Monday, April 23, 2012

Why I didn't cry: More Hunger Games Commentary

The following post contains profound spoilers for The Hunger Games as well as mature content.  I'm putting the entire post under the cut so anyone who doesn't want to see any of that can be spared.  I will be spoiling the movie the Hunger Games and more than likely the book as well.

You have been warned....

Before I talk Hunger Games I'd like to talk about this video first.  It was leaked just before the release of Modern Warfare 3 last fall.

For those who don't want to/ can't click through let me give you the short short form.  A lovely little innocent girl is on holiday in Downtown London when she goes and stands next to a truck that just happens to have a terrorist chemical bomb in it.  We see her dance, play and then BOOM, nothing but sick rolling smoke coming towards the camcorder from where the truck and the girl used to be.

It's a ham-handed effort to instill a profound sense of righteous fury at the group responsible for this terror attack.

And it does so by way of using an innocent little girl as a prop in the process.

So now let's shift to The Hunger Games.

I knew the moment we saw Rue come onto the screen what her fate would be.  She sits down like all the other tributes for an interview with the game's commentator all dressed up like a little sprite.  And unlike other interviews, he emphasizes her youth by asking leading questions, by coaching her through very basic answers and all but saying "look I've been interviewing young adults ready for to-the-death combat, but this here's a little kid who's gonna die and she's gonna die quick."

Only I knew that wouldn't be the case.  She was being presented to us in a way that made us fall in love with every aspect of her.  She was the embodiment of innocence, and by corollary the senseless cruelty of the games themselves.  Each time I saw her I found myself thinking more and more not about her character, nor about her fate about how the writers were using her as a plot device, a tool to beat us over the head with just how "bad" this world was, just how "cruel" President Snow and his lackeys were.

And by the time the scene came I had moved beyond this to a point where I simply wanted it done so the story could continue.

Please, dear reader, do not think me a heartless bastard.  I did care greatly for nearly all of the characters.  I wished so much to be wrong, for some miracle to occur and for her to escape the games, or be disqualified for some technicality or maybe even injured in training and thus sent off to some other unknown fate.  The other tributes, unlucky souls sent to their deaths through no action of their own, received my sympathy.  In some ways I even pitied the tributes from Districts 1 and 2, having had their childhood stripped so that they could train for this competition, one that was not even a sure victory.  I could not begin to imagine how to live life not just praying to be passed over in the lottery but knowing I was one of a few destined to fight to the death.  At least Katniss, Peeta and Rue had a chance not to be selected.

And then I thought about where Rue had come from.  If Katniss had been able to volunteer to take her sister's place, how had ~NO ONE~ from District 11 volunteered to spare this child her execution?  How had none of those girls recognized that she had no chance to live and instead intervened to protect her?  In fact, how had none of the adults from District 11 figured out what a farce it was to send a 12 year old pixie of a girl off to die in a ritual execution and instead invested in training their own children to volunteer if need be to guarantee that every tribute sent to the games had, indeed, a fighting chance?

When I talk about The Hunger Games, I will use that word too:  Execution.  There is little need to candy coat this.  When a 12 year old child is sent into lethal ritual combat against a 17 year old man or woman, there is no doubt as to the outcome.  To call it a "game" is nothing but spin, and an affront to the horror that the Hunger Games are meant to represent.  Tributes are just that, life offerings sent off to die to remind the Districts who is in charge, and that the state is so powerful as to seize their children and murder them on live television.

Perhaps in the book telling of the story we see Rue as a cunning woman-child, a crafty wily creature who sees a chance to live a little longer by aiding Katniss for a time while she waits for the right moment to slit her throat and claim victory.  Or perhaps in the book she is framed more as a girl on par with the other tributes, one who stood a chance.  Finally, perhaps, she came in knowing her fate, that her time near Katniss made it clear that she had said her goodbyes, and faced her death with an open heart.  She had wept her tears for her own death and had made her peace.

But in the movie, that was not the case.  They lavished her with the idea she might live when all knew it would not happen.  They gave her a hope that we, the audience, could see as wickedly false.  Watching it unfold I slowly lost my empathy for the character.  I could feel that her presence was just a tool to beat me over the head with the themes of unfairness and injustice.  And frankly there was no need.  Katniss's plight was plenty to establish that for me.  Peeta's situation, a baker turned assassin?  He was just as pitiable.  In short, the same emotional reactions could have been formed without resorting to going that extra step.

And it took it's toll.  While there were no walk outs of the screening I attended, one of my students reported that nearly a dozen families left the theater after Rue's death.  Seeing it on the big screen proved to be a bridge too far for their children.  Just as parents had been forced to take their dino-loving kids out of Jurassic park, here too parents had made a poor assessment of their kids' readiness for death.  And death of a peer.

I have been called out more than once for the fact that The Hunger Games is intended to be a young adult novel and thus stars young adults.  Rue, at the age of 12, is a member of the target audience and therefore is a perfect character to help drive home the personal nature of the games.  I have multiple problems with that, but let me focus on one.  The initial target audience for the books has little impact on the audience for the movie.  And as an adult seeing a movie that was not marketed as "kids only", I feel quite comfortable reacting (or in this case not reacting) as an adult.

In fact, the version we saw in the states was ruled to be 15+ in the United Kingdom:

"An uncut '15' classification was available. These cuts were made in addition to reductions already made following an earlier 'advice' viewing of an incomplete version.”  
The fact that only minor cuts were required means that the violent adaptation of Suzanne Collins' novel should still have enough blood and gore to satisfy the fans eager to see the film.  
In the US, The Hunger Games was rated PG-13 for "intense violent thematic material and disturbing images - all involving teens".

So changes were made so the movie could get that 12A rating that would pretty much open it up to anyone who wanted to see it.

I knew I was supposed to cry for Rue.  That was made clear every time we saw her.  And I think the fact that it was made so abundantly clear to me that I was supposed to cry was the core reason I did not.

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