Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Hunger Games Is Morally Bereft

I went to see "The Hunger Games." I found it sickening. This was surprising, given that I had read the book and found it to be moving, important and value-driven.

I'm trying to pin down what I found so horrifying about the movie adaptation. As I was considering, I remembered learning 2 Samuel 2:14 in 6th grade.

Here, too, murder is considered a game. Here, too, there are 24 people who must fight to the death. The difference is that they are grown men and 12 are on Avner's side representing Ishboshes and 12 are on Yoav's side representing David.

I remember that when we learned about the bloodbath that ensued, the teacher pounded it into our heads that this was a horrific tragedy and that both Yoav and Avner die horrible deaths in part because of the fact that they were too lenient with the lives of these men. Even if their intentions were only to have the men duel with one another, the fact that it turned into mass murder was considered their fault.

The difference between "The Hunger Games" movie adaptation and this section of Tanakh is that in the movie adaptation, Peeta and Katniss survive and seemingly, move on. We don't see their remorse. We don't see the nightmares that keep them awake at night. We don't see their grief and horror. We just see them smiling sweetly at Caesar on a talk show and then heading back to their district. We have to imagine their inner torment.

And that's where I think the movie gets it wrong. If your point is to show how violence is wrong and how children should not be in a position where they are killing other children, you can't leave the inner torment to the imagination. You have to demonstrate it. Show it. Let us see the toll it takes to be the survivor, even though the game is not of your making. Let us understand how horrible this is. Don't let our last image be of a triumphant Peeta and Katniss in a big poofy gown and a nice suit, heading home.

Kafka said that "a book should be the axe for the frozen sea inside us." But in order for a book- or a movie- to accomplish this, it needs to really be that axe. "The Hunger Games'" moral should be about the toll and horror that these games take on everyone, even and especially the survivors. Otherwise, what is the point? To have us root for District 12's potential love story? Is everything okay- all the macabre violence I just witnessed acceptable- so long as these two make it out alive?

I find that idea extremely troubling, and I think it is absolutely the wrong message to send to young kids. Perhaps I feel this more personally as someone who has read and learned so much about survivor's guilt due to its prevalence in Holocaust literature. But I think it's wrong to end such a disturbing movie on this seemingly happy note. If you're going to talk about horror, take the horror all the way through. Make it matter. Don't try to feed us the message that everything was bad, and kids killing kids was bad, but it's okay because these two nice-looking kids survived so it's all hunky-dory.

Granted, adults who understand subtleties and nuances will be able to fill in these gaps, but I'm willing to bet that most children won't. And that most kids will just leave talking about the Gale-Peeta-Katniss love triangle, untouched by the carnage that took place before their eyes. Which to me is simply a new means of teaching indifference of the highest degree- ironically, the exact antithesis of the presumed goals of these books and this movie.


My 2 cents. said...

I haven't seen the movie but I find your child-like innocence refreshing. Welcome to Hollywood and it's morally bereft attitude. Only the hero(s) matter and everybody else is less than incidental.
I recently watched the DVD "Taken" (starring Liam Neeson). Similar deal. Although I fully understand that a dad would/should give top priority to his own daughter, but in that movie it's starkly noticeable that he doesn't seem to give the slightest damn about any of the other victims.
Gives greater meaning to the blessing "Vihivdeelanu min hatoy'im", doesn't it.

Chana said...

My 2 Cents,

The reason I was surprised is because similar movies, such as 'Harry Potter' or 'Lord of the Rings,' make much of the pain, grief and sorrow their heroes bear. Throughout the books Harry considers how he has never once chosen this fight; it has been chosen for him. He carries the memories of all those who have died for him and feels horrible about it. The loss of Sirius is shattering. Similarly, when it comes to LOTR, carrying the ring is a huge burden for Frodo and we see that by the glimpses he gets of Sauron, the battles against himself he has to engage in and that in the end the Shire has been saved but not for him. I figured that the least they could do is show the toll these kills and this culture takes on the children (if you are trying to show them as humane and hating the violence they are asked to perform). If you are trying to show that they have reached a point where they can't even afford to think that way, where they are totally automatons without feelings, then you need to do a much better job of showing the oppressive horror and villainy of the government (and white-flower Pres Snow walking among his roses was not it).

JMA said...

I disagree-
I think that The Hunger Games was great, and not too violent at all. I think that there were only two bad scenes: The first was the feast, and the second was the finale. Those were gruesome, but no more gruesome, I think, than Frodo and Sam fighting Golum in The Return of the King, or Wormtail helping Voldemort rise with the help of his own hand and Harry's blood in the Goblet of Fire. No worse, I think, than the Battle of the Pelenorr Fields, or the fight in the Chamber of Secrets.

