Hollywood’s Moral Ambiguity

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is smashing box-office records as the masses surge for a second helping of slaughter. The film continues the futuristic, dystopian saga of young, beautiful people who have been chosen to serve as tributes to pay the price for a failed rebellion against a fascist regime. They are forced to hunt each other down to the death as televised entertainment. Though the moral of these gladiatorial films is disquieting, what is even more disquieting is how these beloved blockbusters muddle morality.

Movies are not so much portrayals of what society is as they are portrayals of what society would like to be. (Given the screen-schlock these days, it is debatable which is worse.) The issue at the heart of mainstream films like The Hunger Games is that their plots cry out for some form of moral judgment or reckoning in a universe where the call is swallowed up in a fog of moral looseness. Instead of morality serving as a solid criterion, it is confused in contradiction and convolution.

To its credit, The Hunger Games does present a comprehensive moral depravity—that much is clear; and also certain moral responses to it. The heroine clearly rejects the inhumanity of the games and struggles to do what is right in a world gone wrong. But, although the film intimates at the horror that the government would force people to murder each other, at the same time it instigates sympathy for the heroine as she murders. Immorality is portrayed as the only moral path, obscuring their distinction—which is dangerous in a culture where morality is fading fast. Films like these have a potential to attack the moral sense, often resulting in moral negation. Pulled in two opposing directions, modern moviegoers tend to cancel out the struggle, preferring flat fantasy to philosophy. The quandary of The Hunger Games, and many films like it, is that the moral code is not necessarily invited to play a part. A common result is liberation from moral consciousness—which may be the nucleus of their common appeal. Movies very often present physical actions that bear no palpable spiritual consequence—a permeating ethical vacuum. What audiences are easily left with is sheer moral ambiguity; but films like these are designed to cloud the conscience.

Or subjugate it.

The growing quality of ambiguity in Hollywood films should inspire a concern over the desire to blur the concept of moral realism toward moral relativism. This use of ambiguity is an old practice in Hollywood, developed to give films mass appeal and avoid censorship. Movie studios target a wide audience by crafting films that can be interpreted in more than one way. An example of the origin of this strategy can be seen in the cautious inclusion of sex in films that date from the early-to-mid 1900s. In 1942’s Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart seizes Ingrid Bergman and they kiss passionately as the camera fades to the next scene. Did they have sex?

It depends on whose watching.

Someone of liberal mentality might think they did. A conservative viewer may assume the opposite. If there were any objection, however, the studio would be entirely free to contradict any accusation that an untoward sexuality was depicted. Ambiguous scenes are open to interpretation, and thus has Hollywood developed ambiguity into an art in order to appeal to the masses. The increasing use of this blurring practice, however, has been deadly. As the values of American culture entered free-fall, the role of ambiguity in films changed. Ambiguity has moved on from simply being a discretionary measure to a questioning of the basic tenants of human existence.

Films like The Hunger Games are only an instance of how Hollywood has devolved since Casablanca. Other popular films in recent years that are imbued with a dangerous ambiguity are The Dark Knight, The Social Network, Inglorious Basterds, A Serious Man, The Departed, Gone Baby Gone, and Se7en. In these films, the question of right or wrong is so lost in complexity that there remains no discernable question. Heroes and villains are intertwined until distinction is difficult. Anything goes, as long as it deviates sufficiently from the proverbial and predictable straight and narrow. Keep it ill defined, but not suggestive of objective truth. Diversity dominates, leaving the roles of family, sex, government, and morality up for grabs. Who could possibly untangle The Hunger Games’ snarl of deontological ethics and consequentialism? There is no clear answer—because, again, there is no clear question.

Things like questions and answers, after all, are not conducive to cattle fodder.

The great irony of this trend to muddy morality in appealing to “open-minded” audiences is that, while it does appeal, audiences unconsciously hunger for the very opposite. As Chesterton wrote, “I am incurably convinced that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” Without the pursuit of and participation in objective truth, men cannot have a standard of happiness—and they cannot be happy. Open minds are not minds with a stronger grasp of the truth. The denial of objective truth for the sake of the ambiguous open mind, however, does not stop people from involuntarily seeking objective truth. The dilemma arises when it is sought where it cannot be found.

This is a large part of the problem of movies and moviegoers. There is a constant attempt for distraction from a gnawing sense of un-fulfillment, and a quest for affirmation in a culture that has lost touch with those realities that are intrinsically meaningful—like morality. And so the studios ceaselessly churn out millions upon millions of dollars worth in garbage. The box offices sell tickets to a dark prison of escapism. People who hunger for truth gorge themselves on ambiguity; and they come away confirmed only in their confusion and reinforced in the roots of their malady. God is dead. Sex is king. Violence is power. Morality is myth.

There are, however, messages that ring loud and clear through the moral miasma. Taking The Hunger Games as an example, it’s a dog-eat-dog world; beauty is better than brains; you can only trust yourself; and the principle of human society is not cooperation but competition. Such Lord-of-the-Flies values and standards suggest a worldview that is not a view of the world at all because morality has lost its place in it. Kill or be killed. It’s that simple—and such simplicity is appealing to a people stupefied by egocentrism and secularism. A Nietzschean, Darwinian attitude of survival replaces moral awareness and responsibility.

