Everyone go grab your favorite Usher CD for some background music, because I'm about to lay down some confessions. I saw The Hunger Games movie this weekend... and I didn't like it. If I were a film critic, I probably would've graded it a D. This is obviously really bad for me, because Hunger Games is something that most people… including you guys, who I am pretty fond of… seem to love.
But sadly, I just don't dig HG, and I'm gonna tell you why. Before we proceed, though, I need to point out that I've never read any of the books. My only experience with Hunger Games is the movie, but I don't think that invalidates my opinion. To be successful, after all, the movie's got to court a new audience, part of which includes me. It also has to stand on its own merits. To quote comedian and film buff Doug Benson, "'You didn't like it because you didn't read the books' implies that a movie shouldn't be able to succeed on it's (sic) own terms. 'You didn't like BATTLESHIP because you never played the board game.' 'You didn't like JOHN CARTER because you've never been to Mars.'" I was hoping that the Hunger Games movie might actually convince me to pick up the books (which, admittedly, are often better) but I was so turned off the by story that I don't plan to delve any further into this world. If you think that's bogus, so be it.
Anyway, I have two major problems with The Hunger Games, which I will now spell out.
1. The world of Hunger Games makes no sense. The Hunger Games asks us to buy a dystopian future where, as punishment for a rebellion over 70 years ago, societies are made to offer up two teenagers as tribute to fight for honor and glory. All but one of those 24 teenagers will die, every year. We're told that these games basically unify and pacify the people, and that they allow the rich barons of the capitol to more or less control the country (although the public does not seem all that pacified).
Here is my very simple question: what on Earth (and we are on Earth) would ever lead to this really happening? The story wants us to believe that this is a possible future (Panem, we're told, was built out of the ruins of North America), but I'm not buying it for a second. I get that it's supposed to be edgy political commentary, but no matter what awful policies the most crazy politicians try to pass into law, I don't believe that killing children for sport will ever be one of them… and I'm a pretty liberal guy. It just makes zero sense. It goes against our biological nature to harm our children; there is no way that 12 districts would just say "oh, we're fine with this." Now, maybe there's some interesting history here… maybe the first Games were basically carried with the districts being at gunpoint or something… but that's history we need to know if we're meant to accept that this could actually happen.
Beyond that issue… which I tried to ignore watching the movie so I could enjoy it… we have the matter of the Games themselves. For a movie not only about a gladiatorial contest but actually named after it, the actual mechanics of the game are really poorly covered. To me this is most egregiously on display when it comes to alliances. WHY DO WE NEVER FIND OUT WHAT IT MEANS TO BE IN AN ALLIANCE?! Teaming up with somebody is counterintuitive to playing the game, since only one person gets to win. I would have liked someone to at least mention this, but instead the script pretty gleefully breaks up the 24 tributes into "good guys" and "bad guys" quickly.
And in case you're wondering, yes, this matters. In a book like Harry Potter, we don't need to know all the details of the fictional world… all that matters is the emotional realism of Harry and the other characters; that's what's central to the book. So if a little piece of Harry's world doesn't totally ring true, we can say "oh well, it's magic and the rest of this is great anyway." But with Hunger Games, we absolutely need to know about the game because it's all that matters. It would be like producing a movie called Baseball for an audience that has never seen the game and then not explaining why there are nine guys on the field. When Hunger Games isn't precise with the mechanics of the actual Hunger Games, it's basically cheating (thanks to my friend Craig Colbrook for the Harry Potter analogy).
2. Katniss Everdeen makes no hard choices and has no agency; she is not a good protagonist. This is actually what bothered me most about Hunger Games, though it ties in to my first point. Katniss basically wins the game by sitting it out. Once she hits the arena, she never, ever has to make hard choices or face the consequences of her actions.
Don't believe me? Let's lay it out. She kills precisely once, and that's purely on instinct and with a thrown weapon. We don't even know the name of the person she offs. Every other time she'd have to make that decision, it's made for her, like at the end of the Games… she doesn't off the bad dude from District 2, computer-generated dogs do. Yes, pushes him, but a push isn't a kill.
This is all most problematic as far as Katniss' relationship with Rue. First of all, we have that picky alliance issue again... the movie acts as though Katniss and Rue are friends and partners from the get-go, but this is clearly false; one of them will have to kill the other to win, and neither seems to recognize this. I actually felt that this produced really good dramatic tension, tension the movie completely sidesteps when it has one of the "bad guys" kill Rue instead. I was so angry at that, in fact, that I felt no emotion over her death save frustration.
But the problems with Rue and District 11 don't end there. A little bit later, Katniss walks into an obvious trap (though to her credit, she knows it's a trap) to retrieve medicine for Peeta. She's ambushed by another girl who means to kill her. It looks like Katniss is finally going to have to have to kill in cold blood....
And then Rue's male counterpart from District 11 kills Katniss' attacker instead.
I mean, fine. I understand that he was honoring her for treating Rue well. That's great. But again the movie lets Katniss slip out of making a tough choice (killing with her hands). She's even cheated out of her decision to commit suicide at the end when Seneca stops the Games. It seems like a cruel joke that even when Katniss makes a difficult decision… the most difficult of all, in fact… the story doesn't let her accept the consequences.
This is a problem because the central dramatic structure of The Hunger Games is all about forcing kids into awful situations where they have to kill to survive. And Katniss barely participates in that game; when it comes to Rue, she hardly seems to think the game is happening at all. That means the whole conceit of Hunger Games is thrown out the window. To get back to my baseball analogy, this would be like our main character in the fictional movie Baseball basically sitting on the bench the whole time, and then becoming the star at the end for jumping in the game as a pinch-runner. In other words… it's highly disappointing.
I'm sure a lot of you guys think I'm crazy, stupid, or both. But I just can't help but be let down by this story, which puts its main character in a super interesting situation and then almost totally bails on exploring what that means for her. It's a cheat dramatically and emotionally, and I found it to be totally unsatisfying. There's probably a good story or two hidden in The Hunger Games world, but this one isn't it.
Do you agree with any of this?