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The Tragedy of The Hunger Games

            A couple of nights ago I was tired, and The Hunger Games was on television. Since I had heard so much about the story from the high school students that I teach, I decided to watch it.  The movie has several good features but commits an enormous error by comparing itself to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

            In a dystopian future twenty-four teens, called tributes, two each from the twelve districts, are sent Theseus-like as sacrifices in punishment for a past failed rebellion against the central government.  Instead of combat against the Minotaur, they fight each other with the one survivor being allowed to live.  In a bizarre twist, fully exploited by Stanley Tucci’s and Elizabeth Banks’s delightfully bizarre performances, the whole contest has become a nationally televised game in which the survivor is also the winner.  The acting is good and the concept is interesting, but ultimately the movie fails.

            (Spoiler alert for the few who have not seen the movie.)

            According to the rules, only one tribute can survive.  Katniss, ably played by Jennifer Lawrence, and Peeta, the representatives of District 12, are supposedly in love with each other.  Unfortunately, only one of them can survive, even if they defeat all the other tributes.  Thus, they begin to be referred to as star-crossed lovers, and finally the television programmers create a new rule that allows for the possibility of two survivors, if they are from the same district.  Peeta does love Katniss, but she does not love him and only hesitatingly goes along with the idea.  They both survive, but at the last moment the new rule is rescinded, and they are supposed to fight to the death.  Instead, Katniss and Peeta decide to take poison.  Before they can commit suicide, however, the two are proclaimed victors and are sent home as champions to the delight of the crowds.

            The oft repeated description of Peeta and Katniss as star-crossed lovers is an obvious allusion to Shakespeare’s great tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, but the two stories are not comparable.  In Romeo and Juliet the two young lovers try to escape the consequences of coming from feuding families only to end up dying through botched communication.  The tragedy of their death makes them to be truly star-crossed lovers and moves the families to reconcile and end their feud.

            In contrast, The Hunger Games ends with Katniss and Peeta not only surviving but also being celebrated as victors in a brutally barbaric television show.    Of course, there will be a sequel to change all that, but the movie had the potential for much deeper drama and ethical reflection.  Perhaps this is the actual tragedy of The Hunger Games.

8 thoughts on “The Tragedy of The Hunger Games

  1. As always, Dr. Isley, I truly appreciate not only your writing style but the thoughtful insight you give.

  2. Hey there, Bill! If you can handle some “fluff” reading, you might appreciate reading the books more than the movie. The movie, in all irony, does precisely what the author was mocking in her book – a society which is so saturated with wealth, on the backs of “lesser” peoples, who live in various stages of poverty and danger, then considering something like “The Games” to be the high point of their social, reality show, calendar. I had read all three books before seeing the first movie, and have no desire to see the next ones. I grew up reading classic sci-fi; the stuff that posits the deep ethical and philosophical questions. “Flowers for Algernon” was one of my favorites.

    Suzanne Collins is one of the few current YA authors that writes beautifully. Painfully. Yes, as the series goes on, the teenage angst issues started to get a bit annoying. But she never apologizes for her characters’ bad behavior. And she takes on the hard, ugly questions of where our current society resides. She allows stories to end with all the futility that one should when trying to fix the depravity of man by changes of power.

    The first movie was true to some of the aspects of the book, but it allows those who will only get surface or romantic entertainment out of a shallow reading of the books to be entertained by the visual experience and leave caring even less about the depth of her narrative. Which is why I’m in no hurry to see 2 and 3.

    1. Thanks, Kristi. Most of the students that like the books seem to see them as a love story (I actually thought of referring to the movie as a teen romance.) or conveniently overlook the murderous nature of the games. I’m swamped with six classes so I doubt that I’ll get to the books. Years ago, I saw the movie “Charlie,” which is based upon Flowers for Algernon. I don’t know how faithful it is to the book, but I remember the sorrow that I felt when Cliff Robertson showed his first sign of returning to retardation. I read more science fiction when I was younger. I liked Isaac Asimov and especially Ray Bradbury.

    2. I agree, the book is much better. Bill, try audio book. You can listen in the car or when you are doing something else. I liked the first book best because it opposed violence. But readers had come to expect the violence, so the following books had lots of it to less effect. Also book 3 ends with a hope that has no base. I would definitely not call them teen romance. NOT to be compared to worthless vampires.

      1. Thanks, LeAnne. I may take them up over Christmas or next summer. One of life’s pleasures is that Mary and I ride together to our respective jobs and get to talk with one another; so I’ll probably not go the audio book route. It seemed to me that the movie had some real potential to discuss violence as entertainment, government and cultural manipulation via the media, etc., and didn’t do it. I mentioned teen romance because of Romeo and Juliet and incredibly because so many of the kids (girls I’m sorry to say) react to it that way.
        Yes, the current vampire craze is worthless. It’s too bad. The idea has merit–perverted desire for immortality, love that drains the other person, death wishes as the ultimate expression of romantic love and so on. LeFanu’s Carmilla seems to capture or, at least, strongly hint at these themes, but then he was writing in the 19th century not the 21st and not just to titillate prurient desires.

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