Synopsis from IMDB:
In a dystopian future, the totalitarian nation of Panem is divided into 12 districts and the Capitol. Each year two young representatives from each district are selected by lottery to participate in The Hunger Games. Part entertainment, part brutal retribution for a past rebellion, the televised games are broadcast throughout Panem. The 24 participants are forced to eliminate their competitors while the citizens of Panem are required to watch. When 16-year-old Katniss’s young sister, Prim, is selected as District 12’s female representative, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She and her male counterpart, Peeta, are pitted against bigger, stronger representatives, some of whom have trained for this their whole lives.
‘REAL OR NOT REAL?’
Suzanne Collins has described the origin of The Hunger Games trilogy as a result of the immersion of consciousness in the simulated reality of television:
I was channel surfing between reality TV programming and actual war coverage when Katniss’s story came to me….I’m sitting there flipping around and on one channel there’s a group of young people competing for, I don’t know, money maybe? And on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting an actual war. And I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way, and I thought of this story.
The persistent struggle to distinguish between the real and the fake is a constant theme in the trilogy: the simulated flames of her costume; the play-acting of the romantic relationship between her and Peeta; the maintenance of a celebrity image under constant scrutiny; the manipulated environment of the arena; the propaganda shoots for the rebellion. Part of the appeal of Katniss is her ability to convey the authenticity of real passion within a world of jaded sensation and cynical hypocrisy (the Greek word hypokrites designated an actor). Her revolt against the injustice and the pretence of the social structure draws its resonance from a moral dimension atrophied in the decadence of the Capitol and the grinding poverty of the districts.
The hunger for justice and the thirst for freedom are the metaphors of revolutionary rhetoric. The ‘bread and circuses’ (panem et circenses) was a metonymy used by Juvenal (circa 100 A.D) to satirise the abdication of political involvement and the indulgence in entertainment and spectacle by the Roman citizens. There are obvious parallels within the movie to this period and our own present day situation. The Games and the contestants are embedded within a corporate sponsorship network akin to the Hollywood movie industry. The Capitol is a place of excess and indulgence which legislates mandatory viewing of the Games by all of Panem since they embody its value-system much like the contemporary elevation of celebrity :
The status of celebrity offers the promise of being showered with ‘all good things’ that capitalism has to offer. The grotesque display of celebrity lives (and deaths) is the contemporary form of the cult of personality; those ‘famous for being famous’ hold out the spectacular promise of the complete erosion of an autonomously lived life in return for an apotheosis as an image. The ideological function of celebrity (and lottery systems) is clear – like a modern ‘wheel of fortune’ the message is ‘all is luck; some are rich, some are poor, that is the way the world is…it could be you! (Guy Debord: The Society of the Spectacle)
‘The Reaping’ is the yearly selection of contestants by a lottery and the justification of the system is broadcast to the citizens through images of warfare and a voice-over by President Snow:
War, terrible war. Widows, orphans, a motherless child. This was the uprising that rocked our land. Thirteen districts rebelled against the country that fed them, loved them, protected them. Brother turned on brother until nothing remained. And then came the peace, hard fought, sorely won. A people rose up from the ashes and a new era was born. But freedom has a cost. When the traitors were defeated, we swore as a nation we would never know this treason again. And so it was decreed that, each year, the various districts of Panem would offer up, in tribute, one young man and woman to fight to the death in a pageant of honour, courage and sacrifice. The lone victor, bathed in riches, would serve as a reminder of our generosity and our forgiveness. This is how we remember our past. This is how we safeguard our future.
THE GAMES OF THE RULERS
In The German Ideology Marx wrote:
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.
Within the world of the movie there is a ruling technocratic class of image manipulators and Gamemakers who produce the circus spectacle and the surveillance technology which holds the masses in thrall to the regime. The strategy of divide and conquer is employed in the strict separation of each district to prevent the unity required to challenge the hegemony of the Capitol.
