"The real sport of the Hunger Games is watching the tributes kill one another," says protagonist Katniss Everdeen in the first book of Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy. The real sport of The Hunger Games, Gary Ross's compulsively entertaining cinematic adaptation, is breezing by those murders without offending delicate sensibilities.
It's a dance, incorporating the violent deaths of more than 20 teenagers into a film whose blockbuster aspirations aim it virtually at all age groups. Ross pulls it off with a host of tricks like shaky-cam blurring, tasteful squirts of blood (well, as tasteful as squirts of blood can be) and selective montages that focus more on the effect (lifeless corpses) than the cause (say, bludgeoning). It often feels like an ingenious workaround of the constraints of PG-13 and our supposed cultural sensitivity.
The violence question has been inherent to The Hunger Games since the movie was announced, and for many of us before that: When I read the book, which is often so blatant and carefully rendered that it feels like a screenplay outline, I wondered how the hell they were going to pull off portraying the Battle Royale-style massacre reality show that Katniss's dystopian government forces teens into annually. Less than a month after Ross was announced director, he announced that the film would be rated PG-13. Virtually every feature written about the film ponders the violence question up top, and virtually every review you'll read today attacks the issue. How can the film remain true to the book if it's shying away from brutality?
Easily, actually, since Collins never dwells much on violence herself. Typically, she confines her goriest descriptions to no more than two sentences; the film offers them in about five seconds.
At the start of the games, Collins surveys the battlefield: "About a dozen or so tributes are hacking away at one another at the horn. Several lie dead already on the ground," she writes. The participants (tributes) have pooled together around a supply pile and taken deadly advantage of the proximity. "I can see the muscles ripple in Cato's arms as he sharply jerks the boy's head to the side. It's that quick," Collins writes later on, and that's really how it happens in the movie. Instances in the book where death is implied (a far-off cry from a foolish girl who starts a campfire, thus attracting her murderers) remain intact. A few are altered (instead of having her skull dented after being bashed with a rock, one victim is thrown up against a giant metal cornucopia, though we don't see it or a head wound) and gore is stripped away (the festering burns and bites of the book look like Freddy Krueger's face at worst). But Ross's vision is very much in line with Collins's.
Perhaps the reason that the The Hunger Games book series has a reputation for brutality while the movie comes off as relatively tame exists in an unavoidable discrepancy in media perception. By merely suggesting something, Collins gives the reader's imagination license to run wild, filling her blanks with whatever carnage the recesses of his or her mind can conjure. A film, by nature, is more literal. Suggestion is possible –- the almost gore-free Texas Chain Saw Massacre wouldn't have its reputation as one of the most gruesome movies of all time were it not –- but there's barely time to soak in the subtext. The Hunger Games film zips along, leapfrogging from plot point to plot point that the book already laid out. If you want to cater to kids, subtlety is going to suffer.
The larger issue, illustrated by Collins and Ross, is our culture's very strange relationship with fictional violence. The Motion Picture Association of America's clear philosophy is that certain levels of carnage are not suitable for children because they'd somehow be damaging. The idea of toning down this potentially hazardous material to make it more consumable is infinitely more desensitizing and disrespectful to the concept of human life. For the sake of realism, shouldn't fictitious violence be hard to watch? Shouldn't it agitate us into revulsion or catharsis or realization? Isn't part of what we're seeking when we sign up to watch a patently brutal movie to feel something? In his review for New York, David Edelstein proclaims The Hunger Games "a slaughterfest for the whole family." That's not unlike the broadcast coverage of the games in the book, forced viewing for all the citizens of Panem ("At home, we would be watching full coverage of each and every killing").
The story's moral ambiguity is never more apparent than in its dealing with the violence it condemns. It is a necessary evil in Katniss's world and a boon to Collins's story. The threat of death provides more tension than any stupid Twilight-esque love triangle ever could. The brutality of society shades in the characters' behavior. Violence is what makes her hero a hero.
As she takes in the carnage, Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss doesn't flinch. She's much stronger than we're allowed to be, but just as desensitized.
Photo via Lionsgate.