Why The Hunger Games teaches us nothing about violence

There is nothing remarkable about the violence in the movie version of The Hunger Games, an adaptation of the Suzanne Collins novel about an oppressive society that forces teenagers to battle to the death in a televised tournament.

Much of the early conversation surrounding the movie, especially in Christian circles, has centered on the violence in the film: How graphic are the killings? What message can be taken away from the depiction of inflicted pain?

Fair questions, but not ones the film version of The Hunger Games will be helpful in answering. Director Gary Ross – perhaps with a PG-13 rating in mind – offers about as benign a version of the book’s more graphic elements as possible. He’s not exactly dodging the issue, but instead choosing to emphasize the chaos and panic of the fight scenes over the blood and gore.

As copious as it was, violence was never the focus of the first book anyway (I have yet to read books two and three). I found both the novel and the movie to be more interesting as a dystopian warping of our current, reality-show culture, where an insidious combination of obsessive voyeurism and televised exhibitionism has resulted in imago dei-sapping shows such as Big Brother, Fear Factor and The Bachelor. The Hunger Games is an unholy combination of those three series, plus weapons. As with those programs, heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is forced to mold her identity in false ways during the ceremonial events leading up to the games. Unlike those shows, she’s then forced to fight for her life once the games begin.

The Hunger Games is a good challenge, then. It forces us to ask how far we are from risking the welfare of our children for televised entertainment. (Or has Jon and Kate Plus 8 already taken us there?) It makes us ask why so many people are willing to damage themselves in the pursuit of fame. It gets us to look in the mirror and ask what we would be willing to watch, and why?

But all of this is independent of the movie’s depiction of violence, which I found to be too careful and couched in too many sci-fi thrills to be taken as any instructive statement. In fact, I wonder if the attempts to find some meaning amidst the movie’s violence isn’t a subconscious attempt - for Christians in particular - to feel comfortable about what might be considered questionable material. After all, should we even be watching a movie about kids killing kids? Certainly finding an anti-violence message buried somewhere makes the prospect more palatable.

Yet I think that doing so would be dressing up a sheep in wolf’s clothing. When it comes to violence, The Hunger Games doesn’t say anything more profound than your average PG-13 action flick. You want kids to wrestle with the reality of violence? Show them something like Saving Private Ryan or Apocalypse Now. The Hunger Games is child’s play in comparison.

What Do You Think?

  • What did you make of the movie's use of violence?
  • Did the book and the movie version emphasize the same themes in the same way?
  • Can films ever be instructive about violence or are they too inherently exciting to work that way?


Comments (3)

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I think it’s important to be self-critical and aware of our own motivations as Christians to consume and even to justify the consumption of artifacts of popular culture.

In the case of the Hunger Games, it’s not clear to me that the concerns raised by many Christians, including those of Josh in this piece (emphasizing the sanitized violence in the movie) strike home, however.

The world of Panem is violent and disturbing. That’s the point. As I wrote in another piece today, “If Panem is what a world without faith and freedom looks like, then Collins’ books are a cautionary tale about the spiritual, moral, and political dangers of materialism, hedonism, and oppression.”

It’d be interesting to explore some of the literary allusions and parallels in the books (beyond the connection with reality shows). There are hints and more throughout of The Lottery, Running Man, Romeo and Juliet, and Lord of the Flies.

Brazen self-promotion: http://www.acton.org/pub/commentary/2012/03/28/secular-scapegoats-hunger-games

I agree that the film did not show the violence of the games, and I feel it was for the sake of the rating. SPOILERS AHEAD.
However, I remember scenes from the book which emphasized violence, or the consequences of violence. The first, the death of Rue, was in the film but was shorter than in the book, and because of the bloodless feel of the film, did not have the same impact.
The second occurs near the end. Katniss, Peeta and Cato are the remaining survivors, and Cato gives a poignant speech about realizing he is a pawn. In the book, he, Peeta and Katniss struggle and eventually Cato falls to the monsters below, who are mutated to resemble the fallen tributes, including Rue, an obviously more horrifying prospect.
Katniss and Peeta, I believe, struggle with mutts on the roof, until finally, in an act of mercy, Katniss is able to put Cato out of his misery with her bow.
There have been complaints that Katniss does not face dilemmas in the film. She does not have to kill. She evades. To me, that was a choice in itself. She did not want to become a ferocious monster, similar to Peeta’s statement before the games that he did not want the games to change him.
The act of mercy with Cato, befriending Rue and being affected by her death, and even helping Peeta after seeing him with the other tributes, are definitely instances of Katniss making choices, and they are heroic choices.

I enjoyed the film and thought it was well done. I did often feel complicit in the culture being judged as I had gathered, paid money, and watched the hunger games just like the entertainment consumers of Panem. Was I any different in watching the movie than those who supported the games in the fictional world?

How does it being a children’s book change the book itself and subsequently the movie? We draw children into the conversation knowing that they don’t necessarily have the life experience to process the layers of the issues.

Many preachy movies (I remember an woman saying about a Spike Lee film “If I wanted a sermon I’d go to church…) invite the audience to exclude themselves from the villains of the drama and to stand in judgment over them. I felt that in the film while at the same time not being able to exclude myself from them as I enjoyed the film itself. The game scenes draw you into the game and if you cheer for Katniss you are partaking.

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