As the adult world continues stoking the senseless battle royale of the presidential primary season, the youth-entertainment complex has briefly overtaken the news cycle. Everyone not living in their own life-or-death competitive isolation dome knows by now that this past weekend ushered in the blockbuster movie adaptation of the first installment of The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins’ dystopian teen scifi trilogy about children compelled to destroy each other for the amusement of the jaded, power-mad political leaders of the future. The basic plot of the Collins franchise is by now well-known: In the authoritarian North America of the third millennium—rechristened Panem—this ritual sacrifice of the young serves to tamp down any impulses of mass rebellion, and the games’ sole surviving winner is bought off with a life of ease, fame, and prestige.
But no sooner had the great Hunger Games colossus alighted at the multiplex—with a box-office take of $155 million over its first weekend—than a sober retinue of adults began clambering to impose their own agendas on the strange new teen spectacle unspooling in their midst.
Anti-hunger advocacy outfits staged a confused online protest campaign under the slogan “Hunger is not a game”—seemingly not quite grasping that the point of a dystopian novel is to repudiate, rather than endorse, the central soul-destroying activity at the heart of the action. Critics sought to find subtexts in the movie matching the present-day political scene—and these efforts likewise proved embarrassingly obtuse. Washington Post film reviewer Ann Hornaday speculated the movie’s depiction of the Capitol City and its licentious excesses “might make it a dog-whistle hit with Tea Party audiences”—even though the most cursory reading of Ms. Collins’ novel turns up a critique of worker exploitation that is, if anything, Marxist in overtone. The novel’s protagonist, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, hails from the former Appalachia, which despite the many technological advances that mark life in the former North America during the third millennium, is still mainly devoted to dangerous, ill-paid industry of coal mining; her father, indeed, had been killed in a coal-mining accident. In one scene, Katniss even has an extended conversation with a fellow contestant—Rue, a tiny 12-year-old farm laborer—that pivots largely on the “immiseration thesis”: Marx’s notion that capitalists only permit the proletariat sufficient provisions to be healthy enough to continue working. Rue explains that the farmers in her district aren’t permitted to eat their own crops, and are publicly flogged when they’re caught doing so. There’s just one exception, she explains: “They feed us a bit extra during harvest, so that people can keep going.”
Finally, of course, there’s been an extended discussion of whether the actress depicting Katniss, 21-year-old Jennifer Lawrence, is the wrong body type to play a food-deprived teenage girl: Ms. Lawrence is merely rail thin, as opposed to emaciated, so critics such as Manhola Dargis at The New York Times have questioned her casting on grounds of verisimilitude—once again failing to note a crucial bit of empirical evidence from Ms. Collins’ novel. There, it’s stipulated that Katniss, an accomplished hunter, has matured into an athletic build courtesy of an unusually high-protein diet, and what’s more, had deliberately gorged herself on a banquet of rich foods made available by the event’s organizers in order to retain her fighting form.
Ms. Collins’ novel, which like all good YA fiction teems with a healthy scorn for the trademark hypocrisies and superstitions of adult life, features an exchange that doubles nicely as a gloss on these willful grownup misreadings. Shortly after she arrives in Panem’s Capitol City to take part in the tournament, she’s paired up with a fashion designer named Cinna—the only adult in the novel who proves not to be a venal, corrupt, inept and/or drunken fool. Absorbed in the garish spectacle of the city’s preparations for the games, she falls into speculating about the economic logic that undergirds the social vacuity on such painful display around her:
“What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting for a new shipment of tribunes to roll in and die for their entertainment?”
“I look up and find Cinna’s eyes trained on mine. ‘How despicable we must seem to you,’ he says.”
Needless to say, as The Hunger Games has undergone its own high-end makeover for the big screen, such flourishes of dubiously marketable contempt have been banished. Indeed, the movie even effaces the central tension that stokes the rationale for the brutal tournament: the continued existence of an underground resistance movement determined to topple the Panem regime. The novel goes out of its way for Katniss to build an unspoken bond with a young rebel girl who is now conscripted into duty as a servant for contestants in the games. (The bond is unspoken, by the way, because Panem’s leaders have had the girl’s tongue cut out as punishment upon her capture.) By contrast, popular unrest takes place in the movie only in pointed response to Katniss’s individual heroics, as captured in the games’ telecast: By performing a respectful burial to a fallen colleague, she provokes Panem’s viewing audience to react in outrage to the barbaric spectacle of the games, seemingly for the first time ever. The logic here is plain: Katniss’s struggle to survive can’t involve any broader notions of solidarity, just as her character isn’t permitted any sustained reflection on her standing in the economic hierarchy of Panem, or disparagement of the adult vanities that have put her young life in danger. These calculated elisions are of course standard fare in Hollywood adapatations—and Hunger Games director Gary Ross, whose resume includes sunny fables of individual success such as Seabiscuit, which channeled much of the agony of the Depression through the epic triumphs of a scrappy racehorse, has followed the playbook closely here. Not only is Katniss rendered as a solitary force for unalloyed good; the pernicious evil of Panem is distilled almost entirely into the character of the president—played with nasty relish by Donald Sutherland.
The baby-simple logic here is that Panem is a bad place only because it’s governed by a bad man; put in a better leader, and the oafish retinue of overdressed grownups who make things tic will all become nicer as well. It’s hard to imagine a subtext more at odds with the bleak, and thoroughgoing, indictment of adult social privilege in Ms. Collins’ novel. Katniss can only triumph, and win the crucial adoration of the crowd, by virtue of her own undeniable charisma: The teen fantasy of the market decisively trumps the teen longing for rebellion.
As it happened, though, this was not the most propitious weekend to trot out a depoliticized Hollywood fable of gratuitous teen sacrifice: The recent killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, in Sanford, Florida, has highlighted the many brutal ways that pursuers of young outcasts can make a law unto themselves, not unlike the proprietors of the Hunger Games—especially if the youths in question happen not to be white. Martin was shot to death by Neighborhood Watch vigilante George Zimmerman, whom the Sanford police have declined to arrest under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which permits gun owners to shoot anyone perceived as a threat without the traditional constraint in self-defense law that compels shooters to retreat before opening fire.
While the racial politics of the Martin case are justly the main focus of public discussion, the incident also speaks volumes about the stealth epidemic of violent crime against children in America. As the now-moribund 2011 Violence Against Children Act reports, the Bureau of Juvenile Statistics has found that children between the ages of 12 and 19 are twice as likely to be victimized by violence than their counterparts aged 20 and above. What’s more, the bureau estimates that just 35 percent of all violence perpetrated against children is reported to the authorities in the first place.
Perhaps, in other words, the real problem adults have in getting the point of the The Hunger Games has nothing to do with the franchise’s ideological profile, or Jennifer Lawrence’s relative svelteness quotient. Maybe the trouble here is that in a news culture dedicated to promulgating bullshit moral panics about teen social pathologies, teen sexual mores and (for that matter) teen-themed entertainment and fashion, The Hunger Games has forced adults to reckon anew with the fables they like to tell each other.