So, what are we to make of the new blockbuster movie The Hunger Games (2012), the movie from Suzanne Collins young adult novel The Hunger Games (2008), portraying the post-apocalyptic world of Panem. The Hunger Games is the first film of Suzanne Collins' young adult trilogy, which continues in Catching Fire (2009) and Mockingjay (2010). All three are likely to be filmed. I would ask three questions.
- Will The Hunger Games (and its likely film sequels) prove to be the next Harry Potter or Twilight cultural phenomena?
- Does this movie & the novel say anything useful about the state of contemporary America, about the USA in 2012?
- Is it likely that this film, The Hunger Games, will play any significant part in the US 2012 General Election?
Last Saturday, March 31st, I saw the movie The Hunger Games. It reminded me, at times, of William Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954), a short story by Ursula le Guin, and even a dystopia that I first read back in 1960, George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945). This is a powerful and disturbing film. And, to those three questions, my answer - for what it's worth - would be yes, yes, and yes.
1. Cultural Phenomena
The Hunger Games has been the best-selling movie for two weekends now, and its opening weekend gross was the third highest of all time, after The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009) and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (2011) (Wikipedia). The first two books in Suzanne Collins' trilogy sold 1.5 million copies, and The Hunger Games was on the New York Times bestseller list for 60 weeks, being described by Stephen King as "addictive" (Scholastic). Young adults - whom we might well describe as the Millennium Generation - and adults are reading these works.
2. The USA in 2012
So, does the film say anything about contemporary America? Certainly, the film portrays the powerful in Capitol, watching poor children from the twelve working-class Districts fighting against each other for their very survial. They battle in a televised media event, the Hunger Games, a very scary mixture of American Idol, Survivor, and the brilliant film, The Truman Show (1998). The film can be seen as a biting and powerful parable of contemporary America, without doubt.
But how do we read it? This parable, like all parables, is ambiguous. We see what we want - or are programed - to see. This is what Roger Ebert, our most perceptive contemporary movie critic, has pointed out in his review:
- "At the top of the society is the president (Donald Sutherland), a sagacious graybeard who harbors deep thoughts. In interviews, Sutherland has equated the younger generation with leftists and Occupiers. The old folks in the Capitol are no doubt a right-wing oligarchy. My conservative friends, however, equate the young with the Tea Party and the old with decadent Elitists. “The Hunger Games,” like many parables, will show you exactly what you seek in it. " (Roger Ebert).
We see what we want to see. The same was true of the parables of Jesus - and of all indirect communication. But this is true even of language which is not parabolic or indirect. When I read the words of Jesus, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20, NRSV), I deduce that Jesus is affirming the status of the poor, contrasting them with the rich and powerful. Probably most of us would. I have written about this at greater length on Open Salon before.
Yet, apparently, the Far Right of the GOP, and most pastors who call themselves Fundamentalist, read these same words yet manage to identify the teaching of Jesus with the Right Wing's War against the Poor, the War against Women, and other manifestations of the GOP's Culture War. I cannot understand it - but such is the case. So is The Hunger Games a parable of the USA in 2012? Yes, it is. But the parable will be read in different ways: that is the nature of a parable, of a work of art, indeed of any indirect communication. But read it shall be, have no doubt!
3. The 2012 Election
But, will The Hunger Games really impact the November 2912 US Election? I am not sure, but I believe so. Whether the film's director and producers intended it or not, and whether Suzanne Collins intended her 2008 novel to play a part in an election then four years away, the film will have an impact this November. But surely, someone will say, we would never allow our children to die "for the good of society." That would be barbaric. Quite so.
Yet, like Panem, we too are a media-driven society: we are governed by mediated images, and expensive corporate slogans. But to what end? And at what cost? For example, we pay lip-service to caring for our children. Yet, our public policy denies our sanctimonious claims. Let us be honest, is it not our children who are dying in Afghanistan & Iraq, is not our children who die in gun violence in our cities, is it not our children who are denied healthcare & a meaningful education? The Trayvon Martin case - whatever its eventual ending - contributes to this debate about the direction of our culture, and how we treat our children.
Are we really so different from the dystopian society of Panem? I think not. We are fast evolving into a society that is brutally divided, where Might believes it is Right, a society that is characterized by private wealth and public poverty.
Yet, it may be that our children, the Millennium generation, are more savy of media and omnipresent images that we give them credit for - like Katniss Everdeen, the girl protagonist in The Hunger Games. Initially suspicious of the all-powerful media and its "sponsors," under pressure she learns to manage & manipulate both for her own survival, and, eventually, for what becomes her rebellion.
One is reminded of the courage of Sandra Fluke against the might of a Republican House and bullying Rush Limbaugh. Wendell Potter draws some parallels between Obamacare, the Supreme Court challenge, and what he calls "Panemcare" in a recent article. You have probably heard of the racist reactions of some viewers of The Hunger Games, angry to learn that one of the characters, Rue, was actually portrayed as black. Ben Railton has written about this recently on Open Salon, but there is plenty out in the blogosphere and media about this.
But perhaps the final point to make is this. The GOP are perceived to be engaged in a serious War on Women, although they try to deny this. But, as Mandy Rice-Davis once said of Lord Astor, a rich and powerful man, when in the Profumo Scandal (1963) he denied any wrongdoing, "Well, he would, wouldn't he" (Wikipedia). Her immortal words earned Mandy a place in the 3rd Edtion of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (1979). Often, actions speak louder than words.
What is undeniable is this. In Catniss Everdeen, the strong young protagonist of The Hunger Games, we have a new female hero, who is strong and savvy. She is alive to the manipulations of the media and the powerful elite. She well represents the millennium generation. As a gender role model, Catniss may prove to be as culturally singificant as Sigourney's Weaver's Ellen Ripley in Aliens (1986), a quarter century ago.
Now, all we have to do is to persuade the Millennials to vote in November 2012. If they do, then we may look back and see that The Hunger Games played a small but significant part in a historic US election. If not...