On Losing by Winning the Hunger Games

Read the book.  Our oldest child (12) said at the movie’s end, “That was not as good because they couldn’t show the things Katniss was thinking and most of the book is her thinking about things.”

This is true.  There is plenty of action in the book but much of the import of the action is carried by the mind of the protagonist as she confronts her own actions and responses to the world within which she is forced to live.

In this way the content of the book is representative of a mind thinking about its position in life as a human being within a system that is only one in which one class of humans uses other classes of humans as labor to supply natural resources and products needed by the dominant class.

Of course, this is a book based on our current state as being creatures identified by our divisions of labor.  But further it recognizes that only one class is ascendant and only one class assumes the “benefit” of human production.  The other classes barely subsist as they provide for the masters.

The movie does attempt to show this state of desolation but it lacks the depth of a mind as it considers this state of being.  We, as viewers, cannot assume the identity of our protagonist, cannot assume to be always facing starvation, always facing the imminence of the Hunger Games, always facing the geographical prisons of the districts of production.  You do not travel beyond the district borders unless you are a “tribute” in the Hunger Games.

The movie does not do enough to contrast this life with the life that the “tributes” must see and experience as they prepare for their mutual slaughter in the games.  The decadence in the capitol city is obvious and ridiculous–the extremity of stupid extravagance is too clear but also too normal to us (what are we if not purveyors and consumers of stupid extravagances as entertainments)–but what makes it anything to us who are likely inured to such things, even the poorest among us often still participate in our cultural decadence, is the way this experience is presented through the eyes of the tribute.  Again, the eyes and mind of Katniss are what makes this experience one of awe and disgust and ultimately one of political and individual dissent.  THIS is what you are dying for–to sustain this?

A plot summary:  Katniss Everdeen is our 16-year-old protagonist–heck, hero–and we see her as a transgressor of rules and boundaries in her home district, but to singular good purpose.  She supplements their meager rations by hunting in the woods beyond the boundaries (enclosed by an electronic fence)–this is action punishable by death but the fact that she sometimes sells what she kills to the local officials mitigates this threat.  As is clear from the title and the initial set-up she will face the trial of the Hunger Games.  The Games are punishment inflicted on 12 “districts” (regions that supply resources and/or products to the Capitol) for purportedly rebelling against the government in the distant past.  The Games, and even the “stories” of rebellion are now more myth than fact as the information handed on from generation to generation about these things is controlled by the Capitol.  Each District must send a tribute (sacrifice) of one male and one female to fight to the death in the Hunger Games.  Even male and female of the district must kill one another to be victorious–i.e. there can be no real ally in the Games.  The tributes may range in age from 12 to 18.  This is probably the largest horror of the Games.  It is a kind of Abraham and Isaac situation but only one of 24 gets to be Isaac.

One of our number of parents who went to see the film found it quite disturbing–she had not read the book–for its portrayal of violence perpetrated on children by children.  This is indeed the true horror of the book with the rest of the “realities” being far too easily mapped onto our current lives.  The movie mitigates this somewhat by really only having one small child be visible in the Games.  You must therefore imagine more than you are shown regarding the real horror of these slaughter games.  And even the single most important death is softened by the movie makers aversion to showing what the book describes (in fact the details are changed)

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On the one hand, the fact that one of our number was duly disturbed by the gladiatorial matches pitting tiny children against larger children must be reckoned a positive outcome.  However, the movie did weaken that very opportunity for a powerful indictment of our social murders–one class’s privilege is the murder of other classes–if not in hand-to-hand combat (though that’s what our volunteer army does to our young men and women)–then by the slow deaths of poverty and sickness and disease.  Further, the teen combatants were primarily “adult” in strength and size and this further mitigated the visual horror of the contest.

Earlier in the film as Katniss says goodbye to her one friend, Gale, a boy she hunts with, reminds her, encourages her, that she’s a good hunter.  “But this is different,” she protests.  “No, it isn’t,” he says.  This is the proper moral ground of the film.  In fact, the creation of “moral ground” is what this story (in the novel at least) is fully about.  The laws that make the Hunger Games; that make the districts; that restrict food rations; that restrict travel; that obviate liberty–this is a kind of morality.  The morality that encourages and applauds the killings in the Games is manufactured, is a construct, and is enforced over decades of normalization.

That morality is played against the human relationships in the book and the very active and thoughtful and sympathetic mind of Katniss Everdeen who in no way wants to be the winner while needing to be the winner.  The movie does not convey this well and in fact gives us a hero tale and a kind of love story.  In fact it simply gives us another version, a Hollywood version, of human aspirational motivations.  The true strength of our heroine rests in her memories of her father, of her hunting with Gale, of her love of her younger sister and mother and how she brings those qualities into the Games.  This is not readily apparent in the movie and it is her skill with a bow and her knowledge of the woods that make her a hero.

