In the Oath of the Slan that every trufan must secretly swear, there’s a clause that says you must go and see any movie that’s even vaguely science fiction. You don’t have to do the sequels – one Transformers is enough – but you have to support the genre by seeing at least the first one. Comic books and fantasies, fortunately, don’t count. Sometimes you lose, as with the lame ending of “Source Code”, and sometimes you win big, as with the evocative and compelling “Monsters”.
Thus I found myself at “Hunger Games” this weekend. Thus I found myself baffled and dismayed. I just didn’t get it, and am therefore dismayed by its popularity. It’s already likely to be the biggest movie of the year. I’m clearly clueless with respect to my fellow movie-goers.
My problem was with the premise – how does kidnapping and murdering children help maintain an oppressive empire? The movie claims that the decadent rulers of Panem stage gladiatorial games using forcibly seized teenagers in order to somehow keep the provinces from revolting. Wouldn’t that enrage the subject peoples? It actually does in one scene, but wouldn’t that be the case every single time? The whole movie hinges on this – there’s no story otherwise – and it makes no sense at all.
If you’re an evil overlord, then of course you take someone out every now and then and shoot them. You make sure, though, that they’ve disobeyed you in some way. If you do it completely at random, like here, then no one has any reason to obey. It’s clear to them that it doesn’t matter if they submit or not; they’ll get it either way. They’ll blow up your expensive high-speed railroads, garrotte your under-armored riot police, and use smuggled RPGs to take down your hovercraft. That’s just what a certain pugnacious mountain people are doing to the American Empire right now.
If you’re a smart evil overlord, you’ll take your subjects’ children hostage. That’s what the shogun did to the daimyos, and what the Romans did to the Greeks (E.g. Polybius). It was for the children’s education and protection, of course. They get to live amidst the splendors of the capital, and be protected by the emperor’s very own guards. All the time. So, sure, you would seize the provincials’ children. But if you kill them, especially in a public and humiliating way like here, you’ll just guarantee their enmity.
I also have to say that as a parent I really hate seeing children get hurt in movies. It’s the cheapest dramatic effect known, after kicking dogs. We almost walked out of “Slumdog Millionaire” when the boy was about to be blinded by the beggar. When I saw the spunky little girl here, I knew she was in for it, just as it was obvious that the most vicious and blondest teens would get it in the most disfiguring way.
Now, I can understand why this book has been so popular among teens. They’re already disposed to think that grownups are against them. They see “Fear Factor” and MMA bouts. Maybe they’ve seen the other sports-as-gladiatorial-spectacle movies like “Rollerball” or “The Running Man” or “Battle Royale”. They like the tough and resourceful heroine Katniss, who appears to be as handy with a bow as Artemis, but not quite as committed to virginity. She’s played by the striking Jennifer Lawrence, who actually looks like a young woman instead of a hollow-cheeked model.
But why are adults going to see this? Maybe people just don’t care about premises. “Avatar” also had a huge hole at its center – what was this unobtainium rock that they were so desperate to mine? – and that didn’t bother anyone. You sit in the dark and pretend that you’re not looking at colored lights on a screen, and get swept away by the story. Or, like me, you get hung up on a rock when you wonder about how this future society would actually work.