While I am going to review neither The Hunger Games nor Cabin in the Woods at length (at least not now), I did want to write a piece comparing the two. More accurately, contrasting the two, because I had completely different experiences with each.
I went into The Hunger Games knowing very little about the story, other than what I could glean from the trailer. It looked like a watered-down version of Battle Royale, so my expectations were somewhat minimal. Meanwhile, Cabin in the Woods was a must-see because of the involvements of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard. And, as I found out after I began to watch, Amy Acker. Note to any filmmakers who happen to be reading: everything is better with Amy Acker. Give her work.
Both movies tell very different types of stories. Both nevertheless have very similar background failings. Both kept me involved in their stories right to the climax. But I walked out of The Hunger Games enchanted – twice – whereas Cabin in the Woods disappointed me enough to not earn the repeat business I had been planning to give it. Why? What’s the difference?
[Spoilers ahead. Proceed only if you dare.]
In a word, morality.
A couple of caveats before we proceed. This is not going to be a piece about how one of these works is immoral, or how its creators are immoral. I don’t think either of those is true. This is also not going to be any sort of call for censorship. I don’t like censorship. What I mean to discuss is the different way these movies approached their characters, and their final and most important choices – more specifically, how one choice sealed my affection and another destroyed it. Let’s talk about those other matters first, though, so I can adequately set the stage for my ultimate point.
The Hunger Games takes place in a future dystopic society ruled from a single city that hogs all the wealth and power. Its outlying “districts” are kept in more or less complete poverty, fealty forced from them at the muzzle of a gun. The story is about a game that takes place as another way of the powerful twisting the knife. Two teenagers are taken from each district and forced to fight in free-form televised combat for the amusement of the powerful – and for their own survival. The single winner is exalted and rewarded. Everyone else dies.
Cabin in the Woods, meanwhile, is a twist on all the classic and not-so-classic formula horror movies. The setup is achingly familiar: a group of archetypal teens goes on a trip into nature, only to find that they are taking a trip into terror. The twist, however, is fairly ingenious: the whole setup for the story is actually a setup, perpetrated by some shadowy group that is just one of many around the world. They and their comrades are finding victims and making them bizarre ritual sacrifices to a dark god who would otherwise awaken and destroy humanity.
Obviously, the stories are different. But the moods are different as well. The Hunger Games means for its scenario to be taken seriously. It spends a lot of effort creating a world with a unique look and feel, and peopling that world with characters who are believable (if lightly sketched) and whose actions and motivations make its audience think, “Yes. This is what I would do in this situation.” The charm of Cabin in the Woods, by contrast, is that it banks the success of its whole narrative on the audience not being able to take yet another “spam in a cabin” premise straight. Instead, it gives you the most twisted and bizarre reason it can conjure as an explanation. Of course this isn’t real; these people have been selected as representatives of archetypes, and their whole vacation is a lie designed to trick them into their doom. Amazingly, this actually works.
Meanwhile, both movies labor very hard to keep you from seeing the inherent implausibilities in their setups. Don’t try to puzzle out exactly how Capitol is run, or how it could keep a presumably much-larger population enslaved. Don’t bother to wonder whose blood that is, or any of the fifteen other little nagging questions about how the rituals actually work. You should be too busy appreciating the huge number of action setpieces and practical dilemmas, or blissing out to the unique and quirky patois that is Whedonspeak, to pay any attention to those men behind the curtain. Your compensation is that both films are committed to engaging you in a well-paced story in hopes that you’ll be too involved to notice.
And that’s something both do very well, albeit in very different ways. The Hunger Games takes the old-fashioned route of dropping our likable and heroic protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, into an impossible situation with seemingly no way out – at least not on her terms. We root for her to win, while fearing that she might either be forced to compromise her moral character or emerge with less than total victory. Cabin in the Woods is consciously postmodern. It invites you to chuckle at its references, to participate in ticking off all its plot points, to feel superior to the characters because you have knowledge of what’s about to befall them. Meanwhile, it sucks you in to a more standard relationship with its second story by having its participants both engineer and comment on the first story. When the two plotlines eventually cross, you have no idea what to expect from that point out, which is a truly wicked narrative feat.
