I Saw The Hunger Games Last Night
I’m late, but in my defense I was on planes much of the last five days.
So a quick prefatory comment: I’m quoted on the back of The Hunger Games for nice things I said about the first book in the New York Times Book Review when it came out, so obviously I like the book. Back then, I remember thinking that if a movie adaptation ever happened (it seemed unlikely to me; I didn’t yet know it would have a huge audience), it would make me sad, because so much of what the novel expertly examines is the fraught relationship between viewers and the viewed in a world dominated by screens. But in fact I thought the movie did a really good job of this, largely because Jennifer Lawrence’s performance was to my mind so intricate and complex and nuanced and just good.
In the years since I wrote that initial review, my opinion of the book has risen steadily. (This is also true for another book I reviewed in the NYTBR, The Book Thief.) Like, if i could go back and review The Hunger Games now, I would probably be even more breathless and enthusiastic than I originally was about the book, because in retrospect it was smarter and more interesting than I noticed in my first couple readings.
What I find most interesting about both book and movie is not whatever lame/obvious things THG has to say about reality television or the exploitative relationship between producers and consumers of everything from coal to entertainment.
What is very, very interesting to me is the ways in which the plot of both book and movie explore the extremely complicated and ethically fraught relationship between observer and observed—the way resource-laden Person X paying attention to the plight of resource-deprived Person Y shapes both the lives of Person X and Person Y. (The most interesting moment in the movie to me is when Katniss gets the salve from a sponsor that allows her to survive: Lawrence’s complicated thank you in that moment is maybe even more evocative than in the book. Katniss is benefiting from the generosity of the rich, but she only needs this generosity because the social order that created the wealth is also the social order that put her in the games.)
Like, what Collins explores with real brilliance is that most social orders are more or less designed to be unjust because they are less concerned with justice than they are with stability.
And when you yourself are the victim of this injustice, you’re aware in a heightened way of what gets sacrificed in the name of stability. But the vast majority of people benefit from stability, or at least feel that it is better than taking a chance at instability. (And in this respect, we’re not entirely wrong. Like, it’s still unclear whether the radically unjust but relatively stable rule of a Hosni Mubarak, for instance, will be replaced by something better.)
On this front, I thought Jennifer Lawrence brought a lot of complexity and ambiguity to Katniss: As viewers of the movie, we are never quite sure of the extent to which her love for Peeta is shaped by the morally fraught relationship between observer and observed. I thought this couldn’t work on screen, but in the end it does, because even more than in the book, we as viewers are aware that we are participants in the observer:observed relationship.
It’s not only the people of Panem who are watching The Hunger Games.