Yesterday afternoon, my son and I saw The Hunger Games. My wife and I read aloud to our boys every day, alternating nights with the two of them, who are now 9 and 12 years old. Our elder son and I recently finished the Hunger Games trilogy, and we had really been looking forward to seeing the movie.
I found the film true to the heart of the novel, which is to say, deeply disturbing. I also thought the film version helped me see more clearly just what’s so disturbing about it.
In the novels, we see the tyranny of Panem through the eyes of Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl subjected to some of the worst of its cruelties, and we can’t help but identify with her suffering. We are among the regime’s many victims.
In the film version, POV and over-shoulder shots periodically show us the world as Katniss would see it, but most of the action is inevitably shown in third-person perspective. Instead of hearing Katniss’ thoughts, we watch them cross her face. Instead of feeling fire and smoke surround her, we see it happen on a screen, just as the fictional viewers of the Hunger Games would.
The movie also pays more attention than I recall the novels doing to the creators of these horrors and the regime that constructs them. We survey a Hunger Games party in the Capitol from eye level, as if we stand among the crowd, holding a drink and a canape like attendees at an upscale Super Bowl party. We see the Games’ control room as if we’re sitting in a chair alongside the other ordinary men and women who woke up that morning, ate breakfast, dressed, and came to the office to help make a tournament of child murder as entertaining as possible.
In this filmed construction of the Hunger Games, we become participants instead of just victims. And this, to my mind, is the moral weight of the story that’s easy to miss when we see Panem through Katniss’ eyes. Collins’ fable isn’t just about the defiance that Katniss finally helps to inspire; it’s also about the mass submission to the 74 years of murderous dictatorship that preceded it. It’s not just the courage of the citizens who finally erupt; it’s also the survival instincts of the citizens who dress their children each year for the reaping, the acceptance and even pride of the 1,776 (no coincidence?) families who’ve allowed their children to be sacrificed for this perverted vision of peacekeeping.
When we reflect on history, we want to see ourselves as the militiamen of the American Revolution, not the slave-owners many of them became, but the two are one and the same. Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature, in part, for his depiction of the brutal prison camps that served as machinery for the mass terror on which Soviet rule depended. He opens that account with these lines:
How do people get to this clandestine Archipelago? Hour by hour planes fly there, ships steer their course there, and trains thunder off to it–but all with nary a mark on them to tell of their destination. And at ticket windows or at travel bureaus for Soviet or foreign tourists the employees would be astounded if you were to ask for a ticket there. They know nothing and they’ve never heard of the Archipelago as a whole or of any one of its innumerable islands.
Those who go to the Archipelago to administer it get there via the training schools of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Those who go there to be guards are conscripted via the military conscription centers.
And those who, like you and me, dear reader, go there to die must get there solely and compulsorily via arrest.
In that last line, Solzhenitsyn does us a tremendous favor. Instead of putting us among the willfully ignorant tourists, the self-preserving ticket-sellers, the careerist bureaucrats, or even the conscripted guards, he invites us in to the circle of victims. In The Hunger Games, Collins gives us the same benefit of the doubt by putting us behind Katniss’ eyes. As I consider the many things humans were doing to each other around the world while I sat and watched the film, it’s not clear to me that we deserve that favor.