Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Hunger Games

I went to see Hunger Games last night. Like everywhere else it's selling a lot of tickets here. The theater was full and there were more adults there than kids. I wasn't going to go. I read the book and was not that impressed. But, I am glad I went. I liked the movie better than the book. In the film, a few of the main themes of the book were much easier to see. And see is the important word here. The movie is all about seeing. Hunger Games, as everyone knows by now,  is about a future world (America?) where the few (1%) occupy the best district in the country while the other 12 districts are kept under the thumb of the Capitol. This is the 74th edition of the Hunger Games we are told and every year each district selects two teenagers (ages 12-18) to compete in a survival contest to death. Only one teen survives and he or she is a hero for life. These "Tributes", as they are called, sacrifice their lives in a gladiatorial contest ( it will remind you of ancient Rome - they even process before the enthusiastic crowds in the Capitol by chariot) every year to pay back the ruling elite for a rebellious uprising 74 years ago. It is not totally clear how this came about but what is clear is that for the rest of the year the people in these districts do the dirty work so the Capitol dwellers may enjoy the Good Life with all its self indulgent perks.

The teen on teen violence which is a major theme of the movie was downplayed. At times when I was watching the movie I had to remind myself what this was about: kids having to kill each other or be killed. Other than one or two scenes the violence is not graphic and most of the killings are in self defense or accidental. At the outset, the Tributes are told that most of their deaths will be by natural causes, ie, falls, animal attacks, dehydration. The Tributes are there by no choice of their own (one of the districts is rumored to train some of the athletic teens in survival techniques and one boy from this district seems to get into the role of predator more than the others). In the process of preparation for the Games, and during the Games themselves, relationships are formed and some of the teens really care about each other and their fates.

The villain in the story is the Capitol. It is the people who demand this entertainment every year. They are a nation of watchers. Every moment of the Hunger Games from the time the Tributes are selected to the finale is on the big screen. There are surveillance cameras all over the "wilderness" where the Games are held and "natural" effects like storms and fires and wild animals can be controlled and managed from a central place in the Capitol.  It is likely the watchers are being watched, too. It is a voyeuristic image of the future. I thought of the cameras on street corners, and campuses, and in businesses. More and more of our lives are on video tape. Courts are deciding what is legal to video and what is not. What rights to privacy do we possess any more. We are a nation of facebookers and youtubers for whom it is not enough any more to experience something for ourselves but we have to share it or show it for others to pass judgment (like or dislike).

Some of the key figures in the movie learn that they are entertainers as well as fighting for their lives. They are playing to the crowd. How others see them is more important than who they really are. Peeta who plays the lead opposite Katniss says before the games begin that he hopes they don't change him. He doesn't want "them" to control him. But, they do change him and everyone else. Everyone is changed by the need to play a part. To play to the crowd. To please those who have control of your life. Katniss, for one, learns that image is power and it's a knowledge that rattles the president of the Capitol (and sets up the next book). As our society becomes more and more a society of watchers, it begs the question: How are we being changed by who is watching.