“So the Capitol is kind of like the Art Deco District,” I overheard a young guy saying to his friend as we exited the movie theater following a screening of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”
“No you fool,” I said though he didn’t hear me, “it’s about facism.”
How can a movie about people rising up against oppression, literally rebelling against a seemingly impenetrable totalitarian and repressive government, be subject to such divergent interpretations? “The Hunger Games,” it seems, is all in the eye of the beholder. There are those who just see it as entertainment, the latest in young adult stories about a dystopian future.
Progressives and liberals point to the core themes of the films and the trilogy of books on which they are based – the struggle between the 99% (the 12 districts) vs. the 1% (the Capitol), the poor and underfed vs. the rich and overfed.
Donald Sutherland, who plays the film’s tyrannical President Snow, recently told the Guardian that he hopes the movie will stir up a youth-led uprising against injustice. “I hope that they will take action because it's getting drastic in this country. Drone strikes. Corporate tax dodging. Racism. The Keystone oil pipeline. Denying food stamps to starving Americans.”
“The Hunger Games,” Sutherland suggests, is a coded commentary on inequality, power and hope. “It just puts things out in the light and lets you have a look at it. And if you take from it what I hope you will take from it, it will make you think a little more pungently about the political environment you live in and not be complacent.”
But progressives aren’t the only ones embracing the film’s message. Conservatives are also lauding the motion picture for what they see as a story of government overreach leading to tyranny. Conservative film reviewer Christian Toto writes, “The fact that the film targets an all-powerful government enslaving its citizens gives it even extra heft for right-of-center audiences.”
Conservative Christian commentator Mack Rights argues, “‘The Hunger Games’ has a huge conservative Christian message,” pointing out that “demonic liberals have succeeded in erasing God and Christ from the culture completely by successfully creating their own Utopia - which is really a dystopian nightmare for anyone not in the liberal ruling class.”
So what is the real story? Suzanne Collins, the author of the trilogy that the films are based on, says she was inspired to write the books one evening while watching TV. “I was channel surfing between reality programs and actual (Iraq) war coverage. On one channel, there’s a group of young people competing for I don’t even know; and on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting in an actual war. I was really tired, and the lines between these stories started to blur in a very unsettling way.”
The issue of war and peace is central to Collins’ writing. Her father was in the military and she told the Christian Science Monitor, “He, I think, felt it was his responsibility to make sure that all his children had an understanding about war, about its cost, its consequences.”
Collins says she was looking to write a story about war for every child age group. Her 2003 book, The Underland Chronicles: Gregor the Overlander, is her war story for middle-grade children. She recently penned a children’s book, Year of the Jungle, which focuses on a young girl whose father is fighting in Vietnam, drawing on Collins’ own anxiety when her father served in that war. Collins told The New York Times “that her father came back from Vietnam enduring ‘nightmares, and that lasted his whole life.’ As a child, she awoke, at times, to the sound of him crying out during those painful dreams.”
In another interview about the issues found in The Hunger Games, Collins told the New York Times, “It’s crucial that young readers are considering scenarios about humanity's future, because the challenges are about to land in their laps…I hope they question how elements of the books might be relevant to their own lives. About global warming, about our mistreatment of the environment, but also questions like: How do you feel about the fact that some people take their next meal for granted when so many other people are starving in the world?”
Another theme running through “The Hunger Games” is its indictment of media and celebrity. But it’s hard to think of the movie as some sort of call to arms when the same power and propaganda it critiques is being used in all sorts of absurd marketing tie-ins – from Subway’s Catching Fire-branded Sandwiches (for a movie about massive starvation!) to Cover Girl’s makeup line themed after the movie’s twelve oppressed districts (check out some of the “looks” in the collection in the photo – yes, this is real!).
It’s really quite crazy when you think of all the contradictions. But I suppose that just comes with the territory (living in the belly of the beast). Sometimes I feel like I’m living in the Hunger Games’ Capitol. So many distractions from what is happening “in the outer districts” where starvation, repression and killings are rampant. So many distractions – gotta watch “Scandal” and “Game of Thrones,” go to the movies and see the latest action flick, check out an open mic, go to the gym, go to a concert, get a pedicure, etc. In between we talk about social justice. What it will take. What is to be done. We feel outrage when another Black woman or man is gunned down. When another immigrant is deported. When disparities in our society continue to grow. When our government attacks civilians in other countries with drones. Locks up political dissidents like Leonard Peltier, Mumia Abu Jamal and Chelsea Manning. We demonstrate. Write. Agitate. Meet. Discuss. Repeat.
The Occupy movement was a bit of a Mockingjay moment. It gave people hope and a framework. They always knew it was there. But then people were saying it out loud. “They are the 1%. We are the 99%.” Then the forces of repression moved in and snuffed out the sparks that for a moment had turned to flame and traveled from coast to coast with Occupies in every town and city. People got it. Felt it. Felt the lines being drawn. Felt kinship and comradery. Experienced the repression together. People continue to rise up. The Dreamers occupied Florida’s State Capitol following the “not guilty” verdict for George Zimmerman and demanding justice for Trayvon Martin. Thousands rally in North Carolina during Moral Mondays. Immigrant rights activists block ICE deportation buses in California and Arizona.
“The Hunger Games” is a Hollywood picture for sure and no feature film is going to lead to revolution. But we can see it as an opportunity to discuss themes of power and privilege, violence and war. Besides, who among us doesn’t enjoy a good “kick the ass of the ruling class” movie. Escapsim it is not.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project
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