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 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Gladiator fighting school event in Rome 370
(photo credit: 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 movie.
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 films.
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.
The 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.
The 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.
When we 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 die.
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 win.
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 disturbing.
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 difference.
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.
Hunger 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.