M said...

I highly doubt that the image of all those murdered children will fail to leave their intended impact on appropriate age-groups-- or on Katniss. In fact, I found the visual impression of the nameless tribute (their faces, their fear, their wild, inescapable endings) much more affecting than their brief descriptions in the book, especially since the emphasis was on their humanity and not the resulting gore. The mechanized, controlled nature of the arena was brilliantly illustrated, and, I felt, hammered home the sickening cruelty of the Capitol perfectly.

I agree that there is less emotional reaction in the film but I chalk most of that up to our removal from Katniss's first-person perspective. (She's not particularly emotive in the books, either.) I would have liked a quiet reaction scene when Katniss finds herself back in her penthouse, but the film's ending seemed truncated in most respects. There are certainly intimations that Katniss and Peeta are not the same ("We try to forget." "I don't want to forget...") and I anticipate plenty of flashback/shell-shock/attempts to process the unimaginable in the sequel.

Chana said...

I can't find a copy but on page 243 of The Hunger Games, Katniss has her first kill. She realizes killing humans is not like killing animals and learns to feel guilt. It's a really important scene and it was missing from the movie entirely.

Anonymous said...

You might want to think about what halacha would say about participating in such "games"
Joel Rich

Chana said...

Here's a to someone else who was horrified by the lack of horror in the film.

M said...

That's where I thought the film differed from the book-- it turned straight to the viewer for the moral response. Katniss's internal experience is certainly important, but I don't think it was nearly as essential when translated onscreen. The audience is not the least bit relieved from the burden of the evil reality of the Games. From the desperate scrambling of the curly-haired boy in the Cornucopia, to experiencing Rue's death through her own eyes, to demented Clove's desperate cries for Cato's help, we were meant to watch, feel, and internalize, no matter what Katniss's immediate experience was.

The main character of the film was not Katniss but the Hunger Games themselves. I thought that choice made for a brilliantly visceral movie on numerous levels, not the least of which was how it allowed the obvious moral implications come from the viewers, instead of being tied strictly to Katniss's feelings.

Chana said...


And that's where I think that's a really improper choice for kids. My friend attended a showing in NYC where kids and adults CHEERED each time another kid was killed (who wasn't Katniss, Peeta or Rue). That kind of attitude demonstrates that audiences (especially those comprised of teens and tweens) are not generally ABLE or sophisticated enough to come up with proper moral judgements or responses. I think they need to see the actual follow-through on the part of Katniss herself, her torment and internal struggle, because just expecting them to realize it on their own is to overestimate their capabilities.

jackie said...

That's a problem with the book in general (I haven't yet seen the movie)--that the reader ultimately becomes no better than the people in the Capitol, enjoying the non-stop action and changing rivalries, rooting for some of these children, and thereby implicitly rooting for others' deaths.

It was an exciting book to read, but I feel deeply ambivalent about it. I couldn't out it down but ultimately hated where it brought me. I can see teens loving the Hunger Games, but I don't think that the books offer a morality that would make someone a better person.

Anyway, the thought of any tribute playing an offensive game is ludicrous. If real children were forced into such a game, they would all go for the Rue/Katniss/Foxface evasion strategy. The premise that any of these children would kill other children (other than self-defense or revenge situations) is not at all believable.

Chana said...


I'm not sure I agree re: the evasion strategy. This comes down to the question of 'The Call of the Wild' by Jack London vs. 'The Lord of the Flies' by William Golding. Does civilization help make sure the savage in us doesn't emerge or does it make us weak? I would argue a la 'Lord of the Flies' that civilization is aimed at taming our savagery and thus I think the kids really could be that cruel and ferocious. The film 'Bully' is coming out soon and kids really are that cruel...

M said...


I have to disagree. The screening I attended was also full of plenty of younger people (some of whom were giggling about Katniss's dueling boyfriends) but no one (that I was aware of) reacted inappropriately to the awful events onscreen. That certainly doesn't mean that no one has or will comprehend the film in an insensitive or immature way, but a given response from one audience doesn't indicate that the film is "morally bereft". The filmmakers chose to show us the human hideousness of the Games and murder, rather than tell us about it, and I found it to be a powerful decision.

And I disagree that that the filmmakers had a particular responsibility to make it clear that killing people is bad. THE HUNGER GAMES is an amazing tragedy, but it's a fictional one, and kids who may have reacted inappropriately were interacting with the story on the level of the imaginary. They are most likely not going to start becoming career killers after seeing THE HUNGER GAMES, nor do I think they will have a lesser capacity for empathy because of the events in a story they (most likely) already know. I found the film to engage with its own tragedy in a definitive and honest way, and I do not believe that the possibility of certain children missing the point should have altered the filmmakers' vision.

