With $152.5 million in weekend receipts, The Hunger Games is the financially powerful first film in what will most likely become a four-part franchise. The Hunger Games franchise is the adaptation of a trilogy of young-adult novels by Suzanne Collins, whose work has spent 82 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list for Children’s Series. (Collins cowrote the screenplay.)
Another way to say it is that a tremendous amount of money has been laid in the balance. Those financing this first film confidently chipped in $100 million and already have it back in their pockets with a little extra for their troubles. Between the books and the films, this cultural product/export, still in Collins’ hands, will have significant sway.
Of course, with great power comes great responsibility, and the influence Collins wishes to see is directed like an arrow into the thinking process of young adults. In The Hunger Games, Collins writes with an urgency and a momentum that makes it almost impossible to put the book down, and her protagonist Katniss – a teenager living in a cruel society that sends its children to die at each other’s hands for televised sport – is careful to note how insane and out-of-control she thinks her world has become. Throughout the trilogy of books, Katniss’ narration is the moral center of her world: Collins shows restraint in this one aspect, that although Katniss does what she must to survive (and to help her family and closest companions survive), and is often impulsive, she never ceases in being rightly disgusted that people in her world are so freely turned into bread and circuses … that human lives can be offered up as units of entertainment.
It has ever been thus. A colleague pointed out just today that Panem, Katniss’ country, is Rome down to the districts, and when he mentioned that fact, I was reminded of standing on the reconstructed stage of the theater in Sepphoris, where Galilean folk likely went to look for day-labor type work. Our guide told in excruciating detail some of what had been done for the entertainment of the people on the same ground on which we stood. Blood, and sometimes plenty of it, was part of the bargain of spectacle.
We shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, Romans appropriated the myths of Greeks for the purposes of theater. And the Greek myth of “Theseus and the Minotaur,” in which young people are sent to die as scapegoats to avoid wrath, is all over The Hunger Games. The issues represented in it are deeply written in our cultural DNA.
Only instead of being thrown into the labyrinth to defend themselves and each other from the Minotaur, the twenty-four contestants in the annual Hunger Games – remember, these are children – must kill one another until only one remains. There is therefore no common enemy for them to band together against; it is only against one another that they’re unfairly forced to plot, to fight, and the real specter of who’s pulling strings is less evident at this stage, though it will become quite the point in subsequent books and films. The true Minotaur in this case stands at a distance and devours contestants after they have extinguished one another.
All of this takes time to explain and patience to understand. If you’re going to paint such a cruel picture and market it to youth in the hopes of lessons learned, then you’d better be prepared to walk with them every step and to speak with them about why it’s stupid and wrong for governments to turn children into gladiators for the sake of entertainment. If you’re going to teach that lesson, you can’t get too caught up in the sparkle and the spectacle of it all, as the film is often guilty of doing; you need a moral voice providing that slightly-outside perspective – someone to consistently, if artfully, take the viewer out of the “sport” aspect of the story and back into the context of it.
I keep hearing that today’s youth are much more sophisticated about this than my generation, and that they’re completely capable of getting what it’s all about even at an earlier age. But then I hear about the parents of twelve-year-olds sending their non-chaperoned children to watch The Hunger Games, and I think to myself, Well, what do I know since my oldest is only seven, but would I want him to see that movie in just five more years? And I have to answer that for now … no, I wouldn’t. Not even with Katniss’ sanity-making narration restored.