For the Narcissist Lover in You…

Why “The Hunger Games” is like “Fifty Shades of Grey”…

The Hunger Games is one of those books you don’t have to have read to know what it’s about.  I know the entire story based on the bits and pieces of mentally reassembled conversations I’ve overheard about it.  At its heart, it seems to be a story about a desperate society resorting to mortal violence between youths as a means of entertainment and survival.  It’s gritty and compelling by young adult fiction standards, and my guess is that this is because it is meant, at least in part, to be a cautionary tale about a civilization increasingly obsessed with violence as amusement.  “Take a peek”, the author seems to be saying, “at our inevitable future, unless cooler heads prevail.”

Which is bunk.

Don’t misunderstand me.  The book is probably great and everything.  So is the movie (I am told).  But I suggest that a huge reason why we, as a culture, are enthralled by The Hunger Games is not that it represents a cautionary morality tale about our potential future, but a delectable (albeit caricaturized) glimpse of something we all secretly hunger for: risk and danger.

Let’s back up a step and look at another hugely popular type of story: literary erotica.  This genre has suddenly been thrust into the spotlight because of the book Fifty Shades of Grey.  If, by some chance, you haven’t heard of it, it is apparently a bit of Twilight fan fiction loaded with dangerously kinky sex with all the names changed to make it publishable.  It is apparently terribly written, but really, who’s reading this stuff for the prose?  Good writing in erotica is like a clean, pleasant employee at a comic book shop: a pleasant surprise, but hardly expected or necessarily required.  No, people read erotica* for two reasons.

Reason one: they want to experience their fantasies in a safe way.  Most people dream about it, even if they don’t admit it– the torrid affair, the forbidden romance, the illicit attraction, etc.  Erotica gives readers a way to explore those fantasies safely, without the risk of ruined reputations, hurt feelings, or icky diseases.  Which brings us to…

Reason two: they want to feel justified in not practically exploring those fantasies themselves.  Thus, when the steamy bits have all been enjoyed, it is generally essential that the characters reap some negative consequence from their lack of propriety.  By watching the characters’ lives devolve into chaos because of their faulty inhibitions, the reader proves to him/herself that they are the smart ones for standing by their moral guns.  Thus, arguably, literary erotica tends to actually bolster healthy lifestyle choices.

“Don’t look at me like that.  I’m reading this for the good of society.”

Or not.  I don’t really know.  I do think it’s safe to say that most people who read a lot of literary erotica are probably not engaging in it themselves, since they’d probably be far too busy either having the torrid affairs or reaping the resulting consequences to find any time to read about them.  Plus, how exciting could the stories really be if you were doing it all yourself?  It’d be like a guy on a roller coaster reading a book about riding roller coasters.

So, back to The Hunger Games.

On the surface of it, it seems that this is a cautionary tale– a warning about a culture that has devolved to the point where mortal combat is entertainment.  And it makes sense, right?  After all, decades ago we made Mortal Kombat into a very popular miss-spelled video game, complete with vicious death moves and a sadistic narrator commanding players to “FINISH HIM” (even when the opposing character was a female, which just seems pointlessly callous).  Nowadays, we have even more bloody video games, etc, etc, etc.

Thanks to my geek friends for this image of Mortal Kombat teaching a generation how to dance.

Here’s the thing, though: people like danger.  We long for risks, and challenges, and actual, potential peril.  It’s what motivates most of our recreational activities.  Competition, at its purest, is risk.  It’s the danger of losing face, especially after all that inevitable trash talk we indulged in prior to the game.  Risk motivates us at nearly every turn.  Think about almost every pep talk and inspiration speech you’ve ever heard.  What was it’s core concept?  To play it safe, do nothing difficult, and ride the current of mediocrity?  If so, that was one terrible, terrible motivational speaker and you should probably head down to his van by the river and demand your money back if he hasn’t already spent it all on beef jerky and RC Cola.  No, the point of every empowering concept is to take risks— to push out of one’s comfort zone, attempt the seemingly impossible, damn the torpedoes, brave the consequences, and generally put it all on the line.

Why?  Because without the possibility of failure, there is no potential for reward.  Every good thing only comes after a scary risk:  going for the big job promotion, asking that unattainable girl out, investing in a new business, writing a story and showing it to the world, all of it hinges on the possibility of spectacular failure.

Risk and danger are the salt of life.  We don’t just enjoy it– we need it.

translation: KID MAGNET

And yet, our society is consistently, increasingly, painstakingly weeding all the risk out of our lives.

There used to be risk in eating too much and turning into a fat, sweaty, heart-attack-impending social pariah.  Now, obesity isn’t our fault– we’re victims of big fast food and Little Debbie.  In the age of class action lawsuits against McDonalds, major documentaries pointing out your helplessness in the face of the food industry, and new laws taking over the decision of how much soda you can have at any one time, we can all assume we are no longer responsible for what gets shoved into our mouths.  No responsibility equals no risk.

