Tis the political season. What better time for a political and societal critique?
I just finished my second viewing of The Hunger Games. The first time I saw it in the theater, and this time I watched it at home. I have not read the book, but it is on my reading list. Conversation about the movie has slowed down, but I thought I would still provide my thoughts on the movie. Better late than never, right?
The genre and subject matter of the book is truly fascinating to me. The book could be classified as a distopian novel in the likes of 1984, Animal Farm, and Brave New World. A dystopia depicts a society that is the opposite of a utopia. A utopia pictures a perfect society, whereas a dystopia paints a picture of the worst society possible. A dystopia is a place of oppression, where citizens lack fundamental aspects of personhood like food, safety and respect. Normally, governments play an important role in creating such a horrible society. They are depicted as totalitarian, controlling and oppressive, denying basic rights and freedoms from its citizens. By considering a flawed society, this genre forces a consideration of the essential elements of humanity, happiness and our deepest desires.
Before some analysis, let me provide a basic plot. The setting is the nation of Panem that consists of wealthy Capital people and 12 surrounding, poorer districts. The Hunger Games are an annual event created by the government to keep the surrounding districts in line. It serves as a reminder of a past failed rebellion and a warning against any future attempts. The opening words of the movie describe the concept:
From the treaty of the treason: In penance for their uprising, each district shall offer up a male and female between the ages of 12 and 18 at a public “Reaping.” These Tributes shall be delivered to the custody of the Capitol. And then transferred to a public arena where they will Fight to the Death until a lone victor remains. Henceforth and forevermore this pageant shall be known as The Hunger Games.
In true gladiator fashion, male and female representatives from each district are chosen to fight to the death. With a sole survivor from 24 people, to be chosen is basically a death sentence. The “tributes” are chosen by chance, but they barter for food and supplies by increasing their chance to be chosen. The premise is simply horrifying, but that is the intent. It is supposed to evoke a strong repulsion in the audience.
The main characters in the movie are the tributes from District 12, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark. Katniss volunteers to prevent her younger sister from being chosen.
The tension in the movie is created by an obvious disparity between two groups within society. The Capital people are the prosperous minority, living in luxury and opulence. Their needs are met in abundance, and their wants are their constant pursuit. Their condition is symbolized by their bright and outrageous clothing. They stand in direct contrast with the majority of society who dwell in the surrounding districts. They live in poverty and want. They are consumed with efforts of survival, leaving little to no time for recreation.
The government exists in order to maintain these disparities. The wealthy prosper at the expense of the poor. Tight controls are placed upon the districts to prevent their movement and freedoms.
Whereas survival is the primary concern in the districts, entertainment is the main pursuit within the Capital. The Hunger Games is one of their greatest joys, and they are enthralled by the pageantry and competition of it. The subject of their entertainment is the most shocking. What they consider to be a game is actually glorified violence where lives are lost and district families are shattered. There is a complete disregard for human life and a lack of concern for others.
The utter lack of empathy and awareness of the needs of others is best exemplified by Effie Trinket, a Capital representative sent to District 12 to collect the tributes. While the tributes live in terror of their impending death, with cheery disposition she talks about the honor of being chosen. She delights in the niceties of the Capital. When a person is nearly stabbed, she is incensed because “that table is mahogany!” She rejoices over the plush apartment, nice food and desserts, congratulating the tributes on their few days to enjoy it. With life and death on the line, she is consumed by thoughts of luxury.
Response to the Flawed Society
How has society shaped and molded its citizens? There seem to be various ways this occurs, one of which is to adopt the Capital mentality. The lower numbered districts are closer to the Capital, and the Hunger Games participants from these districts most resemble the Capital people. Cato and Clove are two characters from the lower districts, and they both seem to enjoy the violence of the game, treating it as sport. They have little regard for the lives of others and relish in adding another “kill” to their tally.
The higher numbered districts (like 11 and 12) are highlighted for different responses. When the tribute Rue is killed, her father and others in District 11 respond with violent rebellion. In anger and frustration, they attack the Capital guards. Their sense of hopelessness finally boils over.
In District 12, where poverty is the greatest, despair seems to reign. As zombies, they go through the motions of life, but they have lost all heart. Katniss’ mother, who lost her husband previously, was unable to cope with it all. When Katniss is chosen, she urges her mom to take care of her little sister and she scolds her, asking her not to “check out” like she did when they lost her dad.
The hero and heroine in the movie are the tributes from District 12. They present a different response to their society. They resist the previous options of assimilation or despair. For example, Peeta attempts to please the Capital people in the games in an effort to get sponsors. He smiles and waves to the crowds, but he has not become one of them. As the District 12 tributes reflect before the games, Peeta states one his concerns to Katniss.
“I just hope they don’t change me… Turn me into something I’m not. I just don’t want to be another piece in their game, you know?… I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them that they don’t own me. You know, if I’m going to die, I want to still be me.”
It’s ironic that even though Cato and Clove adopted the Capital way of living, they were merely pawns in the game. As Cato is about to die, he makes this clear. Violence was his weapon, but it had consumed him.
Go on! Shoot, and we both go down and you win. Go on. I’m dead anyway. I always was, right? I couldn’t tell that until now. How’s that, is that what they want? I can still do this… I can still do this. One more kill. It’s the only thing I know how to do, bringing pride to my district. Not that it matters.
Katniss provides the most obvious signs of resistance. In no way does she want to become like the Capital people. In the Games, she does not actively pursue the deaths of others. Her kills seem to be solely in self-defense. When Rue dies, instead of leaving her body there like a dead animal, she gives her a proper burial and truly weeps over her loss. When Cato is caught by the dogs, she commits a mercy-killing to save him from suffering. The movie also ends with a display of defiance, as she chooses death over killing.
The extremes of this society seem far-fetched, but these are all elements that exist in our society to some degree. It raises a whole host of questions.
- What would we consider a “good” life?
- What are our concerns in the political process?
- How much are we shaped and molded by our society?
- Are we concerned with disparity in society?
- Are we consumed by a need for entertainment?
- Are we desensitized to and entertained by violence?
For me, it was an extremely thought-provoking movie as I asked myself all of these questions. Here’s some very brief thoughts (with the focus on “brief” since this post is probably a little too long already).
The function of government is to provide for the welfare of all of its citizens. It should preserve what is good and just instead of perpetuating injustice and evil. The treatment of the least in society is a pretty good indicator of the worth of that society.
Society plays a strong role in shaping the hearts and character of individuals. Humans of all stripes in every society tend to pursue self-gratification, which causes all sorts of problems. When this impulse is unchecked, society degenerates.
It is extremely difficult to fight against the tidal wave of societal impulse. Too many individuals flow down the stream without any questions whatsoever. Individuals should consider what is truly important in life, and then pursue those things. It will take courage and conviction to pursue what is true rather than what is easy, but the worth of an individual can be judged by their desire to make the difficult choice.
Violence should never be fun or entertaining. It should never be undertaken lightly. Yet, it happens too often and too easily. Society is continually separated into different groups and ranked for relative worth. It is easy to perpetuate violence against those treated like animals or those considered unworthy of human dignity. The right course of action is always kindness and respect.
I heard some people criticize the movie for its portrayal of violence. In this movie, it used the subject of violence to offer a critique, and I think it is one that we need to hear.
There’s plenty more that could be said, but I will stop there. It’s a popular book, and one that many people have read. If you have any thoughts, I would love to hear them.