The Hunger Games and the Politics of the Popular
Artwork by Rob Cham
Essay by Jansen Musico
Stephenie Meyer, a mother of three, became a bestselling author in a span of less than two years. She had Twilight to thank, a romance novel set in a world of vampires and werewolves. To several literary critics and bloggers, the books were perplexing. Despite the poor writing and the worn-out tropes it employed, the four-piece novel went on to skyrocket into the homes of millions of teenagers all over the world. Its success spawned a five-part blockbuster that rallied fans onto the streets, forcing them to queue for midnight screenings. For years, people have been baffled by Meyer’s impressive feat. She definitely did not have the depth of a Tolkien or the imagination of a Rowling. What she had, though, were the odds, and they were very much in her favor.
The key to making it big in the world of young adult fiction is no secret at all. Among all demographics, the youth is the most malleable and also one of the most powerful in terms of purchasing power. Attractive marketing ploys tickling the youth’s likes and fancies are enough to start a bandwagon effect continuously fueled by flashy ads, word of mouth, and peer pressure. Once that group is held captive, it won’t matter whether the story is actually good. What matters is how opportunists are going to cash in on the fad.
Enter Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy, a series of young adult novels that polarized its readers once its three titles started catching fire. Some had panned it for being a ripoff of Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale, but that certainly didn’t stop Lionsgate from purchasing the rights to bring the novels to the big screen. Given the series’ popularity among its teenage demographic, it’s not surprising that it has become the third highest grossing Hollywood film on its opening weekend, just a bit shy of Harry Potter’s final installment and The Dark Knight. What’s unforeseen was how well the adaptation turned out.
For the uninitiated, The Hunger Games is the first film in the four-part series. The movie’s plot is summarized by my Pelikula colleague Carina:
The story occurs in Panem, the post-apocalyptic incarnation of America. After the rebellion of the 13 Districts of Panem against their government, the Capitol has decreed a “treaty of peace,” ordering the remaining 12 Districts to offer up Tributes, a male and female between the ages of 12 and 18, to fight to the death in the middle of an arena. These games are televised, much like today’s reality shows, and are played up. People are horrifyingly eating it all up, placing bets on the Tributes, picking the strongest contenders to sponsor. The Games are intended to be a reminder of the Capitol’s power over its people, but is paraded as a display of honor, courage, and sacrifice.
Reading this, avid supporters of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale adaptation shook their heads in disbelief. Some even went to the extent of calling Collins’s work as the Twilight version of the Japanese cult classic. Truthfully, I was one of them, but seeing the film had changed my mind. Though the similarities are undeniable, I would not rule out the slim possibility that Collins had never seen or heard of the Battle Royale franchise while she was in the process of writing her manuscript. Collins explains the roots of the novel in her interview with her publisher.
I was flipping through images of reality television, where there were these young people competing for a million dollars, and I was seeing footage from the Iraq war, and these two things began to fuse together in a very unsettling way.
This inspiration of hers is justified in the film when parallels of war and the fictional games begin to surface. Aside from the obvious—kids being sent out into bloodbath as if military troops deployed for combat—the beauty of The Hunger Games lies in the subtle yet biting commentary it has about the means to justify war. In the movie, President Snow poses a question to the Hunger Games director Seneca Crane. He asks him if he’s ever visited any of the poor districts before describing their abject poverty in great detail.
Snow tells Seneca in a matter-of-fact tone that though the districts were hopeless, they needed them, for no matter how poor they were they were rich in resources. This calls to mind the long-debated issue of America’s noble battles in the Middle East as cover ups for their conquest for oil.
Violence and Voyeurism
The Roman gladiator games were said to have inspired the structure of Collins’s fictional games. She pointed out three vital elements she borrowed:
- A ruthless all-powerful government
- People being forced to fight to the death
- A masochistic audience entertained by the sight of blood and gore
These three elements are present in both The Hunger Games and Battle Royale, hence it is easy to see why people call Collins a copycat. Nevertheless, she succeeded, much like Fukasaku, to transform the ancient Roman event into a modern-day spectacle. What better way to do it than through a reality show?
The popularity of reality television is undeniable, though the cause of it is still being debated due to the variations of the genre. Audiences tune in to these programs for several reasons; perhaps they find one character endearing or the dynamics between characters exciting. The bottom line is that no matter what their motivation is, audiences are still drawn in. They become voyeurs peeking into the lives of others, giving them a sense of intimacy with the characters they watch. The stronger the audience’s interaction with the characters in the show, the more invested they are.
As a fictional reality show, Battle Royale is superior in some aspects. For starters, the game play is explained better, with the battlefield’s topography, rules, and weapons thoroughly fleshed out. The violence is also greater, with the bloodshed made more intense by the fact that the relationships among the students are given much weight. The audience forms such an affinity with the kids and their friends that it becomes more gripping to see them turn on each other. This makes for richer storytelling. What the Battle Royale movie lacks, though, is a provision to sustain interest for its sequel. The movie puts too much focus on the activity inside the playing field that it glosses over the politics outside of it.