No wonder so many people are unhappy. When nihilism lies on the horizon, what is there to bolster the spirit? There is no transcendence. There is no redemption. The Hunger Games films give an accurate depiction of the symptoms of our cultural starvation. Although film is a mirror, it is also a road sign. Movies show society a reflection of itself and point it in the direction of popular desire. The Hunger Games point to an ambiguous, desensitized, amoral world where morality (if it can even exist) is barely recognizable.

Is that what people perceive as the solution to satisfying their hunger?

There are other Sources of fulfillment.

“He that cometh to me shall not hunger.”

 

Sean Fitzpatrick

By

Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

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  • Anonymouse

    So you made some good points about Hollywood and the culture, but did you ever even read any of these books or see either of the movies? “Taking The Hunger Games as an example, it’s a dog-eat-dog world; beauty is better than brains; you can only trust yourself; and the principle of human society is not cooperation but competition. Such Lord-of-the-Flies values and standards suggest a worldview that is not a view of the world at all because morality has lost its place in it.” Wrong on all four counts.

    1) The main character tries desperately to be a dog-eat-dog kind of person because of her experience growing up under a totalitarian regime, but usually ends caring for/helping others despite her attitude.

    2) Beauty is better than brains? What? In the first book, those forced to play the game are merely young, definitely not necessarily beautiful. Yes, most of the young actors in the first movie are good-looking, but that’s a function of both youth and Hollywood. In the second book, many of the ‘contestants’ are old, even elderly and even in the movie even the young are not all beautiful. In both books and movie, beauty does nobody any good, brains win.

    3 & 4) A major message of both books and movies is that Katniss must learn to both trust others and cooperate with them in order to survive, even though her nature tells her to do neither. The whole plot of Catching Fire in particular involves Katniss learning to trust other contestants as they unite both to save themselves and start bringing down the Capitol. . Katniss learns to trust a little in Hunger Games, more in Catching Fire, and almost in some way overcomes her experiences in order to truly love and have children with husband in spite of everything by the end of the third book. Oh, and she suffers from PTSD type flashbacks and intense guilt over the killing throughout the books and the movies. She saves herself because she firmly believes (with cause) that her mother and sister will not survive without her there to take care of them. There are plenty of moral questions, but to imply that these books and movies do not address the moral questions is just wrong. If, as a Catholic writer, you feel compelled to attack these books/movies, perhaps you could talk about the complete lack of faith or belief in God in the Hunger Games world? Honestly, it’s hard to believe that you’ve either read the books or seen the movies after reading this critique.

  • SFitzpatrick

    The point of this reflection is not to imply that the films avoid addressing moral questions, but to imply that they make such addressing difficult for the modern viewer. Without a firm grasp of the old-fashioned moral compass, a human sojourner may easily lose his or her way through the maze of the Hunger Games.

    I will happily grant you a point that my “beauty is better than brains” proposal does not – after second-thought – hold much water, but I will not relinquish the position that the tendency of many modern films is to confuse and complicate the distinction between right and wrong in order to lull the masses towards relativity. Your own assessment of the plot concerning Katniss’ impulses to neither trust nor cooperate with others bears this idea up. Films tend to muddy morals – to make them difficult to discern. This is the point of my article, which may at times fall short of the overall gist of the Hunger Games saga. Art, however, always solicits conflicting interpretations.

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

  • Charlie Johnston

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am a solidly orthodox Catholic – and I get so disgusted at ‘Christian’ commentators who clearly have not studied the material they pretend to critique. First, it is not Christian because it bears false witness – so is rotten at its very root. Second, it gains no converts, because those who actually do know the material know the commentary is just a smear. Third, it turns people away from Christianity because it makes them think that since this commentary is such an uninformed smear, ALL Christian commentary must be. Fourth; it seriously agitates Christians like me because of the first three reasons.
    If you don’t know the material, keep your mouth shut lest you bear false witness against something noble. If you must bear false witness, please spare us the pious pretense.

  • SFitzpatrick

    Charlie Johnston:

    I, too, count myself Catholic – and as orthodox as I have strength to be. I question why you place the word “Christian” in quotation marks, as though I have, in these writings, betrayed some anti-Christian attitude. My observations are honest and informed. I am not blindly smearing, but expressing thoughts that have been studied and careful. If my observations here expressed concerning the artistic tendency and agenda of the film industry do not coincide with yours or with Anonymouse’s, I must beg your pardon and plead the fact that opinions will differ. I wonder what particular point of my piece you find exemplary of one who speaks without knowledge of their subject?

    Although I did not address all of Anonymouses’s points, I could say that #1 exemplifies the very moral confusion or tension that I see as controversial. Introducing such a strong and convoluted moral dilemma tends to lead viewers to moral apathy. The struggle is too difficult without the philosophical and ethical background that such issues require for judgment. Movies like “The Hunger Games” do not take the inherent responsibility of film as an art form seriously enough. Scandal is not a thing to be flirted with, let alone sought after.

