Hollywood’s Moral Ambiguity


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.”


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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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