I just got back from watching The Cabin in the Woods. It’s the kind of film where while you’re watching it, you’re just having fun, but then afterwards when you start thinking about it you start to realize just how clever it really was (needless to say, I liked it). So I’m going to ramble a bit.
[you are now entering into spoiler territory]
Now, if you’ve seen the trailers you’ve probably already noticed the similarities to The Hunger Games, and having seen the film the similarities are actually even stronger. You’ve got a bunch of teens sent to an “arena” as a “tribute” to be killed off where a bunch of guys in suits manipulate their surroundings until there is only one survivor. These proceedings are captured on camera and are a source of entertainment for the viewers. Please note, I’m not saying that Cabin copied The Hunger Games, especially since the film has been completed since 2009. It’s just coincidence that the two films came out so close to one another. What I find interesting is that I think Cabin in the Woods succeeded where Hunger Games failed.
Let me just put it out there that I am a huge fan of Joss Whedon, and not a particularly big fan of Suzanne Collins, so this could all just be a personal prejudice on my part. I’m not so much trying to say that one story is better than the other as much as I’m trying to articulate why one story worked better for me.
Now, I liked The Hunger Games. I read the book and enjoyed it enough to complete the series (which is rare for me nowadays), and I thought that the film did an excellent job of adapting the book for the screen. However, I’ve never thought it was good enough to deserve all the hype. Maybe if I read it again I’ll think differently, but I just found it a very difficult story to connect to. I couldn’t really relate to the characters, I had this weird problem of never being able to tell where the characters were in space, I never got a good feel for the history, geography, or technological capabilities of the world, and I felt like the very concept of having an annual Hunger Games needed a lot more backstory to justify it, which we never got. I’ve never been able to articulate this until after seeing Cabin, but I think it also bugged me that while Hunger Games is a smart story, it isn’t a particularly clever story. So, basically, I thought The Hunger Games was a compelling story with an interesting premise that should have come through a lot more clearly than it did.
That is perhaps one advantage that Cabin in the Woods has over The Hunger Games right away: it knows exactly what it wants to be. It is a horror film about horror films. It is working with specific genre conventions, not just because it is a part of the genre, but because that’s what the story is about. Contrast that to Hunger Games which is… what? Science fiction? Futuristic fiction? Fantasy? I don’t really know how to define it, and because of that I always felt a bit lost in the story. I have no problem with stories that combine or transcend genres– in fact I rather like stories that do that—but I think that genres are necessary because the audience needs to be able to situate themselves within the story, and I don’t feel like the Hunger Games’ genre came through clearly enough.
For example, if I had known earlier on that The Hunger Games was science fiction (ish) then I wouldn’t have had my big WTF moment when the muttations showed up. That didn’t surprise me, it made me angry because I felt like Collins was changing the rules on me. I should have known earlier on that the Capitol had the technology capable of doing that (I had the same frustration through most of Mockingjay). Contrast that with Cabin in the Woods, which establishes that it’s a horror film pretty much from the title, and establishes that it’s a fantasy as early as the bird flying into the gridding. Thus when the insanity is unleashed at the end I can be surprised by it without being angered by it.
I could talk a bit about the two stories’ characters and why I thought the characters in Cabin were done better than in Hunger Games, but I almost feel as if that’s not really fair, since I don’t think anybody does characters as well as Joss Whedon (yeah, yeah, I’m a fangirl, get over it). So I’ll move on to comparing the stories’ premises, and how they function as a metaphor.
The Hunger Games, as I understand it, is a commentary on social dominance and power structures and a critique of the crassness of our entertainment. It does a pretty good job of making these points (probably even better than I realize. I haven’t looked at very much commentary), but I think it stumbles a bit in some areas. First, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the idea that even the more wealthy and powerful districts have to provide tributes. Even if Districts 1 and 2 benefit from being part of Panem, and even if tributes from those districts almost always win, they’re still sending at least one child off to die per year. I can’t believe that they waited for Katniss to become a figurehead before rebelling. Maybe there’s a justification for this in the story that I just don’t remember, but I feel like the messages about power get muddied by it.
Cabin in the Woods makes a similar point. You have the bureaucracy controlling and oppressing the kids because they are young and because an even higher power demands it. Their morality is put on the shelf out of fear. And unlike The Hunger Games, once I got to the end of the film, it totally made sense why they would do such a thing—why they felt like they had to keep this oppressive system in place, and also why they were desensitized to its cruelty.
Second, maybe I’m imagining it, but I think Collins is trying to do a meta commentary accusing the audience of being just as crass as those in the Capitol for enjoying a story about kids being murdered. She might have a point, but it doesn’t come through very clearly because I don’t like stories about kids being murdered, I like stories about oppressed people overcoming their oppressors. I was probably least entertained by the story when it was just straight up kids killing each other.
And this is where Cabin really shines. It does the same thing of pointing out how weird and sick it is for people to enjoy watching carnage, but this time the audience can’t argue with it because they’re watching a horror movie. The characters, because they are in a horror film, are being ritually sacrificed to us. Here’s two quotes from Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard:
Whedon: “There’s some part of us, some deep, dark, primitive part of us that wants to sacrifice these people onscreen. I wanted to make a movie that explained why. And so it’s been a strange experience because on the one hand, we do straight up horror. We definitely love the genre and the tropes of the genre but at the same time we have a lot of questions about why and where it’s going.”
Goddard: “The horror movie is merely the jumping-off point for the inherent questions about humanity that the genre suggests. Why, as a people, do we feel the need to marginalize, objectify, and destroy youth? And this is not specific to the genre, or movies in general, or our present-day culture. We’ve been doing this to youth since we first began as a people and this question—the question of why—is very much at the heart of Cabin.”
That last comment by Drew Goddard—that this desire for a human sacrifice is a human issue, not just a horror film issue—gets at the heart of my criticism of The Hunger Games. There is so much more that could have or should have been said in the books about why we put up with and even enjoy carnage, but the books (in my reading of them at any rate) only dance around the issue. The Cabin in the Woods takes the issue head on, and I was much more satisfied with the answers it gave.