The Hunger Games: Only Unthinkable Until They're Not

So, like most of the rest of this continent, I've been to see The Hunger Games. I must admit, the books passed me by, to the point where I didn't even know it was a science-fiction story; I'd just assumed it was an alternate history, probably something around the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century from the way people described it. The presence of a flying ship, then came as something of a surprise to me, but a pleasant one, since it meant I could slide a review onto this blog. Here's to 'all things futuristic'!

There's not much to say about the movie itself that hasn't already been said. The effects are impressive, the aesthetic is unique, the inevitable love triangle is pleasantly understated, the violence is affecting without being grotesque, there are dryly funny moments, tear jerking moments, Big Damn Heroes moments, and moments that make you want to punch every single person in the Capitol, one at a time. The actress who plays Katniss does a solid job carrying the film, no small task given that the books are apparently a first-person narrative, and the supporting players turn in equally solid work, from familiar faces like Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson to unknowns like Josh Hutcherson, who plays Peeta, and Wes Bentley, who plays Seneca Crane. Even Lenny Kravitz, of all people, turns in a very nice performance, though I hear it's pretty different from his character in the book. The movie doesn't offer a fully fleshed-out world, but this is only the first part of a trilogy, and its focus necessarily limits its scope, though even there it apparently provides a slightly broader scope than the original novel. The movie shows you enough of the world that you understand the broad strokes, but leaves plenty of room for expansion in the two sequels. And given its monumental box office success, there's no question about those sequels.

What I did want to talk about, though, was the Hunger Games themselves. The realistic nature of the games, or their lack thereof, has been a point of some contention even amongst my own rather open-minded circle. The basic complaint of course is that nobody would tolerate something like that, a complaint that I must admit doesn't bother me much, reflecting as it does quite well on both those raising the objection and the culture they were raised in. It is entirely proper for a person in this day and age to view the Hunger Games as utterly unthinkable, even unconscionable, because at the moment they are. But by that same token, on September 10th it was unthinkable that the US government would suspend Habeas Corpus and inflict torture, namely waterboarding on suspects indefinitely detained in a prison complex based on a supra-territorial legal fiction. Things are only impossible until they're not.

In that sense, the background of the Hunger Games, the film, lays a fairly good foundation for the Hunger Games, the competition. From the opening title cards and Effie Trinket's propaganda film it is made clear that not only was there a civil war between the Districts and the Capitol, but that it was a particularly brutal one; Trinket's film even includes a clip of what looks like a mushroom cloud. And in the aftermath of the Districts' defeat, it's clear that they're meant to remember this, in perpetuity, restricted from ever again rising to challenge the power of the Capitol. And just to hammer home the magnitude of their defeat, the Capitol imposes the Reapings and the Hunger Games on the Districts, introducing the storm of capitalized letters genre fiction loves so dearly. The message is as clear as it is brutal; rebellion will be punished, not with your death, but the death of your children. Surely that would give any parent pause.

This introduces two additional complaints, both of which I maintain are resolvable. The first is, given the threat hanging over the heads of their children, why would those in the Districts not band together and resist the Reapings and the Hunger Games, and the second, why do those in the Capitol continue this abhorrent practice. For the latter, and I admit this is pure speculation, it's entirely possible that the Hunger Games were originally little more than twenty-four children, locked in a room, and not let out again until only one of them is left. This is, after all, the seventy-fourth annual Hunger Games; there's every reason to assume that, like the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics and such, they've grown progressively bigger and more spectacular and more expensive over time. Perhaps it started with a somber profile on the twenty-four Tributes, and then a grim feting of the survivor. The point is, the system has had decades, has had over three generations in fact, to become what it is. And of course, the bigger it grows, the more people it employs and the more integral it becomes to the economy and culture of the Capitol. It's easy for people to turn a blind eye to the more outrageous aspects of their culture when the results are so integral to them. Just look at the recent controversy involving Apple and their Foxconn City suppliers. And as for why the Districts don't try to stop the Hunger Games? Well, this thing is the result of their original rebellion, don't forget, and if they couldn't fight off the Capitol before seventy-plus years of repression, why would they assume they could do any better in the present? More broadly, though, the system of the Reaping is specifically designed to isolate dissent; it affects, after all, only two families at a time, passing over all others in the District at any given moment. For those who aren't affected, then, particularly those who either have no children or children safely past the danger of being selected in the Reaping, not only is rebellion dangerous (it has already failed at least once, and catastrophically), but it offers no real, personal gain. It's a rather brilliant bit of game theory on the part of those in the Capitol who originally organized the system. There's no incentive to resist the Reapings but their general immorality, and as we've seen time and again in human history, that's a weak motivating factor.

The Hunger Games, the competition, are to any decent person utterly abhorrent to watch. Which is the point, of course; the hook of the story is, how will this awful institution be overthrown, and the more awful the institution, the stronger the hook. But it's not unrealistically abhorrent. Like all good science fiction, it's a feature of society drawn out into the future, allowed to grow beyond what we might consider its logical end to something even more outrageous and even obscene, because to a lesser degree that is how human society works. And that's part of what makes The Hunger Games, the film, so good.

That, and Woody Harrelson is darn funny.

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