“The Hunger Games” as Deconstruction of Totalitarianism


Fascinating article on TGC this morning by Mike Cosper on The Hunger Games. I haven’t read the books but gave THG a try when it came out on Netflix, not expecting much. I was very pleasantly surprised by it. Cosper’s article is the first I’ve read (not that I spend lots of time reading articles about THG) that starts to unpack why there’s more to this story than meets the eye.

Many people are made uncomfortable by THG because, superficially, we are being invited to sit in the audience and be entertained by the sight of children killing each other for the entertainment of the audience. Cosper acknowledges that a person with a properly formed conscience should not participate in the Games, but he argues (correctly, I think) that the movie itself is aware of this. In the totalitarian environment where Katniss has been raised, “a properly formed conscience” becomes supremely difficult to develop. THG is following in the footsteps of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley – with less intellectual ambition of course, but still showing us how the institutions of culture can be used to manipulate our perceptions of reality and make good seem evil, evil seem good.

I think a close reading of the movie would bear this out. The filmmakers clearly put a lot of thought into designing the propaganda videos, the media interviews, etc. by which murder for entertainment is framed as an act of virtue, patriotism, and even love of life and peace. As the story unfolds, a super-slick talk show host/sports announcer character played by Stanley Tucci effortlessly spins everything we see and hear into conformity with the regime’s ideology. Those who are worried about the moral impact of THG are missing the point – the filmmakers (and no doubt the novels as well) are subtly deconstructing the very glamorization of evil they’re worried about.

The contrast with the remake of Robocop is instructive. Paul Verhoeven was doing much the same thing in 1987 that THG is doing now – deconstructing the system’s manipulation of reality, showing how we are all being invited to live as domesticated animals (“I’d buy that for a dollar!”) rather than men and women. Like Katniss, Officer Murphy is fighting for justice as best he knows how, but he’s a pawn in a game that’s under the control of bigger people. The bad guys who destroyed his life are brought down, but the bigger bad guys – the whole rotten system itself – remains standing. In the climactic finale, Murphy saves the life of the heartless tycoon who has been using him like a tool. It’s the right thing to do, and Murphy reclaims his humanity by doing it (“Nice shooting, son – what’s your name?”) but the rotten system that dehumanized him grinds on. The Robocop remake is pretty obviously not interested in such things; no doubt they’ll feel obligated to have some social satire in there as a nod to the original, but it won’t work because the people making the movie obviously have nothing to say.

Yes, a fully ethical person would not participate in the Games; perhaps a fully ethical Officer Murphy would have resigned from the police force. But these are stories of people struggling to become fully ethical people in the midst of cultures where such formation can only come slowly, as the result of great struggle, and with enormous sacrifice.

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