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March 29th, 2012

What Works: The Hunger Games — Is Its Violence Appropriate?


I wasn’t going to write about The Hunger Games movie – I’m a huge fan of the books and had no advance screening, so I just went to the theater with everyone else on opening night as a consumer. But I have to share my reaction to concern expressed about The Hunger Games‘ violence which I’ve read in the days following the movie’s release. I was certainly very interested to see how the makers of the movie would deal with translating the book’s extreme brutality against and among children into a movie that children could watch. I am surprised they went as far as they did and think they came very close to the edge. There’s lots of blood, and a few of the children are killed onscreen — but the violence is never gratuitous.

Much of the criticism is from people reacting without bothering to understand, but Bo Sanders’ interesting post in Homebrewed Christianity caught my eye. Essentially, Bo loved the movie, but expresses some concerns raised by the fact that when he saw the movie there was cheering when a “good” character killed a “bad” character. It’s a thoughtful post and the comment thread is heady and interesting. Perhaps if anyone had cheered at the violence when I saw it, I’d have had the same reaction — as I did last year when I wrote about my repulsion at the celebrations over Ben Laden’s death — but I find nothing to criticize in The Hunger Games‘ use of violence.

The Hunger Games does not glorify violence or desensitize people to it. It is a story of loss of innocence, and the intrusion of violence is a key part of that loss. As a commentary on brutality by an empire against its subjects and the vicarious enjoyment of others’ suffering, it would not work without showing any brutality or suffering.

Yesterday I watched a religious war movie that glorified violence. It held up violence done in the name of religion, honor and freedom as something praiseworthy; it nearly said that this killing was good. That is troubling. In The Hunger Games, on the other hand, we see some of the killers as disturbingly amoral, some as products of their conditioning, and in the few cases where violence is performed by one of the “good” people, it is sad and disturbing. The Hunger Games does not glorify violence or desensitize people to it. It is a story of loss of innocence, and the intrusion of violence is a key part of that loss. As a commentary on brutality by an empire against its subjects and the vicarious enjoyment of others’ suffering, it would not work without showing any brutality or suffering. To the extent that the movie (inevitably) toned down the violence in the book, it made a weaker statement. The fact that some people may watch its portrayal of vicarious viewing of violence and vicariously enjoy it is sad but inevitable. It doesn’t mean the moviemakers missed the mark.

I was troubled by one thing I saw at the theater when I viewed it on opening night: the under-10-year-olds brought by their parents. No matter how important the lesson, I think it’s wrong for prepubescent kids to see children getting killed. Especially with their parents’ endorsement. Even older kids and adults who are easily freaked out may be better of not going anywhere near it. I myself had the misfortune to be seated in front of a fiftysomething woman who kicked my seat any time anything tense or startling happened. I’d have been better off with kids behind me.

I’ve written here before about avoiding the fear-mongering of TV news, and shows like 24 which do the same thing with fiction, uselessly filling our heads with things to make us anxious. But that is not to say that we should live in a puffy-clouded world of denial. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn.” We should be upset when we see killing. And exposing oneself to thoughtful portrayals of the wrongs in the world can be an enriching and empowering thing, even if disturbing. I believe The Hunger Games is thoughtful and empowering. What do you think?

Let me add these additional comments about the movie, though they’re not about the subject above, since I didn’t write a review:

I think Jennifer Lawrence was exceptional; most critics agree, with the notable exception of my friend Tom Shone, who apparently was watching a different movie. Elizabeth Banks was great too. The rest of the cast was adequate. I was worried about Woody Harrelson, and he didn’t ruin the movie but a talented and inventive actor could have made the Haymitch character memorable; he is neither. Similarly, Cinna could have been amazing in better hands that Lenny Kravitz’s (and should have been over-the-top gay, which is definitely not the way Kravitz plays him.)

On the oft-criticized camera work, I defer to a friend in the industry, Tim Hickson, who nailed it with, “JJ Abrahms called and told me he wants his genre back.” I realize super-tight close-ups and shaky-cam are supposed to add excitement, but it was over the top.