The right action would have been to not compete at all.  She has murdered.  And she is now as complicit in the actions of the State as the President of Panem who presides over the games.  What does it profit a girl to win the Hunger Games and lose her soul?

In winning, she has lost.  What can that mean?


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  1. focus April 1, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    I have not seen the movie yet–hope to this week. I have read all 3 of the books. In winning she has lost as you say–but she never had a chance to “win” in any way. Her entry to the Games themselves comes from a split second decision to prevent another from entering that nightmare. The need to win is her need to to stay alive–she despises the farce but is driven to somehow come out alive. Her life after the Games of course devolves into less freedom and more manipulation than if she had stayed in District 12 as a random drone, working day in, day out for the Capitol and for survival. She has lost herself in the end, and those dear to her after all.
    The books are very thought-provoking, brutal and honest in their narration–especially the first one. I believe that one is the best of the trilogy.

    1. Douglas Storm April 1, 2012 at 5:45 pm

      Hey, focus,

      While I agree, there is little choice in this but to deny the state, and in so denying it deny her sister’s claim on her as well. I suppose the question is, does her sister have a claim on her? Or is her sister “of the state” as well?

      But these are almost ridiculous questions. The truth is she likely imagined, as all “tributes” must but those “Careers,” that they will lose. If that is your belief then is it more appropriate to choose death than to be an agent of the state’s entertainment industry and terrorism regime?

      Thoreau says this about the much easier decision to not pay taxes: “For my own part, I should not like to think that I ever rely on the protection of the State. But, if I deny the authority of the State when it presents its tax bill, it will soon take and waste all my property, and so harass me and my children without end. This is hard. This makes it impossible for a man to live honestly, and at the same time comfortably, in outward respects.”

      Peeta, if I recall, kills no one. Is he the moral victor?

  2. focus April 2, 2012 at 8:34 am

    Peeta is a fascinating character. From his earlier history with Katniss to his behavior in the Games–I do think his change in the third book was the most irritating plot twist and perhaps why I like that book the least. I felt we lost something essential and important in Peeta–things that were most evident in his behavior in book one.
    I think her sister has a claim on her. I think more than a claim Katniss feels responsibility and love for her. They do not have much, other than each other, in that family so I think that makes them so much more precious to Katniss. They have very little experience defying the state, other than the hunting.
    I was listening to music yesterday and when Nine Inch Nails “Head like a Hole” came on it made me think of this book. The lyrics seemed appropriate.

  3. focus April 3, 2012 at 12:55 pm

    So I saw the film last night. I think they did a good job bringing the book to film. I didn’t feel too many important facts were left out and I think the characters felt true.
    Peeta doesn’t kill anyone by the looks of it. So I think he manages to “stay himself” as he wants.
    Gale mentions the option of “opting out”–not by refusing to participate but by refusing to watch–a very different form of rebellion and one that perhaps makes more sense. If you refuse to participate you end up dead–quickly. If you refuse to watch then the spectacle is no more and thus loses its value as a tool of repression and fear.

    1. Douglas Storm April 3, 2012 at 1:00 pm

      So, HDT says in Civil Disobedience that if you wrestle a board from a drowning man that you must return because in saving yourself you have lost yourself.

      This is the truth of the hunger games. It’s the truth of our society. We are “of necessity” complicit in all injustice.

      Gale’s refusal to abet the state as spectator is perhaps the only thing any of us could do AND stay living.

      Is it enough?

      1. focus April 3, 2012 at 4:31 pm

        I don’t know if it is enough. Although it is said that one person can effect change and affect the activity of others it is a long stretch to go from one person refusing to be complicit and view it to a whole community and then to a whole society refusing to be complicit. The factors are endless that shape those decisions. I would say in this universe of the Hunger Games fear, hunger, poverty etc. would keep one complicit. Even the “mercy” of allowing two winners (of course predicated by the ratings and by the fear of backlash if those 2 tributes are allowed to complete their final action) is punishable by death. Hope may be stronger than fear–was it Haymitch who said that–but fear is a pretty strong motivator.

  4. focus April 3, 2012 at 4:33 pm

    It’s the modern day version of the Athenian tribute to Minos–14 youths sacrificed to the Minotaur until Theseus arrives. And even he couldn’t have done it without the inside help Ariadne provided.

    1. Abraham May 24, 2012 at 7:57 am

      She’s not who I would have picked, but I think she’s much bteetr than some of the people whose names were being thrown around for the role. She was excellent in Winter’s Bone and I think that proved she could get down and dirty for a role. We’ll see how she does.Melissab4s last post ..


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