This weekend I went to see “The Hunger Games” with our oldest son (12). His twin sister separately saw the movie as part of a friend’s birthday party. For anyone who has been behind a gigantic rock, er, I mean doesn’t have children who are fans of Suzanne Collins’s novel on which the movie is based, here is a brief plot summary. The Hunger Games is set in a post-apocalyptic version North America. The region is now divided into 12 districts and ruled by a dictatorship located in the “Capitol.” As a way to assert its power over the districts and as a form of entertainment, the Capitol annually conducts a fight to the death among 24 children chosen from the districts - a boy and a girl picked by lottery from each.
I hadn’t read the book (which is reasonably popular among adults as well) but knew the contents well based on previous conversations with our kids. So I went into the movie very curious about how the central plot device of children killing each other would be realized on the screen. The answer definitely requires post movie conversation with children who have seen it. Except for a few jump cuts and one slower (yet serenely peaceful) death, the games seem largely like a more amped up version of hide and seek. At the screening that we went to there was loud applause from the audience at several of the killings. When I asked my daughter, she said the same was true at her showing and initially she didn’t see anything problematic with that, arguing that “it’s just a movie” and “those were the bad guys.”
Eventually though we talked about how it is really somewhat disturbing that we could find ourselves at so easily enjoying entertainment that features children killing each other. We discussed how the plot is based at least in part on the historic precedent of gladiators in ancient Rome (who were largely from the Roman colonies) and that the enjoyment of watching gladiators kill each other is not that long ago at least on an evolutionary time scale. Even today we have echoes of that both in professional wrestling (which despite being staged exerts a huge toll on performers) and in mixed martial arts. Now I am not faulting the movie or the book — which I am now fairly eager to read — for sucking the viewer or reader into this enjoyment. But letting it go unchallenged afterwards I think would be a big missed opportunity for discussion and learning.
One reason I believe that my daughter was more defensive during the discussion than my son is that the movie presents a strong and compelling female protagonist in Katniss Everdeen who volunteers to replace her sister in the fight. In our showing it was clear that the audience had a lot of girls in it who felt empowered by watching this heroine. While the context may be a bit off, as the father of a daughter I always welcome that and Jennifer Lawrence is great in this role (and was fantastic in Winter’s Bone). There are lots of other things here that one can talk about afterwards: the decadence of the people in the Capitol; the story of Spartacus.; the fascist architecture of the Capitol.; the manipulation of the game by the “game maker” and the role of the dictator.
Overall verdict: The Hunger Games is definitely worth seeing but I strongly recommend sending an adult along and having a discussion afterwards. Given how widely this movie is being viewed, I hope that schools will serve that role for the many kids who will not have a conversation with their parents.