• Following Us

  • Categories

  • Check out the Archives

  • Awards & Nominations

Does Cabin in the Woods Out- “Hunger Games” The Hunger Games?

Sometimes I form weird movie connections in my head – tying two particular films together even if there’s very little common ground on which to link them. For example, I sat through quite a bit of Shame thinking of Collateral, a film linked tangentially thematically, as both offered rather scathing portraits of anomie against the backdrop of a major American city. On the other hand, I also formed a rather strong connection between the superb Cabin in the Woods and the mega blockbusting phenomenon The Hunger Games. As I watched Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s powerful exploration of the horror genre, I couldn’t help but feel that this was exactly what The Hunger Games wanted to be, even if the film adaptation couldn’t quite manage it.

The show must go on!

Note: This article contains some background information on Cabin in Woods. Nothing too big, but I would honestly recommend that you see the film as blind as possible. It is, by some considerable margin, one of the best films of 2012, and entirely deserving of both your time and your money. This article will still be here when you get back.

Author Suzanne Collins has commented that she came up with the idea of The Hunger Games while flipping between media coverage of the Iraq War and reality television. The premise of the film, a bunch of teenagers deposited in the wild to kill one another, has drawn more than its fair share of comparisons to Battle Royale, but I will concede that Collins does add one interesting element to that cocktail. While Battle Royale was the story of teenagers killing one another on an island, it didn’t comment too heavily on public consumption of that violence. Sure, we’d cut occasionally back to the control room, but that was the extent of it.

Be a doll and see Cabin in the Woods, will you?

Instead, Collins’ story sees the violence broadcast live to all American citizens, acknowledging a debt to lots f other speculative fiction stories. There is at least as much of The Running Man or The Long Walk or even the BBC’s The Year of the Sex Olympics, all stories that were at least as concerned about what that violence said about the modern world. I don’t say this to start an argument about whether The Hunger Games is original or not, or to attack it, but rather to observe that it more closely resembles those sorts of commentaries on the way that the public digests and consumes media.

For the first half of the film adaptation, the stronger half, we are consciously aware of the media manipulation that our characters have to go through in order to survive. They don’t just need to beat their opponents, they need to attract public attention to justify their continuing existence. They lie and manipulate their own stories and narratives to present themselves to the public as interesting and appealing characters, like many reality television stars tend to do. In the meantime, we are brought to the control room, where we can see the planning and direction and manipulation that goes into editing the story for public consumption…

We are the champions!

… and then, nothing happens. Once the actual games begin, our heroine is dropped into the fray and the audience at home is asked to root for her. We’re asked to hope that she can defend herself and stay alive. The film presents her opponents as complete sociopaths, so we don’t feel bad about watching them die. Our lead only kills out of self-defense, and shelters the youngest player. Of course, the youngest player can’t make it to the end, but it’s never even addressed that our lead will have to kill her. That’s why you have clearly delineated bad guys for, after all.

In short, the film puts us in the same position as the audiences watching the games at home, albeit with a slightly different perspective. Much like the director of the game must manipulate the rules and the structure, director Gary Ross cuts the film to ensure we feel sympathy and empathy. It doesn’t matter that twenty-two other kids die, it just matters that our lead escapes. The violence itself – children killing children– is even cut so that it excites the audience. The camera shakes and we wonder who is going to emerge alive. There’s little blood, little mess. When the children die, they crumple like rag dolls rather than bleeding out or rasping for air or screaming in agony.

Just another day at the office...

The second half of The Hunger Games makes the spectacle of children killing children something less than horrific, because it lacks the courage to call its audience out. All it would take would be a quick cut back to the studio as the director zooms in on the kill shot, or mor commentary drawing out the violence occurring, or even shots of people celebrating or betting on the violence unfolding on screen. Anything that suggested a hint of irony to the film – that “kids killing kids” was a bad thing, rather than “good kids killing bad kids” was a good thing.

This where The Cabin in the Woods comes into it. Without spoiling the film, the action in the eponymous cabin is complimented by a subplot following two office workers watching the action unfold. The story is described as “the scenario”and it is as formulaic as the name implies. A bunch of kids go to a cabin and bad things happen. It’s the kind of horror movie we watch at home, revelling in the clichés, urging the dumb jock on, mocking the fool, watching the virgin.

Take a bow...

There is something inherently voyeuristic and uncomfortable about those sorts of films – with the audience watching and salivating at the potential carnage, not interested in the characters except as objects to provide the requisite thrills and titillation. By cutting the action back and forth with out two middle-aged office works, Whedon and Goddard call us on it, as the pair try to whittle down the teenagers in the cabin to fit the archetypes the story demands. It doesn’t matter that the dumb jock is actually a sociology major, or that the virgin isn’t a virgin, or the slut is in a stable relationship.

What’s remarkable about The Cabin in the Woods is that it’s not actually that violent. In fact, Goddard seems to tease us about it. During a brutal sequence where the first victim is beheaded, the camera cuts to black for a second. Watching the scene, it’s a bit of a shock, in a movie that had the atmospheric music turned up, the cries and the whimpers up loud. It seems almost like Goddard’s direction is teasing us: did you really want to see that? And, if you did: what does that say about you?

Jock-eying for position...

The kids at the cabin suffer and die as our two office workers place bets and run numbers, drinking and hollering. Of course, we do the same – but we can justify it to ourselves that the kids in the cabin aren’t real, or something. If that were the case, the visual of equally unreal characters partying and celebrating wouldn’t be so unnerving, and wouldn’t feel like a very brave accusation to level at the audience.