The ruling intellectual force of Panem would seem to be a determination not to repeat the carnage of the past civil war and to maintain the status quo through technological power. The materialistic determinism of Marxist intellectuals brought into being a similar totalitarian system premised on the overthrow of the Tsarist system and the institution of a classless society. As Mikhail Bakunin prophesied in 1873:
The leaders of the Communist party, namely Mr Marx and his followers, will proceed to liberate humanity in their own way. They will concentrate the reins of government in a strong hand. They will establish a single state bank, concentrating in its hands all commercial, industrial, agricultural, and even scientific production, and then divide the masses into two armies – industrial and agricultural – under the direct command of state engineers, who will constitute a new privileged scientific and political class
Within the closed system of Panem Katniss comes to embody a dissident undercurrent of revolt. Within the media system the movie represents an incorporation and neutralisation of dissent by the prevailing orthodoxy of liberal democratic values. The cinema audience is given the usual signposts of authoritarian rule with the iconography of fascist stadiums and banners, a militarised police force and autocratic tyranny. The rebels are depicted as advocating an open democratic system in opposition to the authoritarian dictatorship of President Snow. The irony is that the technology employed by the regime is reflective of the current media system within North America, the region within which the story is set.
The self-awareness of the movie as ideological weaponry is reflected in the ‘propos’ which Katniss and the rebels shoot to unite the districts in the struggle against the Capitol. The use of the mockingjay symbol in the ‘propos’ within the movie was mirrored by the use of the same symbol and four note musical signature as a marketing tool for the movie. This sophisticated blurring of fiction and reality of which Suzanne Collins spoke is part of the incorporation of dissent performed by the liberal democratic political system. When Katniss begins to defy the Panem system by her actions within the Games the following dialogue occurs between President Snow and the Head Gamemaker:
President Snow: Seneca…. why do you think we have a winner?
Seneca Crane: [frowns] What do you mean?
President Snow: I mean, if we just wanted to intimidate the districts, why not round up twenty-four of them at random and execute them all at once? Be a lot faster.
[Seneca just stares, confused]
President Snow: Hope.
Seneca Crane: Hope?
President Snow: Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as its contained.
Seneca Crane: So…?
President Snow: So, contain it.
The movie, like the Games, is a container of dissent, since it posits the regime of Panem as essentially suffering from an absence of democracy and freedom. The rebels are fighting for the universal values which North America has taken possession of through its monopolisation of the concept of freedom within the political system of liberalism. Any alternative system can be depicted as against freedom and therefore a legitimate enemy of all freedom-loving peoples. The concept of freedom has a profound resonance but its meaning remains intentionally vague and ill-defined since it serves only as an expedient, useful in mobilising passions for ideological purposes. Liberalism is a political system that sanctions its activity by invoking the numen of freedom, i.e. a secular interpretation of the traditionally spiritual concept of Enlightenment:
Originally the term referred to a suprarational, spiritual illumination; slowly but inexorably it became synonymous with rationalism, with the theory of ‘natural light’ and with anti-tradition… The light of mere human reason replaces the illumination, giving rise to the havoc brought about by ‘free enquiry’ and secular criticism. The supernatural is banned and confused with nature. Freedom and equality are illegitimately claimed by the individual who is ‘conscious of his dignity’ (though he is not conscious of being enslaved to his empirical self) and who now arises against any form of authority, vainly setting himself up as his own ultimate reason for being. I say ‘vainly’ because in the inexorable unfolding of the various phases of modernity, individualism has been only a short-lived mirage and a misleading intoxication; the collective and irrational element in the age of the masses and of technology has rapidly overcome the emancipated ‘individual’ who is without roots and without tradition. (Julius Evola: The Mystery of the Grail)
Given the debased nature of the concept it functions largely as a means to an end for material and political power which consciously manipulates the remnants of its original meaning still present in the hearts and minds of the collective. There are intimations of this toward the end of the trilogy when Gale and Coin decide that the means (killing civilians) justify the ends (overthrowing President Snow).