The Hunger Games is very aware of the political web it spins. It does not restrict its focus on the game masters and the players; it also features the dynamic relationship between the tributes and their sponsors. It becomes a political game where the tributes vie for viewer’s favors in order to win. Like politicians, the tributes are taught to put their best foot forward. In the film, Haymitch, District 12’s mentor, stresses this point. He reminds them that politics has more weight than brute force. The filmmakers are keen to point this out to the movie’s audience as well. Instead of merely quenching the moviegoers’ thirst for fake blood and gore, they highlight the political aspects controlling the game, within the game, and affecting the Panem population witnessing the game unfold.
Wooing the Crowd
Aside from survival techniques, Haymitch teaches Katniss and Peeta how to win over the crowd and reap the advantages of being popular. Cinna, the stylist, creates a stunning façade to make them more appealing and memorable to their sponsors. Katniss, though strong-willed and rough around the edges, has to portray herself as a prim and proper heroine with finesse. Luckily for Katniss—not to mention Jennifer Lawrence who plays the character—she has enough natural charm to make it work.
Peeta doesn’t have to do much to aid his political game. His spoken feelings for Katniss are enough to woo the crowd. Young love, according to Haymitch, is something people would root for. But love on a reality television show isn’t that easy to sell. There has to be a back story, chemistry, and believability to it. If the contestants do not have these, then it’s the job of the Hunger Games’ producers to make it happen.
Established reality show director J. Rupert Thompson put it this way:
Certainly, reality TV is a very manipulated format where the basis of it is that real people are put into unreal situations to create a story.
Although Katniss and Peeta are fighting for their lives, they are still part of a reality show, and their tale is being shaped by the game director Seneca Crane. Peeta already provided an angle; all he needs to do is develop it. Many fans of the book have lambasted the film for its downplayed portrayal of Peeta and the bland chemistry he shares with Katniss. But what if these were deliberate? What if the filmmakers only want to zoom in on the strategic plays Katniss is making instead of creating romance? It could be likely. Romance sells, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the filmmakers are selling a love story to us. Though in the meta world within the film, that’s exactly what’s happening. Seneca Crane is selling a romance to distract the viewers from pondering rebellion.
Apparently, this created mush is believable enough in Panem. The sponsors from Capitol certainly find the small screen sweethearts amusing, because they keep sending them aid. It’s a power play in motion that involves the viewers of the show. This added interactivity, absent in Battle Royale, creates a bridge between the realm of the reality show and the audience’s world. Although the Hunger Games movie does scrimp on the gore and replaces it with fabricated teen romance, it ties the story within the arena to the larger story arc outside, setting up a sturdy platform for its sequels.
A Clash of Cultures
The visual themes of The Hunger Games are interesting. Put into good use, they give the audience a vivid idea of the social stratification within the Panem society, as well as their disparity in lifestyle and culture. In the film, Panem is divided into several districts, which are ranked according to importance. The poorest districts are occupied by blue-collar workers. District 12, the least fortunate one, is depicted as a region hit by a great depression. It is almost as if the people and houses were yanked from the photographs of Roger Ballen or Arthur Rothstein. On the opposite side of the spectrum is the Capitol, which can be described best as an extension of a Lady Gaga video. Its androgynous citizens, wrapped in haute couture, look like moving magazine editorials.
Fashion is symbolic, much more so in The Hunger Games. Not only does it differentiate the districts from one another, it is also used to denote power. The chariot scene is a good example. At the front of the pack, the first two districts are dressed up like celebrity dolls and Roman gods. The succeeding chariots showcase less appealing garbs as their chariots come to view. District 12 stands out, only because they take a page from the fashion books of the Capitol. Their skintight black suits, outrageous hair and makeup, and the fake flames, put them on a par with the elite. They do this in order to gain their favor.
Perhaps the most important piece of fashion in the film is also one of the most subtle. The Mockingjay pin, a symbol of luck at the beginning, becomes the ultimate symbol of power at the end. Pinned on Katniss during the awarding ceremony, it represents the power shift from the Capitol to the people. It becomes a popular symbol of a future rebellion, one that could put a stop to the games for good.
To many, The Hunger Games is just another populist fad; perhaps it really is. But once you take the film and wipe off all the gloss and glimmer, you get to see the work of Suzanne Collins. She was able to come up with a politically charged opinion piece in the form of teen fiction. Whether this was intentional or not does not matter. What matters is that a film like The Hunger Games exists and that it tries to awaken a demographic that is usually apathetic to the things going on outside their own little arenas. It opens up young adults to broader political concepts they often brush off. The true test, though, is if they’re keen enough to pick up the message. It would be unfortunate if, like the fans at Capitol, they let it just fly over their heads for the sole sake of being entertained.