Monday, March 26, 2012

The Hunger Games: Dystopia or History?

We saw "The Hunger Games" Friday night.  My girls really liked it.  I appreciated the film but the setting provoked a visceral reaction from me.  I had to sit still and try to wait out the adrenaline spike that the scenes in Capitol evoked.

I thought the director did a great job of giving us a thumbnail sketch of the society of Panem.  I haven't read the novels so I don't have a great deal of context.  Prior to seeing the film I did read several reviews and comment threads where people argued whether the film's anti-tyranny message was aimed at Republicans or Democrats.  I can take a stab at answering that.

The people in District 12 live an existence straight out of the late nineteenth century rural America.  The men go to work in dangerous coal mines while the women try to feed the family on rations barely above starvation-level.  Hunting is apparently illegal so unsurprisingly a brisk black market trade exists in small game.  From a passing comment I learned that additional rations are available to young people if they are willing to enter their name additional times for the annual Reaping.

The inhabitants may not leave the confines of their District upon pain of electrocution from the border fences or capture and death from the security forces.  Technology is deliberately kept at pre-electronics levels with the exception of media controlled by the state.

Meanwhile, the citizens of the Capitol live a sybaritic lifestyle with all of the wealth and advanced technology available to an advanced society.  Consumption is conspicuous and flamboyant personal fashion is the norm for the elite.  The working stiffs in Capitol have to make do with white jumpsuits and hair in colors that nature intended.

Sounds like something right out of the Roaring Twenties, right?  Rockefeller Republicans living large while the proletariat huddles in the dark, starving.  The parallels are there, but what is missing is the iron fist of the state carefully tending to the status quo.  For that, you have to have to go to the other side of the globe.

The world of Panem bears a striking similarity to the former Soviet Union.  Travel controls, deliberate starvation of the peasantry, the unavailability of modern luxuries to all but the social elite, it's all there.  Even The Reaping is a shadowy reflection of universal conscription into a military that places absolutely no value on the lives or health of the conscripts.

The games themselves are reality TV mixed with spectacle that would have been immediately familiar to Emperor Trajan.  Bread and circuses have been with humans for thousands of years and reflect a darker aspect of our natures that enjoys seeing arterial blood on the sand.  But what I saw in "The Hunger Games" seemed to go deeper than that.  I saw a segment of a society so jaded by their sybaritic lifestyle that nothing short of child murder could elicit a genuine emotional reaction.  Perfectly coiffed plastic faces that respond like trained seals to the clumsy emotional manipulation of a master of ceremonies.  People going through the motions of human behavior that can't actually feel anything because nothing is truly real anymore.

One of the things that bothers me about so-called "reality TV" is the artless creation of artificial "drama" which inevitably manifests as interpersonal conflict.  Whether it is cliques ostracizing the goat, screaming matches over who used the last of the dish soap, or media-whoring executives barking "You're fired!" the result is the same.  The audience experiencing a frission of glee at "real people" fighting for their entertainment.

I am impressed that Suzanne Collins was able to take the complex themes above and integrate them into teen fiction aimed specifically at young women.  I took my daughters to see the film, despite the awful content of children murdering children, because I thought the meta-themes of individual human decency and the importance of resisting peer pressure to give in to our darker natures.  Empathy is what makes us human, and that transcends monkey politics.