Katniss becomes an icon of the revolution within the story and in the marketing strategy for the movie she is presented as an embodiment of progressive feminist and egalitarian tendencies (girl-power) incorporated into the liberal aesthetic of the mainstream movie industry.
The glossy imagery and the stylised representation of advertising is employed here along with the talents of real-world fashion designers. The financing budget and merchandising spin-offs of a spectacular blockbuster movie such as The Hunger Games is the mirror of Panem’s attempt to employ Katniss and Peeta as a symbol of their goodwill during the Victory tour. Exploiting the current fascination with ‘reality television’ and the shallow narcissism of a media-saturated consciousness, the spark of revolution is transformed into a revolving and reconfiguration of the kaleidoscope, startling and seductive but without consequence.
THE COLISEUM OF FANTASY
There is a striking absence of religion in this fictional world. There is no sign of any form of prayer or worship either in the Capitol or the Districts. Despite this the dramatic moments in the narrative are invested with religious iconography and choral music. Katniss at the end of Catching Fire is lifted out of the arena in a scene evoking the iconography of a Pietà. A moral universe is also implicit in the outrage against the injustice and enslavement Katniss observes around her and the notions of sacrifice and honour invoked by the Capitol.
Western movies draw heavily on the reservoir of the Christian heritage even as they function in alliance with the liberal system intent upon dismantling traditional structures and values in favour of a system conducive to materialistic and humanist ends. Religious archetypes and iconography are employed to evoke and displace emotions onto secular values since these values in themselves are counterfeit replacements.
This counterfeit quality pervades our own culture due to its increasing immersion within artificial, technological domains and a disconnection from the reality around us. A closed system of mechanical influences which inevitably shape our perception as well as numbing the awareness of its effects. The technocratic ideology emerging insists that the domain reflects our own creative ingenuity and any objection raised is merely the reactionary Luddite mentality of those unable to adapt. The movie imagines the possible abuses of such advanced technology in the hands of a totalitarian regime. If we approach the issue from a philosophical angle there is a contemporary resonance to the movie far beyond a rather clichéd democratic/fascist schematic.
Technology, allied with a human-centred ideology, has the potential to become a solipsistic hall of mirrors within which all connection with anything other than the ideological is lost. Reflections, doubles, shadows, echoes, holograms and ‘propos’ would constitute the virtual ground of being and identity. The ‘real’ is placed in quotes, becomes a trope, a figure of speech, part of the imaginary theatre. The eclectic post-modern storehouse of historical images and sounds, symbols and iconography is recycled as spectacle to elicit a thrill or create a mood or drive a narrative as in a movie. We already see intimations of this in the pantomime of political campaigns, the theatre of televised debates and parliaments, and the rhetorical platitudes of our establishment representatives impotently rebounding within the disconnected echo-chamber they inhabit. The sophistry of the political class is matched by the esoterica of the financial systems and the blind dogma of exponential growth and social progress.
One of the major pillars of liberalism is the credo of individual liberty which finds its political reflection in the economic credo of self-interest and free trade. The libertarian supporter of individual freedom will find that he has no grounds upon which to oppose the social injustice of an economic system since the ruling class are simply following the same principle of liberty he demands for himself, albeit on a larger scale. In a materialistic epoch, such as our own is, the result will be a society composed of ‘free’ individuals who, more or less successfully, sell their skills in the marketplace, exploit other individuals in their selfish pursuits and form alliances only as temporary expedients to be annulled when no longer useful. Just as in the Arena where the Tributes enact the evolutionary and economic paradigm of the survival of the fittest.
We learn from Finnick that the sponsors of the victorious Tributes are essentially purchasing sexual slaves and it is made clear that the bait of sexual freedom, or license, functions as another form of political control. The echo chamber of the Panem establishment is replicated in the smaller, disconnected and atomised citizens of the Capitol: individuals absorbed within their own personal bubble of self-fulfilment and consumption. The sentimental and vacuous nature of these citizens is an example of the human consciousness rebooted and reconfigured in accord with the dictates of a technocratic ideology not too far removed from the enshrinement of desire and individuality through which liberalism maintains its rule. A darker version of this transformation exists in the ‘mutts’ of the Capitol.
