Recently, in search of genuine Greek coffee, some friends and I drove down Boston’s Boylston Street.
I glanced to the left and spotted a building under renovation. The scene struck me as odd: Only the bottom floor was bandaged in transparent plastic. My driver pointed out a wide strip of blue and yellow paint on the street before us—the Boston Marathon finish line. This was it, the place I had wanted to find but had been afraid to ask about: the site of this spring’s bombings.
Morbidly, I wondered if there were still blood stains on the pavement. My eyes swept the road, and as they did, I suddenly felt ashamed, as if I were looking for something that ought to be left unseen. A fire engine rushed by with sirens roaring, and I shuddered, thinking of the sirens that must have rang out on that April afternoon. Why had I wanted to visit such a scene?
When my husband and I decided to move to Boston this summer, I spent an afternoon searching for pictures of our new hometown. I met with no success. Every Google image search containing the word “Boston” brought a slew of bloodied, graphic images of the bombing and its aftermath.
This gruesome curiosity is ancient. Public executions have long been part of human history; until the early twentieth century, they were a widely-attended event, even in the United States. Socialites brought picnic lunches to the Battle of Bull Run. The human draw to violence is not new. What is new, however, is the capability for violence and human suffering to be broadcast around the country and the world in real time. In Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, prominent media scholar Douglas Rushkoff notes that it was raw television footage of Vietnam that led to the war’s widespread condemnation. Later, 24-hour news networks like CNN began broadcasting tragedies as they happened: Operation Desert Storm, Tiananmen Square.
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. Grimly, my husband and I wondered if we would be able to stomach the violence of the later books come to life—particularly the third, Mockingjay, whose second act ends with a horrific bombing. In one of the series’ gristliest passages, Collins describes (in the series’ trademark present tense) a scene eerily prescient of the Boston Marathon aftermath: “A wail rises from the crowd. The snow’s red and littered with undersized body parts. Many of the children die immediately, but others lie in agony on the ground.”
Collins herself worries about voyeurism. In an interview with Scholastic, she said she especially found the sensationalism of reality television “very disturbing”:
There’s [the] voyeuristic thrill, watching people being humiliated or brought to tears or suffering physically. There’s this potential for desensitizing the audience so that when they see real tragedy playing out on the news, it doesn’t have the impact it should…. Because the young soldier’s dying in the war in Iraq, it’s not going to end at the commercial break. It’s not something fabricated, it’s not a game. It’s your life.
This summer, Mandy, a former co-worker of mine, starred in a reality television show. The show’s crew filmed her in every tear-jerking scenario imaginable. A camera crew followed her to the country road where, ten years prior, a car accident had claimed her mother’s life. “My mom’s body was thrown over there,” she said, pointing to the middle of the road, “and I just kept telling her, ‘Get up, Mom, get up.’” The camera zoomed in on Mandy’s face as she wept. (You could almost hear the producers gleefully directing the cameraman —Get it! This is television gold!) In a scene on a Calgary mountaintop, Mandy confessed that she struggled with an eating disorder. Again came the tears and the camera’s eager zoom. But later, Mandy revealed to a local newspaper that it was actually one of the show’s producers who had made her cry. The producer had felt Mandy’s confession lacked excitement, so he yelled at her until he got the scene (and the tears) he wanted.
Douglas Rushkoff alludes to this kind of brutish exploitation in an analysis of American Idol and its countless spawn. Millions of viewers gather around the television set to laugh at the earnest (but often miserable) William Hung-types crooning their way to fame. “The more of this kind of media we enjoy,” he says, “the more spectacularly cruel it must be to excite our attention, and the better we get at evading the moral implications of watching the spectacle.”
Show me the entertainment of a decade, and I will show you its anxieties. This proves especially true in film. The apocalyptic alien movies of the 1950s hint at Cold War paranoia. The dark dramas of the 1960s and early 1970s—Psycho, Taxi Driver—reveal the angst of Vietnam and the unrest of a nation brewing a revolution. Even the recent slew of zombie films betrays a discomfort with modern medical adventures—a fear that somewhere, somehow, an experiment will go horribly wrong, à la the cancer vaccine in I Am Legend. “In the absence of an effective general mythology, each of us has his private, unrecognized, rudimentary, yet secretly potent pantheon of dream,” mythologist Joseph Campbell says in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Though he speaks of the dreams we experience in sleep, he might as well be discussing film. Film—as well as music, literature, and all of popular culture—could well be the dreams of an uneasy society seeking collective catharsis in the anonymous darkness of the multiplex.
So what can we extrapolate from our obsession with The Hunger Games? What is the secret fear of a population that flocks to see films —albeit fictional—of children fighting to the death?
Perhaps our fear is that we have become like the Capitol, too easily delighting in the sufferings of others—even if they are reality television stars like Mandy and William Hung. Perhaps we watch The Hunger Games to prove to ourselves that this national pastime of voyeurism could be worse; at least we are not watching reality shows of children killing each other. Perhaps we search for bloodstains on Boylston Street to reassure ourselves that, even in our worst moments, we never have done anything as bad as the Tsarnaevs. But what can be said for a society that finds its solace in cruelty?