Satire is Overrated: A Response to John Seel’s Take on “The Hunger Games”

All right, here’s my totally arrogant, opinionated rant about something I’m not well-educated in.

A number of critics have said social commentary was lost in translation from the novel The Hunger Games, to the movie.

Both are, in my opinion, equally excellent renditions of the same story in different mediums. But apparently, the story is not valuable or important enough for certain critics to take the movie seriously (or even the book, with literary critics). Not until it has social commentary, clinging to any novel/movie/music/work of art that gets noticed enough to be “culturally significant,” like a remora on the underbelly of a shark. And John Seel has let us know his opinion about what the movie leaves out:

To be frank, I have a hard time thinking the book relied so heavily on satire. I’ll admit, I’m biased. My brain perceives the specific characters and situations of a story as the most important elements. Anything the author is trying to tell me, or the philosophy they worked with, doesn’t readily or immediately sink in (except in instances of annoying preachiness), because I’m too busy enjoying the story. I don’t pick up much social commentary, preferring to look at the strengths or weaknesses of the book itself. I couldn’t care less whether the author had something Deep or Important to say, as long as they don’t whack me over the head with it.

If a story is meant mainly to be a satire (or satire is its most important aspect), I lose interest. Storytelling can tell us about life, but it seems to be most effective when it’s not merely mocking a defect in society or human nature. For that reason, satire looks less important if you are telling a great tale; great stories are havens for subtlety and specificity. Satire is defined as “A literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule.” So when you realize a work is a satire, you start to hear the derisive laughter echoing over the pages, and that is a massive turn-off for me.

The thing about The Hunger Games is that the novel and movie work spectacularly outside of the realm of social commentary. There is a lot of resonance with big themes and trends in society in Katniss’s story (reality TV, entertainment’s callous attitude to violence, etc.), but you’re always focused on her situation, rather than anything Collins may have been trying to sell you. In fact, I don’t think Collins was trying to sell anything beyond a great book. To call it a satire, in my opinion, is to allude to such a little part of the novel/movie as to make the contention nearly meaningless.


So, finally, here’s my stronger-worded response to Seel:

In honesty, I have to say that satire doesn’t have as much value as Seel thinks it does, particularly regarding The Hunger Games. It’s a crutch that takes away the full impact of a story that can stand on its own legs. There are better ways to inspire moral outrage, if that’s your endgame, such as tackling a subject with complete seriousness and levelheadedness. How jaded are you if you need to mock a bad situation before you’re inspired to stand against it?

John Seel demands too much from the movie adaptation. And frankly, he asks too much of the book itself. The power of this novel comes from the remarkable storytelling, from the moral complexity of Katniss’s situation and decisions (I look forward to seeing how that plays out in the other two novels, which I have yet to read).

Maybe I missed the full impact of a latent satire in the book. However, it beggars belief that “satire” should be the most important point of a book that doesn’t rely on sermonizing. The Hunger Games, in book or movie form, would have been ruined had our ears picked up the clumsy scrape of a soapbox being dragged into the limelight.

This is what happens when a critic sees social commentary as more important than the story itself. The characters, the series of events they’re caught up in, what that teaches us about human nature – they are all brought down to mere tools for a cause. Hunger Games then becomes a means to an end for a schizophrenic culture to pat itself on the back and reassure itself that its moral vision is clear. “Who cares about Katniss, or Peeta, or Rue, or Haymitch, when you have a villainous dictatorship to spitefully laugh at?”

By the way, if Suzanne Collins’s “cultural satire,” intended or otherwise, was half as important to the story as Seel thinks it was, I would love to know how it got left out of the movie. She was, after all, a producer, and the studio took her seriously enough to let her have final approval on a lot of decisions. Don’t you think the “real point” of the book would have been manifested if satire really was so foundational to The Hunger Games?

The more I hear critics speak of social commentary in a novel or movie, the more convinced I become that it’s a vague concept which spackles Significance onto a story they really want to like (as if the story itself isn’t good enough). Satire may have a place in fiction. But not nearly so prominent as it is given now. If you want to know how I feel about most social commentary as pointed out by literary academics, you can consult the South Park episode “The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs.”

One thought on “Satire is Overrated: A Response to John Seel’s Take on “The Hunger Games”

  1. Pingback: “The Hunger Games” and Understated Violence « John K. Patterson

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