The Oppression of the Mockingjay

What causes a culture to celebrate a televised spectacle of teenage gladiatorial combat? It’s a question we desperately need to be asking, and it’s a question that The Hunger Games frankly doesn’t seem interested in. The writers and filmmakers certainly pretend to take on that topic, but abandon the issue with disconcerting ease. If we’re not willing to think critically about the story, we also become guilty of the criticism the film pretends to offer.

The character Gale has the right idea when he asks, “What if everyone just stopped watching? … You root for your favorite, you cry when they get killed. It’s sick…. No one watches, and they don’t have a game. It’s as simple as that.”

If only it were. We’ve seen throughout history how entertainment and complacency can erode political liberty. The country’s name, Panem, as well as the plentiful references to Roman culture certainly point toward Juvenal’s 10th satire:

“Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses” (translation from J.P. Toner)

If freedom and political responsibility constitute the theme of these books and movies, if that is what the writers are concerned about, then it prompts a critical question: why is Panem a heavily militarized state?

You see them all over the place in the films, the “peacekeepers.” They wear white, plastic body armor in the style of Star Wars, and they exercise the precision and brutality of the Nazi SS. Several public executions take place just off-screen throughout the movies, and the herding of children into distinctly fascist public squares seems clearly reminiscent of Europe under the Third Reich. Like most dystopian stories, The Hunger Games addresses current political topics by means of a futuristic representation. And like most dystopian stories produced today, the characters face a violently tyrannical and nigh-omniscient regime thanks to technology.

The writings of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley have served as two guiding models for later dystopian fiction. Orwell provides the well-known “Big Brother” nightmare of an all-intrusive police state while Huxley presents a vision of a population that all but abandons its humanity through pleasure and technology. As media critic Neil Postman observed in the 1980s, it may be that man’s capacity for distraction leads to his undoing more than the tyrannical force of the state. As I pointed out over the summer with Walden Media’s The Giver, the big-brother state may itself be a form of distraction  to the point that we rewrite stories to be more like Orwell.

It’s far easier to portray oneself as a victim rather than accept responsibility for the occurrence of evil. It’s far easier to point fingers at Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler et al. than to acknowledge the role that the western world played in allowing fascism to fester deep in Europe over the years. Yes, President Snow certainly is evil just as the leaders of the Third Reich were, but the Capitol in The Hunger Games is by no means the only party responsible. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” and freedom is bought with action, not juvenile declarations of oppression.

I enjoyed the Hunger Games films from an artistic standpoint, but that concerns me because I know that most people don’t go to the movie theaters to engage in political analysis. Movies like this franchise blend politics and entertainment and use the imagination as a substitute for real civic participation. I fear that makes us no better than the straw-man audience Suzanne Collins attempts to critique.

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