Terra Incognita: The Hunger Games
Placed in the impossible situation of subservience to totalitarianism, the individual’s duty is to struggle against it.
Gladiator fighting school event in Rome Photo: Reuters
In one of the last scenes of the 1998 film The Truman Show the main character,
Truman, played by Jim Carrey, is seen angling his small skiff into a raging
storm, attempting to escape the reality television show he has been raised in.
The director, who has controlled Truman since he was born on television, shouts
“that’s our hero shot.” It is a heroic shot because Truman is fighting to break
free of the shackles of the system into which he was born. Like a runaway slave,
he has finally found his independence.
The 2012 fantasy drama The Hunger
Games has become an epic success since its release on March 21. It stayed at
first place at the North American box office for four consecutive weekends, and
looks placed to outpace other big money makers, like Avatar, having pulled in
$500 million already. That means something like 50 million people have seen the
The book on which the movie is based, which is part of a trilogy,
supposedly has as many as 36.5 million copies in circulation. It can be assumed
that the film probably has more cultural impact than the book. And yet the
message of the film is a disturbing one.
The plot centers around Katniss
Everdeen, a vibrant and independent 16-year-old girl who is an expert at hunting
with a bow and arrow. Everdeen is born into a future world that consists of one
country that is divided into a capital and 12 districts. The capital consists of
a fancy, wealthy city where the people all seem to live a luxurious lifestyle.
The 12 districts, by contrast, exist in varying states of subservience and
poverty with some districts specializing in coal mining and one in agricultural
production. Katniss’ district 12 is a typical hodgepodge of shacks and
junk that recalls the futuristic garbage worlds of Mad Max and other
The central theme of the film is that each year the 12 districts
must send 24 “tributes” to fight in gladiatorial games. The requirement to send
tribute is a form of punishment for a rebellion against the government that took
place over 70 years before.
The author of the book on which the movie is
based, Suzanne Collins, notes that she was inspired by the stories of Rome’s
gladiator games and Theseus, the mythical founder-king of Athens. In the
original story of Theseus the Athenians were subservient to a king Minos of
Crete and were forced to send 14 youths, seven boys and seven girls, to the
island every seven years. The children were fed to the Minotaur; a half-man,
half-bull creature. Theseus volunteered to take the place of the one of the
youths, went to Crete and killed the beast, returning home a hero.
Roman gladiator games, which developed in the 3rd century BCE and were not
banned until the 4th century CE, mostly employed slaves and prisoners of war who
fought to the death for the enjoyment of the masses.
Some estimate that
thousands died a year in the arenas of the empire. Not only slaves participated,
but also poor people and volunteers. The games resulted in one major revolt,
that of Spartacus in 70 BCE.
Collins does not note that there is another
historical event that is also connected to the theme in her book. The
Ottoman dev’irme or “child collection” and “blood tax” was used by the Turkish
rulers of Eastern Europe to replenish the ranks of their army. Every four years
thousands of Christian children were rounded up and sent to Turkey where they
were converted to Islam and trained to be soldiers of the empire.
Hunger Games incorporates these themes of slavery, tribute, taxation and human
spectacle. However, the central problem with the movie is not that it
incorporates myths from the Western past, but the message that it gives to the
audience based on those myths.
When we think of Theseus, we imagine his
greatness not because he submitted to becoming a tribute, but because he slayed
the beast. Theseus wanted to gain the freedom of his people and he knew that the
former system was not working; the young boys and girls were being sent to Crete
and never came back. Only Theseus could defeat the Minotaur.
imagine the gladiators we don’t think of the millions that apparently went to
their deaths willingly but rather of films like Spartacus (1960) and Gladiator
(2000). Both films revolve around the quest for freedom, revenge and love by men
who have been condemned to the arena. In both cases the main characters
Hunger Games serves up a very different meal. In the beginning of
the film Katniss Everdeen volunteers to be a tribute to fight in the games in
place of her sister. From this moment on, she resigns herself to death, but
gradually realizes she may have a chance to compete in the games and even
Despite reviews that praised the movie’s “feminist” themes, Katniss
as a character is disappointing. She expresses no interest in escaping the life
to which she has been sentenced. Forced to fight it out in the arena she plots
to gain the crowd’s support and sympathy, which is important because “sponsors”
can provide gladiators with goodies during the competition. The audience is
supposed to want Katniss to survive, but for those weaned on the themes of Star
Wars and other freedom-inspiring classics, the story is
Katniss as a character never seeks to break out of her world,
in which she is entertainment for a grotesque society.
Since she never
rebels, despite ample opportunity, the society that watches the reality show
cannot even gain any insight into the fact that the gladiators do not want to
die in a spectacle of sport.
One could say that this is irrelevant, that
the message of a random movie is not of great importance. But movies are the
myths of today, what Homer was for the Greeks.
Films such as Harry
Potter, Star Wars, Avatar, X-Men and The Matrix provide a cultural message of
independence, rebellion against oppression and respect for
Even The Truman Show showed us that, in the end, the “hero
shot” is precisely that shot of man coming to terms with his independence. The
final shot in A Bridge on the River Kwai, when Col. Nicholson realizes he has
become an unwitting collaborator, sears his tragedy of subservience to fascism
into the mind. His final act is one of defiance and realization.
Games provides the wrong message. This is especially important as the nation
remembers the Holocaust. The act of defiance and individualism is what
defines humanity. Placed in the impossible situation of subservience to
totalitarianism, the individual’s duty is to struggle against it.