Welcome to the inaugural post of a new series: Why ____ Is Good. You’ve probably, at some point in your rich and varied life, considered a work of art and thought, “It’s not just my personal preference. This stuff is really good!” If so, you may appreciate these little investigations into how art can be more than entertainment. Enjoy!
The following post deals with the first two Hunger Games movies. It does not deal with the books and does not include significant spoilers. If you even just saw the first movie or read the first book, you’ll be fine.
The Hunger Games movies start with the kind of straightforward dystopian premise ubiquitous in young adult fiction and follow through to execute an engaging story. The filmmakers have done their work skillfully and, if we enjoyed nothing else, we could enjoy The Hunger Games and its sequel Catching Fire as suspenseful tales of desperate struggle.
But there’s more going on here. Whereas other popular films often represent oppressive governments as evil monoliths, with the subtlety of red lightsabers and about 120 minutes’ worth of resistance against overthrow, The Hunger Games films take care to depict the machinery of oppression. They include not only the typically deployed images of merciless stormtroopers and one-party propaganda, but also the fostering of paranoia, the control of information and, most obviously, the spectacle of violence.
The Capitol reigns partially through outright force, but mainly through insidious manipulation. Often, the military presence in the districts is limited, allowing for a stunted freedom that includes black market trading. But the looming threat of arbitrary crackdowns creates a panopticon in which every citizen is paranoid, reluctant to misbehave even when outside the material reach of the Capitol. While many of the destitute oppressed consider rebellion, their fragmentation into districts with little communication engenders in each citizen’s mind a prisoner’s dilemma – should you revolt if your neighbor might profit by opposing you? In truth, the Capitol’s resources are limited (President Snow even admits as much, calling the system “fragile”), but the central authority extends itself through shrewd application of game theory.
And what better venue for Machiavellian game theory than games themselves? Panem’s tradition of the Hunger Games excels as propaganda by not only demonstrating the might of the Capitol, but also providing outlets for emotional frustration that ultimately feed the oppressor. The films deftly illustrate this dynamic through the main characters’ feigned love affair. While the games already suggest to their viewers alternative targets for their bitterness (the districts are directed to rage against each other instead of the Capitol), such a message lacks the emotional impact of romantic affection. The made-for-TV romance adds emotional resonance to a life-and-death struggle while relocating the locus of angst to a personal sphere. The viewing citizen’s sympathy for a child in a horrific situation becomes hope that love truly will win the day. By putting forth a narrative in which the greatest liberation is personal, not political, the Capitol sabotages the kind of systems thinking necessary for any significant challenge to authority.
Where many films with villains manage to say little more than “Wouldn’t it be bad if this person were real?”, the Hunger Games movies focus on a more dangerous enemy than any one evildoer – the imperialized mindset. The victim of empire fails to recognize the systems that oppress her. She is waylaid by insubstantial enemies and distracted with goals the accomplishment of which do not threaten the status quo. The protagonist doesn’t have a character arc of conquering opponents in the games or defeating the Capitol but rather overcoming her own tendency to think in an imperialized way. This subtext is one that engages with the modern world instead of retreating into mythic power fantasies, and that is why The Hunger Games movies are good.