TL; DR: Audiences have spent millions of dollars watching a multi-million dollar spectacle about a fictional orphan struggling with hunger while millions of real children struggle with hunger in real life.
A key component of Scorsese’s latest film, Hugo, is the destitute situation the title character finds himself in: orphaned, squatting in a train station, twice pushed into slave labor, pilfering croissants in the station café for food and avoiding detection so he won’t be shipped off to an orphanage. The movie never, of course, so much as touches on the systemic reasons behind this poverty, but that’s too much to be expected of a mainstream film. In that case, I suppose the film is to be applauded for making a case for mercy on those who are so poor they must steal for their sustenance, but while watching it I couldn’t help but wonder how much was spent on creating this romanticized depiction of poverty as opposed to actually feeding starving children.
Every film has this problem of opportunity cost, but Hugo’s subject matter renders its existence particularly ironic and insulting. Scorsese (and, presumably, the author of the book) treats the loss of silent films as more tragic than hunger, orphanages, and war, which are treated as necessities of the plot and as foils to the wonders of escapist cinema. It’s as if the creators of this film have concluded that since these problems can never be solved, all we can do is retreat into a fantasy land. The fact that this is a kid’s movie, and thus shouldn’t be expected to treat those things seriously, is besides the point. Every film contains implicit messages that deserve to be examined—perhaps especially if it’s a kid’s movie, given that children in the audience absorb these messages as fact, which serves to form their understanding of the world.
One could argue that the film’s depiction of a starving child will inspire people to donate money they wouldn’t have ordinarily, thus justifying the vast expenditures to make this film. But I highly doubt it. Unlike Slumdog Millionaire, which did result in a spike in donations, Hugo takes place not only in 1930s Paris—an era long-gone, whose problems we assume must have been surpassed as far as steam engines, at least for white people—but an ethereal, surreal version of it: one where children repair clockwork robots and gain entrée into the lives of famous filmmakers.
So how many children in Hugo’s situation could have been saved if the money that had gone toward them instead of the creation of a three-dimensional spectacle? The precise budget of the film has not been released, but according to the LA Times, it’s “under $150 million.” Meanwhile, according to UNICEF, “Undernutrition contributes to five million deaths of children under five each year in developing countries.” Deaths. Not just so hungry they’re driven to steal croissants; there aren’t even any croissants within stealing distance. They just die.
With that amount of money, each now dead child could have had at least $25 in food. Given the fact that the average family in the developing world lives on $1.25 a day (and yes, that’s after conversion to purchasing power within the United States), I imagine $25 would go pretty far. If you reason that that still may not have saved their lives in the long run, then that’s like saying the station inspector would have been right to snatch back the croissant and milk Hugo stole and reason that he’d die soon anyway.
Oh, I know, this movie is a business venture just like any other, and everyone’s gotta make a living somehow, but that just passes the moral imperative onto the consumer. So far, people have spent, worldwide, around $53 million on seeing this spectacle. If every single one of those people had sacrificed a couple hours of amusement and donated the same amount to world hunger organizations, they could have saved actual children in the same exact predicament as the fictional character they would have watched.
Yes, I saw the movie myself, which makes me culpable, too. However, because I’m starting to feel that film and television are literally immoral in this world of mass starvation (an idea inspired by Peter Singer’s incredible must-read on the ethics of charity in The Life You Can Save), going forward, I may have to cut those things out of my life completely. And would that really be such a great loss? According to Hugo, it would be tragic. But humans survived just fine for thousands of years without film. In fact, for a great deal of our existence, the only form of story-telling was oral recitation (which, by the way, costs nothing to produce), and I doubt that modern humans are able to be happier than pre-historic hunter-gatherers due to access to motion pictures. And I’m sure that those in the anti-media backlash that has existed practically since the advent of the television would agree that I’d be better off getting outside, being with friends and family and reading books instead anyway.
Not according to Hugo, though. Hugo goes even beyond saying movies make you happy: it equates cinema with our dreams, with the pursuit of our very purpose in life. With that line of thinking, it becomes difficult and annoying to think about those real-life children starving out there instead. However, burying one’s head in escapism leads to the destruction of not just the dreams of children, but their very lives. The creators and spectators of this film, however, seem to think it was worth it.
(Btw, if you’re looking for a good charity to donate to, I highly recommend checking out Givewell.org, which analyzes charities in great depth to determine which the most effective are. The current #1 rated charity is Against Malaria Founation.)