The Hunger Games, and Conditional Necessity

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My wife and I are in agreement that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire was somehow better than the first Hunger Games movie. I am still trying to figure out why. There were many things wrong with it, both cinematically and morally, but the fact remains that it was still more enjoyable.

However, if you don’t mind a spoiler, I think I can identify one thing about this new Hunger Games movie that was a philosophical improvement, and hence more enjoyable (for me at least).

It has to do with the way “necessity” is experienced in these movies. The hazy moral vibe of the movies is that if you have to end up competing in the Hunger Games for whatever reason–you get randomly selected, you volunteer to save your sister, you are a bloodthirsty lunatic, etc.–then it is “necessary” for you to play the game, to try to kill all the other teens somehow coerced into the arena.

But of course, it is not really necessary. It is what one might call a “conditional necessity,” something that becomes necessary only if a bunch of other things are first accepted. As the philosopher Robert Spaemann points out, the right path is not simply to accept such pseudo-necessities, to do “the best thing possible under the conditions.” Rather, the best course of action is to attempt to change the conditions to those in which something good can be done. (See Spaemann, Nach uns die Kernschmelze, 71)

This lesson also becomes clear to Katniss, the main character, at the end of the first movie. At what seems to be the close of the Games, the voice of the “game-maker” (don’t ask) booms from the sky announcing that the rules have been changed again to allow for only a single winner. This would seem to make it necessary that either Katniss or Peeta, her pretend-but-not-entirely-pretend boyfriend, has to die. Peeta, of course, gallantly volunteers to allow Katniss to shoot him with an arrow (what have you done for your girlfriend today?). But Katniss does not like that possible outcome, so she tries to change the conditions of possibility: she proposes that both she and Peeta will simultaneously kill themselves by eating poison berries. This will supposedly evade the “necessity” of one of them having to kill the other. Of course, the game-maker stops them just as they are raising the berries to their mouths.

Where was that guy for Socrates?

Anyway, in the first Hunger Games movie, the salutary lesson of not letting yourself be forced into evil is thus utterly muddied by the immorality of suicide, Katniss’s chosen means of escape from the dilemma. If she had truly suddenly developed a moral backbone, she could just have refused to kill Peeta and presumably let the troops from the Capit0l–or the mutant werewolf things–kill her. Killing oneself is the coward’s way out, the quick fix.

Fortunately, a similar denial of a pseudo-necessity is given a clearer presentation at the end of the new movie, Catching Fire. Again, Katniss faces a vexing moral situation. Her now-not-pretend-anymore-since-he-gave-her-a-necklace boyfriend Peeta (guys, take note) has just disappeared under dubious circumstances, and she has an arrow trained upon one of the people likely to be responsible. It’s the Hunger Games, so she is going to have to kill the guy at some point anyway. It is supposedly “necessary.” However, Katniss again opts out–she tries to change the conditions into better ones for moral action by instead attacking the arena in which they are imprisoned with an electrified arrow. She knows that in doing so she is likely to die, for she herself will feel the effects of the electric current.

Katniss, it seems, has grown. She now chooses painful self-sacrifice rather than the easy thing to do, which would just be to shoot the other guy. Come to think of it, such moral improvement is a general trend for the movie–all the characters are a touch better. Haymitch is no longer a hopeless drunk, but is concerned for the masses. The woman with the stupid hair and makeup whose name I will not bother looking up acts with some generosity and warmth. The tribute Finnick carries an old lady around on his back for the first part of the Games. And Peeta seems to have grown into a true friend, one who seeks the good of the other.

With this observation, perhaps I have just answered my initial question. This new Hunger Games movie is more enjoyable than its predecessor because you actually want its characters to survive. A revolutionary thought for Hollywood, I know. Still, for those of you who find that trite, there’s always Inside Llewyn Davis.

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