The Hunger Games & the Job Market

Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games"

Film Friday

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.

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  • JRS

    The movie doesn’t manage to bring out quite as many details on the situation as the books do. The children involved live in “districts” that unsuccessfully revolted about 74 years prior. For 74 years the children in the districts have been indoctrinated with the thought that they deserve this, that there is no way out. Second, it is open knowledge that if you don’t play by the rules they will take it out on your family and friends. Much harder to take a moral stand when you know your parents and siblings will have to suffer for it. The characters have long discussions about “not being a pawn in their games” and what they can do about it.

    I should also note that this is the first part in a trilogy. The collective solution comes later. The events in the first book do given people hope, and the people begin to question whether or not this should be their lot in life and whether or not they can do something about it.

    Your swipe at Ayn Rand at the end is out of context. The point of the movie and the book is that these individuals feel they are powerless against the government, the “Capitol”, and that is why these games are being held at all. The winner of the games would not be one that Ayn Rand would be proud of. They are the one who has sacrificed their individuality for the sake of conformance. It would be the Randian individual who would be proud to be the one to defy the rules, lead the rebellion, and risk their life. Objectivism is not against collective effort, only FORCED collectivism. People can, of their own free will, join together for a cause. It is when membership is forced or this cause bumps up against the rights of others that it becomes a problem.

  • I saw a great deal of the real world in the books and film of The Hunger Games, but the job market was not part of what I was thinking about; I’m not sure it’s really relevant. It isn’t so much that people are kept down because there are no jobs, but that there are no jobs because the government is determined to keep people down. For me what it highlighted was the divide between rich and poor in this country, or in 18th century France, where the accident of birth can mean you have everything without lifting more than a finger, or you have nothing and no amount of work will improve your lot. This is not to say your observations aren’t on the mark; they simply don’t tally with mine. I would strongly suggest reading the book – or seeing the film, which isn’t really a substitute – and then seeing what you think.

    What a flawed, myopic, pompous, and offensive review of the movie and, by extension, the book. As JRS says above, it intentionally disregards aspects of the story – if these Tributes fail to cooperate and participate, their families will be punished. The “preppies” Noah talks about are from districts where they have determined that since they are better fed and better equipped they have natural advantages over the other districts’ tributes, and build on that to become “careers”, volunteering for the Games with an expectation of winning and thereby bringing more wealth to their district (and their families), and perpetuating the cycle. The children he labels “nice” aren’t, necessarily – Katniss isn’t a loveable character, but she has a strong sense of fairness, and the ones she tries to protect or avoid killing are the ones who would prefer not to – or can’t – kill her. The ones, like Rue, who because of the hardships she has lived with all her short life shouldn’t be able to survive.

    There is no real triumph to Katniss’s victory (which, no, isn’t a spoiler since the book is written in the first person). At the end she is worn and sick and traumatized, hardly ending up “triumphant atop the pile of corpses” – what an astonishingly stupid thing to say. Hello? Hasn’t this reviewer, or any of his editors, ever clapped eyes on the actual book? Or, if it’s too far beneath his contempt, a detailed synopsis of it?

    Nauseating? I find the review, with its preaching-to-the-intelligentsia-who-wouldn’t-be-caught-dead-seeing-this-movie tone, nauseating. I guess no one learned anything from Ginina Bellafonte’s wrongheaded review of Game of Thrones… Fantasy is, again, apparently to be scorned, and since it so contemptible in and of itself any review of it need not be actually based in truth. Sad.


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