    The idea of competition vs. cooperation in #’s 3 and 4 in “the Hunger Games” is equally complicated and therefore dangerous. I argue that the stressing of competition devalues and undermines the laudable tendencies of the main characters. The message simply is not a clear one – which may be an element of mature art, but I wonder if such art is healthy or helpful to modern society. Ambiguity is always problematic.

    In short, I would not say that we are dealing with as issue of my not knowing the material, but simply that my understanding of the material is different than yours. To say that I am bearing false witness simply because my opinion is other than yours is the only issue that I can perceive.

  • cminca

    “Movies are not so much portrayals of what society is as they are portrayals of what society would like to be.”

    Can you explain what you think Hitchcock wanted us to be in “The Birds”?

    Can you explain what you think Stephen King and Stanley Kurbric wanted us to be in “The Shining”?

    The statement is a sweeping generalization and, like all sweeping generalizations, meaningless.

  • cestusdei

    I remember when the complained about violence in The Passion. Yet Kill Bill didn’t bother them. And didn’t they give Roman Polanski, a convicted child rapist, an Oscar?

  • wmg

    Thank you for your review and assessment. I would never even consider viewing a movie that portrays young people killing each other for sport and/or self-survival. Especially when the protagonist/killer is a woman. I completely share your distress about the popularity of these movies. Kyrie eleison!

  • SFitzpatrick

    It is indisputable that films are heavily influenced by marketing agendas and modernist attitudes targeting modern culture to achieve certain ends.

    What Daphne du Maurier and Stephen King intended by their stories, I will not say for I have not read them (neither are those pieces of literature the subject of this essay). What Hitchcock and Kubrick intended as filmmakers is another matter. It is not unusual for films to insinuate an inherent failure or capitulation of the human condition, feeding off the nihilist philosophies rampant in society. “The Birds” can easily be viewed as a meditation on man’s helplessness in the natural order. “The Shining” can easily be viewed as a meditation on man’s helplessness in remaining sane. A conclusion that could be easily reached is that morality doesn’t matter in a world where not even humanity matters. It seems to me that the examples you chose are very much in line with the trend I am pointing out—the trend of questioning the endurance of human dignity to the detriment of moral awareness.

    Though I have made generalizations, I believe that they are applicable.

  • cminca

    ““The Birds” can easily be viewed as a meditation on man’s helplessness in the natural order. “The Shining” can easily be viewed as a meditation on man’s helplessness in remaining sane.”

    That statement would therefore contradict your hypothesis that “Movies are not so much portrayals of what society is as they are portrayals of what society would like to be.”

    For that hypothesis to be correct Hitchcock would need to want society to be helpless in the natural order. That Kubric would want society to be helpless in remaining sane. Since you haven’t proved either of those–your generalization is meaningless.

    There may be a certain segment of Hollywood that is, in your opinion, amoral. You may believe that they present movies to influence other people to be, in your opinion, amoral.

    My issue with your post is that you are stating you opinion as FACT. Hydrogen combines with Oxygen to create water. That is a fact. What you are presenting is NOT a fact. As we have now agreed.

    It may be true, and it may be important, to discuss the direction that popular entertainment is taking and how that entertainment affects society. (Actually I would agree with you.)

    I would state that I find most movies today to be incredibly boring and distasteful due to the gratuitous violence in many of them.

    But you aren’t saying that. You are saying that ALL movies are being produced for the SOLE reason to push society to a less moral place. I don’t believe you have evidence of that.

    You may think I’m nit-picking. I’m just here to tell you I don’t think you, or your arguments, can be taken seriously when you make sweeping generalizations, call them universal, and present them as facts when they are generalizations, not universal, and merely opinion.

    Now I will extrapolate. I’d suggest you read some of the articles in the Catholic blogsphere and consider the argument I’ve presented here. You’ll find that stating opinion as fact is a rampant problem. If you wonder why America (especially people like Bill Maher) can make the religious right look so foolish-it is because of this kind of indefensible positioning.

    (And, as someone who has read both original stories–your opinion of the meaning of The Shining is completely off the mark. You are closer on The Birds.)

  • Dave

    Hi Sean, I thought your article was very discerning and well stated. I think a related problem is that some assume that the message heard, seen or even felt is the message mentally stored. I’m convinced that Hollywood could just about come out proclaiming creationism and still convert unsuspecting Christians to relativistic thinking.

    I also think that with increasing social anxiety, the desire for movies to rehash our real world problems has increased – almost as though were subconsciously seeking answers from a movie as opposed to the word of God. Unfortunately hollywood is all too willing to provide those answers, but of course under the pretence of being “relatable”.

    Let me say it another way…..Sometimes movies try to be relatable/realistic, but in making too many movies this way, they simply remind us of the problem, tell us to accept whatever comes our way or that there are no answers – as opposed to taking our minds off of our real world problems, that (God) has something better for us, stimulating our imagination/creativity, etc..

    I’m feeling sleepy right now so Im not sure if I have made myself clear. In any case it was a great article

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