I originally wrote this for Everything is Problematic, but since we are publishing a similar piece instead I thought I would share my version here. 

By the time this article is published, millions of people will have seen The Hunger Games movie, an event which is uniquely different from experiencing the narrative of the novel. If you are unfamiliar with the premise, the story is set in a not so distant future in Panem, a country constructed from the ruins of North America, where every year citizens must watch a televised Battle Royale style sporting event, wherein 24 ‘tributes’ between the ages of 12-18 must fight to the death until one winner remains. In the books there is a certain amount of distance that exists between the reader and the people of Panem— despite similarities we might see, we still have the privilege of separating ourselves from a world where the children are made to kill each other for sport, and audiences that revel in it. No such distance exists in the film. Just as the fictional denizens of Panem watch the child slaughter that is the Hunger Games, so to do audiences of the film. This lack of distance is fascinating and horrifying.

Perhaps it is because I read the books before seeing the film, or maybe because the bulk of my education centers around the critical consumption of media, but I was very cognizant of the commentary on violence and ‘reality’ media that exists at the core of The Hunger Games. I thought the film’s portrayal of the Games violence was spot on, jarring but also matter-of-fact. There is no room for pacifists in Panem, and no place for remorse in the Games.

I was also aware of the reactions coming from the audience as I viewed the film, subtly gauging how people were responding. When one character, in a fit of anger, snapped the neck of his then ally, the entire theatre gasped. Yes, I thought, this is impactful. They’re startled and horrified. 

I was startled and horrified when that same audience clapped and cheered as a particularly antagonistic tribute fell dead on the ground. Hoots of approval as the body of a teenage girl slumped open eyed and lifeless. They’re cheering… That’s when I realized they were missing the basic premise of the film. A discussion of this occurrence with a friend revealed that he had a similar experience. As I gawked he said, “I mean, it’s like getting a kind of revenge, so I understand why people cheered. I don’t agree with it, but I understand.” It’s true that the character lacked likability, that she even expressed a kind of gleefulness in the murder of her counterparts, but ultimately wasn’t she just doing what was expected of her? A basic understanding of narrative structure tells us that a hero requires a villain, and any knowledge of reality television tells us that it is much easier to be the villain than the hero. In fact, there’s a certain reward in media villainy, because there is nothing the public loves to hate more than a feisty and unrelenting antagonist. I can only suspect that the people of Panem feel similarly. It would seem then that this moment of viewer rejoicing was, at the very least, misplaced. What does an antagonistic pawn matter when compared with the masterminds (literally) orchestrating the game?

Another friend suggested that my criticism of the audience was too harsh, that while they might be missing “a point” they weren’t missing “the point.” Also, that I view things in terms of “moral rightness” rather than “humanness.” Whatever moral high ground I may appear to occupy, I’ve yet to encounter a convincing argument that The Hunger Games doesn’t hold similar ground. Murder is horrific, the murder of children even more so, and murder for sport is disgusting. Or, should be.

There are some that feel that the horror and satire of the Games, and the message that comes with those, were lost in translation from book to film. While there were certain problems with the adaptation and ways the narrative could have been strengthened, I don’t believe the problem truly lies with the filmmakers. After all, shouldn’t the sight of a fourteen year old girl hoarsely screaming for a friend to save her strike a chord with us, no matter the circumstance? Are we so far removed, so generally desensitized, that murder means nothing to us? Or worse, so enraptured in the violence that murder is a reason to cheer? Even if the cheers weren’t about the actual act of murder and were more concerned with the take down of a ‘villain,’ the end result is the same—rewarding the action, murder, with a positive and encouraging response.

What really got to me, and what was so hard to articulate, was the fact that in a movie about a time and place where people cry and cheer for the murder of children as pageantry, we’re literally doing the same— with seemingly no recognition. What is actually more horrifying than the murder of children is the sport of it, the not seeing anything wrong with it. What we should really be paying attention to is the people watching the Games—which now, as film viewers, we are a part of. By cheering for death it means we’re like them, the people of Panem, and if we’re like them then we can’t see what they’re doing wrong, and if we can’t see what they’re doing wrong…how can we be any different?

While the books shows a possible future with people that we’re similar to, that we could become, the film allows us to see what we already are— and its no far cry from the people of Panem.

To quote the film, “we cheer for our favorites and cry when they die. It’s sick.”