Mar 25, 2012

The Hunger Games

Hollywood was stunned this weekend by the massive box office of The Hunger Games.  It apparently took in five bazillion dollars - without even having the benefit of 3D showings.  I was one of those people who braved the long lines and egregious ticket prices to see the film.  I read the books last year and thought they were brilliant.  So I was looking forward to the movie.  And I was not disappointed.  I thought it was a extremely faithful adaptation and it was a very well done movie.

Now, I know that there are some people out there that who will say, "Wait a minute.  Isn't that the movie about teens killing each other in a televised competition?"  Yes, you could reduce the movie to that description.  You could also say that The Matrix was a movie about a computer programmer battling a virus.  Gone with the Wind was a movie about the Civil War.  And Toy Story was the one about talking toys.  Obviously, that removes a lot of content from those products.  [I guess I need to put up Ye Olde Spoiler Warning at this point.  Maybe I should have done it earlier for those people who were unfamiliar with Gone with the Wind.]

The Hunger Games has been described as a bunch of different things.  The quick description is that it is a post-apocalyptic, dystopian, sci-fi book/movie set in what used to be North America.  Now what remains of the land mass has been broken into The Capital and twelve (or thirteen) districts.  The Capital is located somewhere around Denver.  The districts are divided by what they produce - coal, grain, technology, fishing, nuclear power.  About seventy-five years before the start of the first book, there was an uprising by the districts against the government.  It was squelched.  To punish the districts and remind them of the cost of their disobedience, the Capital created a sick annual event called the Hunger Games.  Each district is responsible for offering up one girl and one boy between 13 and 18 at The Reaping.  Those 24 kids then are trained and prepared for a battle to the death.  The battle is televised and hyped - and required viewing for everyone.  The Capital treats these games like The Olympics.  The winner is given wealth and food for life.  The others are dead.

It is a pretty horrific concept.  In fact, I had passed the books by several times before I actually took a gamble on them.  There were times in the books where I felt nauseated by the thought of what was happening.  And I think the reason that I responded that way was not because the concept was so foreign.  Rather it was because it was just believable enough to be uncomfortable.  I read a lot and watch a lot of movies.  And I have always been partial to the darker fare - not horror, gory dark.  I usually like the middle film of a trilogy, which is darker by nature.  I like Batman over Superman.  I am not a superfan of post-apocalyptic films, but I like dystopian ones.  And I love science fiction.

Just as an explanation, let me briefly explain those three terms.  Post-apocalyptic means that it takes place after a horrifying event that kills a ton of people and drastically changes life as we recognize it.  After the apocalypse.  This can be after a nuclear war, after an asteroid hit, after a global virus, or after a zombie uprising.  Some films that fall into that category would be: Terminator, Planet of the Apes, Walking Dead, The Matrix.  Then there is dystopian.  Dystopian is not the opposite of utopian.  A utopia is a perfect society.  A dystopia is one of two things - it can either be a society that appears to be a utopia that actually is corrupt, or it can be a society that used to be perfect that has devolved into a wreck.  Some examples of this are: A Brave New World, Animal Farm, The Matrix, Gattaca, Blade Runner.  If you were to draw the amazing Venn diagrams, you would see there is often overlap in these categories - but it is not necessary.  Lastly, science fiction is usually reduced to alien and space movies.  But they are much more than that.  At their heart, sci-fi offerings are based on scientific and technological advances beyond what we now have.  That can be space themed (Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly), but it can also be Earth-based with advanced technology (I Robot, Surrogates, Minority Report, Jurassic Park, Total Recall).

Hunger Games falls into all three of those categories.  Now, the best franchises in those three categories are so good because they are believable.  They are no so far removed from our reality that they cannot be taken seriously.  They have very recognizable features, with tweaks.  They actually can serve a very real benefit as they hold a kind of dark mirror up to our current society.  Sometimes they offer a warning of what will happen if things continue down current pathways.  Classics like Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Animal Farm all took this track - trying to point out the dangers of current thought processes and activities by taking them to their logical (or illogical) conclusion.  Gattaca presented a society where parents could genetically purify their children - pointing out the potential dangers of our obsession with physical perfection and of playing with the genetic code.  Jurassic Park looked at the dangers of cloning and introducing foreign biological elements into societies unprepared for them.