Well, that’s where the problem is. Cabin in the Woods spends a lot of effort early on getting us invested in the characters, not just as archetypes but as real people. Once we start to get hints of the situation into which they’re heading, this builds up our sympathy for them to a degree that would be impossible if they had simply remained the standard-issue horror movie ciphers. That sympathy only continues to mount as we learn more, because with each new piece of information our realization of how badly off they are deepens. It’s one of the best examples of building connection through tension that I’ve ever seen. And then the movie ruins every bit of that work at the climax.
This is your last chance to avoid real spoilers. I’ve been pretty nice so far.
Are you sure?
Okay. Part of the backstory is that the people who have trapped our protagonists into their game have done so as part of a ritual to appease a dark god. There were other such rituals set up around the world as well. Only one of these rituals had to succeed, but all the others have failed. So the game we’ve been watching is literally the last chance to keep the ancient evil in slumber and save the lives of all humanity. (We only find this last part out after our cast of five has been whittled down to the virgin character, Dana, and her bumbling stoner friend Marty.) To accomplish this, Marty has to die, and it doesn’t really matter whether Dana lives or not. Their choices are: either die to save the world, or condemn the world to death and die along with it.
Dana and Marty choose the second option. Nor do they do so in a way that’s redeemable. Had the two teenagers chosen not to believe the person who finally reveals all the missing pieces of the puzzle to them, they could have maintained their sympathetic status. It is quite reasonable, after all, to refuse to trust people who have been – and still are – trying to kill you. But they admit that they believe what they’ve been told because of all the evidence they’ve seen. And yet in the moment of truth, they choose to sacrifice the lives of billions of innocent people, as well as their own. So they lose all our sympathy. Or at least, they lost mine.
Contrast this with the behavior of Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. She’s in as bad a situation as the protagonists of Cabin, and she actually volunteered to be there in order to save her sister from the horrible fate she faces. When she is thrown into a life-or-death struggle, she first chooses not to play, and then chooses to play cooperatively when the game’s overseer takes away her first preference. She doesn’t aim to win at any cost; though she hopes to get out alive, she will not compromise her character to do so. She will kill, but will not aggress; she only kills in self-defense or as an act of mercy. This is a true heroine.
Most brilliant is her final move, the way she achieves victory on her own terms. When the overseer reneges on a promise that two players could be co-winners under the right circumstances, immediately the audience starts thinking in terms of a choice. We want Katniss to live, so we leap to the conclusion that her district-mate Peeta has to die. But we don’t want Peeta to die…he has shown himself, in his own quiet way, to be every inch a hero. Again, this causes tension in the audience, as we desperately hope for an outcome we now believe to be impossible.
Katniss saves him from his fate with her realization that a game needs a winner. If they both commit suicide rather than kill each other, the monstrousness of the Hunger Games would be apparent even to the dimmest resident of Capitol. The willingness of Katniss and Peeta to sacrifice their lives instead of their principles is ultimately what makes it possible for them both to walk out of the arena with lives and principles intact. More than that, however, it’s what makes them both worthy to be the heroes of the piece.
The comparison between the choices made at the climaxes of The Hunger Games and Cabin in the Woods is unfair in one respect. There was a way (however slim the chance) for Katniss to win. I can see no way out for Dana and Marty. Sometimes the hero has to make the difficult choice, though. And when push came to shove, Katniss was willing to lay down her life to make a point. Dana and Marty weren’t willing to lay theirs down even to save six billion lives. One of the choices is noble. The other is horrific.
I write these words well aware that many people enjoyed Cabin in the Woods, no doubt including some of the people who will read this piece. For most of its running time, I did too. But I’m moving past the age when I derive any pleasure from seeing anti-heroic “Let the world burn” actions. In my experience, it’s easy to make the wrong choice from spite. It’s much harder to make the right choice knowing it could cost you. So even if The Hunger Games hadn’t possessed an innate marketing advantage by being based off a popular novel, I would feel comfortable in saying that it would be the better-remembered movie in five years’ time. The gap between them wouldn’t be close, either. And it would have much to do with those final choices.
Then again, being based on a popular book doesn’t exactly hurt…