24 April 2012

The Hunger Games

by Dr Yael Klangwisan

The film, The Hunger Games has experienced huge success at the New Zealand box office and around the world. The film is an adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ New York Times best-selling, young adult, sci-fi trilogy of the same name.

The film is set in dystopian, post-apocalyptic North America, now called Panem (from the latin: panem et circenses). In this brave new world, the gap between rich and poor has increased to such a degree that the vast majority of the population have been forced to labour in 12 heavily bordered gulag-like districts while the privileged minority inhabit the beautiful Capitol and appear to live for little more than fine food, haute couture and entertainment. In Panem, the crème of this state-sponsored entertainment is a heavily dramatised “Survivor”-style reality show staged live which pits young tributes from the poor districts against each other in a fight to the death. In Panem, the televised “Hunger Games” is a powerful, political tool of control that has the double edge of presenting the poor of the twelve districts with the illusion of hope via celebrity while the glorified “underdog” narrative staged by the producers of the show distracts and desensitises the rich minority. The result is no one can really see the depravity. The powerful minority do not realise that they are dehumanised by their tacit participation in the spectacle. The districts that are forced to struggle against each other symbolically in the televised game are strategically divested of the impetus of unity needed to rebel against their oppressors. Everyone in the scene is invested in and complicit with a destructive economy that maintains the status quo.

The Hunger Games presents several allegories that resonate with the experience of modern Western society given its heavy dependence on media. The film begs us to question in which ways we are wittingly or unwittingly complicit in certain modern economies, those of the global financial, but also the political or diplomatic, or the more subtle cultural and libidinal economies. These are the social economies of which popular culture and celebrity are cogs on a much greater wheel. These are economies where we as a minority, majority, male, female, PÄkehÄ and MÄori have lost our grace. Economies that continually cycle, that are seemingly inescapable, because we are inside them, and dependant on them for this continuing reality. These economies feed us enough hope to continue to manipulate our limited choices. We wonder if we are in fact unable to escape those economies in which we blindly participate. In The Hunger Games even victory is yet another spoke in the economic wheel that ensures its continuation.

In the closing scenes the heroine of the film finally recognises the futility of “The Hunger Games” when she and the other tribute from her district are left as the lone survivors, when they are reduced again by the maxim, kill or be killed. This is when grace enters Collins’ foreboding narrative. It is in this moment that these survivors escape the economy of The Hunger Games; when they face each other, not as competitors, but as human beings. In this moment, almost without knowing it, they refuse to comply with the game. Not out of refusal for its own sake, not out of ‘do and die’ or for virtuous glory. But out of grace which suddenly falls on the scene. The two choose rather to live in grace with the possibility of retribution from the state, than to live in competition, ruled by the state.

It is a sad irony that the popular success of The Hunger Games, its adaptation to film, its economic success contaminates its own message, complicit as it is with the same economy that operates the film and media industry that supplies us reality television and a thousand other entertainments in a dehumanizing array. The message is, if it can escape its own context: that of the power of grace to escape the shallow economies of capitalism and popular culture.

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