Katniss describes the ‘Muttations’ deployed as biological weapons against the contestants. These are genetically-engineered creatures which appear toward the end when only three contestants remain:
Muttations.No question about it. I’ve never seen these mutts, but they’re no natural-born animals. They resemble huge wolves, but what wolf lands and then balances easily on its hind legs? What wolf waves the rest of the pack forward with its front paw as though it had a wrist?… The green eyes glowering at me are unlike any dog or wolf, any canine I’ve ever seen. They are unmistakably human. And that revelation has barely registered when I notice the collar with the number 1 inlaid with jewels and the whole horrible thing hits me. The blond hair, the green eyes, the number… it’s Glimmer. My head snaps from side to side as I examine the pack, taking in the various sizes and colors. The small one with the red coat and amber eyes . . . Foxface! And there, the ashen hair and hazel eyes of the boy from District 9 who died as we struggled for the backpack! And worst of all, the smallest mutt, with dark glossy fur, huge brown eyes and a collar that reads 11 in woven straw. Teeth bared in hatred. Rue . .
The terrifying aspect of this genetic reconstruction of the dead contestants (omitted from the movie version) is an extreme form of the social engineering which modernity engages in. The creation of technological prosthetics and sadistic monstrosities is the result of a profound disconnection from the traditional understanding of existence as embodied in the institutions of the past. The loss of a living connection with a metaphysical realm imprisons the culture solely within the material and temporal realms. The totalitarian system of Panem is the logical outcome of a mentality wedded to empirical reality and its own scientific will-to-power; a system within which the totality of all aspects of existence, even the rebellious aspect, are to be eventually incorporated into the state ideology. The masses are, in the final analysis, material to be ordered and employed in the most efficacious manner by a technocratic elite. Without the concept of transcendence in some form the culture becomes a closed circle, with the individual ego and its transient desires at the centre. The questions of truth, law, and freedom have no meaning if they are merely instrumental to the will and desire of a more powerful individual or group. Even the descent toward the sub-human may appear as an ascent toward a trans-human utopia to a mentality detached from and dismissive of its traditional framework.
A useful symbol of this struggle between modernity and tradition is the mockingjay bird which the rebellion appropriates. Within the film it is a symbol of the rebellion but within the book (Catching Fire) it can be understood to have an additional dimension involving the survival of traditional ideas even within the technocratic framework of modernity:
The jabberjays were muttations, genetically enhanced male birds created by the Capitol as weapons to spy on rebels in the districts. They could remember and repeat long passages of human speech, so they were sent into rebel areas to capture our words and return them to the Capitol. The rebels caught on and turned them against the Capitol by sending them home loaded with lies. When this was discovered the jabberjays were left to die. In a few years, they became extinct in the wild, but not before they had mated with female mockingbirds, creating an entirely new species…A mockingbird is just a songbird. A mockingjay is a creature the Capitol never intended to exist. They hadn’t counted on the highly controlled jabberjay having the brains to adapt to the wild, to pass on its genetic code, to thrive in a new form. They hadn’t anticipated its will to live.
The jabberjays are a mutated form of life which nevertheless retains its instinctual imperative which is then transmitted into a new form. Likewise the counterfeit aspect of modernity, which appears so often to be a mocking parody and a mutation of the traditional understandings and valuations of existence, retains the imprint of the originals. The instinct for discerning between the fake and the authentic is a recurring theme in the trilogy and is reflected in the contemporary fascination with dystopias. That fascination is a reaction to the failed utopian promises of the various modern ideologies and the continuing search for authentic existence. Modernity is haunted by the spectre of the real, as the phantom limb haunts the amputee. In the same year that Bakunin was predicting the totalitarian state of the communist revolutionaries, Friedrich Nietzsche was describing the epistemological impasse of the period which will dethrone truth to the status of a debased currency :
A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphism – in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins. (On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense 1873)