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Hunger Games Mall Tour - may the odds be ever in your favorFans give the three-fingered salute of District 12. The gesture is one of admiration, meaning thanks or goodbye to one’s beloved. (photo: Doug Kline / © 2012 PopCultureGeek.com)

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, itself 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 fourteen- and seventeen-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 3:15am knowing that the major theme was not lost on them.

It gives me hope.


Steven MartinSteven D. Martin is a documentary filmmaker, photographer, and activist. He currently serves as a founder and executive director of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. You can read more of his thoughts at the Uncommon Voices.

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6 Comments

I don't think the message is that we should let ourselves off so easily, blaming the tendency for violence on only one class, one political persuasion, or even only on adults. Anyone remember Lord of the Flies? What this story does so brilliantly is to trace the potential for violence in ANYONE to its roots -- the struggle for survival. It's a powerful impulse. Consider ways in which we avoid pushing people into that corner, because what happens next should be no surprise.

I understand everything that was addressed here. I know awareness is often a beginning. However, I don't think that most people watching the film will focus on that message. So, all in all, its just another 2 hours of violence that a lot of people will see and think is cool. As far as all of the comparisons...... friday night football, being in Iraq, Wallstreet, state sponsored gambling. Violence is a part of the human condition and often times a result of the testosterone in our bodies, and the pre-eminent effects of the amygdala (the two almond shaped mechanisms in our brains that control fight/flight.) So in essence, to say that all aggression is accompanied by malice, or to say that all violence is the same..... to not distinguish between the popular images in what our kids view and what happens as a part of being human is to miss a lot of important points. It is the gratuitous nature of violence in our leisure activities, left unexamined by most, that causes the breakdown in our treatment of each other. I vote no..... to seeing and endorsing this film and others like it.

I too saw the midnight movie with my tween. Originally I was horrified that her close friend -- also an avid, smart reader -- recommended the book to her years ago. My daughter read it five times, and has read the trilogy three times. She convinced me to stop working and reading non-fiction long enough to read it as well. And I agree... our kids are smart. We objectify for entertainment and politics in this country. It threatens to undermine our humanity. But.... I do have hope that our kids -- like Katniss and Peeta -- are smart enough to see it and actually DO something about it, which we adults seem powerless to do.

Hunger games reaches mass audiences because of marketing savvy.  It strikes this perpetual rise to the top mentality through all forms of selfishness (read individual survival) .  Our country was born and continues not solely on a focus toward the individual but on the principle of "e pluribus unum " -  out of many one)  on the great seal of the United States.  TO constantly depict the individual uber alles ( over all)  is to miss the more important message we succeed by uniting.  Tell me where are the movies that depict non violence  and the whole is greater than all its little parts. You cant tell the purpose of a watch by looking at all its parts. 

Perhaps also if the new Evangelical partnership for the common good and Steven D. Martin would turn their attention and unity toward movie making that promotes a few of the ten commandments, like thou should not kill, love thy neighbor as thyself, etc.  A much better learning experience than kill or be killed. 

But, I think that's the very point of Hunger Games --ultimately, 'thou shall not kill' -- and that's what's hitting the human nerve --that this IS wrong and that good will prevail.  This is why the reader and viewer and invested --not because we're interested in young children being killed, but because we know its wrong and in our horror we want to see redemption.

In many ways, the themes of Hunger Games reminds me of 'Lord of the Flies'.

apples