The Hunger Games: educational assessment

It seems that these past few weeks have been insanely packed with travel, and some of it not particularly fun. As I await boarding of a flight to an editorial board meeting, I recall that a week ago I drove 200 miles to (and 200 miles home from) Grinnell College in Iowa (directly east of Omaha) for an invited talk and pleasant meetings with faculty and students.

I enjoyed my visit and returned to Omaha only to drive another ~200 miles in the other direction early the next morning to Grand Island, Nebraska, for another speech contest that one of my kids was participating in. While the contest was fun, driving there in fog as thick as soup (literally) and returning through driving rain, heavy winds, some light hail, and almost no visibility on the famed Interstate 80 was not so much fun. My muscles ached all week from straining forward to see through the windshield.

But rather than complaining, which is something I’m quite good at, I thought that I’d do something different (something I’m probably not very good at) in this blog and review a film based on a young adult fiction book that both my kids have recently read. I should note that as a child I never read any young adult fiction, stepping directly into adult fiction at quite an early age (and I recall being rather puzzled at sex scenes in some of them…).

The film is “The Hunger Games,” the first of a trilogy, and my 10 year old son was my companion. As I do not want to give too much away, I’ll make this a relatively brief review. The film (novel) is set in a futuristic environment (USA) in which the premise is that there is a very strong and powerful central “capital” that controls 12 poor and subservient territories (or districts as they are known). Having rebelled against the mighty capital many years earlier, as punishment the capital holds a gladiator-like competition every year in the capital collecting 2 youths (12-18 years old) by lottery from each of the districts. The competition is one based on survival of the fittest, with the contestants being required to kill or be killed, and the last-standing survivor of this horrific “game” being declared the winner and allowed to live on as champion of the “games.”

I have heard many negative comments about the film and book trilogy–that it is too ‘graphic,’ that children and youth don’t need any additional violent films to add to the growing repertoire, and so on. Having seen the film, I beg to differ.

Yes, there are graphic parts to the film. But at the same time, I see this as a highly critical and very educational portrayal of western society. The film depicts the gluttony and hedonism of those in the capital who are only seeking their next “fix” of entertainment in a world where attention spans are often measured on the second hand of a wrist watch. The audience and television commentators and interviewers who are mindlessly immune to the idea that lives are being lost in these games, and are merely plying for humorous and witty comments and ‘ratings’–along with their quirky hairdos and attention-seeking dress. These segments, in my humble opinion, are far more intense and difficult than the graphic fighting scenes of the youth in the games themselves (not that those are easy to stomach).

One of my first reactions to the film, watching the combination of thrill-seeking audiences and mind-numbing TV interviewers and commentators was today’s reality of “Reality Shows.” Not that I actually ever watch television and have ever seen them, but I know enough of what they represent to see that the author and director of the “The Hunger Games” has certainly taken offense at these new icons of popular culture and aimed arrows at them. As it turns out, in reading an interview with author Suzanne Collins, she notes that she came by the idea while channel surfing and seeing station after station presenting reality shows and images from the Iraq war.

So while this film may stretch the imagination a little far from present day life in the western world, the gladiator-like scenes combined with ridicule of the path of instantaneous make for a very compelling discussion with one’s children, or perhaps even just to serve as a reminder that our own adult lives should never be taken lightly as a point for amusement. This film has earned a strong recommendation from yours truly.

Note added April 22: I have failed to make perhaps the most important point that I had intended. This post was supposed to correspond with Holocaust Day–and while not addressing the 11 million Jews, Gypsies, communists and many others who were systematically gassed to death by the Hitler regime–the film does evoke a very pertinent question: “AT WHAT POINT IS LIFE NO LONGER WORTH LIVING?

The concept of putting someone (or an entire country) in a situation of “kill or be killed” is a recurrent and critical theme in the film. And we all know that if this particular dilemma had been answered differently by those under the control of the Nazi murder machine, the outcome of Hitler’s attempts to wipe Jews and others off the map might have ended differently.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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11 Responses to The Hunger Games: educational assessment

  1. stephenemoss says:

    Steve – my kids took me to see the film a couple of days ago and I’m in total agreement with you. I hadn’t expected to enjoy it, based on the little I had learned about it beforehand, but I was very impressed. I guess you can go all the way back to Rollerball to find films in which humans participate in televised gladiatorial combat for the amusement of a largely amoral and vacuous populace, but with the focus being away from the violence I found The Hunger Games to be an original form of the genre. The film was also helped by some very convincing performances and direction.

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    Thanks, Steve–glad you had a similar experience with the film. I “dropped the ball” in my review, though, as there was a definite link with Holocaust Day and being out of town at a meeting I forgot to point it out. So I will now go back and add an after-note about the ethical issue of “at what point does a human being realize that life is no longer worth living?”

  3. I’ve read the book (now reading the second) but haven’t seen the film. It reminded me immediately of The Running Man, a rather awful Schwarzenegger film in which Arnie is (wrong) convicted of murder and has to run a gauntlet among various people out to kill him.

    The book I found a bit nastily violent, but a fun read.

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Oh come on Richard, The Running Man is a fine film! And so well done, with such subtle layers of narrative and character development!

      (OK, I’ll admit it, I love it – but it’s definitely on my “guilty pleasures” list).

      I’ve decided to read The Hunger Games before seeing the film, but having just started the HUGE 5th book in George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series (aka Game of Thrones), it’s going to be a while before I get to it.

  4. cromercrox says:

    I was taken to see The Hunger Games at the Cromer Enormoplex with Gee Minor (14) and her cousin Miss H. C. of Cromer (15). Gee Minor had just finished the trilogy; Miss H. C. of Cromer had read them about a year earlier; and I had had no exposure to any of it except for seeing a review on a culture program on TV (Saturday Review, which is so far up its own arse that it’s probably up there cosily with a standard lamp, an armchair and the latest Orange Prize nominees.)

    Well, we all loved the film. Yes, it reminded me very much of older death-as-entertainment films such as Running Man and Rollerball, and I too found it to be a savage critique of reality TV, which to my mind exists in the main to make fun of the gullible and the disadvantaged. As for the Holocaust – well, I’d say any connection is rather thin.

    But I am reminded if tangentially of an article I have just read in the 21st April issue of the Economist of the death camps in North Korea, which makes the human-rights abuses of practically anyone else seem like picnics in the park. North Korea is like Nazi Germany only worse. All you need to do to get locked up in a labour camp for life is to be accused of not dusting the portrait of Kim Il Sung sufficiently – and they’ll punish the rest of your family, down to your grandchildren, just by association and a dogma of hereditary guilt. The racial policies of the Kim dynasty means that any woman who has conceived by a Han Chinese will have the baby forcibly aborted and may well be executed herself. Those citizens of North Korea who manage to escape to China are (shame on China) forcibly repatriated … and are then executed. If ever there was just cause to go to war to alleviate human suffering, this is it.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Glad you had a similar experience with The Hunger Games. I agree that N. Korea is an incredibly gruesome example of what can happen in total dictatorships. I think that the rest of the world knows and hears relatively little because of the the tight control they have over the media and anything that occurs within the state.

      With regards to my Holocaust analogy–I agree that the The Hunger Games is a very different thing; the particular point I made was with regard to the value of human life. In other words, ordinary people faced with the situation of “kill or be killed,” which is a moral dilemma that frequently occurred in Nazi Germany and in the stated film.

  5. Lutfur says:

    Basically, you encourage your kid’s mind.Then you interested to watch it and you find similarity between film and travel.I enjoyed and i decide to watch the film.

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