Amusing Ourselves at Their Deaths - Part 1
Author: Mark Meynell Keywords:
Political ideology, power, propaganda, media, reality, human nature, trust, love, community
Film title: The Hunger Games
Director: Gary Ross
Screenplay: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins & Billy Ray, based on the book by Suzanne Collins
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks
Distributor: Lionsgate (USA/UK)
Cinema Release Date: 23 March 2012 (USA/UK)
Certificate: PG-13 (USA); 12A (UK) Contains intense threat, moderate violence and occasional gory moments
Book title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic, 2008
Book title: Catching Fire
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic, 2009
Book title: Mockingjay
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publisher: Scholastic, 2010
Buy The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay from Amazon.co.uk
Buy the boxed set from Amazon.co.uk or from Amazon.com
This is the first part of Mark Meynell's consideration of The Hunger Games trilogy. Part 2 will be published shortly. This article inevitably contains some plot spoilers.
Neil Postman begins his ground-breaking – and still controversial – Amusing Ourselves to Death by famously pitting the dystopian vision of George Orwell's 1984 against that of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In summary, he noted that Orwell’s great anxiety was that the world would be controlled by fear and the suppression of truth, whereas Huxley suggested it would be manipulated through hedonism and distraction from truth. Big Brother inflicts pain, whereas the World State inflicts pleasure.
Suzanne Collins's remarkable dystopia (ostensibly for teenagers, but now with a wide adult readership because of its gripping writing, intelligence and coherence) combines both poles of Orwell and Huxley. In her futuristic world of Panem, twelve districts – each dedicated to producing different raw materials, crops or products – are exploited by the Capitol, whose citizens live a Versailles-like life of luxury and ease. In reality, both are controlled under the watchful eye of President Snow's regime: one through Orwellian terror, with the 12 districts policed by so-called Peacekeepers, and their food supply ruthlessly rationed to ensure dependence; the other by Huxleyan pleasure. The point at which both dystopian societies collide is an annual 'festival': the Hunger Games.
These are a brutal parody of tournaments like the Olympics, transplanting ancient Roman gladiatorial contests into the realms of reality TV. Each district provides two teenage representatives or 'tributes' – either volunteers or through a lottery grimly termed 'the reaping' – who will fight to the death in the Hunger Games arena. The single victor can expect a life free from want and hunger back in his or her district, though they will never be free from the Capitol's beck and call. They are heralded by official propaganda as heroic, and therefore aspirational, figures. But the Games' purpose is sinister: a visceral reminder of the Capitol's sustained grip on power.
Whatever words they use, the real message is clear. 'Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there's nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you. Just as we did in District Thirteen.' To make it humiliating as well as torturous, the Capitol requires us to treat the Hunger Games as a festivity, a sporting event pitting every district against the others. (The Hunger Games, p. 22)
For the Capitol's pampered citizens, the ostensible purpose is cynically different: it is pure entertainment, but still designed to pacify.
The books are crying out for cinematic treatments, and the film of the first book is remarkably faithful (with one or two interesting tweaks). They are unlikely to satisfy those seeking great literature, but that was never the intention. Yet they are far more nuanced and intellectually provocative than one might have expected. One big surprise, for those (like myself) unfamiliar with 'young adult' fiction, is how deeply political these books are, yet because they are so accessible and vivid, it is hard not to engage. This is a genuine trilogy which is so well-planned and coherently plotted that it is impossible to grasp the narrative fully without reading all three. It is no surprise that they have won plaudits from writers as diverse as Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer, Michael Rosen and Anthony Horowitz. It is especially notable that the books seem to have won fans among both boys and girls, despite having a female protagonist.
Death and the Medium . . . not just for our viewing pleasure
The trilogy's narrator is Katniss Everdeen. She is a teenager from District 12 whose father died in a mining accident, and who cares for her deeply depressed mother and younger sister, Prim. When Prim is selected for the Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place. The tributes are pampered before the Games begin, but Katniss has no illusions about what it all means. One of her temporary servants has been punished by having her tongue removed. Katniss reflects, 'She has reminded me why I'm here. Not to model flashy costumes and eat delicacies. But to die a bloody death while the crowds urge on my killer' (The Hunger Games, p. 97). To survive, the tributes must win over the crowds, and especially the Games' sponsors (who can tip the odds by sending in vital supplies or tools). The tributes become celebrities with appealing back-stories or images, because this is a televisual contest for popularity as well as a gladiatorial fight for survival.
