Why I’m Fired Up About the Hunger Games

By Anneke Vo

I have an unsponsored Kleenex confession to make: I cried during the Hunger Games. And no, it wasn’t because Katniss put Peeta in the friend zone; a squandered opportunity at cultural critique is far more tragic. My crying was strictly muted in choked up sniffles to comply with movie theatre etiquette while fidgeting wide-eyed children in the audience sat captive, transfixed in cinematic oblivion.

For those who have been media detoxing, vigilantly eschewing popular culture, The Hunger Games is set in the dystopian, post-collapse civilisation of Panem, a futuristic depiction of North America ruined by climate change, resource depletion, and despotic dictatorship. Following a failed uprising the population is violently pacified into poverty, slavery, and oppression by a fascist, Orwellian police state – appointed to serve a wealthy elite in the technologically advanced Capitol. Child tributes are chosen from each district to fight to the death in the annual Hunger Games as a defeating reminder of the Capitol’s power. The contestants are groomed in the art of spinning a persuasive celebrity PR campaign to gain votes, brainwashing viewers to idolise their entertainment value as freedom fighters in a televised war.

If that doesn’t sound eerily familiar enough, Suzanne Collins was inspired to write the popular young adult series following the 2003 Iraq invasion, where leaked footage of civilian deaths were reported as patriotically as the Super Bowl. While protagonist Katniss grappled with the psychological assault of grief and conscription following the death of her father in a tragic mining disaster, the US was “making the world safe for democracy” (credit to Bernays et al) and conducting peak oil “counter-terrorism” black operations for a Brave New World Order.

The most ironic thing about the film’s critical reception was, of course, its commercialised fandom. Glossy magazine shoots of Jennifer Lawrence, talk show appearances, and high fashion modelling deals disturbingly parallel her character’s role as a figurehead of mass cultural distraction. The mocking jay brooch, which was given as a keepsake to Katniss as a symbol of the revolution, can be bought online for $9.95, along with video games, costumes, figurines, and speculation of a soon-to-be-opened Hunger Games theme park. (I wonder if families will be able to take their kids for a nice camping trip in the mock bloodbath arena?)

Hollywood is full of grandiose representations of heroic journeys, yet deeper thematic truths are rarely internalised beyond simplistic, war-mongering clichés of retributive morality. I have to concur with [best-selling young adult author] John Green that the Hunger Games falls short of extrapolating its full, untapped, allegorical potential. Collins, whose father suffered severe PTSD after serving in Vietnam, intended for the series to teach kids about the brutal realities of war. Yet our Military-Infotainment Industrial Complex has repressed that reality into a diluted, water-cooler narrative of star-crossed lovers and playground rivalry. While Lord of the Flies conceptualized violence as innate to human sociobiology, the most ruthless, bloodthirsty child soldiers in the Hunger Games were understood to be victims of their fascist programming. Pacifistic, reconciliatory ideals incorporating empathy and understanding towards ‘the enemy’ are unacceptable, if not dangerous, to an imperialist agenda. Hence the film’s critical message is lost within its own transnational public relations matrix.

The tragedy of the Hunger Games is not that it is emotionally violent, but that its context is perceived to be inconsequentially fictional. The legacy of Panem mirrors our own Sixth Great Extinction and systemic neurosis so precisely; we fail to recognise it is even happening.

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