10 October 2012

A Matter of Perspective

I read all three volumes of The Hunger Games this summer, then just watched the first film recently. I'd like to share my interpretation of the moral message of the books vs. that of the film, and I think this message turns on the matter of perspective.

First, my thoughts on the books. I'll leave aside discussion of the writing style; others have done that (see, for example, here, here, and this GREAT one.

As I read through the series, I was appalled. Of course, I was appalled for all the right reasons--that is, I was sickened by things that were supposed to sicken me: the horrors of the [gladiatorial] arena, the de-valuing of life, the culture's voyeurism of violence, and so forth.

But I was also horrifed by aspects that I did not expect. In particular, I was not persuaded that The Hunger Games is a morality tale. I was not persuaded that the books actually condemned the acts they pretended to condemn. In short, I felt as if Collins herself was reveling in the violence, relishing the bloody bits, and wallowing in the brutality. In the back of my mind, I had the kind of feeling I get when a middle-school boy (or a middle-aged man, for that matter) yells "All right!" when beheadings and other gory deaths occur onscreen.

In addition, Katniss's descent into moral degradation throughout the series did not (I thought) serve as a moral warning. It should have done: the message who that those who make war, however justified, become like the very oppressors they seek to overthrow. That was the message, but I didn't think it struck home.

And then I watched the movie.

This is one of those rare occasions when I have loved a film adaptation of a book. I thought it was splendid. I also thought that the moral message was loud and clear (as it should be! – I don't think this is one of those messages that needs to “steal past watchful dragons” and be expressed in subtle hints). You know why?

I think it's because Katniss was not the narrator, so the reader/viewer did not inhabit Katniss's cauterized conscience and stunted worldview. The audience was—OK, I'll speak for myself: I was—able to maintain a moral distance from the events and thus condemn them clearly, in good conscience.

Living inside Katniss's conscience was not a comfortable experience.

And now that I've written that, I realize that such discomfort is itself carries the potential for a moral awakening, and perhaps a more subtle one than the obvious message about not killing kids. This is the moral message that even an admirable person such as Katniss will inevitably corrupted by her context. A strong-willed, courageous, right-minded child brought up in a twisted society will become twisted.

So the perspective makes all the difference, but not exactly the difference I thought it did at first.

I love how writing writes me into new ideas!


Anonymous said...

I agree with your assessment of the film. It was a great adaptation, and relatively restrained given the content--only the cornucopia scene was tremendously violent.
My struggle is children--I have trouble with shows where children are the victims. That's my own inhibition.
On the books, I did feel the morality message come through, but I think the "moral move" of Collins walks along a knife's edge. What if Swift's Modest Proposal worked was taken at face value? Insane, yes. But things like that happen. And Collins walks a red tread between displaying the problem and being the problem. She's created a relishing-violence tale to critique relishing-violence. It has the danger of black pots naming names and colours.

scruffy said...

"I love how writing writes me into new ideas."

Words to thought i have never articulated but often noticed. Thank you.

Steve Hayes said...

Now you make me want to see the film. I loved the first book until 2/3 of the way through, and thought that the ending was utterly banal, and had no intention of reading the other two until my wife bought them.

My review here, The Hunger Games (book review) | Khanya, if you are interested, and I wonder if you would agree with me about the point where it dipped.

But perhaps I'd better try to see the film, to see if it does it justice!

Curt Day said...

With one's survival depending on the demise of others, it seemed more than apparent that the Hunger Games within the movie were a perfect metaphor for American Capitalism that is so heavily built on competition.

With such games, surviving participants can no more remain untouched by the barbarity and inhumanity regardless of how they distinguish themselves from their competitors.

Of course, I have only seen the movie. I save my reading for nonfiction and since the Hunger Games has not appeared on the History Channel, we can be well assured that both the book and movie are fictitious rather than historic.

Iambic Admonit said...


Thanks for this comment. Although I doubt that Suzanne Collins or the filmmakers had this meaning in mind, this is a legitimate kind of literary interpretation. While "Authorial intention" has been called into question in literary theory over the last century, it does seem to be having a rebound, however, especially in Adaptation Theory -- studies of books made into films. I've read one theorist who thinks that authorial intention, when it is known, actually does make a difference in audience reception. To translate that: I doubt that Collins wanted to criticize Capitalism. She made something like $12 MILLION dollars off the book-and-movie (and spin off) franchise. It is clear that she was criticizing reality TV. It seems plain that she was critiquing a culture of violence (I'm surprised you didn't jump on that, with your anti-war convictions).

OK, but it is perfectly legitimate to interpret a work of art as a cultural product regardless of the creator's intentions. So you are free to see it as a critique of Capitalism, or at least to use it that way.

Question for you, though: does competition = murder? Unequivocally?

Also, it is quasi-historical, since it is based on the Roman arena. Note the Latin names.

Curt Day said...

To Young Iambit Admonit,
The issue isn't her intention. For if the metaphor fits, ...

Steve Hayes said...

I've now seen about 2/3 of the movie of the first book, and I agree with you. It is better than the book because Katniss is not the narrator.

Another point that is even clearer is that the "reality" TV show is the current equivalent of the gladiatorial arena, with their theme of "let's you and him fight".