This is not a million miles from the realms of The X-Factor, only with more lethal consequences. The light it casts on our celebrity-obsessed culture is telling, for what are we actually seeking from these contemporary obsessions? Why should the lives, loves and hang-ups of reality TV participants be our business? Of course, there is a complex collusion by those who seek the limelight. But if nothing else, these books are full of warnings and provocations. For all their dystopian futurism, is our world all that different? Take the extremely lucrative world of violent computer games. It was striking that Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik notoriously declared at his trial that he had used Call of Duty: Modern Warfare as preparation for his atrocities. This doesn't make the game itself the cause of the atrocities, as has been observed, but it does point to the blurred lines between the virtual and real. There are moments in the books where the Hunger Games feel like a vast computer game. Before the third book's final assault, for example, a few key characters are given customised weapons from District 13's R&D department. It has the feel of a game's preliminaries in which players choose weapons to suit their character's skill-set.
The media's pervasive presence is crucial to the Games' purpose. Head Gamemaker turned rebel, Plutarch, explains the strategy to Katniss:
[A]ll they've known [in the Capitol] is Panem et Circenses.'
'What's that?' I recognize Panem, of course, but the rest is nonsense.
'It's a saying from thousands of years ago, written in a language called Latin about a place called Rome,' he explains. 'Panem et Circenses translates into "Bread and Circuses". The writer was saying that in return for full bellies and entertainment, his people had given up their political responsibilities and therefore their power.'
I think about the Capitol. The excess of food. And the ultimate entertainment. The Hunger Games. 'So that's what the districts are for. To provide the bread and circuses.'
'Yes. And as long as that kept rolling in, the Capitol could control its little empire. Right now, it can provide neither, at least at the standard the people are accustomed to,' says Plutarch. (Mockingjay, p.259–260)
Because the Games are played on such a vast scale, their effectiveness is only possible through TV. Think Theseus in the Minotaur's labyrinth with CCTV at every corner. But in common with Reality TV satires like The Truman Show, we find ourselves (whether as readers or audience) in collusion, for we too get caught up in the emotions of watching others' conflicts. Once we have become so invested in Katniss and the others (as Suzanne Colins clearly intends), how can we not cheer at their every victory or opponent's demise? Consequently, we sit at only one remove from the Capitol's clamouring crowds. Is this something we ought to be comfortable with? Or is it a legitimate response to good's conquest of evil? There's a fine line between them, but it is not a line we address with anything like the frequency we should. As Suzanne Collins herself has stated, 'I hope it does make people think about what they watch in a more reflective way.'
However, Collins's political insight is acute enough to realise that the media is an inescapable fact of modern life. Because her trilogy is ultimately about war, she is clear that high-minded ideals of liberty are insufficient for resisting oppression. While fighting fire with fire is logically absurd, it is hard not to retaliate by exploiting the enemies' armoury. Therefore media oppression must be fought with media resistance. So when Katniss and fellow District 12 'tribute' Peeta escape to District 13, they must still submit to its demands. Katniss must play the role of the Mockingjay (the symbol of rebellion against the Capitol which Katniss unwittingly created) to rally the opposition and intimidate the enemy. She wants to fight with 13's soldiers, but the commanders' strategy is made is all too clear to her friend Finnick.
You're going to be as useful to the war effort as possible . . . And it's been decided that you are of most value on television. Just look at the effect Katniss had running around in that Mockingjay suit. Turned the whole rebellion around. Do you notice how she's the only one not complaining? It's because she understands the power of that screen. (Mockingjay, p.300)
The irony is not lost on Katniss. Just as she needed stylists to help her in her first Hunger Games, so she is expected to endure being plucked and tweaked for propaganda films for District 13.
What they want is for me to truly take on the role they designed for me. The symbol of the revolution. The Mockingjay. It isn't enough, what I've done in the past, defying the Capitol in the Games, providing a rallying point. I must now become the actual leader, the face, the voice, the embodiment of the revolution. The person who the districts – most of which are now openly at war with the Capitol – can count on to blaze the path to victory. I won't have to do it alone. They have a whole team of people to make me over, dress me, write my speeches, orchestrate my appearances – as if that doesn't sound horribly familiar – and all I have to do is play my part. (Mockingjay, p. 11)
As such, she echoes the precedents set by iconic foot soldiers in war stories - Private Ryan (Matt Damon in Saving Private Ryan) or sniper Vassili Zaitsev (Jude Law in Enemy at the Gates). Their value to the cause is not a militarily strategic one, but as propaganda tools. Thus the lines between reality and virtuality are blurred – a key theme to which we will return.