Dana said...

Hey Chana!!
As always, nice Torah reference. I don't want to spoil books 2 and 3, but I can assure you that Katniss feels the repercussions and deals with a lot of the fallout of living with being a killer. It's part of what makes books 2 and 3 more depressing and less likeable reader-wise, but very truthful in terms of her psychological issues.

Chana said...


I don't think we are going to agree here. I don't think that the given response from one audience proves the film is "morally bereft"- I think the film itself does a great job of that. The ending was inappropriate to what the dark, twisted and horrible message of the story ought to have been. As David Edelstein said in the article I linked, audiences should have left the theater feeling horrified, devastated- and they didn't.

The choice to focus on the Gamemakers and the Games themselves fell flat for me. It was interesting on an intellectual level and did nothing for me on an emotional level. I think focusing on the people behind the Games rather than the feelings of those *playing* the Games robbed the characters of the humanity they should have had (or even of the fact that their humanity has been robbed of THEM).

Re: Career Killers, that's not the point. I'm not concerned that these kids will go out and kill people. I AM concerned by the complete desensitization to the material that allows kids to cheer for the deaths of other kids, to walk out of the movie feeling that they can 'rate' the film in terms of how good it was, not even thinking about the carnage onscreen. I think that our generation is already plenty desensitized and it leads to nothing good to continue this trend. Suzanne Collins wanted to wake us up (or so she claimed) to the horrible reality of our sickening reality TV culture while others starve in third-world countries, but she hasn't succeeded. The same kids who watched this film are going to go home and watch 'Jersey Shore.' They'll watch clips about dying kids, think about them for a couple seconds, and then post their KONY 2012 video to their Facebook. So what have they really learned? Where's the real moral? The real wake-up call? In my point of view- it's nonexistent.

I've read all the books. My issue is with how the idea of the books was translated to the big screen; I think it killed the value in them.

Erachet said...

Chana--regarding your comparison to Lord of the Lord of the Flies, the boys originally tried to create a community. It eventually fell apart, but they did not begin on the island by trying to kill each other.

I found the first book disturbing and cannot bring myself to read the other two. It doesn't make sense to me that an entire world of people would allow their children to play in these games. I understand that one district revolting would not necessarily succeed, but I don't understand why all the districts were going along with this. Together, they far outnumber the Capitol, and the Capitol has no power if they have no one to control.

M said...


Clearly we aren't going to agree. My reaction at the end of the film was ravaged-- and I felt that was the intention of the filmmakers. The Gamemakers functioned as a sterile counterpoint to the brutality within the arena, and as I've already mentioned, I thought that the presentation of the other tributes was more powerful, affecting and human than it was in the book. Watching Capitol citizens place bets on their lives and seeing the Gamemakers deal out these children's deaths for designer entertainment only strengthened the original message of the books, as far as I am concerned.

As far as viewers "walk[ing] out of the movie feeling that they can 'rate' the film in terms of how good it was," why is that remotely a problem? The exact same process unfolded when the books came out. Rating and discussing fiction in all of its forms is a part of our consumption of media, and it has no bearing on our "thinking about the carnage onscreen" or allowing it to effect us. At least THE HUNGER GAMES is ultimately fiction-- I'm sure many people react to SCHINDLER'S LIST on the level of entertainment. While I certainly feel that this response is inappropriate and fundamentally missing the point, it doesn't mean that the film itself is misguided, or even that such a reaction is actually wrong as much as I may find it distasteful.

JMA said...

What you said about the rooting for people's death, I think, makes little sense. You're always rooting for something. In Harry Potter, are you not just rooting for the defeat of Voldemort, but also for the death of all of his followers? In the Lord of the Rings, are you not wishing for the destruction of the Ring-wraiths, and the death of the Orcs? They're not that different-you cannot help yourself. You're rooting for one person to live, usually because that person deserves it the most. Katniss's family relies on her for their very lives, yet Cato's family lives in relative luxury. Coming from District 2, he is spoon-fed Capitol propaganda, and was born to kill. He VOLUNTEERED. He wanted to go in there. Which means that he wanted to kill. You could see who was happy to have their names drawn. Glimmer's bloodlust, Marvel's impatience to get the Games going, Clove's excitement at the physical expense of others... I could go on and on. The Careers love it. They have the most victors. How could you root for them? Them dying would be a minuscule blow. But every time a non-Career district looses a tribute, it is a painful reminder to those still susceptible to the Game's cruelty that they have little chance. But for Katniss it is worse. When her sister is called, she knows that she has to volunteer, because her sister would most likely die within the first 18 hours of the Games, but she has a chance. She goes in, and she needs to kill, more for her family's survival than her own. We already know that she is selfless. She risks execution almost everyday by hunting, not just to feed her family, but to help feed Gale's. Jackie, I just don't think you're being fair to the reader, and, most importantly, the Tributes from Districts 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, and sometimes 4. That's 18-20 kids that you're being unfair to, in favor of 4-6 blood-lustful monsters. Not fair

jackie said...

