There’s an irony inherent to a franchise like The Hunger Games. The first film opens with a line asking, “What if everyone stopped watching?” To which the heroine of the series replies, “They won’t.” It’s a sincere idea posed by an insincere product. The point, it seems, of the franchise is to stir discussion on the nature of public passivity in relation to entertainment. How far are we willing to go, and what will we accept? From a purely narrative standpoint it draws on a tradition of bloodsport films as recent as Battle Royale (2000) to as far back as The Most Dangerous Game (1932). From the beginning of cinema the public has had a recurring preoccupation with hunting humans. But where The Hunger Games series diverges from its ilk is the emphasis it places on political allegory, attempting to align itself as a successor to works of dystopian cultural criticism like Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) over the pop nonsense of The Running Man (1987).
The problem with the franchise, and other works of pop culture profiting off of revolution, as in V for Vendetta (2006), isn’t in the linking of low-brow fascinations with high-brow aspirations, it comes from these films using revolutionary expression to quell legitimate action.
The distinction comes in the difference between surrogacy and actualization. While these films actively criticize the passivity of the cultures they seek to satirize, they either unknowingly, unintentionally or slyly contribute to it. This is the surrogacy; these films offer revolution as catharsis, filling a void for action by fictionalizing it. The important thing to consider, though, is that these films always stop short of actualization. Rather than functioning as a legitimate call-to-action, or at least empathizing with those concerns, as can be seen in agitprop like Battleship Potemkin (1925), or forcing viewers through unrelenting satire as a portal to reflection, as in Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), these films offer a surrogate for viewers to release their frustrations through as means of keeping them passive.
Oddly enough, the Hunger Games franchise addresses this in glib fashion. In the first film, President Coriolanus Snow drolly jabs at Seneca Cane with the question, “Why do we have a winner?” in rhetorical fashion. To which the answer is hope, because “it’s the only thing stronger than fear.” These films offer a false hope narrative just as the games offer their audience the same. The point of both is to create a surrogate for the audience to identify with, feel for and ultimately become vindicated by, instead of using the surrogate as a poker to prod audiences into action.
“Rather than functioning as a legitimate call-to-action … these films offer a surrogate for viewers to release their frustrations through as means of keeping them passive.”
That films of this nature know this but still revel in hypocrisy is indicative of one of two things: either, the creative teams responsible are too naive to recognize what they’re doing, or, more troubling, they’re a cynical cash-grab intent on exploiting the innate human desire to be free. Given that most of these films are created in established Western industries like Hollywood, the point almost seems to be to perpetuate the system and the society it feeds by posing a false revolution as means of distracting people from seeing a world that’s collapsing around them.
What’s truly ingenious and terrifying about the Hunger Games series is that it can be anything to anyone, it doesn’t have a specificity of political orientation. Both Occupy and the Tea Party can see themselves in Katniss, which is exactly what makes the film troubling. It has the ability to subdue groups on both sides of the political spectrum by creating a hope narrative and then closing it off in traditionally Western ways. It wouldn’t be spoiling anything to say that love, even in the series’ warped context, is still affirmed in the end, even if it’s a subversion of the damsel-in-distress trope. This makes works like this a supreme example of cynicism in modern society in that they use all of these ideas to maintain the systems of power they disingenuously criticize; they don’t want to reform corruption because they exist as a part of it. Works of “protest” like this are created to negate legitimate questioning of power by preventing the public from ever reaching that point.
Next week: Dystopian Anxiety in the Age of Boredom: The Matrix