Often, when Hollywood turns a book into a movie they take a scalpel (or a hatchet) to the nuance and meaning that the original author of the text so lovingly crafted into the pages. The reasoning, or so the argument goes, is that larger audiences aren't going to turn their hard-earned movie ticket money and Saturday nights over to a complex, and often unsettling, agenda. Movies, the theory goes, are about escapism. So the spirit of ideas gets replaced with popcorn and junior mints.
That was what I had in my mind as I waited on line with 750 other New Yorkers to view the opening weekend of The Hunger Games.
Because, you see, the clear and disturbing message of The Hunger Games had hit me right where I live (or lived).
Reality TV was at the heart of what author Suzanne Collins was writing about. And I'd been deep in the TV game, present in the early meetings where the engagement and appeal of affordable budget of documentary television started to make the shift from Journalism to Documentary.
First, a bit of history.
I'd been a filmmaker, then a news magazine executive producer, and that morphed in to what is known in the business as "long form" non-fiction. Serialized documentary work. We made a series of carefully researched and reported films for A&E, The History Channel, CNN, HBO, Court TV, MSNBC and others. And it was good work. Challenging, but rewarding. At the same time, Bunim/Murray was producing The Real World for MTV (where my series, MTV UNfiltered, was on the air at the time) and young audiences were clearly being drawn to this new form of TV -- known as "reality."
Reality TV was cheap to produce, compared to hiring writers and actors. And the hand-held cameras and edgy subject lines made it strangely compelling... with an authentic feeling that mainstream TV wasn't able to replicate. And, with the growth of cable TV, there was a growing need for strands of new series that could fit niche channels and break out from a sea of off-network recycled repeats.
Reality TV was going to turn documentary into entertainment, and the underlying rules of journalism and reporting into the rules of Hollywood entertainment.
But being in those early meetings, it was clear that unpaid 'real' characters were going to be prompted, scripted, staged, and coached to create what we knew were unreal dramatic arcs and edge-of-your seat cliffhangers that came not from real life, but rather the writers room. When one of the networks who'd been a regular buyer of our films asked me for 'head shots' of documentary subjects before they were 'cast' in our film, it was clear where the world was headed.
Today, with Hoarders, Teen Mom, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Survivor, and of course Jersey Shore, it's clear that television viewers want to spend the majority of their viewing time watching 'real people' involved in salacious, dramatic, and often painful situations. "There but for the grace of God, goes I" seems to be powering much of what we pass for entertainment these days.
Which brings me to The Hunger Games.
The Hunger Games is about reality TV taken to its most terrible end. It is the Roman Colosseum. A massive, deadly distraction that provides an opiate to the masses.
Says Collins: "One night, I was lying in bed and I was very tired, and I was just sort of channel surfing on television. I was flipping through images of reality television, where there were these young people competing for a million dollars, or a Bachelor, or whatever, and then I was flipping and I was seeing footage from the Iraq war, and these two things began to fuse together in a very unsettling way. And that is where I got the idea for Katniss' story."
Early in the book, and refreshingly still in the film, one of the main characters, Gale Hawthorne, asks Katniss Everdeen the question that hangs over the entire film: "What if we all just stopped watching?"
And this question hangs over the whole movie, and over what has become of television today. Reality TV isn't about reality, it's about ignoring our own reality. And so, when the despotic ruler of Panem, President Snow, sees that Katniss has the potential to rally the masses and incite an insurrection he asks the head Game Maker -- Seneca Crane: "Do you know the one thing more powerful than fear?" Crane seems unsure. Says President Snow: "Hope."
Indeed. Quick, get me a spot on The Apprentice. Maybe Donald Trump will make me wealthy.