JMA, I'm glad you liked the book as much as you did. I'm sorry that you thought my reaction to it was "unfair" and favoring "lustful monsters."

My point was that the book has you rooting for the death of all of the tributes who are Katniss's opponents, Careers and non-Careers included. Even those who are not killers like Foxface, or those who show decency like Thrush--it's part of the entertainment of the book to wait for them to die as well. Although the book is obviously designed to be disturbing, it's also supposed to be page-turning, blood-rushing entertaining (which it is!), and which makes me wonder if we, the readers, are hardly any better than the reality-show watching audience she's trying to rebuke by writing the book.

JMA, you may have seen the carnage as a good-vs.-evil thing, at least in the case of the Careers. I saw it as more indiscriminate. And if lots of teens enthusiastically love this the entertainment value of this book (and its movie), I think its moral message has been subverted.

gigi said...

"The mechanized, controlled nature of the arena was brilliantly illustrated, and, I felt, hammered home the sickening cruelty of the Capitol perfectly."


Our society is f***ed up and I'm scared.

(Thank you Chana, I totally agree)

Anonymous said...

The Hunger Games is a mind control
piece, prepping the young for a new
world to come. It is pure evil, butchering a 12 year old child for the entertainment of the elite. The next step will be acceptance of actual 'snuff' type reality TV.
Sadly, in my paranoid mind I noticed the slave class were gentiles. And the rulers were the Jews (Pres Sno) pretty obvious to those that can figure things out.
Right out of the Talmud.

JMA said...

I think I understand now a little better what you were getting at, although I still disagree with you.
I see what you mean by rooting for even the good to die, but are you really? To be honest, reading it, it was obvious that Katniss was going to win, because she was the protagonist, but let's assume that we're watching it for real. Not as citizens of 12, or 11, or 2, or even the Capital, but as outsiders. I think that if I knew what was going on, and the whole deal with the Careers, that I would be rooting for anybody except them to win, especially somebody from 11, whose victory would benefit the vast majority of the most needy. Also, I think that there is an element of deserving here. Let's discuss who deserves to win, or who would it be best for them to win. Certainly not those from 1, 2, or 4: They're the richest districts. 3? Maybe, although still relatively well-to-do. What about the middle ones? 5-9. I say no, not really. 10? Not really. They're not doing so hot, but they're surviving. Now we get to the final four: Rue and Thresh, and Katniss and Peeta. Let's first look at their families, and see who we can eliminate. That's actually an easy choice-Peeta. Because his family owns the bakery. They always have food, even if it is a little bit stale. We know that they have livestock, and we know that they can afford to throw away two whole loaves of bread, which Peeta's mother orders him to do, just because they're a bit burnt. So Peeta's gone. Now let's look at the other District 12 Tribute: Katniss Everdeen. She feeds her family. She helps feed Gale's. People need her. Or do they? Hasn't Peeta's father promised to keep Prim healthy? And it's not like Katniss made him. He decided to visit her, bring her cookies, and make her promise. So we know that he will do it, also because we have gotten the impression and the sense that he is an honest man. The pact that Gale and Katniss made will help Prim and her mother, and we know that Gale is trustworthy. But that's not where it ends. Katniss has other friends, those who can help. Madge, who is the mayor's daughter, is caring, sweet, and helpful, and would surely assist her friend's relatives. Greasy Sae has become a friend of sorts to Katniss and Gale, and might help out Katniss's family, or at least give Gale a extra coin or two on a squirrel or something. And then there's the goat. So Katniss has to go to. Prim's taken care of, and so her mother is also. Now onto District 11, the agricultural city-state. Rue and Thresh. Tiny, weak Rue, who is "fiercely protective" of her many younger siblings. Strong, quiet, Thresh, who's family clearly has to support some older members. One of them should win. Who? I'll leave that open. I have an opinion, but I'd like to hear others before I share mine.
Also, I would like to bring up a point. It seems that religion has become obsolete. It is not mentioned. I find this interesting because the Hunger Games seems like just the event which would bring the Messiah. But there is no prayer, no worshipping, no mention of deities, not even a surprised, "Oh my God!" I wonder how they got there.

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