Why Do We REALLY Like The Hunger Games?

mockingjay-cpWith Mockingjay Part 2 in theaters right now, I figured a marathon of the Hunger Games film series, based on the bestselling trilogy of YA novels by Suzanne Collins, was in order prior to my seeing the final film. (That’s why writing about movies rocks. You can sit at home on your day off marathoning movies in your PJ’s and taking notes and you can call it “research!”)

Watching them all in order revealed something that I hadn’t really thought of before: there are really two audiences to the story. One can see the same thing in The Matrix trilogy. There are people who like the slick, green-tinted bullet-time fight scenes interspersed with folks looking Y2K hardcore in shiny black leather and sunglasses, and then there’s the folks who, well maybe not liked, but at the very least appreciated, the blue-tinged orgy/mech suit/moleman aesthetic of the later films. Part of the reason why the later movies are so reviled (and I said ‘part’) is because they wean the audience off of the slick hyperreality of the Matrix world, replacing it with the grungy ickiness of the real world, which people didn’t like (also the writing sucked). They liked the first movie because it was slick and hyperreal, which I suppose just means that we’re all destined to get enslaved by robots because we’ll probably enjoy it better…but anyways, back to the Hunger Games.

The first two movies revolve around the Games themselves and the second two take place in the grungy, un-sparkly real world, which kind of bums audiences out, but we like the characters so we keep watching. The first two movies are about the rules, and we like rules. That’s why we love Harry Potter (aside from Snape, of course). Each HP book teaches us new vocabulary and rules that we can add to our understanding of the Wizarding World. Floo Powder? What’s that? A Portkey? What’s that? A horcrux? What’s that?

I digress again.

Katniss-Wedding-DressWhat I was saying was that we spend the first two films learning the rules of the games. To our delight, it means makeovers! And flashy dresses! And Finnick in that delightful non-outfit! And charming interviews in which we all get to pretend to be pop stars and wonder what we would say if we were weighed down by haute couture and pelted with leading questions in front of a rapt audience. And yeah, there’s killing, but STILL! Dresses! If your heart didn’t skip a beat (either in book or film) when Katniss and Peeta rode out on their chariot and then burst into (artificial) flames to the delighted cheers of the audience, then you’re a heartless creature.

The Hunger Games themselves are horrible spectacles, but the books and films are so manipulative that they trick you into getting caught up in all the media fluff, which I think is brilliant. You begin to crave those moments of flash and spectacle, and then go into withdrawal when it’s taken away. We don’t want to know how we’d react in a fight to the death, but we do want to think about how we’d react to fame and pampering.

That is probably the biggest strength of the first film (and the reason why it’s still my favorite). Director Gary Ross is keenly aware of how the medium affects the audience, and so he never glorifies any of the violence, keeping it consigned to shaky cam, see-it-out-of-the-corner-of-your-eye moments that really create a tense atmosphere. But when he’s filming the media stuff, it’s all brilliant colors, magical lights, and a steady camera. It’s almost like he’s conditioning the audience to prefer the fake stuff over the real, important stuff, which has some wonderful implications later on. It’s a real shame he didn’t return for the later films. Francis Lawrence is good at giving the world a real, gritty quality, but he misses out on the subtle effects that the media has on both the Panem audience and the theater audience, which seems like a missed opportunity.

thWYWXO10IThis leads me to the second audience. The second audience is the one who’s invested in the story of the rebellion and of the hardships the characters face. There are no rules in this version of the story. It’s much more organic and real. And it’s much less fun. It hits at more genuine emotions and asks the audience tough questions which we’d rather not answer, especially once the story goes all George Orwell in Mockingjay. Sadly, though, looking at the box-office performance of the final two films, it’s clear that this second audience is smaller. But this is where the real power and value of the whole series lies.

In a sense, you can look at this whole thing as a metaphor for moving from school into the “real world.” School sucks, but it’s organized and it’s predictable, and you get things like dances and prom and stupid crushes that never go anywhere. It’s a very fake world, and it’s one that many of us long to return to (since we conveniently forget the stuff like homework, unfair teachers, and bullying). Once we move into the real world, where we have to come up with our actual identity, it’s scary. Katniss is great in the Games because she’s a great shot and she’s resourceful and has a cool head in dangerous situations, but when she escapes the arena and joins the rebellion and has to become The Mockingjay, she doesn’t have the comforting framework of the Games to lean on. She’s just another woman in a sea of people all wearing the same clothes and she has to really struggle to figure out her next move. It’s that creation of identity that is her biggest moment. It’s when she moves from child to adult. And it’s a terrifying transition, metaphorically echoing the terror of every high school kid who’s ever been asked, “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” And we’re not really entirely sure what that new identity is until near the end of Mockingjay Part 2 when she makes her biggest decision with the biggest consequences.

So, in essence, those two audiences I mentioned earlier are the ones who look back longingly at their school days and the ones who are angry at the world school prepared (or didn’t prepare) them for. It’s denial versus reality, a dichotomy we are very interested in these days in which finding one’s place in the world is more stressful and frustrating than we would prefer it to be. (It builds character though, right, Calvin’s Dad?)

So why do we like the Hunger Games, even if the last two films (or the final book) make us so uncomfortable? It’s because it’s the classic bildungsroman told with a vocabulary that the world today is very concerned with. Ours is a world in which nobody trusts the folks in power (at the corporate or government levels) and in which the workplace is a desiccated wasteland of destroyed dreams we are fighting to rebuild. The Recession (or Depression, depending on which economist you talk to) left a psychological wound on Western nations and, dare I say it, America most of all, and we’re still coming to terms with it.

Ideally, we see ourselves as those in Panem’s Capitol, dressed in the finest clothes, owning the best material goods, and enjoying everything our prosperity and wealth can buy. But we are also the folks in the Districts, making due with limited resources, making ends meet, and learning what is actually important in life. It’s a wonderful paradox, and The Hunger Games series explores and exploits it wonderfully. Of course, there are other, more “grown up” novels that explore this as well (I’m looking at you, Chuck Palahniuk and Margaret Atwood, you mad geniuses, you), but the YA genre is specially situated to speak to both adults and young people, creating a path for dialogue between generations that more mature writings wouldn’t allow.

And so, the answer to my original question is this: We like the Hunger Games because it’s our cultural fears and anger turned into a story we can understand, which allows us to better understand them. It puts into words something that a lot of people are bothered by, and allows us to figure out where we fit in a world where the rules seem to be shifting.

Also, Gale, Peeta, and Finnick… ❤

Oh, and Katniss Everdeen is a wonderful feminist hero.

But mostly the fear and anger stuff.

I’ll show myself out…

Bye all! See you next week! To my American readers, I hope you had a good Thanksgiving and stayed home with your families instead of going out and shopping on Grey Thursday/Black Friday. Remember, we’re NOT like those folks in the Capitol. You don’t need more stuff.

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