Some Thoughts on The Hunger Games

Timothy Kennett
  1. None of the characters are really characters. Some of them are types — the gruff alcoholic mentor, the innocent little sister, the geek — and some of them have external motivations — protecting their loved ones etc. — but none are people, none are more than two dimensional. The closest is Katniss; she is not two dimensional purely by virtue of being so many different things as and when they are demanded. She is innocent and overwhelmed; she is fiery and impassioned; she is a leader, a symbol, a warrior, a victim, a lover, a charmer, a celebrity, a model, a beauty, a protector, a child, a creature of the moment, a creature haunted by the past, wracked by bad dreams; a political visionary, a political naïf; rational and pragmatic; governed by emotions, warm and emotive and then cold and decisive. Jennifer Lawrence is a blessing in this role: as she showed in American Hustle, she is putty, remoldable as necessary, capable of wearing multiple masks as necessary. Even her face varies. For one of the world’s most famous actors, she can be remarkably difficult to recognise.
  2. The films use this versatility throughout by explicitly asking Katniss to play at various forms of pageantry: entering on chariots, kissing on chatshows, playing at love, making propaganda videos. Katniss can barely take the strain.
  3. On the other side, on the side of evil, President Snow can also barely take the strain. He is a symbol, not just the visible face of the Capitol’s political system, but its entire body politic. He only has this one role, but it is a heavy burden to bear, and he can get distracted while mincing and engaging in casual sadism.
  4. The characters, Katniss especially, take on a symbolic value: the political system is represented entirely through this handful of individuals. As with many (Hollywood) films, the emotional motivations of the characters become a shorthand for the broader problems of society. Katniss is a revolutionary almost entirely to protect her family; the evil of the Capitol is reflected in the worsening gauntness and palour of Peeta’s face; the primary focus of the Capitol/President Snow’s war strategy is emotionally abusing Katniss. The Hunger Games seems to want to be a dystopia with some kind of societal or political message, but too often the characters’ emotions override their symbolic and/or political values.
  5. The films have a keen awareness of this problem, an awareness that they are engaged in the creation of symbols. The films offer moments of symbolic rapture to the audience — Katniss shooting her bow and finally breaking the Games, or her dress burning from a wedding dress into a Mockingjay dress — and then shows them again, in a different light, through a TV screen. Katniss films an impassioned plea at a bombed hospital; we watch the same plea again on a screen in front of a thunderous audience, summoned and presented for their approval. Now it rings hollow. We see Katniss and Peeta puppetted on TV for their rival captors’ political ends; we see the war play out in the cut and thrust, move and counter, between the two characters. The final two scenes cross-cut action and representation, speeches and reality. In the first case to build tension, to create a growing awareness of the oncoming horror; in the second, to present this horror as a triumph.
  6. Early films struggled to integrate the media elements into the larger story, resulting in a split structure where the first half was set-up, interviews and media manipulation, and the second half the action sequences of the Games themselves (for example, we are told how important it is to impress sponsors through media, but Katniss, despite seemingly succeeding at impressing at least some sponsors, mostly receives gifts from her own mentor). Mockingjay succeeds, largely by stripping away the game and the action sequences, and making the battle across the media the centre of the story.
  7. The dystopia makes no sense. How does the economy function? The Districts all seem to specialise in some kind of production, and the Capitol exists as a kind of rentier elite that uses media and violence — which are often indistinguishable — to exploit them. But the Capitol can seemingly afford to destory whole districts, permanently, without suffering any economics consequences. If the purpose of District 12 is to mine coal, and District 12 is destroyed, then how is the whole nation going to get coal? Was coal even necessary in the first place? At no point do the films suggest that the dystopia could be even slightly functional at any point. This isn’t a problem, because, as discussed above (5), the films are more about symbols than they are about politics. The whole symbolic conflict is played out in the media, but it’s never clear who is watching.
  8. Whenever the actual audience appear on screen, all from the Districts, they are hopelessly naive, and seem to believe everything they see without question. ‘What happened to the baby, Katniss?’ asks one woman. ‘I lost it,’ Katniss replies. Fair enough, no more questions asked. This is I think a big problem for the dystopia, far more so than its economic idiocy: for a series of films that wants to be clever and self-reflexive about the impact of media, such a simplistic model of the actual effect of media is a bit self-defeating. There seems to be an implicit comparison between the naive, credulous audience within the film — excluding all of the named characters, who understand the subtleties of propaganda — and the cynacism and insight of the film’s real-world audience. David Foster Wallace identifies this kind of audience-flattering self-irony as necessary to the success of television in his essay ‘E Unibus Plurum’, and it seems equally applicable here. Such obvious flattery of the audience undermines the films’ analytical or critical value, though, as a massive Hollywood franchise, they were always walking the line between being greedy, media controlling capitalists and critiquing greedy, media controlling capitalism.
  9. The politics are confused too. The Capitol is obviously evil, and its actions as a polity are excessively cruel, such that it is not clear how the Districts could ever have considered this an acceptable status quo. District 13, which appears out of nothing when it is needed — certainly Katniss is not the kind of leader who can organise an insurgency — is very communist: grey clothes, no coffee, no liquor, underground, everyone equal, no corruption, no special treatment, pure democracy — although obviously this pure democracy in the film is represented by a few key decision makers who are nice: one is a woman, one is black, one is Philip Seymour Hoffman. They are compassionate and they make good decisions. District 13 is Calvinist; the Capitol is one of those Popes who had orgies. It doesn’t help the film that the orgies look way more fun, particularly given the contrast between the bright and inventive visual representations of the Capitol in the first two films and the bleak unimaginative District 13 in the third. It is perhaps inevitable that such a franchise-y Hollywood movie would end up more enamoured with the rich, visual and flamboyant society it positioned as the bad guys than with the drab, world-without-movies good guys.
    Timothy Kennett

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    BNOC; hipster; dilettante; banterlope.

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