Relics of Revolution . . . and all for what?
In Catching Fire, Katniss is hunting in the forests of her home and chances upon two escapees from District 8 who are attempting to reach the resistance rumoured to exist in District 13. They have little proof, only a few indications and a desperate optimism. As she mulls on the possibility, a desperate thought occurs to Katniss:
'If it's true, why do they leave us to live like this? With the hunger and the killings and the Games?' And suddenly I hate this imaginary underground city of District 13 and those who sit by, watching us die. They're no better than the Capitol. (Catching Fire, p. 177)
When she finally reaches the resistance in Mockingjay, there are noticeable improvements on District life. Everyone has enough food, though it has to be carefully rationed and shared out, depending on individuals' carefully calculated health requirements and strategic importance. District 13's society is marked by material equality where all wear similarly drab clothes. Every person, skill and asset is dedicated towards the war effort, led by the opaque and steely President Alma Coin. There is no space for the life of lethargic ease of the Capitol citizens, because that necessitated the unjust subservience of the Districts. The Capitol lifestyle represents everything they are fighting against.
The historical resonances here are striking. While there are nods towards the French Revolution, the clearest precedent seems to be the Bolshevik Revolution, in which the rampant social and material inequalities of Tsarist Russia were overthrown to create a more just and equal society. The Capitol system is undoubtedly unjust, but – as with so many revolutions – the optimism about what will replace it is chillingly naïve. As Katniss (and we) will come to realise, this is not just a matter of justice; it is about power. Here, her old friend Gale and former mentor Haymitch see through Plutarch's optimism.
'If we win, who would be in charge of the government?' Gale asks.
'Everyone,' Plutarch tells him. 'We're going to form a republic where the people of each district and the Capitol can elect their own representatives to be their voice in a centralized government. Don't look so suspicious; it's worked before.'
'In books,' Haymitch mutters.
'In history books,' says Plutarch. 'And if our ancestors could do it, then we can, too.'
Frankly, our ancestors don't seem much to brag about. I mean, look at the state they left us in, with the wars and the broken planet. Clearly, they didn't care about what would happen to the people who came after them. But this republic idea sounds like an improvement over our current government. (Mockingjay, p. 98)
This scepticism is well-founded. Hasn't twentieth century history proved that, for all their aspirations, the Bolsheviks never came close to realising their utopia? Instead, they merely gave the exploitation and cruelty of their aristocratic predecessors a new face and justification. The struggle for justice had become a smokescreen for yet another powerplay. In The Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss quickly realises that both sides resemble each other in deeply unsettling ways. Surely, if you use the same tactics as your opponents, does that not in some way make you just like them? Katniss's initial cynicism about District 13 proves well-grounded: it is not just the exploitation of the media, but how they both wield power. Presidents Snow and Coin both seek to exploit the televisual power of Katniss for their own dark ends. That she is one of the few to recognise this is what makes her so dangerous.
Another force to contend with. Another power player who has decided to use me as a piece in her games, although things never seem to go according to plan. First there were the Gamemakers, making me their star and then scrambling to recover from that handful of poisonous berries. Then President Snow, trying to use me to put out the flames of rebellion, only to have my every move become inflammatory. Next, the rebels ensnaring me in the metal claw that lifted me from the arena, designating me to be their Mockingjay, and then having to recover from the shock that I might not want the wings. And now Coin, with her fistful of precious nukes and her well-oiled machine of a district, finding it's even harder to groom a Mockingjay than to catch one. But she has been the quickest to determine that I have an agenda of my own and am therefore not to be trusted. She has been the first to publicly brand me as a threat. (Mockingjay, p. 70)
With this, Katniss's political education is complete. The trilogy's dénouement makes perfect sense in its light. Snow and Coin represent equivalent threats to the countless individual lives who inhabit their realms. These books raise vital questions about the future of political ideology and human freedom. Where do we go after two centuries dominated by post-Enlightenment modernity? We are offered no easy solutions. That is unsurprising: recent history hasn't offered any either.
 For example, see Steven Johnson, Everything Bad For You Is Good For You, (Penguin, 2006)
 Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death (Penguin, 1985).
 The phrase comes from Juvenal's Satire X (77–81), and interestingly, is also picked up by Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World Revisited as an example of a theme he used in Brave New World.
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Author: Mark Meynell
© Copyright: Mark Meynell 2012
Unless stated otherwise, Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation (NLT) copyright © 1996, 2004 by Tyndale Charitable Trust. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.