Finally, the music was phenomenal. I’m so thrilled that instead of loading the movie full of predictable indie pop-rock, they did an amazing thing and brought in T-Bone Burnett to give The Hunger Games music appropriate to its Appalachian setting. It’s a dark, mournful alt-bluegrass delight of original songs written and performed by fans of the books — the Civil Wars, Taylor Swift, Arcade Fire and The Carolina Chocolate Drops stand out. I’ve been listening to nothing but the soundtrack for the past week and am nowhere near tired of it yet.

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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  • Sara

    I have read the trilogy and seen the movie. I think that the movie left a little to be desired in that they left out the inner dialog Katniss had with herself to motivate her to do some of the things that she did. When I saw the movie it seemed to take leaps in what she was feeling. As to the violence…. The story is full of violence that is the point the author is trying to make. It is the atrociousness of violence as a vehicle to keep “people in their place” and the evil leaders that use it, and Katniss’ fight to right the wrong. I found it wholly inspiring.

  • Caroline

    Of course Cinna was gay!! The whole time I was reading, I pictured him as this smaller, clean, quiet, younger but adorable gay man. That couldn’t have been more miscast. (I’m gay, I think I have a little knowledge on it!) I’m surprised she allowed Kravitz to do it because he isn’t at all like the character was written.

  • Victoria M. Perez

    Just saw “The Hunger Games”. Wow. The middle school students I teach have been reading it and recommend that I read it to.
    I wanted to know more about the history of that society,(and will once I read) but a movie can only depect so much of a book. My 16,19 year old, and husband enjoyed it. It was powerful.There is greatness in love.

  • Phil Fox Rose

    Lisa, thanks for the comment. That’s part of what’s great about reading books! We fill out the characters differently but they’re real for us. That’s why I always want to read the book (or entire series) before seeing a movie or TV version. Because usually once I’ve seen a visual portrayal of the character, that becomes the character for me whether I like it or not.

  • Lisa

    I didn’t get a sense that Cinna should have been “over the top gay.” Yes, he’s a man in fashion, but I never pictured him as “gay” when I read the book or when I saw the movie. He was supposed to be a calm presence for Katniss.

  • Natalie

    I hadn’t read the books before going to see the movie, but I loved it. The violence was disturbing, but the whole story/situation was meant to disturb the audience. I’ve been vegan two years and watching from that lens, I thought about how desensitized we are to violence and the power of boycott/not playing by the rules. Now I’m powering through Catching Fire and loving it. :)

    I was bothered by the amount of young children in the movie theater too. There was a family near me with several children needing to sit in the booster seat. Oldest was probably in 6th or 7th grade, and the youngest was a toddler in a stroller. Two or three elementary-age children in between. =/ Just because it’s based on a young adult novel does NOT make it a family movie.

  • Joanna

    Haven’t read the books; haven’t seen the movie. But have been following newspaper and other sources writing about it. Just wondering if there is an analogy between themes in Hunger Games and the conscripted-against-their-will child soldiers of recent decades?

  • Joe

    no problem with your comments…did not read the books and will not…appropriate violence, worked…will share a comment overheard from a young college student: I liked the movie but wasn’t bloody enough…a young, well-groomed woman…many would fed children to lions…the screenwriter gets credit … his work was just and balanced…might even see again – always something missed…

  • Bridget Green

    The trilogy was an amazing and worth-while read, regardless of the age of the reader (over 12, at least). As a grown woman who reads teen lit mainly as a way to connect with her nieces and nephews, I’ve read a lot of it, and The Hunger Games is by far the best of the bunch. There is violence in life and to pretend that there isn’t doesn’t help anyone. To applaud it however is entirely different. What Collins did here was show how demeaning violence is not only to the victim but to the perpetrator as well.
    I saw the movie opening day, and I actually thought they underdid some of it. Without some of the brutality expressed in the book, the whole story loses its meaning.

  • Malinda

    I highly recommend reading the whole trilogy. The third book shows the morality growth of Katniss as she continues to come to grips with the morality of the actions of both the Capital people, and later the rebels.

    Also, I will never understand parents who think it’s ok to take a 10-year old to a PG-13 movie. Hunger Games is no exception.

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