Death on the big screen

I finally saw the Hunger Games movie today, on possibly its last day in my local theater. (What? I've been busy. I'll probably see The Avengers in about three months -- unless bro & SIL want to see it during our family vacation.)  

I enjoyed the movie far more than I enjoyed the book.

I'm not entirely sure that counts as a complement.

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I found the premise of the novel The Hunger Games deeply disturbing, and I had a hard time imagining how it could ever be turned into a movie with anything less than an R rating, given that children brutally murdering other children is integral to the plot. 

Yet somehow when I watched it on the big screen, I did not experience the horrified revulsion that the book had triggered in me.

Maybe the fact that I've had a good long time to get used to the premise and how it gets played out in the story has something to do with it.  Just recognizing how much my horror at the Hunger Games was rooted in the idea "those could be MY kids" went a long way to defusing that horror. (Because of course, they couldn't be my kids. Because I don't have kids. And because it's a work of FICTION.) And I'm sure that the fact that I already knew what was going to happen undercut the tension considerably.

And then there's the deliberate avoidance of graphic depiction of the deaths that happen in the movie.  In the book, Suzanne Collins does not indulge in gratuitous gore, but neither does she pull her punches.  The Hunger Games are all about brutal acts of violence, and you can't soft-pedal the violence and do justice to the subject matter.  In the movie, it's not like they try to deny the deaths of the 22 teenagers who are sacrificed in the Hunger Games, but the viewers are definitely not forced to look horrendous violence in the face for very long. Yes, you see blood and dead bodies, but whenever someone is killed, the camera work gets all jerky and out-of-focus -- which works cinematically because these are moments of intense, confused movement, but it also works psychologically to protect the viewer from having to see very clearly what's going on. 

One review I read called this visual treatment of the killings a choice of moral cowardice, because the movie does not confront the viewer with the moral horror of child-on-child violence the way that the book does. I think there's something to that. But I also don't think I would have wanted to see a movie that depicted the deaths of those 22 children more "realistically."  And I've heard of enough young viewers being traumatized by the movie as it was that I wouldn't wish a more visually explicit experience on them, either. 

So I find myself puzzling, again, over appropriate ways to depict death in movies geared for young audiences.  Because it seems like the default, whether in a Disney cartoon or a dystopian YA epic, is to minimize the significance, or the awfulness, or the finality of death.  And while I applaud the desire to be sensitive and not overwhelm or emotionally terrorize young viewers, it seems there's something dishonest and unhelpful about blurring death and moving along so quickly that the import of what just happened never sinks in.

And this gets me thinking, again, about why I found the movie version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 underwhelming.  (Ha!  You didn't think I was going to NOT get around to talking about Harry, did you?  Oh, and here there be spoilers.)  Among other flaws, the movie doesn't get death right.  And since the book, in the main, does, it required deliberate departure from the source material to screw this up. To start, well, don't even get me started on poor Neville's STUPID LITTLE SPEECH, which deserves a blog post all its own.  Then, it did serious damage to the moral integrity of the story to have Fred Weasley's death happen off-stage.  After stingily doling out one major death per book in volumes four, five, and six, volume seven is a blood bath, but Fred's death is still significant as a confrontation with the stark suddenness with which death can come in the heat of battle, and for its galvanizing effect on the entire Trio.  You don't get the weight of it if you don't see him fall.  And what the hell was up with Julie Walters as Molly Weasley felling Bellatrix Lestrange and then SMIRKING?  I'm sure Molly was feeling many things at that moment, but smug self-satisfaction was not one of them. 

Why is it so hard to tell the truth about death in film, especially films for kids?  I think we grown ups really, really don't like to think about kids dying, and we want to shelter kids from the reality of death for as long as possible.  But death is a part of life, and kids crave engagement with things that really matter -- matters of life and death.  This may be part of the reason The Hunger Games is so popular. 

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