“Catching Fire,” the second movie in the “Hunger Games” series, opens this weekend. We are likely to hear a lot about the acting, the film’s pacing, and even how the new director handled the sequel. But what ultimately gets a free pass is the brutal violence and cruelty being marketed to throngs of adoring fans. Despite being “just a movie” this kind of violence should be challenged more than celebrated.
The story revolves around the “Capitol” that dominates its 12 “districts” by requiring them each year to send a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 to 18 years-old to fight to the death on national television.
The violence in the story will be described via reviews but not seriously evaluated. The brutality will likely be acknowledged, but only to warn parents about purchasing tickets that give their younger children a front row seat to the horror.
But if the Hunger Games films and best-selling novels are worth their salt they deserve a more serious discussion.
While many have condemned the narrative of “children killing children”, the more fundamental theme is grownups killing children—ruthless grownups concerned about their own power, wealth, and mindless amusement. While a notable heroine, played by Jennifer Lawrence, emerges, the circumstances of the whole terrorizing fantasy are not good for our psyche.
Cruelty without limit is the constant background of the stories. In the stories and films the live broadcast drops the sledge hammer of ruthlessness, followed by the highlights replayed each night. The people in the film are forced to watch. We pay for the chance to do so.
The books convey that this media assault enrages the adults of the districts and breaks their hearts. It terrorizes the children as well, as they grow into awareness that they, their family members, or friends may one day be chosen in the lottery that selects the combatants, known as “tributes” who must participate in these games
But smaller cruelties abound. For instance, in the first book and the film “The Hunger Games”, authorities permit the two youths chosen as tributes brief goodbyes with their loved ones. Then they travel overnight by train to face manic publicity and a gruesome fate with no one but strangers. But the film distracts us with a really cool fast train.
After reading such callous inhumanity one parent I know put down the book and would not have returned to it except that her child is a fan.
In “Catching Fire”, the tributes know and care for one another, but the authorities prohibit goodbyes despite the screaming sorrow of the family members. And then? Well, moving right along, on toward the next cruelty we go.
Supporters say the themes that arise are important for the national conversation: the world is not always nice, children need to learn about war and destruction, and artists can help us experience such things vicariously and discuss them. My take: there is more admirable literature that already addresses these themes.
We don’t need the overt violence and the panicked faces of the characters for a coming of age story to teach us to say no to excesses of wealth and power. The positive themes that the book promotes—sacrificing oneself for one’s family, courageously facing danger, resisting tyranny—share too much of the story with hyped up brutality.
Catching Fire may satisfy an urge for excitement, but it will leave us short of healthy nourishment. As a culture, we can surely do better than this.
Sandra Lee Dixon is associate professor of psychology of religion at the University of Denver.