Every once in a while I break a cardinal rule and write about a film I haven’t yet seen. What others have said about The Hunger Games, however, squares with something I have been observing about how my students regard the job market. If you’ve seen the film, you can tell me if my thoughts have any validity.
The film sets teenagers in a dystopian future where, for the benefit of television audiences, they must kill or be killed. Of course, the heroine only kills bad killers and wins the game. Tim Noah of the New Republic absolutely hates the movie. The Hunger Games, he says, “wants to have it both ways”:
It wants us to register severe moral disapproval of a society that would require children to hunt one another as if they were woodland creatures. But—because it also wants to be an entertainment with a sympathetic heroine and some good old-fashioned suspense—The Hunger Games also invites us to root for the right person to win the competition by, um, killing other children. If a bunch of kids are going to die, we might as well hope that the nicest and bravest of them ends up triumphant atop the pile of corpses. Yuck.
Because The Hunger Games lacks the courage of its dark conceit, the story line must be contrived in such a way as to minimize any moral objection we might raise against the bow-wielding heroine’s kills. The nice (usually younger) kids, whom she tries to save, all get killed by others. The few she must kill are all nasty preppies apparently raised from birth to be smug, violent and cruel. Nowhere in the film is it suggested that if 12 moral individuals were told to kill one another for no reason other than to amuse the masses, then the only choice consistent with any notion of ethics that I’m familiar with would be to refuse and be executed. Hello? Hasn’t Collins, or the filmmakers, ever clapped her eyes on Rodin’s Burghers of Calais? The Hunger Games wants its audience to experience moral revulsion, but it also wants it to cheer when (I don’t think I’m giving anything away here) our girl wins. You don’t have to be a pacifist to find an entertainment built around this evasion a bit nauseating.
Nauseating or not, the film emotionally captures how my students see America at the moment. On the one hand, it captures their fatalism as they enter what they perceive to be a dog-eat-dog or kill-or-be-killed future with entitled kids having a special advantage. In this version of America, everyone is on his or her own, which makes everyone vulnerable to predatory, consumerist capitalism. The world appears especially grim in this recessionary period with its high unemployment numbers and low salaries.
But because they are American, my students can’t surrender to pessimism. They have to believe that, though the odds are stacked against them, the future will work out because they are nice people (which they most definitely are). They simultaneously believe and don’t believe in the American system.
In short, The Hunger Games shows them their emotional reality and then gives them the fantasy that they themselves can transcend the situation. I felt the same at their age when we were in another recession (I graduated from college in 1973). And so the wheel keeps turning.
Notice that the film doesn’t offer a collective solution. Everyone is pitted against everyone. This contrasts dramatically with a cinematic vision that was presented to the country in 1940 when America was in even worse financial shape. John Ford’s Oscar-winning version of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath shows us strangers coming together to make common cause. As Ma Joad says in the movie’s inspiring conclusion,
Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good an’ they die out. But we keep a’comin’. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ’cause we’re the peoples is in.
That’s how to play the hunger game. We shouldn’t turn on each other in some Ayn Randian struggle for supremacy but see ourselves rather as joined with others in a large throng that will keep on coming. If we do, we will go on forever.
We can begin by refusing to scapegoat as enemies all those others who are sharing the enclosure with us.