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Are ‘The Hunger Games’ Films Radical Social Critique — or Just More Evidence of Hollywood’s Cynicism?

There’s a certain conceptual irony to The Hunger Games franchise. This is a story, after all, that is at its essence about the perniciously oppressive power of entertainment — and yet, here it is, rendered as that most modern of entertainments, a Hollywood blockbuster. This contradiction is at the heart of what makes the film adaptations, in particular, such an interesting cultural phenomenon. The movies’ story arc essentially concerns the overthrow of an oppressive state wherein wealth is confined to an elite at the expense of an exploited majority, and what looks remarkably like a socialist revolution based around the redistribution of wealth.

The idea of entertainment as oppression isn’t exactly new, of course. It’s responsible for the Romans’ circus, and informed any number of public executions over the millennia: you both appeal to the public’s bloodlust and scare them into submission, providing them with a spectacle that titillates their baser instincts and also reminds them that if they step out of line, they might be the one who’s getting fed to the lions next time. It’s also not a new idea for cinema — The Hunger Games has often been compared to the 2000 Japanese film Battle Royale, which also found a bunch of adolescents battling one another for survival in a dystopian state-sponsored spectacle, and on this side of the Pacific, films like The Running Man and Death Race 2000 have explored similar territory.

Part of the appeal of these films is that they provide a window into what our society isn’t, but could be. In this sense, they have allegorical appeal — they draw a parallel between certain base aspects of our society and what could result if those aspects remain unchecked. None of those films, however, has become a bona fide global spectacle in the way The Hunger Games franchise has.

Quite why people lap up The Hunger Games‘ brand of dystopia, then, is a worthwhile question to ponder. The film’s stars have offered interesting perspectives on this; Donald Sutherland, who plays President Snow, told Total Film a couple of years back that he thought the first film had a the potential to be “the most influential film made in this country for many years.” Two years later, at a roundtable interview in advance of Catching Fire‘s release, he hadn’t resiled from this position: “More so. This film, this is an adult film. And this film is, when you come out of this film, you’re shaken. You have not seen a popcorn film, you come out of it and your head is whirling.”

He relates The Hunger Games‘ resonance to the story’s power as an allegory for our own society, with a moneyed elite enriching themselves at the expense of an underclass who live hand to mouth: “Look at this society we live in, you know? I think it’s pretty obvious [why The Hunger Games is so popular]. When you have a society [in which] General Electric gets away without paying any taxes on their profits, and where [the government] has the gall to take $15 billion of food stamps away from the poor… It’s pretty evident. It’s stunning.”

Jena Malone, who plays axe-wielding District 7 resident and future revolutionary Johanna Mason in the second film, has a somewhat different perspective, suggesting the movies open a window into what we’ve done to other societies, with America as a whole functioning as the Capitol and the rest of the world as the Districts: “[The films are] asking the questions of what it’s like to live in a wartime society while we’ve been a war for a decade, but … don’t really live it,” she suggests. “The fact that [young audiences] are actually hungry for those questions, and [have made] the novels as successful as they are, was because they’ve been wanting someone to tell this story to them and to create these characters for them.”

Our own Jason Bailey has a theory that it’s precisely because the story’s brand of dystopia can be molded to whatever ideology its viewers possess that it has proven so popular. He’ll expound on this later in the week, but in the meantime, there’s much to be said about how The Hunger Games as a phenomenon relates to cinema in general, and especially to the Hollywood machine, because whatever way you interpret them, they’re very much a condemnation of the status quo. In this respect, they’re unusual — blockbusters that have been implicit condemnations of US policy or society or values haven’t exactly been the Hollywood machine’s premium product over the years.

Both The Hunger Games as cinema qua cinema and the story the trilogy conveys seem to undermine their own medium. In a sense, their very existence is a rebuttal to their idea of entertainment as an all-powerful tool for repression — if the films really had the power to effect the changes they appear to be advocating, if they could be as influential as Sutherland hopes they might be… well, they’d never have been made (at least not by the big studios), because Hollywood’s mega-rich financiers are exactly the sort of people the mythos of The Hunger Games is condemning. After all, you can’t imagine a multimillion-dollar Hollywood production about the plucky heroism of the oppressed masses of Zuccotti Park, or a bunch of unfortunate civilians in a distant desert whose family keeps getting blown up by sinister unmanned aircraft.

You could argue that I’m overthinking this way too much, and that Hollywood doesn’t care what’s in its films, so long as they bring in the cash at the box office. This is true, but only to an extent; the history of Hollywood reveals that there’s always been a tension between two schools of thought on this point: producers who don’t care what’s in films so long as they sell and/or think filmmakers should have artistic license to make whatever they want, and politicians (and a certain subset of producers) who feel that Hollywood should reflect the values of the society to which it owes its existence, viz. the good ol’ US of A.

And this stuff has proven powerful over the years. You can see the influence of the latter side of the argument in the innumerable Hollywood blockbusters that are very much based on the idea of reinforcing American patriotism and “values” — flat-out allegorical propaganda like Independence Day, the endless parade of movies about the military, and more subtle cultural products like the infinite rom-coms that present the USA as a wonderful, romantic place to live. As Guy Debord wrote in The Society of the Spectacle, “The spectacle is the ruling order’s nonstop discourse about itself, its never-ending monologue of self-praise, its self-portrait at the stage of totalitarian domination of all aspects of life,” a description that’s still a pretty apt summation of a great deal of Hollywood’s output.

One last thing to consider: like its predecessors in the dystopian-future genre, The Hunger Games doesn’t condemn cinematic escapism as much as our world’s other great form of entertainment, television. The games themselves are very obviously a nightmarish reflection of reality TV — cameras track the contestants’ every move, beaming them into the homes of slavering viewers, who lap up every brutal, bloody minute. This has been the format that’s followed by pretty much every other film that’s explored this idea, from the aforementioned Running Man to less bloody but equally sinister films like The Truman Show.

In every case, it’s TV that’s the villain, TV that’s stealing our children’s souls, TV that gets called “the idiot box.” But it’s the cinema that’s been America’s most powerful form of visual entertainment over the years, the cinema that still commands the biggest budgets and the biggest stars, the cinema that’s so powerful it’s become synonymous with America’s greatest cultural export: Hollywood. It rarely gets critiqued to the extent that television does, and that’s surely no accident.

To take it a final step farther, you can even argue that the existence of The Hunger Games films only further reinforces this Hollywood hegemony — after all, it’s a great society that lets its filmmakers bite the hand that feeds them, right? The land of the free! Ultimately, they also bring in squillions of dollars for their backers — and, as they say, money talks and bullshit walks. Still, the fact that these films are so popular at a time when dissatisfaction with government is so strong… well, it has to count for something, right?

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