Obvious announcement before we get started: This probably should go without saying, but there are going to be some spoilers about the movie in this post. Consider yourself warned.
I've never read the Hunger Games books, but based on the overwhelmingly positive reviews (86% positive on Rotten Tomatoes, at last check), and my girlfriend's wanting to see the movie, I went to a midnight showing. The movie seems like it's making a ton of money, and extremely positive word-of-mouth reviews are no doubt helping it along, as it seems like the movie has been all that anyone can talk about for the last 48 hours or so.
On the surface, I have no problem with this. It's a well-made film, one that appeals to both genders, with taut action sequences, humor, and tear-jerking scenes. The actors turn in solid performances, and while the movie clearly has a big budget, the special effects aren't gaudy. From a technical standpoint, this is a movie that deserves all the praise it's getting, and money it's making.
Something about the movie, and the reaction that it has gotten scares me, however.
The basic premise of the film is that the main character, Katniss Everdeen, ends up representing her district in the titular annual competition, in which 12 boys and 12 girls in their teens are forced to compete in a fight to the death, with only one survivor. It's sort of like The Running Man or Death Race, only if all of the contestants were 18 or younger, and completely innocent of any crimes. Okay, no problems this far. It's a pretty messed-up premise for a movie, but that would only make it more cathartic if/when the whole thing comes tumbling down.
But in a movie like that, the focus has to be on how messed up this world is that the government is forcing youths to brutalize one another for sport. The main antagonist of the film should be the government, not the other kids who are trying to kill Everdeen to stay alive. And halfway through the film, everybody just kind of forgets that. The movie becomes more about how mean some of the other kids are (you know, the ones who want to win the competition, and not die) instead of how screwed-up the Games are. The inevitable final showdown with one of the other kids plays out just like every other standoff between the "good guys" and "bad guys" you've ever seen. The audience in the theater I was at cheered as the bad guy met his demise.
Are you seeing the issue? The boy from the other district still isn't the bad guy. He's a victim, just the same as Everdeen. The government that is pitting teenagers against each other is the bad guy.
Every minute the movie spends being more about Everdeen "winning" than it is about the horror of the idea of teenagers murdering each other for sport is a minute that society spends creeping closer and closer to the idea of "Murder as TV entertainment" becoming reality. Bottom line, you're not supposed to root for Katniss, you're supposed to root for all of the kids to survive, because they're all innocent. But that doesn't seem to be what people are taking away from the film, they're just pulling for the character they like best to win, the same as the bloodthirsty public in the movie, the people we're supposed to loathe.
Everdeen herself starts out the movie being horrified by the entire concept of the Games, but quickly throws her morals out the window in order to have a better chance of winning. She originally has no interest in trying to sway the public to her side, but as soon as her helpful assistants (played by Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz) stress the importance of being media-savvy to win over the all-important sponsors, she complies, spending the rest of the movie putting on a happy face for the camera, and later seeming to legitimately enjoy her win. Even Harrelson and Kravitz's characters (the "good guys") show only minor moral qualms with the entire concept of the Games, looking far more pleased that Katniss won than they are concerned with the over 20 innocent kids who were just murdered.
Still think I'm overreacting? Look at Facebook and Twitter, listen to people talk about the movie. See how many are using the movie's catch phrase, "May the odds be ever in your favor." It's getting thrown around in a totally innocuous context. Mind you, the line is coined and used by the movie's corrupt government officials, in an ironic if not outright sarcastic fashion, directed towards the 24 living, breathing kids who are about to become one living, breathing kid and 23 dead kids. It would be like if someone made a movie about a fictional Holocaust, in which the fictional Nazis told the fictional Jews, "Best of luck, buddy!" as the Jews entered the internment camps, and then kids started telling each other, "Best of luck, buddy!" like it was the new cool thing to say.
And yes, before you ask, I am aware that the books and the movie are fictional. And yes, I am aware that there will be more than one movie, picking up where the first leaves off, hopefully (again, haven't read the books) culminating in the overthrow of the entire Hunger Game system, and those responsible. And yes, I am perfectly okay with movies putting characters into morally ambiguous situations like having to decide between killing innocent people, or being killed.
But what I'm not okay with is people walking away from a movie that sees over 20 innocent kids brutally murdered and thinking it had a happy ending because the character we liked best survived.
Ironically, the movie tells us exactly what it's doing to us, and it still succeeds in doing so. When the death of a likable secondary character leads to a riot, the TV producer is persuaded to give the audience "something to root for", namely "young love" between Everdeen and the male representative from her district. The forced TV romance quickly turns into true romance, and the gullible fictional audience falls for it, forgetting to be offended by the murders, and rooting for the young lovers to win.
The real life movie-going audience, um, well, does exactly the same thing.
It's enough to make one wonder if murder as popular entertainment is such a stretch of the imagination after all, as long as there's a clever producer behind the scenes, making sure the audience knows who to root for.