OPINION: Sydney Morning Herald 3 April 2012
Clare Cannon is editor of GoodReadingGuide.com.
The arrival of The Hunger Games on the big screen has sent thrills around the world. Already a publishing blockbuster, Suzanne Collins’s sensational trilogy is cleaning up at the box office as well. The first instalment is an enthralling film that keeps audiences spellbound throughout. Or so I hear, for I won’t be going. I read all three books in my professional capacity as a reviewer and experienced first-hand their hypnotic quality. But while they may provide gripping entertainment, they carry some worrying ethical messages…..
Firstly, Collins distorts the meaning of heroic rebellion. The lead character, Katniss Everdeen, clearly has more courage than most people on the planet. In addition, she seems to have no choice but to go along with the Games and try to survive. If she refuses, not only will she die, but her family and friends will also suffer. But is it real rebellion to allow herself to be trained up for a killer-survivor episode? Could one say no? Other heroes have shown it is possible. Passive resistance was the ”weapon” of choice for Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and anti-Nazi activists Sophie Scholl and her brother. And may we mention Christian martyrs? In all these cases, even where their protests led to sudden death, their story didn’t end. Katniss is courageous, but her ”rebellion” is a compromise.
Secondly, survival justifies killing in this story. By participating in the Games, even the heroes allow themselves to be infected with its kill-or-be-killed ethos. Katniss reluctantly begins by dropping an insect nest on someone’s head so they swell up and die ”naturally”, then destroys others’ food so they will starve. Later, she has no problem shooting a citizen who blocks her path.
Thirdly, characters are desensitised to sexual exploitation. The reality television framework makes body appearance important: each contestant has a stylist who must first assess them without clothes (Katniss ”bravely” resists the urge to cover herself), and then a full body wax makes them camera-ready. This is probably normal for reality TV, but don’t tell me it’s brave. A fake relationship between Katniss and the male lead, Peeta, is also played up to win sponsorship. So physical affection is given for food, or later because she’s ”so desperately lonely [she] can’t stand it”. This selfish mockery is all the love that is shown in The Hunger Games.
Fourthly, feelings replace right and wrong. For Katniss, the pattern is repeated over and over: a catastrophic situation is followed by her passionate but often unethical reaction, then a soul-searching analysis of her feelings to deal with her guilt, followed by defiant justification that she had no choice, or that she was confused, which is the fault of those who created the catastrophe. Thus she becomes the victim-hero: they made her do it.
Finally, there is the seductive sensationalism of the storytelling. It is like watching a graphic news story that turns horrific events into entertainment. The screaming, the blood, the broken bodies – and when all this is no longer enough, the slow and graphic death of some poor, innocent character we’ve come to like. How can this series be a critique of using injury and death for entertainment when it does the same itself?