, for the decisions made by the filmmakers in The Hunger Games, both with regard to adaptation and to the depiction of violence: their choices seem carefully considered and rationally pursued. Of course, no amount of consideration will keep viewers from wallowing in or being desensitized to violence, if that’s their inclination. At the early Saturday afternoon showing we attended, I was outraged to see that not one but two families in our general vicinity had brought children who appeared to be no more than five years old. As the older family members wandered in and out of the theater in pursuit of popcorn during the movie’s two and a half hours, it became apparent that the five-year-olds were not going to be discomfited in the least by what they saw on screen. This was possibly more horrifying than anything in the movie itself. We are already living in the Capitol of Panem, and a movie that suggests the parallel, while refraining from either a knowing sneer or a pedantic lecture, is welcome. Like solid, yet rhetorically savvy Peeta, the movie can’t help but play in the Capitol’s games—but it can try to do so as ethically as possible.

About Carrisa Smith
  • Ethan Bartlett

    Some friends of mine went to see some of the stars of the film at the Mall of America a couple weeks ago, and said that the thousands of mindlessly screaming fans reminded them of… something… Oh! Exactly similar scenes in the books, where such scenes are looked upon with something much less than favor. We ARE the Capitol, and it’s frightening how true that is.

  • Austin Karber

    For me, one of the most horrifying parts of the movie was when one of the male characters literally kills a female character with his bare hands. The timing was surprising and a bit ironic, but regardless, the loud laughter throughout the crowd was very disconcerting.

  • http://www.christandpopculture.com/ Richard Clark

    My crowd was audibly horrified at that moment. Someone behind me cried.

  • Ciara Kay

    It disgusts me to see People magazine and tabloids covered with Hunger Games stories & photos… It makes me wonder if the writers of those articles have even read the books. =P I look forward to seeing the film though, your review is encouraging. =)

    [P.S. I want to congratulate Seth on his art for this piece... Good work!]

  • Austin Karber

    Well Richard, maybe I’ll just lose faith in current college students, but it didn’t take this movie to do that, haha.

    But in all seriousness, I felt the book did a much better job painting an ugly picture of how sick & twisted these Hunger Games are. The movie did a pretty good job of it, but I really felt the book made you more disgusted by the whole thing. But that’s just my opinion.

  • Scott G.

    I dunno…I tire of complaints of depictions of violence.

    We live in the Capitol because of the unseen violence involved in the making of our cars, our French Fries, our Ikea furniture, and the Powerbook that I type on right now. We are the Capitol because we only sympathize with those who it is comfortable to sympathize with. We are the Capitol because we love “reality” TV, even when we know we are watching real people having their life made worse (as in The Bachleor. I have no problem with The Amazing Race or Extreme Renovation.) We are the Capitol because we exert our power at all costs, and measure the price of wars in American dead, not humans dead.

    I don’t think it makes us any more or less the Capitol to enjoy a story of a teenage girl surviving a worse world than our own, with more violence, and with a more direct implication in the systemic violence that supports her. Almost everyone involved in The Hunger Games chose to do so voluntarily, and were paid a salary comparable to mine and higher than 90% of the world’s population, while working at jobs they love. Katniss had more courage and awareness than I do, and was more willing to make a difference in her world than I am in mine.

    I am convicted about many things, because I am guilty about many things. Enjoying Katniss’s story isn’t one of them, however.

  • Scott G.

    One adendum: If I see The Hunger Games rather than helping the hungry man on the street, then I am guilty. If I think I am better than others because I sympathize with Katniss, then I am guilty. But both of those involve misuse of a good thing, and should not redound to any criticism of either Collins or the filmmakers, who have given me a gripping, powerful story that allows me, for a moment, to step outside of myself and identify with a girl who, in all her messy confusion, is heroically courageous, remarkably kind, and quite capable of inspiring me to be a bit more courageous and kind myself.

  • games

    I don’t seem to be able to go anywhere from the starting location, when i say MENU some barkeep tells me to go to the shop to the east but none of the cardinal directions are valid exits/commands apparently.


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