Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Hunger Games, The Philosophy of The

My best Katniss impression.

*Spoiler Alert!!*

I went to the movies, my first time in a long time, to see the biggest opening day of a non-sequel ever. That’s right, I saw The Hunger Games (I read the book a month or two ago). The first thing to note is that opening weekends are crazy. The second is that the people watching the movie were not all adolescent teenage girls. A wide variety of ages and classes seemed to be present in the very, very long line.

In terms of adaptation, I tip my hat. The author was a producer, so I'm not terribly surprised that the movie was quite faithful to the book and the short cuts were on less important matters. It was shot well, and had enough "extra scenes" that it didn't feel like it was a duplicate of the book (ahem, Watchmen). It was cast very well, and they pulled off a good movie without famous actors (except for President Snow, who was very convincing and very creepy).

Of course, the book is better (isn't it always?). Nevertheless, the movie has two distinct advantages. First, the poverty of District 12 can be displayed visually with great power and contrasts powerfully with the Capitol. This effect was profoundly evident when they get off the train from District 12. I flashed back to my return from Kenya, stepping off the plane in LAX and feeling profoundly disturbed and confused by the glitz and glamour of the US; I had "reverse culture shock" as it is often called. The movie was able to create that moment for the otherwise uninitiated audience by making the Capitol downright strange and frivolous. Secondly and most profoundly was the irony involved in going to the movies. I paid $11 for entertainment about people paying too much for entertainment.

Another feature that I’ve seen come up a few times in “young adult” literature is absent parents. Katniss has a dead father and a mother who is severely psychologically withdrawn. Artemis Fowl has almost an identical dynamic; his dad died and his mom was homebound, so he had to raise himself with the help of a faithful butler (named “Butler”). Harry Potter was an orphan. Heroes for today’s teenagers are those who, against the odds, figure out how to grow up without parents.

I'd like to say a word about the Hunger Games universe. thing to note about Panem is that it is a world that contains Evil. It’s not as obvious that it’s a world that includes Good; virtue is clearly present and the Good is at least there by implication. But the Capitol is certainly Evil. President Snow is Evil. And, like any successful movie, this is almost a prerequisite for a good story (or at very least, a profitable one).

The other thought that occurred to me first in the book and then powerfully in the movie (the train scene) is that one of the other critiques is on the present American economy. We in the US live lavish and rather ridiculous lives which can only (presently) be maintained by people from poorer places sending stuff to us. As in Huxley’s Brave New World, we are so tranquilized by our entertainment that our thoughts are ever on trivial matters. People are living in horrific conditions all around us, but we can’t seem to care. Effie is the embodiment of this: ever concerned about desserts and manners when life and death are at stake.

Katniss, the protagonist, is strong, independent, resourceful, shrewd, courageous, and uncompromising. Perhaps most in conflict with the modern hero, she has loving kindness when appropriate and she is violently ruthless, when appropriate. She soberly faces the horror set before her with an unbreakable spirit. She does not cling to life, and would gladly lay down her life for her sister or friend.

I believe it is these virtues, forgotten and spurned by modern American code, which make her attractive. She is the exact opposite of the “good kid.” Her friend, Peeta, is the good kid. And he tries hard, makes a valiant move or two, but would certainly be dead without her. Before the Games, she lived by breaking the law and hunting outside of the gate. She was resourceful and taught herself; she was independent and owed nothing to the state or even her parents. She, unlike everyone else, was her own master. To really stand up to evil, the kind of evil in the Capitol, nice-guy morality fails. Katniss’ morality strikes a blow. And even in failure, it’s not a pitiable thing. Katniss is most certainly not one of those whose “cold and timid souls know neither victory nor defeat.”

What is the message of the story? Should you obey authorities? No; not when their laws are unjust. Is violence always wrong? No; sometimes killing is the right thing. Is evil a fiction? No, it’s very, very real. Is a strong government a good thing? No; it’s a great danger. She’s the ultimate teenage hero, rebelling against those above her with shrewdness and courage. And if I were an evil puppet master, this is exactly not the kind of idea I’d want floating around in teenage heads. Rebellion can be justified? Rebels can be heroes? But fortunately, those in authority are too smart for their own good. I’ve read critiques by more sophisticated thinkers who seem to think the movie is about reality TV, gender equality, football, or mindless violence (though one or two or three see something deeper in it). Sure, there is a critique of our being bloodthirsty and voyeurs. And so they content themselves thinking, “Ah, it’s just about reality TV and violent movies. Nothing disruptive.”

But the most important message of the book has been expressed variously by young teens as, “The government is bad, mmmkay?” and “The people in power want to keep it that way.” The government in the story is bad. And this is what America is (or will become). We must do something, and that something might include violent rebellion.

Those raising the alarm are not rare, but they’re rarely taken seriously. The average American never has to look at the American life and ask, “Is there something fundamentally wrong here?” Alarm raisers tend to get dismissed from the prophet Jeremiah to Ron Paul. Suzanne Collins is not being dismissed. Where fact and authority fail, fiction prevails. The Hunger Games is being embraced en mass. Not by prophecy scholars, political fear-mongers, or culture watchdog-ers, but average, everyday teenagers (and then everyone else).

It is disturbing that even fresh teenage perspectives see the world with such cynicism. Why, to teenage eyes, does the Capitol of The Hunger Games look so much like Washington DC? The government of The Hunger Games is one where security and comfort have been made the highest priorities. Freedom was the cost. And with the cost paid, the peace and security were also lost. The way to fight it is with shrewd, bold defiance and virtue. This is the central political message, and perhaps the central message. And young people are listening.

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