The Hunger Games Provides Commentary on American Society

The Hunger Games film adaptation is taking heat right now in the reviews for
tragically misguided readings of the text. Disclaimer: I have read all the
books and loved them deeply, so I do not know how to approach this movie from
the perspective of someone who has not yet succumb. Not my problem—read them! Yes, the camera was too shaky; yes, the costumes were sub par; and yes, we obviously needed
more grinding-on-Peeta-in-a-cave-for-soup action, but there were so many other
excellent aspects of this movie that far outstrip any such trivial difficulties.

First and foremost, The Hunger Games, like the book, went in on American culture. We are the
Capitol! The 1%! The land of opulence forcing the rest of the world to pay us
tribute so that we can pay $39,000 for a handbag while a man who sees
corporations as people and a man who does not see women as people fight for
power. The riot scene in District 11 after Rue dies fits the mood of the plot
perfectly, while devastatingly employing Civil Rights and Occupy Wall Street
imagery of protestors suppressed with fire hoses and police brutality. Cutting
between the host, Caesar (Stanley Tucci) and the games implicates the viewer
as spectator, erasing the comfortable distance placed between greedy Capitol
audiences and ourselves. Every desire we have from that point forward—more
bloodshed, more shirtless Cato, more images of starving Katniss (all real
criticisms leveled at this movie by reviewers)—powerfully demonstrates our inextricable
identification as citizens of the jaded Capitol.

Yes, but haven’t we seen this all before? Many argue
that The Hunger Games provides nothing
more than a fusion of familiar dystopian settings and Twilight-style teen angst. Writing for the The New Yorker, David Denby dismisses The Hunger Games books as sensationalistic “pop-primitivism” that have achieved
popularity because their story “makes
teens feel both victimized and important.” Denby’s criticism reveals more about
his entrenched feelings of innate superiority than it does about The Hunger Games or its fans.

The Hunger Games speaks to the dawning
realization that those of us coming of age today are inheriting a country
crippled by debt we did nothing to incur, divided on issues to which we do not
relate, governed by a system controlled by the highest bidder—it’s a world torn
apart by capitalism, environmental destruction and a global politics of fear. We
are the first generation of Americans that will be worse off than those who
came before. Thus our anxiety does not stem from a place of glorified
victimization or a need to assert our importance; we have seen enough of that
in the faces of our baby-boomer parents. Rather, our identification with Panem is a desperate attempt to address the injustices in our
country in a way that takes into account our media-saturated culture.

The reactions
of some fans to the movie prove the timeliness of The Hunger Games’ critique of our society. Moviegoers have
expressed outrage that Lawrence is too
big and that Amandla Stenberg, who plays Rue, is “too black.” Some have even gone so far as to say that Rue’s blackness made her character
less sympathetic and harder to relate to. Do we need any more proof that Panem has
arrived? That we exist in a country divided by arbitrary boundaries, where
dissent is repressed and passivity rewarded, a country where violence is a
tragedy only so long as the people who suffer it look like us and share our
social markings?

Yet for all its
critique, this movie is neither sanctimonious nor alarmist. It delights in its
pop-culture status and does not seek to preach about the horrors of modernity
or the evils of the media. The Hunger
highlights, through the oft-used lens of dystopia, the absurdities of
contemporary life but also the strength and power that can exist even in the
worst situations. The Capitol uses the media in the service of propaganda and surveillance,
yet the characters prove that this is not all media is
capable of. Katniss learns to manipulate the cameras for her own purpose, to
use the game against the system. She locates the strength within in us all and
calls upon us to respond in kind.

Katniss, though
torn between the love of two men in typical Young Adult fashion, is no Bella. Granted, in
the Breaking Dawn Part 2 preview leading up to The Hunger
it looked like Bella was about to destroy some deer’s life with her
red eyeball magic, so maybe Bella’s gotten cooler. But even with Bella’s sparkly
new vampire powers Katniss could kick Bella’s ass from here to Dakota Fanning’s
court of hooded royal vampires. For starters, Katniss can breathe with her
mouth closed. 

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