The Hunger Games and its Violence

I came into The Hunger Games (2012) film last night with only the knowledge that the film (and book) was about teenagers killing each other. I knew nothing of the post-apocalyptic United States, the Olympics-gone-bad tournament pitting district against district, nor the extravagantly evil Capitol maintaining servitude and sovereignty by starving and dividing its people. It seems that "teenagers killing each other" was the story that carved through all the hype in this franchise.

And rightly so. The Hunger Games attempts a lot of heavy subjects: the evil nature of sovereignty, oppression and power, as well as human fascination with blood, tears, and love. I won't go into whether or not the film says anything particularly daring about each of these topics (and I also can't say whether the book does, as I haven't read it), but what I can go into is its depiction of violence, because it's at the forefront of the story.

The film starts in a destitute mining town, which we quickly learn is one of 12 districts under the rule of the "Capitol" in a post-apocalyptic USA. Each district is sucked dry for one resource (in District 12, it's coal) and is deprived of all other resources, leaving it under complete control of the rich and corrupt Capitol. Each year, the districts are each forced to draw a girl and boy of teen age in a "reaping" that will send them to a blood bath known as "The Hunger Games." These games keep the districts subordinate and remind them not to revolt by making the 24 teenagers kill each other during a weeks-long scrum in a mechanically-engineered forest (think The Truman Show in the wild) until only one "winner" is the only one left alive. Why this subordination technique is effective in this filmic world requires quite a suspension of disbelief, I must say, but that is a question for another post. What is effective is how the "hunger games" make for captivating cinema by featuring mainstream's favorites: youth, violence, and alternate realities.

Here's the beginning of the "games," called the "cornucopia bloodbath":

The Hunger Games isn't particularly gruesome in its actual depiction of violence (i.e. we don't see nearly as much blood as we would in, say, The Departed), but something makes it feel more violent than other films. Note how music drowns the soundscape in the above scene - can you imagine what it would be like with sound effects intact? I'd like to argue that the source of this feeling is that it's teenagers, and not adults, killing each other that made me feel uncomfortable (and also somewhat captivated). In so many films about violent adults, I think we've become so immune to blood and gore, and it's not because we've just seen it a lot. It's because the adults on screen feel really adult, without the vulnerabilities or misgivings that make teenagers question everything. Whether good or evil or a combination of both, violent adults on screen are given permission (by audiences, screenwriters, directors) to commit gruesome violence in favor of plot, heroism, etc. Purely because we believe they know what they're doing. So we allow them our own de-sensitization since we have faith in story and character.

Teenagers and children, however, aren't yet complete in their logical and emotional development, so to me it felt especially cruel and jarring to watch them kill each other in The Hunger Games. As when reading The Lord of the Flies, I was pained and appalled by the extent of the violence these kids committed in order to survive, because instinct sacrificed underdeveloped moral convictions. Katniss and Peeta may have been well characterized protagonists and heros, but it wasn't enough for me. Rather, it felt tragic that not-yet adults were killing like complete adults when they hadn't yet had time to grow into themselves, purely because the game (and therefore society) demanded it. And so forcibly inflicting violence made them grow prematurely into adopting ugly convictions they shouldn't yet have acquired. In short, I couldn't stop thinking, they're too young for this.

All of this just makes me worry, because of how much we love stories of both youth and violence on screen. If the movies now feature kids and teenagers in the grips of brutality, does that mean we're becoming more and more immune to violence that we have forgotten where to draw the line?

Holy Motors