Violence, Morality, and the Inherent Schizophrenia of The Hunger Games: A Review

Are you ready for the Hunger Games?

With a fantastic story, powerful acting, and excellent setting creation, the movie is poised to be the movie event of the year. The glitz and hype, however, only serve to highlight the Hunger Games’ inherent schizophrenia  reflecting our national discomfort with our wars. The film is intentionally and unbendingly anti-war as any grey ponytailed UC Berkeley professor, and yet its best moments come when it makes a case for violent revolution against injustice.

Katniss Everdeen lives in a coal mining area of the former United States, which has been reduced through brutal civil war to twelve districts ruled by a merciless Capitol. Yearly, the Capitol stages the Hunger Games, in which they select two young tributes from each district. These pairs are shined up, fed, pampered, and paraded before the populace in a series of live TV broadcasts.

Then the producers force them into a miles-wide, computer-controlled arena and where they battle to the death on national television.

If they refuse or rebel, their families and entire district will suffer. If they hide, the very arena itself forces them into the battle with exploding trees or fearsome beasts. Only one can win, but Katniss and her fellow District 12 tribute Peeta hope to hold on to their humanity in such dire circumstances.

The adaptation of the first novel in the trilogy by Suzanne Collins hits theaters on Friday. With presales of tickets in the stratosphere and tracking indicating record $130 million open, the movie looks poised repeat the overwhelming success of the books, which rule the bestseller lists.

And well it should.

Director Gary Ross has perfectly created the world of the Hunger Games, from the steely resolve of heroine Katniss Everdeen, played with a perfect mix of attitude and vulnerability by Jennifer Lawrence, to the excess and self-focus of the Capitol. There are several minor changes to the source material: A few characters dropped, such as Madge Undersee or the silent maids whose tongues have been cut out. The relationship with Peeta, played by a winning Josh Hutcherson, is show more through longing looks and less through the dialog from the books while his rival Gale (Liam Hemsworth) only briefly appears.

In keeping with its young adult lit pedigree, the violent moments are blurry and fast-cut, with killing implied more than shown. Rated PG-13, it is not gory, but some dead children and child deaths are shown, which will rule out grade schoolers and some middle schoolers. There is no sexual content or inappropriate language.

The changes don’t matter, though, because what made it to the movie is so very well-done.

The setting of the starving District 12 evokes the black and white photos from 1930s Depression America: Sparse wood interiors, colorless dresses, simple shirts, old fashioned fabrics. Once the action moves to the Capitol, everything brightens into false day-glo: the abundant food, the Kool-Aid colored hair, feathered eyelashes, and bejeweled skin. Katniss’s refuge from both turns out to be forest, the natural forest a home in which she poaches food for her sister and the unnatural forest of the arena which shelters her and then turns on her.

Especially well-done is the character of Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), District 12’s assigned press representative from the Capitol. Creepily enthusiastic, she shepherds her sacrificial lambs to the games with a jarring focus on glittery clothes and banal etiquette.  “You’re in for a treat,” she gushes as she ushers her poverty-raised charges into the luxury-laden train that carries them to their presumed deaths.

The congratulatory exuberance that surrounds the stunned tributes is broken by Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a former winner of the games brought to serve as mentor, but who drowns his disgust and sorrow in alcohol, and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Katniss’s stylist, the only person who extends any sympathy to the doomed girl.

Thus is drawn a whole system of evil, banal in its focus, horrific in its casualness. From the Capitol citizens who sincerely cheer the bloodthirsty games to the TV host (Stanley Tucci) and producer (Wes Bentley) who make a career out of creating them, no one seems to question the gross injustice and horror of forcing children to fight to the death.

Except Katniss.

There is a moment in the Hunger Games when Katniss, in a gesture of solidarity with the equally impoverished district of fellow tribute Rue, holds three fingers up in a silent salute to the camera and to Rue herself. This moment, when Katniss transitions from strong individual to national symbol, sends shivers down the spine.

That moment and the revolution that follows in later books are part of why The Hunger Games has hit such a nerve. Instinctively, readers know that injustice on this scale must be fought, must be stood up to. However, that’s not the thrust of the series. This dichotomy is what makes the books schizophrenic.

The ultimate futility and shame of any armed conflict, not fighting injustice, is where the author is heading. Hinted in a few lines in the film and increasingly clear in later books in the series, the Hunger Games is supposed to stand as a metaphor for war: sending young people out to fight to the death. By reframing battles into gladiator-style battles with kids, the author hopes to question war itself.