When it came to Hunger Games, at first I thought, "There is no way this could happen."  Then I started to notice our world.  The geographical changes to North America are not out of the realm of possibility.  Sea and climate changes could affect current borders.  It seems like our world is always on the verge of some sort of apocalypse - be it nuclear, viral, or some other problem.  But what would it take for us to get to the point where we would not only condone teens in a death match challenge, but openly celebrate it?  I remember that I finished the book around the same time as the Super Bowl.  As I watched the absolutely insane coverage of this one sporting event, I realized that the love of pageantry is not so foreign.  Look at the opening and closing of the Olympics.  And this is certainly nothing new (gladiator matches, chariot races).

It is still hard to imagine allowing kids kill other kids for entertainment  Then again...

I have had a lot of trouble lately with the sport of football.  There is an increasingly obvious tie between football and severe head trauma.  The frequency of concussions in these athletes causes massive brain damage - increasing the chances of early death and suicide.  As football becomes more violent and as the athlete become bigger and faster, this damage is getting worse and worse.  And studies show that young people are even more susceptible.  As many people have pointed out, the danger is not really the NFL.  Those people are paid for taking those physical risks.  They even fight regulations because they make the sport "wussy."  The problem is in the college, high school, and elementary kids who are not paid.  They play and try to mimic the NFL players.  They lower their heads when they tackle.  They fly around and put themselves in danger.  They play through injuries in fear of being called wimpy.  And we are seeing this horrifying brain damage earlier and earlier in these kids.  The sad part is that people who love football are willing to turn a blind eye at the danger.  The coaches, parents, administrators all are acting like the dangers aren't real - putting thousands of young men at risk for a game.  The same argument could be made for many youth sports programs.  Our desire for entertainment and sports comes at the risk of these kids.  So maybe we aren't so far away from the Battle Royale as we would like to think.

One of the things that I have always thought was interesting about dystopian works was that it basically recognizes that mankind is inherently evil.  Even though so many people when pressed would swear that people are good at heart, our entertainment doesn't reflect that.  It is easy to say that the government, the rulers, the One Percent are the wrong ones who are ruining everything.  But a dystopian novel or movie usually takes place after those rulers have been displaced - and the "regular people" who took over ended up making a totally different kind of fiasco.  The salvation that we came up with never materializes the way we wanted.  I look at a brilliant work like DC Comic's Kingdom Come and see this.  The society depended on superheroes to save them.  It ended up backfiring when those superheroes didn't hold up their end of the bargain, or they felt that humans were not capable of doing things right on their own and took things into their own hands.  The Hunger Games follows in this tradition - especially the further you get into the trilogy.  Sometimes the devil you know is better than the one you don't.  I don't believe mankind is inherently good.  If you spend any amount of time watching the world around us, it won't take long to come to that conclusion.  And my religious beliefs certainly echo that.  "There is none righteous.  No not one. . . . All have sinned . . . Our best is filthy rags."  It is not that I enjoy watching mankind make shipwreck.  But it is thought provoking, to say the least.

When it comes to The Hunger Games, it sounds strange to say that I enjoyed it or loved it.  They contain a great deal of depressing - even disturbing - material.  But, there is some hope in it.  It is good to see the difference one person can make.  I can find inspiration in the books (and movie).  However, they aren't even as positive as the Harry Potter series.  I did really like the books and I loved the movie.  I think I am drawn to thought-provoking films and books.  I like entertaining material.  I'm a sucker for comic book movie adaptations.  I love Pixar.  But I love to dissect and analyze the films I watch and the novels I read. The Hunger Games was definitely worth thinking through and discussing.  There are many elements that make you think about our society, the way we approach things, the way we treat people.  That's the kind of offering I can appreciate.  It may be a bit surprising that something classified as "young adult literature" could carry that weight, but it did.  So it was a different kind of entertaining.  And its a concept that I hope will remain fiction.

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