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Philosophy and pop culture

The Hunger Games: Was the Movie Faithful to the Novel's Philosophy?

Did the movie betray the philosophy of the novel?

Spoiler Alert: I'm about to give away plot points of the new Hunger Games movie, and all three novels.

The Hunger Games movie did not disappoint. It was very faithful to book's plot on major points, and most deviations from the book were for the better. For example, I think having Prim give Katniss the mockingjay pin, instead of Madge, allows for Katniss' future role as the rebellion's mascot to be spontaneous, instead of planned. I like this better. I also think having Cato waiting for Katniss and Peeta on the cornucopia at the end, instead of running past them away from the mutts, makes a bit more sense—although I did miss the mention of Cato's body armor and wish the poisoned Nightlock berries had made it all the way into their mouths.

But a more important way the movie did not disappoint was by preserving book's philosophical themes and ethical questions. As I read it anyway, the book is commentary on American culture, not only the disparity between the rich and poor in America, but more notably the disparity between America and the rest of the world. When you stop and think about it, the amount of necessities and luxuries we enjoy here in America—more water, food, electricity, than we could ever need—is obscene when compared to what most third-world countries have. In fact, in many ways (but not every way), we are "The Capitol" and other areas of the world are our districts. Parts of China are our District 3—they produce our technology (e.g., the microchips in our iPhones) in factories with working conditions that drive employees to throw themselves out of windows to commit suicide. The Middle East is our District 12; they produce our energy—not via coal, but oil. And how many countries could be our District 8, housing the textile sweatshops that make our designer clothes and shoes? The movie preserved this disparity brilliantly. Director Gary Ross wonderfully captured the poverty, desperation, and hunger of those who live in the outlying districts; the living conditions of those in District 12 were especially appalling; The Capital and its inhabitants, on the other hand, were disgustingly beautiful, obnoxiously colorful, obsessed with appearance and entertainment, and oblivious to the suffering of others—much like their American analogues. Appropriately, in the epilogue of the audio book for Mockingjay, author Suzanne Collins asks her young readers, "How do you feel about the fact that some people take their next meal for granted, when so many other people are starving in the world?" Of course, we don't force their children to participate in Hunger Games, but they do often slave away in those factories, and are sometimes killed (unintentionally) by our military operations.

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The Hunger Games also serves as a commentary on American culture, specifically our relationship to our entertainment and reality television. Again, in her epilogue, Collins relates one of her inspirations for The Hunger Games: the difficulty she had—on a tired late night of channel surfing—in telling the difference between young people competing for money on (presumably) Survivor and news coverage of young people fighting (presumably) the Iraq war. We find the Hunger Games of The Hunger Games appalling, but every one of its elements can be found on our own television every night: Survivor, The Bachelor,  NASCAR (we watch it for the wrecks), NHL (we watch hockey for the fights), UFC and the NFL . And don't think for a second these things don't cost people their lives. Players not only risk life-altering injuries, but (for example) the average life span of an NFL player is drastically shorter than the average person's (the numbers seem to suggest that they tend to die in their 50s or 60s). It's the price, I suppose, for a life of fame and fortune, much like the life of the victors of previous Hunger Games. The risk of serious life-altering injury is elevated even at the high school level—for both football and cheerleading.

"And so it was decreed that each year, the 12 Districts of Panem shall offer up in tribute one young man and woman between the ages of 12 and 18 to be trained in the art of survival and to be prepared to fight to the death." 

Schadenfreude is a German word for taking delight in the suffering of others. As Andrew Shaffer discusses in The Hunger Games and Philosophy, the schadenfreude of Capitol citizens is an object of disgust in The Hunger Games. "They certainly don't have a problem watching children murdered every year," says a repulsed Katniss in Catching Fire (the second book of the trilogy). And it is a commentary on our own. Not only do we enjoy watching celebrities fall from grace (just watch one episode of TMZ), but every dramatic sports injury is repeated ad-nauseam, on sport shows and YouTube channels, for all to watch. Not to mention how we seem to revel in gory "torture porn" movies such as Saw. Given the events of the novels, I was worried that The Hunger Games movies might betray the books by participating in the very thing the books critiqued, graphically depicting teenagers being killed in horrific and disgusting ways, all to the delight of torture porn fanatics.

Fortunately, my worries were allayed.. The violence in the movie is not celebrated; it is not accompanied by rousing music; it is not portrayed in graphic detail; it does not involve inspiring skill. In fact, it often happens off screen (sometimes barely) and is not accompanied by sound. The result is a realization of how senseless the violence is; it's teenagers killing teenagers for people's amusement. At my viewing, not once did a teenage male announce aloud "Ohhh, damn" on the occasion of someone's brutal murder—the kind of appalled but approving remark you often hear at movies such as Saw or Jackass. Instead, aghast and dismayed audience members offered up gasps of horror and quiet expressions of "Oh my god." When Thresh killed Clove, an especially mean tribute from District 2, thus saving Katniss, there was applause—but when her lifeless body fell to the ground, showing us a close up of Clove's face, the applause cut short. Her tiny features and unblemished skin reminded us that she was just a little girl, 15 at most, undoubtedly some proud father's precious daughter. Even when Cato, Katniss and Peeta's final rival, fell off the cornucopia and into the mutts, fans only celebrated for a moment. At the mercy of the animals, he was being tortured, eaten alive—and no one was happy about it. He had trained and volunteered for the games, sure—but if the Capitol did not force the Hunger Games on to the districts, he'd be just another kid. Not even Cato deserves this fate. We were all relieved when Katniss put him out of his misery with her final arrow.

I'm not sure they can keep this up for the sequels. The story just gets more horrifically violent.  But Collins kept the novels from celebrating that violence. Hopefully she and director Gary Ross (who also shares a screenwriting credit) can find a way to do so in the next movies. If they can, they should also be able to remain faithful to the other philosophical themes found in the trilogy. I can't wait to see if they succeed.

For more on the philosophical lessons and themes of The Hunger Games, see George A. Dunn and Nicholas Michaud eds., The Hunger Games and Philosophy: A Critique of Pure Treason.  

 

David Kyle Johnson, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania.

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