“The Hunger Games” As Moviegoing Experience

(Warning! This post may contain spoilers for “The Hunger Games.” Proceed with caution.)

It was about halfway through watching the film adaptation of The Hunger Games that I realized just how much of a hypocrite I was.

The movie had been so engrossing that I hadn’t even realized that the filmmakers were employing some of the oldest storytelling sleights of hand. The Capitol citizens, for instance, were designed to look as alien to our culture as possible, in garish costumes and makeup, while the District’s residents are depicted as much more familiar. The latter’s clothing and general appearance, while plain, is neither outlandish nor exotic. The effect is that the audience easily identifies with the oppressed peoples of the Districts (and our protagonist, Katniss) while reviling the strange, foreign Capitol citizens.

As a quick aside, I should mention this post will not be a discussion of the politics or economics of The Hunger Games (though you could find an excellent piece about all that on Slate) — instead, it will be about The Hunger Games as self-reflexive of the moviegoing experience.

Now back to the hypocrisy. Slipping into quick identification with and sympathy for Katniss led naturally to contempt for her Capitol rulers and, especially, the glee with which they reveled in the Hunger Games, despite never having to actually participate themselves. This, of course, doubles perfectly as a description of myself, or any other member of the audience.

The Hunger Games serves the same purpose as the Hunger Games. Or, put another way, moviegoing audiences pay their $10 to laugh and cry at the expense of the characters on the screen in the same way that the Capitol citizens seek emotional stimulation through watching the Games, under Caesar’s guiding commentary. The connection is made even more blatant when Haymitch carefully explains to Katniss and Peeta that the Hunger Games are really just an elaborate show, and advises them on ways to improve their narrative, in order to get their audience emotionally attached to them — and also to attract investors.

In that way, perhaps, the cynical, alcoholic Haymitch stands in for the much-maligned movie critic, both critiquing ‘weak’ films and praising ‘strong’ ones.

If the audience are the Capitol citizens, Haymitch is the film critic, and the Katniss and her District comrades are movies’ hapless characters, caught up in circumstances wholly beyond their control, then the filmmakers are those in the Hunger Games’ control room. Visually, this team is more reminiscent of the District peoples than the Capitol citizens (they are not done up with whacky, neon-colored hairdos, for instance), but their dress is still sufficiently sterile and foreign to signify that they are not quite familiar either.

They exist between the characters (District peoples) and the audience (Capitol citizens), and their actions ultimately control the outcome of the Hunger Games. The fire chases Katniss toward her hunters, the hounds eliminate remaining tributes. Katniss even describes the arrival of the hounds as the “finale,” signaling the film’s climax.

Within this paradigm of The Hunger Games as moviegoing experience, Seneca represents the film’s director. His style marks him as a member of the Capitol, but his role as Gamemaker also associates him with the control room. The people designing the arena’s deadly obstacles (such as the hounds) look to Seneca for approval, and he gives them his guidance and approval, as well as keeping a close eye on the narrative structure of the story (such as suspending, reinstating, and then suspending again the single-victor rule). I suppose that then makes President Snow the dreaded movie executive, with the ultimate power to decide which scripts are eventually made into films and, thus, are allowed to make their way into the popular consciousness. For Seneca’s failure to deliver Snow’s preferred outcome, Seneca is delivered a bowl of poisoned fruit — the poetic equivalent of the old phrase, “You’ll never work in this town again.”

Furthermore, the film continually reminds us that the tributes are being taped, even as they themselves forget it. The cameras are ubiquitous, in the wilderness, in the trees. The Games are intercut with scenes of people watching the tributes on screens all over the nation. Drawing attention to the spectator aspect of the Games reinforces the idea of The Hunger Games as self-reflexive. And, perhaps it was just my imagination, but when Cato at the end threatens to take Peeta down with him and says something along the lines of “I’ll do it, you know,” it seemed to me that he was looking at the camera as he said it, as if speaking directly to the audience.

Cato’s confusion is also striking. In the end, he finally realizes that he has absolutely no control over his life. As a career tribute, Cato was trained from birth to be a killing machine; as a character in a film, Cato was manipulated into performing horrific acts as one of the film’s antagonists. Indeed, all of the film’s characters were designed for the specific purposes of eliciting an emotional response from the audience — notably Rue, the small girl whose death is orchestrated so that we might sympathize with Katniss’ loss and isolation.

This realization makes Cato’s brief moment of self-awareness all the more tragic, as he recognizes the powerlessness of his role and then proceeds to accede to it.

It is that acceptance, of course, that separates Cato from the our protagonist, Katniss, who rebels against the Game’s rules and emerges victorious, albeit having gravely crossed President Snow in the process. Yet this is of little immediate consequence (though it will surely play into the main conflict of the sequels), as the audience can, for now, thrill to the protagonist’s ultimate victory — just as the filmmakers intended.

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