Flipping between reality television and footage of the war in Iraq, Susan Collins was inspired to pen The Hunger Games. The dystopian young adult trilogy has been a runaway success both of page and screen: book sales number in the tens of millions, and in 2012, the first film took in nearly $700 million worldwide. (The next film, Catching Fire, releases tomorrow.)
Initially, I resisted the books for fear they were too violent — but then, at the urging of friends, family, and coworkers (all of whom I believed to have respectable taste), I devoured them in a weekend, and my husband did the same. The Hunger Games are literary alchemy, a breathless amalgam of all the tropes I loved as a child: romance, survival, and the poster child for strong female protagonists, Katniss Everdeen. When the first film came out, my husband and I rushed to the multiplex.
Collins’ trilogy provides, at turns, masterful commentary on class disparity and violent voyeurism: Katniss and her companions excoriate the citizens of the Capitol for their decadence and rabid consumption of the Games. (Their disdain was contagious: for weeks after reading the books, I found myself asking, “Would someone from the Capitol do this?” before doing or saying anything.)
But while watching the films, my husband and I felt uneasy. This discomfort ran deeper than the typical distaste any reader feels when watching a beloved book adapted for the screen. Watching children slaughter each other was very different than reading about it.
Her concerns immediately reminded me of St. Augustine’s critique of cathartic entertainment in his Confessions:
Stage-plays also drew me away, full of representations of my miseries and of fuel to my fire. Why does man like to be made sad when viewing doleful and tragical scenes, which yet he himself would by no means suffer? And yet he wishes, as a spectator, to experience from them a sense of grief, and in this very grief his pleasure consists. What is this but wretched insanity?
St. Augustine sees any enjoyment of watching the misery of others as a sort of disordered mercy. Drama plays with our passions but does not, according to him, put them to good use. He writes of this contradiction, “But I, wretched one, then loved to grieve, and sought out what to grieve at, as when, in another man’s misery, though reigned and counterfeited, that delivery of the actor best pleased me, and attracted me the most powerfully, which moved me to tears.”
More to the focus of Catching Fire, in St. Augustine’s day gladitorial games had not yet been outlawed. He later tells the story of his friend Alypius, who after reforming his ways through St. Augustine’s inadvertent rebuke, falls again when he moves from Carthage to Rome:
[B]eing utterly opposed to and detesting such spectacles, he was one day met by chance by divers of his acquaintance and fellow-students returning from dinner, and they with a friendly violence drew him, vehemently objecting and resisting, into the amphitheatre, on a day of these cruel and deadly shows, he thus protesting: “Though you drag my body to that place, and there place me, can you force me to give my mind and lend my eyes to these shows?” … When they had arrived … the whole place became excited with the inhuman sports. But he, shutting up the doors of his eyes, forbade his mind to roam abroad after such naughtiness; and would that he had shut his ears also! For, upon the fall of one in the fight, a mighty cry from the whole audience stirring him strongly, he, overcome by curiosity, and prepared as it were to despise and rise superior to it, no matter what it were, opened his eyes, and was struck with a deeper wound in his soul than the other, whom he desired to see, was in his body; and he fell more miserably than he on whose fall that mighty clamour was raised, which entered through his ears, and unlocked his eyes, to make way for the striking and beating down of his soul, which was bold rather than valiant hitherto; and so much the weaker in that it presumed on itself, which ought to have depended on Thee [O God].
Here St. Augustine raises the stakes: it is not a dramatization of violence and misery but the real thing that causes the fall of his friend Alypius. Yet how much different is this from Suzanne Collins, flipping between footage of the war in Iraq and reality television? Are these things, as Buffenbarger describes the site of the Boston marathon bombing, “something that ought to be left unseen”?
It is difficult for me to decide. Sometimes I think it depends on what side of the bed I wake up on whether or not I would agree with St. Augustine or Buffenbarger. I am inclined to say that it should be a matter of prudence, but certainly there must be some limits, shouldn’t there?
As if this is not enough of a dilemma, there is another that might apply to Collins’ Hunger Games: what are the moral implications of profiting off of human misery, even when critiquing it and hoping to raise conscientiousness?
I think this is illustrated well by Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote his best-selling book Slaughterhouse-Five (alternatively titled The Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance with Death) about his experience living through the Allied bombing of Dresden, Germany (which was more devastating than Hiroshima), as a prisoner of war in WWII. In his first chapter, he tells of how he came to write the book, and how his friend’s wife, Mary O’Hare, disdained his idea of writing a book about the war at all:
Then she turned to me, let me see how angry she was, and that the anger was for me. She had been talking to herself, so what she said was a fragment of a much larger conversation. “You were just babies then!” she said.
“What?” I said.
“You were just babies in the war — like the ones upstairs!”
I nodded that this was true. We had been foolish virgins in the war, right at the end of childhood.
“But you’re not going to write it that way, are you.” This wasn’t a question. It was an accusation.
“I — I don’t know,” I said.
“Well, I know,” she said. “You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them. And they’ll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs.”
She didn’t want her babies or anyone else’s babies killed in wars. And she thought wars were partly encouraged by books and movies.
* * *
So I held up my right hand and I made her a promise: “Mary,” I said, “I don’t think this book of mine is ever going to be finished. I must have written five thousand pages by now, and thrown them all away. If I ever do finish it, though, I give you my word of honor: there won’t be a part for Frank Sinatra or John Wayne.
“I tell you what,” I said, “I’ll call it ‘The Children’s Crusade.’”
She was my friend after that.
Thus, from Vonnegut’s perspective World War II was quite similar to The Hunger Games — children killing children, though thankfully not for sport or spectacle. Yet in an interview with the Paris Review, Vonnegut seems to express some misgivings about the book even after this shift in perspective:
[O]nly one person on the entire planet benefited from the raid, which must have cost tens of millions of dollars. The raid didn’t shorten the war by half a second, didn’t weaken a German defense or attack anywhere, didn’t free a single person from a death camp. Only one person benefited — not two or five or ten. Just one.
And who was that?
Me. I got three dollars for each person killed. Imagine that.
For my part, I think it is a good thing that people know about Dresden because of Slaughterhouse-Five, and it can be a good thing if watching Catching Fire this weekend causes people to question their consumption of sensational news and reality TV. But other days I wake up on the St. Augustine side of the bed and worry over the twisted mercy that cathartic entertainment evokes.
Elyse Buffenbarger’s full essay, “Cruelty Catching Fire: Violence, Voyeurism, and The Hunger Games” can be read at Ethika Politika here.