Author Shirley Jackson was doing errands in her Vermont village, pushing her daughter in a baby stroller, when the germ of her alarming short story "The Lottery" (1948) came into her mind. Two hours later, it was written. Three weeks after that, it was published in The New Yorker. For the next three months she received critical letters from horrified readers. And for the past fifty years it has been anthologized and discussed as one of the most chilling and profound American short stories of the 20th century.
I mention this at the beginning of my review of "Hunger Games" because there are many similarities in their themes. Set in a seemingly ordinary rural community, "The Lottery" is about the not-so-ordinary ritual of selecting one person each year to be stoned to death as the community scapegoat. "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon," one village elder remarks as the community gathers for the stoning ritual that seems to protect their community.
Set in a dystopian future, "Hunger Games" explores the same theme. One boy and one girl from each of 12 municipal districts are selected, also by lottery, to be sent as "tributes" to the capital city to participate in a televised, gladiator-like fight to the death. In this case, the purpose is not to appease the god of the harvest but to control the masses through a combination of fear, hope, and entertainment. The people have been convinced by government propaganda that the Games will purge them of violence, prevent the ravages of war, and increase productivity. But really the Games are designed to make everyone complacent and obedient.
Based on the popular trilogy by Suzanne Collins, "Hunger Games" opened this weekend to eager crowds who couldn't wait to see it. In fact, my local theater offered the midnight screening in a whopping 18 of its 20 screens, and avid crowds were lining up at 6 pm to be among the first to see it. Many of them were mothers with children. You might well wonder: Why would any parents allow their children to read books or watch a movie in which children must kill children? For that matter, why would anyone but a pervert want to watch 24 children fight it out in a kill-or-be-killed arena? What is "Hunger Games"' appeal?
Obviously, there is more to these books than the competition. In responding to the initial criticism of "The Lottery," Jackson wrote, "I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives." Reading the "Hunger Games" trilogy, one can't help but see this same theme and message about pointless violence and general inhumanity. Like Jackson, Collins paradoxically uses violence to make a plea for non-violence.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Everdeen), the likeable 16-year-old heroine, is the virtual breadwinner for her widowed mother and 12-year-old sister, Primrose (Willow Shields). Noble and resourceful, Katniss is accustomed to taking risks and making sacrifices for her family. She regularly slips out beyond the District perimeter to hunt for game (a capital offense) that she trades for other goods. She is a generous and honorable young woman who instinctively rebels against tyranny and injustice, but who would never hurt anyone intentionally. When young Primrose's name is selected to serve as tribute from District 12, Katniss impulsively volunteers to take her place in the Games. Despite her innate goodness, Katniss understands that she will have to kill if she is going to survive.
Many who have not read the "Hunger" trilogy have expressed shock and dismay that Collins would have children aged 12-18 engaged in her fictional battle. But despite the gruesome subject, there is nothing gratuitously violent or graphic in these books or in the movie. They are tense and exciting, and they are made more so by the underlying hint of metaphoric truth. Is it such a stretch to imagine a society that would send its children to die in battle while adults stay home and watch it on tv? For over a decade the American government drafted 18-year-olds to fight a war far from home that had very little to do with our own security. Like the children in "Hunger Games," these teens had no voice in the matter; until 1971, they weren't allowed to vote in federal elections. Even with an "all-volunteer army," most of today's soldiers are still barely out of their teens.
Similarly, in "Hunger Games" wealthy families can protect their children by paying poorer families to take their spots in the drawings in exchange for money or food; as a result, Katniss's name is written on at least a dozen cards in the drawing, and her friend Gale's is entered 42 times. Both have taken these risks to purchase food and supplies for their families. This is clearly a reminder that the children of wealthier families were able to avoid the draft during the Viet Nam era by going to college, while children of poorer families could not afford that option.
Like Jackson, Collins clearly intended to demonstrate the dehumanizing effect of war in her books. Viktor Frankl makes the same point in "Man's Search for Meaning," about his experiences during the holocaust. He admits this unheroic truth: that every survivor had to commit selfish and sometimes brutal acts in order to stay alive. However, the film's producers seem to have lacked the courage to make this same point on screen. Perhaps worried about the R-rating that a true adaptation would have earned, the film version makes the killings more palatable by stereotyping the characters into two distinct types. Katniss never kills anyone except as a reflex, and always in self defense. The people she does kill are carefully presented as callous bullies and gang members, thereby justifying her actions, because she is ridding the world of bad guys. In a way, the film falls into the same storytelling formula as the reality shows it parodies.
Moreover, actress Jennifer Lawrence is 21, not 16, largely negating the effect of children being forced to kill children. This creation of good guys and bad guys damages the message about the brutalizing nature of war, and blunts the powerful idea that these are children who might otherwise have played together and become friends had they not been forced into battle by their government for a cause they don't understand.
Similarly, Haymitch, the battle mentor from District 12 (Woody Harrelson) is presented in the film as a detached, anti-social drunk. He is a former winner in the Hunger Games and thus has been assigned to help prepare Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the boy tribute from her district, for the battle. What's missing from the movie is the reason Haymitch drinks: in order for to have won the Hunger Games, 23 children had to die, many of them at his own hand. In war, no one emerges unscathed. Not even the victor.
Just before Katniss leaves for battle, her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) suggests that they sneak away into the forbidden woods to live off the land by themselves, just as Equality 2521 does in Ayn Rand's novella "Anthem. " When Katniss tells him that wouldn't work, he suggests, "What if people stopped watching?" referring to the audiences riveted to their television sets during the Games. "Wouldn't they have to stop the Games?"
Knowing that he has little chance of survival, Peeta says, "I keep wishing I could think of a way for me to show them that they don't own me. If I'm gonna die, I wanna still be me." That spirit of individuality and self-determination is bright throughout the book, and in the movie as well. The many suggestions of resistance in both make them well worth reading and viewing.
"Hunger Games." Gary Ross, director. Lionsgate (2012) 142 minutes.