“One night I’m sitting there flipping around and on one channel there’s a group of young people competing for, I don’t know, money maybe?” she told Scholastic, “And on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting an actual war. And I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way, and I thought of this story.”

In her mind, then, there is little difference between Survivor and our soldiers in Afghanistan.

And yet, what are the people of the districts supposed to do? Keep passively sending their youngsters to their deaths? In reality, what are the people of Syria supposed to do, keep dying at the hands of a Captial different in style but not brutality from the one she drew? Were the patriots of the American Revolution little more than gladiator fighters?

Does there not come a point where injustice is worse than armed conflict? Where violence on the part of evil men must be resisted by violence on the part of the good?

Collins, in drawing her banally evil world so powerfully, makes just this case even as she makes the opposite one as well. The skill of her imagination and the ambiguity of her message make this movie the one everyone should see, adults included.

In fact, adults especially, as this film embodies one of the conflicts and discussions at the heart of our national conversation. It’s excellent, but it’s also important.

More Hunger Games:

Is Katniss a young George Washington? A Conversation with Our First President

A Parent’s Guide to The Hunger Games

Watch a Clip of the Movie

  • Erin Pettengill

    You captured the essence of the movie well – and I’m grateful that it sounds like it’s true to the book (although a bit disappointing that you said Gale appears only briefly – he’s more important than that) – ah well…can’t have everything. I’m hoping this movie comes my way so I don’t have to wait for the DVD release, that would be SO painful! Thanks for the great review!

    • Rebecca Cusey

      Thanks Erin. I hope it does too.

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  • regular joe

    Discrimination is the drawing of meaningful distinctions, which we’ve all been taught is wrong. It should be no surprise that the authoress can’t discriminate between fighting to conquer and fighting to defend, fighting for freedom and fighitng to oppress, between justice and injustice. War is all Hell someone well familiar once said, and so doing something so terrible for good will always be a terrible contradiction, but one that we should be able to understand none the less.

  • John Mitchem

    In your otherwise fine review of “The Hunger Games” I am disappointed in the title, “….Inherent Schizophrenia of the Hunger Games…” and in the use of the word schizophrenia in the review itself.
    I am still trying to figure out what you mean by “…inherent schizophrenia reflecting our national discomfort…”

    Since I have many friends with that dreadful disease I know a fair bit about schizophrenia and I see no relationship between the disease and your use of the word. It is interesting to note that The New York Times style manual forbids such non-medical use of the words schizophrenic and schizophrenia as does the San Francisco Chronicle. I suggest respectfully that you might want to adopt a similar prohibition.

    Schizophrenia is a terrible, disabling biological brain disease whose primary symptoms include delusions and hallucinations. It strikes about 1% of the population across both genders and every ethnic group.

    The use of the terms schizophrenia and schizophrenic should be limited to talking about the disease and those who suffer from it. Any other use should be forbidden by serious writers for at least three reasons:

    1. When given a non-medical usage, it is not clear what is meant when an author uses the word schizophrenia.

    2. When a meaning can be inferred from the context of a non-medical use it is almost always that schizophrenia means split or multiple personalities. This perpetuates a cruel misunderstanding of the disease. There is a very rare disorder, which informally is a multiple personality, but that disorder is definitely not called schizophrenia, and unlike schizophrenia, it is extremely rare.

    3. The non-medical use of the term perpetuates misunderstanding and stigma about the disease. Persons who suffer from schizophrenia are subject to more discrimination and stigma than other ill people. It is time that we move away from that.

    These days most writers treat aids sufferers with dignity and respect. Please give the same treatment to those who suffer from schizophrenia.

    • Megan

      Ditto. Thanks for correcting the author.

  • Megan

    This movie seems to be a Rorschach (ink blot) test. My friends and I got a completely different take on the movie than the reviewer and comments did. Pacifist morality was no where near it. Especially as Katniss’s does kill, but she remains elevated above the other tributes as why she kills each one is different.

    Also, children read of death in Harry Potter and Bambi and Lion king. I have never heard of a 13 year old so sheltered that they should be unprepared for this movie.

    • Megan

      hmm, jut realized my primary comment on Rorschach was also made on another article here, the politics of the hunger games. Cheers.

      • Rebecca Cusey

        Great minds think alike.

        Thanks for the comment.


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