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The Hunger Games

 

Generation X Review of The Hunger GamesYou can judge how we feel about the future by looking at what bedtime stories we tell our children. Nothing says we’ve entered a cultural heart of darkness better than Winnie the Poo with fangs.

Similarly, you know you’re in foreign territory when adolescent literature turns away from sexy Judy Bloom and towards post-apocalyptic and vampire porn. We are either preparing for an army of zombie invaders or we are creating them by filling teenagers’ heads with visions of the end of the world.

And the end of the world has never seemed less fun than The Hunger Games, a film based on the novel of the same name. Road Warrior is a pleasant road trip movie in comparison and Gattaca is an absolute fuzzy, warm movie about human potential. Make no mistake about it: The Hunger Games is powerfully bleak, one of the darkest films I’ve ever seen.

Consider the parent who would give precious little Trevor or Sandra The Hunger Games as a birthday gift, maybe alongside Pink Floyd’s cheerful epic The Wall. Being a teenager isn’t bad enough, dad says. Living through acne, sexual impulses that seem to rise out of nowhere, alienation mutated like a giant lizard over Tokyo.

No, we want children terrified of the future, kids who are afraid to sleep because of the holocaust visions peeled off the written page, young people whose beliefs about an adult conspiracy intent on killing them have their every fear confirmed. Class war? Sure, stuff it in there. Maybe we can kill the Easter Bunny, too.

But wait! Let’s make this nightmare into a film, so that even our increasingly illiterate youths can share in the experience! And think of the way mom and dad will bond with junior when he’s wetting the seat next to them watching kids off one another in violence as explicit as the last Rambo film. If this scene doesn’t warm your heart you’re probably a human being.

Imagine if The Truman Show took place in a shark tank and you get near the brutal emotional center of The Hunger Games. The film takes place after a failed revolution where a powerful central government of Lady Gaga impersonators has taken over what used to be the United States. As a tribute to the Feds, every year each colony sends a young man and woman to fight to the death. All of this is fed back to the people as big reality TV, a la The Running Man.

The film follows Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), poor kids from the wrong side of the track (District 12, which is pretty obviously West Virginia). Born underdogs, Katniss at least is a damn fine archer, having practiced squirrel shooting back in her home town. Poor Peeta’s main skill is cake decorating and making this appear as a useful skill in a survivalist movie takes a lot of silly juice.

The tributes – the name given to the 24 kids taken from the colonies – are displayed in a series of pageants before bring sent to the shark tank. Katniss and Peeta are joined by Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), who discusses the finer game’s strategy; the importance of being liked.

Like American Idol, the audience has the power to reward or punish the tributes. If a tribute pleases the viewing audience, it can pay to have a small drone drop off live-saving medicine during the games, for example. Understanding that the difference between life and death isn’t how well a young person might wield a sword, but how he or she is interpreted onscreen, Abernathy concocts a Hollywood-style story about the young kids from District 12.

He recreates them as star-crossed lovers. (Only one person emerges from the games, meaning that the couple can never consummate their love while obeying the rules of the game.) Once the action begins, it becomes obvious that this narrative is much more important than Katniss’ natural ability with a bow or her friend’s cake-baking skills. As long as they fulfill their respective roles and give the audience exactly what it wants and expects they are rewarded, but the moment they stray from the script bad things happen.

In other movies of this sort (and there are strangely many) revolution is reinforced as the possibility of the authentic to infiltrate and destroy authoritative regimes. Characters break out of convention, dance their way to a new, freer world where “the man” can’t keep them in line. Spontaneous displays of the real – of real love, real sacrifice, real tenderness – spread across the screen and infect the entire system.

Well, none of this happy nonsense happens in The Hunger Games.

Any irrational hope for a better world where young people (as a symbol of the spontaneous real) might overcome the oppressive system of an adult world is squashed like a very small bug in the movie. Even stranger, it’s only when our heroes adopt artificial personalities that they actually seem happy. In some respects the idea of returning back to their former selves seems less appealing than dying a hero in front of an adoring electric eye.

I can’t imagine the effect this sort of story has on teens who have already internalized the inevitable defeat of challenging authority figures like mom and dad, who teach them to sing and dance like pet monkeys. Oppressive regimes succeed best when they convince people “inside” of them that there is no “outside” and only the sanctioned narratives bring any joy.

The Hunger Games’ logic is impeccable: In the end, we are better living inauthentic lives controlled by others – and accepting the rules of the game as though it were not a game – than dying on our own terms. This is what it means to survive in a world not worth living in and this is the world we are preparing for our young.

 

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