Saturday, March 24, 2012

Dying for some fun: "The Hunger Games" and violence as entertainment

Mockingjay pin image courtesy of the Freshly Popped blog

NOTE: minor spoilers ahead for those who have not yet read the book The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, or seen the film of the same name. Proceed with caution.
FURTHER NOTE TO HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE STUDENTS: If you steal ideas from this article to write your term paper, I will happily narc on you to any teacher or professor who contacts me. Plagiarists suck. The end.

It seems as though I'm always the last holdout to jump on the pop culture bandwagon. (There were three Harry Potter titles in print before I could be convinced to pick up the series -- however reluctantly -- but I went from indifferent to obsessed very quickly.) In keeping with that tendency, although The Hunger Games has been a huge hit in the YA fiction world since 2008, I just finished reading it a few days ago. I have to say it's well worth the read. Although simply told, it is a symbolic, visceral and compelling story, a cautionary tale that manages not to be heavy-handed in its didacticism, due in part to its being told from a specific point of view.

The film version of the book opened yesterday. I haven't seen it yet, but early reviews have been mostly positive, although a large number of critics -- even the ones who gave it high marks -- are decrying the film for doing precisely what the book criticizes: using cruelty and violence as entertainment for the masses. They seem to have forgotten for the nonce that books are also mass media consumed for pleasure, although reading a book is a more intimate form of entertainment than watching a film in theaters, and that the original book also makes use of violence to draw in its readers.

But as much as critics and media pundits are squawking about depictions of death in a movie being marketed to teens, the real elephant in the room -- the one issue nobody seems to be bringing up -- is a fact far more uncomfortable than the violent content of The Hunger Games: it's nothing new. Public squeamishness over violence and cruelty as entertainment is a very recent development in human history. Individual humans may turn away from cruel acts, but our species as a whole has traditionally enjoyed watching fellow humans and other living beings as they suffer and die.

The name of the country in which the Hunger Games takes place -- Panem -- is meant to evoke the Latin phrase panem et circenses ("bread and circuses"), supposedly the only two things the citizens of the foundering Roman Republic cared about, as wily politicians pandered to their most basic desires to be fed and entertained. As the Republic declined into an Empire, Roman citizens blunted their fears of the future and got the thrills they craved from gladiatorial games in which the combatants bled and died, or spectacles in which Christians and other undesirables were fed to wild beasts. Public executions were also popular; at least some of the people who showed up at the Crucifixion probably did so for the entertainment value of jeering at the crucified.

The Middle Ages and Renaissance were likewise filled with violence as entertainment, as knights jousted and fought to the death in single combat. Animal blood sports such as bear-baiting, bull-baiting, dogfighting and hare coursing were also highly popular; certain breeds of dog such as the pit bull and the greyhound were bred specifically for such sports, and wagering on a particular animal was a common game of chance. There wasn't much difference in brutality between the Aztec Empire of Moctezuma and the Spanish conquistadores who penned detailed descriptions of human sacrifices. Renaissance England was supposedly an advanced culture, but English subjects in Shakespeare's time enjoyed gory public torture and execution of their fellow beings, including beheadings, drawing and quartering, gibbeting and burning at the stake. People crossing over London Bridge could take in the sight of the heads of executed criminals impaled on spikes, as a warning to other would-be traitors. And despite the noble goals of its famed philosophers, the Enlightenment fared no better in its fondness for violence -- as the French Revolution and its enthusiastic use of the guillotine made abundantly clear.

During the American Civil War it was not uncommon for people who lived near a battleground to pack picnic lunches and watch the carnage unfold from a safe distance as they ate. Public executions continued to be a form of popular entertainment in the 19th century, in the United States as well as in Europe. (The last public execution in the United States, a hanging, took place in 1936.)

These days people worry about movies, video games, even cartoons desensitizing children and teenagers through the use of simulated violence. But real violence is never far away. In my own lifetime, live footage from the Vietnam War has given way to filmed footage of jumpers on 9/11, videotape of jihadis beheading reporters on YouTube, and shock-and-awe bombardment of a capital city on the nightly news. Although we may not like to admit it about ourselves, as a species we are still fascinated by cruelty, by violence, by pain and death.

One interesting note about The Hunger Games is that the text of the book never justifies its title. Katniss Everdeen does not reveal why Panem's annual televised slaughters are called "the Hunger Games." But I think I know why. It's not because the people of the outer districts are never far from starvation, nor is it the "hunger" of the Tributes to survive the Games; it's something far more insidious. The look on the face of a serial killer closing in on a victim, the expression of a pedophile left alone with a child, has a dark and twisted similarity to the faces of people eagerly waiting for Thanksgiving dinner to be served. It is a look of pleasure in anticipation of what is about to come; it is, in short, a look of hunger about to be sated. Just as Panem -- bread -- fills the stomachs of the masses in the Capitol, its annual Hunger Games temporarily satiates their hunger for diversion, deviance and death.

There is, I believe, only one way for individuals to put aside this natural human taste for cruelty: by discovering and nurturing empathy and charity toward others. In the book Katniss observes the mindless prep team, assistants to Cinna the stylist, as "a trio of oddly colored birds"; she takes comfort in thinking of them as less than fully human, primarily because they are so self-focused as to be wholly indifferent to the suffering and death of the Tributes. This kind of behavior would be unsustainable on either side if we truly saw all our fellow human beings as our brothers and sisters. We could no longer derive any joy from the pain of other people if we thought of them the way Katniss thinks of her sister Prim: that we would be willing to put our own lives on the line to save them from peril.

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