There used to be risk in buying a house and potentially not being able to afford the payments.  Now, there are entire industries catering to well-meaning victims of poor financial choices.  It isn’t our fault, they tell us.  Get what we deserve, they tell us.  Now, there are proposed programs to use eminent domain to buy foreclosed houses from lenders and give them back to the defaulted homeowners at greatly reduced mortgages.  Thus, if someone can no longer pay their mortgage because of “life circumstances” beyond their control, not only is it not their fault, but there is a potential safety net to save your home and reduce that pesky mortgage to manageable terms, despite any agreement you may have originally signed.  Safety net equals greatly reduced risk.

“…or we could NOT pay the mortgage, buy an Xbox, and somehow end up with a cheaper mortgage…

Even in big business, think about the term “too big to fail”.  This means that if the government deems a corporation too important to the job market or the overall economy, the government will protect that corporation from the risk of doing business, keeping it afloat by extra-economic, false means.  This, by definition, obliterates risk.

And even more: the National Football League has lately been under sustained media pressure because of the dangers the sport of football presents to its players.  In the wake of the suicide of player Junior Seau, ostensibly due to brain damage received during his football career, extraordinary attention has been given to the idea of making the game safer and less risky.  Furthermore, some are beginning to pressure high schools to shut down their football programs entirely for the sake of the safety of their students.  In general, the game is increasingly considered too risky, especially since it amounts to nothing more than a form of entertainment.

So the bottom line is clear: despite the fact that humanity is hard-wired to thrive on risk, risk is being systematically removed from our daily existence.  It may be for good reasons, and it may even be the right thing to do.  But the result is an increasingly sterilized lifestyle, chock full of anti-bacterial hand sanitizer, safety nets, bike helmets, bailouts, backstops and elbow pads, all designed specifically to reduce risk in increasingly broad areas of life.

And the human collective response is BOREDOM.

Along comes The Hunger Games, and an imaginary world filled to the brim with risk, peril, challenge, and danger.  People did not flock to this story because it was a warning about the direction our culture was going, but a tantalizing morsel of escapism from the forbidden realm of danger.  Readers soaked it up, I propose, because we are so desperately hungry for risk.  We instinctively know that the greater the risk, the greater the reward.  Take away the risk, and the reward stops having meaning, or even existing.  The Hunger Games is not our cautionary tale, but our guilty pleasure.

And just like with the literary erotica, we need to see both sides: not only do we lust to experience the rush of the danger and the resulting triumph of victory, we want– we need– to see the negative consequences of that fictitious victory.  We must see the inevitable downward spiral and destruction of the victor, so that we, as a culture, can console ourselves that our comparatively risk-free (and boring) lifestyle is the right and prudent one, even if it isn’t anywhere near as exciting.

In short, risk, like lust, is culturally safe to indulge in by way of the story, but only if it reinforces our commitment to never actually go there ourselves.  And thus, we put the books down, take a deep breath, and go back to our normal, risk free, passion-free daily lives, much safer than we’ve probably ever been in the history of civilization…

But bored.

Oh, so very, very bored.

*I’m not talking about romance novels here, where it is perfectly good and fine for the lovers to live happily together in the end.  The main draw of literary erotica is the forbidden aspect of it.

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2 responses

  1. This idea could also be reduced from danger to just moving or doing something. Moving like in sports, recreation, or travel. Doing like cooking, fishing, or game sports. People are doing less and less, but are watching more and more. Moving and doing are more fun than watching, but just watching is easy. Are people bored because they avoid doing things that are difficult. This reminds of a link. http://earlyrebelution.blogspot.com/2005/10/lesson-from-vikings-do-hard-things.html

    July 8, 2012 at 12:28 am

  2. Luke

    After reading all the three of the Hunger Games books (stop after the first one, by the way), I have to disagree with your statement that it is ” a cautionary tale about a civilization increasingly obsessed with violence as amusement.” There are really only two of the twelve districts that like the violence (of course, the Capitol loves the games). The people in district twelve, from which Katniss hails, hate the games, and typically watch them in silence.

    However, your point still stands – it is a cautionary tale about what could happen with our society. I know I want to shoot people after I play Battlefield 3 for a couple hours. I mean, I’ve been totally desensitized to human life because I shoot fake people online. [/sarcasm] Also, I’ve turned off someone’s life support, but that’s COMPLETELY different, cause it happened in the hospital and I was supposed to do it.

    I’m not sure what I’m trying to say here, but I really don’t think our society is any more violent than it ever has been in the past. So we have football, in which people get the occasional concussion. So? The Aztecs (? Incas maybe?) had a game in which the winning team was sacrificed to the Gods. Rome had the Coliseum, which was probably not as bad as Gladiator depicted, but you get the idea. England had public executions at the Tower of London. The wild west here had public hangings. None of those things occurred in the last fifty years, and if you take the west out of it, a much longer time frame has passed.

    July 9, 2012 at 6:04 pm

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