I was certain I was going to hate it. All of my four kids have been fans of the series of books by Suzanne Collins since before they were cool; therefore when the movie was announced, we all knew the midnight screening on the night of release was a must-do. But in the run-up to last night's trip to the IMAX theater, the reviews I read and heard helped confirm my feeling that this would be a disgusting movie: violent, gratuitous in every way, repulsive to my social conscience.
I was wrong. Very, very wrong.
I tend to approach these cultural phenomena with a concern that my comfort level will be jolted. What I should be concerned about is what these phenomena say about our culture, and in the case of "The Hunger Games," what it says about the generation that elevated the story to its current status. With an eye to the latter, I drove home early this morning with a deep satisfaction that my kids were smarter than I was at their age, and that their generation understands something mine did not.
First, yes, the movie is violent, and disturbingly so. The story is one about a future world in which a wealthy ruling class dominates a world that it is linked to, but separate from, through overwhelming police and military power, and entertainment that both enthralls and intimidates the underclasses. The focus of the story is an annual gladiatorial ritual in which representatives from the "districts" under domination give up children to a tournament of slaughter and death. Yes, this movie is based around images of children killing each other.
It is a valid question to ask: Why must we tell stories that constantly elevate the level of violence necessary to grab our attention? Why is it now necessary to portray children killing other children, and children dying by each others' hands? This is indeed an important question for our society to wrestle with. But more importantly, we should direct our moralizing to the question the film itself seeks to ask: Why are we satisfied to be part of a society that finds it necessary to feed upon its young?
Viral successes like "The Hunger Games" reach mass audiences because they strike a nerve. The audience for the books and the film -- the "millennial generation" -- is not lost on the message. Our society is held together by a craving for violence. What is, say, middle-school football, after all? We should ask: Is it tolerable for us to send our young boys into a game that breaks legs, destroys knees, causes concussions and otherwise changes the course of life forever? Of course it is! Not only does the game bring our community together, provide economic opportunities, but for the lucky few, college scholarships and professional opportunities. For the players, they are willing to risk limb and even life for a lottery-styled shot at fame and fortune. For the audience, we are willing to cheer when the fallen player limps off the field, or worse is carried off to the emergency room, sighing a concern or uttering a prayer for the well-being of the child who may suffer permanently in the name of our entertainment.
"The Hunger Games" causes us to consider other forms of this structural violence. Not to only pick on the venerable institution of football, the film's prevailing metaphor can be applied to all kinds of American institutions of empire: soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, Treyvon Martin, state-sponsored gambling (the lottery), Wall Street and so on. Face it: Our society is one that eats its young. Through its horrific portrayals of a society that dominates via a tournament in which children kill children, "The Hunger Games" might well shock us into seeing the way we ourselves do it.
After the movie, my kids wanted to know my reaction. Did I just see it as yet another violent kid-pic? "No," I said, "I didn't expect to come here and see a movie about the young Israeli soldiers sent to occupy the West Bank."
In return I asked if, when they read the books, they saw them as overtly political. "Yes," my 14- and 17-year-old kids replied. And while they discussed on the way home the ways the movie changed story details of the books, I went to bed at 3:15 a.m. knowing that the major theme was not lost on them.
It gives me hope.