You might argue that Cabin in the Woods has the advantage of a tougher rating. Maybe you’d be right. That doesn’t change the fact that The Hunger Games feels like it wimped out on its very premise. I think it would have easily been possible to make those sequences unnerving and uncomfortable without resorting to gore or blood. Make the bad guys sympathetic, for example. Show the manipulation of the footage by the director. The argument that the movie had to have a PG-13 rating doesn’t excuse laziness and cowardice in dealing with the basic premise.

Cabin in the Woody...

That’s the thing about Cabin in the Woods. While The Hunger Games has the advantage that nobody would argue killing kids is a good thing, Cabin in the Woods feels like a pretty strong condemnation of its own audience – after all, what’s the point in making a critique of horror movies for people who don’t like horror movies? It does it with enough skill and affection that it never feels like it’s insulting us – it’s just challenging its horror fans. That’s the kind of courage that was sorely lacking from The Hunger Games, right there.

9 Responses

  1. Another great piece! I think you’re right about it. The Hunger Games’ potential for sharp satire was extremely blunted unfortunately. Cabin in the woods did it much more effectively. As for making wierd links between films, this whole piece has me thinking of We Need to Talk About Kevin. The moment Kevin looks directly into camera and talks about why he did what he did was the worst telling off I’ve ever experienced from a film. I was shocked by the way he spoke to ME personally. I know I wouldn’t watch the film if he wasn’t a psycho and for that reason, Kevin scares me. He knows me.

  2. It’s fairly obvious that you did not read The Hunger Games book. The books themselves are much bloodier and violent than the movie, for a reason. I don’t think you really took into account the target audience differences and genre differences. The target audience of Hunger Games are much younger than the target viewers for Cabin in the Woods. They couldn’t make the movies more violent and bloodier because it would have been given an R rating and 85% of their target wouldn’t have been able to see it. If you don’t take rating into account, I think Gary would have made the movie more violent. Nevertheless, I still think the violence and gore in Hunger Games was still effective in getting its point across. Horror movies are generally about the gore and violence, Hunger Games is not a horror movie. I loved Cabin in the Woods and I made the comparisons between the two stories fairly quickly. It was a smart slightly surprising approach to a horror film.

    • Thanks Jessica.

      I haven’t read the books. I am purely basing what what I wrote on the film. However, that doesn’t mean that the film gets a pass on its problems because it’s based off another work. Spielberg’s Jaws, for example, was a fantastic film because it gleefully reworked its fairly run-of-the-mill source material, cutting irelevent subplots here and there for a tighter end result. The Godfather did the same thing, cutting some content from the book for the sequel, and changing the emphasis to produce a classic piece of cinema. In contrast, Watchmen is an astonishingly faithful adaptation, but a disappointing and muddled film because it doesn’t take into account the art of translation.

      And I did concede the rating point in the post, to an extent. It does limit blood and gore on display, to be fair. However, I find it interesting that, based on what you’re saying, we’re apparently happy for our kids to read about this violence, but somehow it’s not okay to show it. (Also, there are ways other than blood and gore to get the point across – I thought Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight makes its violence uncomfortable without bloodshed, and there’s no reason a similar approach couldn’t work here. Similarly, even more thematic points like exploring the media aspect of the production and consumption would have done a similar job.)

      I suspect that the reason The Hunger Games didn’t work as well as it probably should have is because it was afraid to challenge its audience. Cabin in the Woods actually calls out its viewers for being terrible people for watching the horror with callous indifference. In contrast, The Hunger Games starts down the path by showing how carefully constructed and managed it is… and then asks us to root for the kids along with the audiences watching. We want Katniss to win, more than we want her to survive, if that makes sense. We have bad kids set up so we don’t mind them dying, while Cabin in the Woods shows us how hypocritical such moral rationalisation can be. “If they don’t transgress, they can’t be punished.” It’s a load of pants coming from two guys in a studio running a peep show, which is the intent. The Hunger Games misses that irony – kids apparently can be ‘punished’ for ‘transgressions’, which rationalises the bloodshed and violence.

  3. I noticed I didn’t read the whole thing and you addressed some of the points I talked about. It now makes it more apparent you did not read the book. Gary actually did make the career tributes more human and he helps the audience sympathize ( at least with Cato and Thresh) the premise of Hunger Games is setting you up for the rest of the series. Yes, we are not comparing the book of Hunger Games to the movie Cabin in the Woods but we are comparing a movie adaptation to another original movie. The adaptation is a series and has a book as source material. The movie has a script. This fact is important when comparing the two. I guess we can agree to disagree.

    • No worries Jessica, we agree to disagree. But I still don’t buy that a movie based on abook owes a larger debt to its source material than to the audience. I’d rather watch a good movie than a great adaptation.

  4. Love this comparison! I think The Hunger Games missed the mark massively when it came to making comments on violence in our society and the acceptance of it. In The Cabin in the Woods it’s never once seen as acceptable and those who did watch and enjoy what they were seeing were punished. All those office workers were massacred! There didn’t feel like that consequence in terms of society in The Hunger Games. It wimped out of being an intelligent and yet widely entertaining film. In my eyes.

    • Thanks Jaina, I agree. There’s also the fact that the beings that these people were preparing the feed for (“gotta give the customer what they want”) were actually monsters themselves. A none too subtle (but affectionate) jab at the audience watching the film, I think.

  5. Other than the hunger games, cabin in the woods and battle royal as mentioned – are there any other films where there is a ‘controller’ of sorts where people sit back and create things to test the people in the environment in front of them? I could only think of the two in the article, googled it and this is where I ended up.

    • The one that comes to mind is The Running Man from the eighties, based on the Stephen King novella. And there was an awful WWE film… The Condemned, I think?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: