JL Schatz

There is a certain missed opportunity in America’s box-office obsession with The Hunger Games which, while being an entertaining movie in its own right, does make one wonder if the message of Capitol’s domination over the Districts of Panem has been completely forgotten. In her recent analysis of the film, Catherine Palczewski, says of her experience, “I suddenly realized that watching The Hunger Games movie meant I was actually watching the Hunger Games games…All too often, I watched, not realizing I was watching. Every lesson of the books was lost in the movie.” Beyond the theater, this willful forgetting of the film’s message was subsumed by media coverage of celebrity gossip and news outlets covering how to throw your own Hunger Games party or whether Mitt Romney’s attendance with his grandchildren was acceptable given the PG-13 rating. Celebrity events and late night coverage has focused on the romance or action, and has continually ignored the politics that The Hunger Games highlights.  I will not go as far as Palczewski and say that, “…some books should never be made into a movie, because doing so destroys the very lessons they teach.” But I will say that the refusal for many Americans to understand their night at the movies as a political event does risk cutting short the political message of such a film and the opportunity for it to resonate in transformative ways.

If The Hunger Games teaches us anything it is that the process of watching is never neutral. The movie is the first of the trilogy written by Suzanne Collins, who also co-wrote and co-produced this film. The series is set in a post-apocalyptic world where North America has been destroyed. After a failed uprising where the Capitol ending the war by obliterating District 13, the twelve remaining districts remain under full control of the Capitol, which orchestrates every aspect of resource distribution and life.  In order to remind the districts of the cost of uprising they decree an annual Hunger Games where each district must offer up two of their children ("tributes") to fight to death until only one remains. The particularly gruesome thing is that everyone in the world of Panem is mandatorily required the watch the games and celebrate the event.  

Early in the film, Gale theorizes to the protagonist Katniss about a world where people simply don’t watch - a world where there is no Hunger Games. Later in the film, District 11 revolts against the Peacekeepers after watching one of their two tributes get killed in the arena. These scenes at once expose how things like the media gain its power by people’s willingness to passively watch but then also simultaneously demonstrate that the power of watching can be revolutionary if one acts upon what one sees. The Capitol’s President knows this all too well. He informs the Game Maker of the Hunger Games’ arena that the only reason they allow for a victor in these games is in order to give the districts a small sense of hope.  He warns the Game Maker though that too much hope can be dangerous. To President Snow, the Hunger Games is more about the representational spectacle and it’s effect on the citizens who are forced to watch as opposed to actual element of competition.

The recent Occupy Movement serves as testament to the power of knowledge, hope, and media coverage. Whether one decided to heed the call or sit at home nodding, and continuing to go to work the next day, demonstrates knowledge’s pacifying and mobilizing effects. The Hunger Games offers us precisely that same opportunity since it allows us to capture parallels and commentary on contemporary political practices. It can allow for a discussion on what it means to be a citizen of the United States who can afford to be part of the global one-percent that extracts resources from other areas of the world much like the Capitol does with the Districts.  

Yes, of course, The Hunger Games is fiction. However, there is a dynamic relationship between fact and fiction, especially science fiction. W. Warren Wagner claims, “What emerges from recent research into the history of science fiction is that writers of science fiction foresaw nearly every horror…before it materialized and that, as soon as it did materialize, every horror yielded a profusion of tales developing its implications, good or evil, for the future of humankind. Fiction anticipated truth and truth provoked more fiction.” (1) Whether we see events of starvation, child soldiers, or capitalist exploitation on the news, YouTube, or in the theaters the outcome is mostly the same.  In each instance we often finish watching the story, flip the channel, and do little else outside of a text message donation when the option is available.  But when people finally do decide to act upon what they see, change can happen in an instant.  For seventy-four years, the Districts of Panem watched their children slaughter one another for the Capitol before they took that spark and harnessed it into a revolution out of what the girl on fire symbolized. It took thirty years for the people of Egypt to overthrow the American-supported Mubarak regime based upon the events they witnessed in Tunisia that erupted out of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation. And there’s no telling when the next great wave of revolution might sweep across the globe based upon what’s seen upon the screen.

Many may ask why waste your time talking about contemporary politics through fiction when we can base our analysis off reality. Why after all talk about imperialism and exploitation fictionally when it is indeed real? Wouldn’t the solutions for our problems be better found by looking at what’s actually going on? While this may be true for some, for the vast majority of Americans their access to truth and reality is already so mediated by the presumed truth of news syndicates that it should be taken as no more true than our fictions. As French philosopher Jean Baudrillard has pointed out, “Americans believe in facts, but not in facticity. They do not know that facts are factitious, as their name suggests. It is this belief in ‘facts’ that deceives Americans into believing that the simulations they witness upon the news is a fully accurate depiction of reality.” (2) Americans now suffer from an information overload that renders much information meaningless because it is just as easy to find articles supporting or denying things like global warming and United States’ roles in oppressive dictatorships. This causes many people to shut off from actually considering the truth because there is too much to be known. Fiction offers us the opportunity to put the facticity aside and consider the ethical dimensions of our political choices within a fictional arena that we can then relate to our non-fictional world.

The Hunger Games in its first of three installments allows us to acknowledge this fact.  In the next two parts when the camera pulls back to reveal the entirety of Panem, including the 13th District that was all but absent in the first film, we will have the opportunity to readily critique the Capitol and its imperialist ambitions to control and harness the rest of humanity. This is not to say everyone will have the same interpretation. However, engaging in this dialog of interpretation is what’s important. What we must take away from this first installment is precisely that potential. 

Like Katniss, many viewers went to the theater either willfully ignorant or unaware of the larger political consequences of remaining complicit. However, once Katniss’ sister was offered up for tribute she no longer had that luxury. And, while the movie-goer in America may still have that luxury, they also have the opportunity that District 11 seizes in its moment of revolution to topple institutions of imperial violence by rising up. The Hunger Games can be this call for change. So see the movie but when you throw away your popcorn at the end of the film take the time to reflect on the event that was screened before you since that screening is every bit as meaningful as what’s seen on the nightly news.

(1) Wagar, Warren.  “Truth and Fiction, Equally Strange: Writing About the Bomb.”  American Literary History.  Vol. 1 No. 2.  Summer 1989.  pp. 448-457.

(2) Baudrillard, Jean. America. London, UK: Verso Press, 1988.

JL Schatz is a Professor of English and Feminist Evolutionary Studies at Binghamton University where he also serves as the Director of the Speech and Debate Team, which was ranked 1st in the nation in 2008. He has published essays on technology and apocalypse, environmental securitization, and the influence of science-fiction on reality.