“The Hunger Games” and Understated Violence

…In which I rant some more about academic/critical theories being applied to popular stories. Proceed at your own risk.
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This is a continuation from a previous post, discussing the importance of social commentary in The Hunger Games, both book and movie. Here, I’d like to focus on the role violence played in the cinematic version.
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The violence was considerably toned down in the film, and still that wasn’t enough for the people who apparently think children should never be told the world is often a cruel, violent place. During the saddest death scene in the whole story I had tears in my eyes, but that incredible moment was almost ruined for me. All because some grandma was sitting with her family right in front of me, and she just had to say, “Tsk. That’s barbaric!” You don’t say? Didn’t anyone tell her Hunger Games has quite the body count? This also reinforces Shepherd Book’s observation in Firefly that there is a special circle of Hell reserved for child molesters and people who talk at the theater.
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But I’m not addressing the people who balk at “too much” violence in the movie. This is for those who don’t think there was enough. For that all-important social commentary, you understand. Some of the film’s reviewers, including the person I was responding to earlier, seem to regard the movie as not being violent enough to have any lasting impact or to communicate the horror of the novel’s story and get a point across.
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I’ve said it before and I will say it again: a movie doesn’t need to rely on social commentary to be excellent, important, or memorable. In fact, that commentary, rather like excessive CGI, can become a crutch for a movie to lean on. It will be emphasized to hide a lackluster story, and distracts from a great one.
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Does Games have something to say about violence and how we have come to view it? Yes, it does. The book and film do an excellent job of pointing out how we have gotten desensitized to it and crave corpses for the heightened drama (and as far as I’m concerned, it seems to leave anything further up to the reader/viewer). But my position is that this statement makes up a small part of the whole, rather than being the primary reason we should pay attention to The Hunger Games. If a story is treated mainly as an excuse for academic thought exercises, the experience is diluted, like deconstructing the jokes of a comedian while he’s on stage, and pontificating about what jokes mean to the human condition.
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Even if the main/strongest point of The Hunger Games was to hold up a mirror to a violence-obsessed culture, do we actually need buckets of gore and lingering death scenes for the movie or book to give a satisfying commentary?
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Even if I’m full of crap and Games is mainly meant to comment on something after all, I still challenge the idea that the movie soft-petals its inherent violence. Look at the audience Suzanne Collins was speaking to, and the limitations of media that is read vs. media that is watched. The Hunger Games and its sequels are very much young adult fiction, or at least they fell quite snugly into the YA market. Violence in the books is probably about as far as YA can go right now (please correct me if you know of YA books with much more carnage than these). And given the lower tolerance for explicit violence when it comes to the MPAA, I understand that they wanted less blood shown in the movie, so the main fans could come and see it.
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But a counter-intuitive side effect of this toning down is that the horror of the titular Games is highlighted, not dulled. Violence is being described and commented on, but through what isn’t shown, almost like the use of deep shadow in a painting. The movie’s cutting away from most of the carnage works brilliantly — not because it supposedly panders to a younger audience, but because it leaves that carnage to your imagination.
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This isn’t the same kind of underdone violence you’ll see in the X-Men movies or the Mummy remake, where people get stabbed quite brutally, but not a single drop of blood is seen when the blade is drawn out. In Games, the judicious application of quick cuts showing splatters of blood and corpses in the background contributes heavily to a visual telling of the story. It’s one of the classic tensions between novels and filmmaking. Novels get it right when they spell out enough of what’s happening for the reader to picture it; powerful films go much farther when they don’t show most of the violence — or save a full view of the man-eating shark for the climax. Either way, the audience’s imagination is being put to work. So how the novel and movie handle the story’s violence is expressed in an ideal way for each medium, making for a strong novel and a strong movie.
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All right, I think that’s my last post on The Hunger Games, at least until I finally read Catching Fire. Any discussion, objections, or questions would be most welcome. Thanks for your time.
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2 thoughts on ““The Hunger Games” and Understated Violence

  1. I definitely agree with your post. I teach an advanced film class and we had this very discussion about the violence in this film. Overwhelmingly, the consensus was that it was done just right, because this film’s main audience is the YA crowd. Sure, an R rated version would be interesting, but that’s not the point. The movie it was most compared to during our discussion regarding violence, clever editing and lack of blood was The Dark Knight. The acts are horrifying enough to propel the story without the gore, which would be the first thing most people would complain about. Great post!

    • Wow, Jill. That is quite a compliment. Thank you very much! Now that you mention it, I would have to agree that The Dark Knight is an excellent comparison. I’m so glad your students had a good discussion of this movie.

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