Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Hunger for the Games

In the morning men are thrown to the lions and the bears, at noon they are thrown to their spectators. The spectators call for the slayer to be thrown to those who in turn will slay him, and they detain the victor for another butchering…and when the show stops for intermission, “Let’s have men killed meanwhile! Let’s not have nothing going on!”
—Lucius Annæus Seneca, Epistles, vii, 3-5.

Are you not entertained?
—Maximus Decimus Meridius, Gladiator

     This past weekend, the DVD of The Hunger Games went on sale. Having missed the film in theaters, I watched it on Saturday. The film on one level celebrates self-sacrifice, family loyalty, compassion, self-reliance, and a host of other virtues. It also condemns oppression and staging violence for the sake of entertainment. These are strong messages in the film, which is well made in a technical sense. And yet.

     And yet the film depicts murder after murder of children. There are several scenes of this, and some of them are handled obliquely—but not all. Arguably, the most wrenching scene is the most casual. It is done on camera, in full view, with an older boy walking straight up to a younger one and breaking his neck. We’ve been approaching this point for decades, with, for instance, images like the ten-year-old son of Maximus hanging dead in Gladiator, or, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the magical murder of an older teen (played by an actor in his twenties). But now we’ve seen the unseeable. We’ve broken the last taboo. If filmmakers can show a child snapping the neck of another child, in a film rated PG-13, they can show anything.

     The film ostensibly has a larger moral purpose. But how was showing the actual murder necessary for that purpose? Granted, the movie explores human depravity. It remains to ask, what is gained by killing a little boy on screen? We already understand the plot; we already understand what is to happen. We do not need to see the murder acted out to feel shock or outrage. On reflection, we should wonder how this is not just another example of gratuitous violence by Hollywood. And if so, how is it not the worst such example? In a sense, the film consumes itself, turning a critique of violence into the very sadism it purports to condemn. We watch multiple child murders in a movie about how depraved people are who watch multiple child murders. This is somewhat like watching pornography that purports to condemn pornography. In the terms of the film, we ourselves become too much like the Capitol residents who avidly follow each death. At one point, one of the young leads asks the other, about the Games, “What if people didn’t watch?” The response: “That will never happen.” The moment is a piece of meta-criticism, in which the real audience becomes the target of the fictional critique. We too watch the Games.

     In any event, whatever the moral message of this movie, soon enough we will see a film without a frame of moral critique to delimit its horrid images. It will just offer an ugly picture without any frame. How ugly? What can we expect? What will filmmakers have to do to grab our attention, now that we are to become inured to child murder on screen? I say we’re to become inured, but apparently many people already are. The search hits on Google show page after page of people excusing the violence depicted in the movie. One review actually condemns the film for not being more graphic (i.e., “authentic”) than it is. These people cannot see what is wrong with depicting child violence on screen and they mock those who do. Ironically, they (unknowingly) prove the point of their few critics: They themselves have become desensitized. It should not require any explanation at all that a movie showing children killing children is not entertainment.

     We have to draw a line somewhere. If not here, then where?


  1. Too many lines have been crossed. More evidence that we are moving into a radically different world from the one represented, for example, by the Christian West in recent times (despite occasional lapses into barbarism). When you grow up without being exposed to explicit violence you certainly do feel (and without pleasure if I can generalize from my own case) the full brunt even of low-level violence. Enjoying watching death and extreme violence is certainly morally suspect. I don't know how morally important all this is. Very, I suspect.

    1. Since posting this, I've been told there have been child murder scenes in movies before, going back at least to a 1960s western starring Henry Fonda. There was a Japanese film called Battle Royale (unrated), which apparently prefigured THG in close detail, and obviously Lord of the Flies (R). I have not seen either of them, so I don't know how graphic the violence was in those films, but THG may be a pioneer in the PG-13 range. Perhaps I am overstating the moral importance of this particular movie. Maybe there is a way to test it: Will there be a "first-person-shooter" console game version of THG?

  2. I too saw THG this last week. It would seem that the culture of death continues to encroach upon what was previously taboo and unthinkable.

    1. I have not put a lot of thought into this issue before now, but I'm beginning to wonder if there isn't a connection between our desensitizing entertainment and the willingness of too many Americans to accept abortion on demand. (Is this what you mean by a "culture of death"?) If so, it would neatly parallel the Roman gladiatorial games and Roman infanticide--though, of course our gladiatorial games are (so far) merely on film. Also, often enough apparently fitting historical parallels turn out not to be fitting, on closer analysis. Still, maybe this really is another of the myriad ways in which we are very much the cultural grandchildren of Rome.