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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Politics of The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games Poster.
The Hunger Games is in theaters, everyone is talking about it--and we're going to look at the politics of it!

The Film
The three Hunger Games books, by Suzanne Collins, take us to the world of Panem--a post-apocalyptic society where the ruling city (Panem, meaning bread as in bread and circuses) has put down an uprising from the 12 districts and now requires, as their penance, a 'reaping' where each year one boy and one girl (aged 12 to 18) are selected at random to fight to the death in a huge arena. In the story Jennifer Lawrence plays heroine Katniss Everdeen who volunteers to go to the deadly games when her young sister is tragically selected (the volunteer trumps selection). There she must kill or be killed. Complicating matters is that the boy--Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark) is in love with her.

The books are a young-adult sensation and as we live (thankfully) in an age where beloved books can get a respectful movie treatment (allegedly Steven Spielberg once wanted to compress the first four or five Harry Potter books into one movie--and make Harry an American) we get to watch it in the high-end splendor that it ought to get.

At 2:30 minutes, The Hunger Games can't fit everything in (and changes a few things intentionally--such as the origin of her iconic Mockingjay pin)--but it does a more than credible job. It is well cast, well put together, and we should see the next two films coming out to give us the full trilogy (something that tragically failed for The Golden Compass / His Dark Materials books).

Should you see it? Yes.

Let's do the politics! (spoilers abound)

The Hunger Game's Politics: Other People's Impressions
Both the left and the right have both criticized and laid claim to the message behind The Hunger Games (if, indeed, there is any coherent message at all). Ed Morrissey finds it a bit degenerate:
I’m sure it’s meant as an allegory for war as well as class exploitation, but it’s both ridiculous and grotesque. 
A Christian review of the movie decides that the forced situational ethics of the film (the unlikely construction where young people are forced to kill-or-be-killed combined with several strokes of luck that either absolve the main characters or, at least, prevent them from having to resort to atrocity) make it artifically anti-Christian. The author decides that all these "hard questions" break down to no-I-won't-do-that when you apply the commandments:
When you are imagining some kind of scenario, it is easy to construct one exactly to the needs of your plot, and the sub-creating author can create a world in which it is not true that “God will not let you be tempted beyond what you are able to bear.”
On the other hand, the tyrannical regime of Panem is seen by more than a few as an iconic vision of the dangers of big-government:
No opportunity for achievement or growth. The work that the district residents perform is dictated by the Capitol, not allowing natural talents to flourish. 
No free trade, unless you count the black market. The wealth of the districts is sent to the Capitol, minus meager rations allotted by the government. 
No competition to drive innovation. The industry of each district is mandated by the Capitol, removing competition—and any impetus to innovate—from the equation. 
And Forbes decides:
On its face the book reveals the oppressive cruelty that is big government. Indeed, while the global political class and their enablers in the media to this day try to explain away droughts and the resulting famines from an “Act of God” point of view, the simple truth is that economically free countries don’t suffer them.
But then, the socialist worker thinks it's speaking to the 99%:
There is a poverty draft. Families can "choose" to get an extra ration of food, a tesserae, from the state in exchange for the name of a family member being added into the lottery for additional time.By the time the book begins, Katniss already has her name added to the lottery 20 times to help feed her family.
This system reeks of the poverty draft in real-life America, where working-class and poor kids have no choice but to join the military to get money for college, job training or to get out of small, de-industrialized rural areas.
At least one person finds a connection between Woody Harrelson's role as Sarah Palin's "creator" in HBO's Game Change and his mentor to Katniss in The Hunger Games.
Each woman was tasked with painting a portrait for an audience that had lost all sense of legitimate priorities and of reasonable expectations from their leadership: a thirsty crowd that wants little more than, as mentioned, “a good show.” 

As for our candidates? Romney liked it!

So which is it? Is the message of The Hunger Games one for the 99%? Or does it speak to the 53% (the American tax-payer base?) ... or is it just a story?

Getting It Wrong
Fist things first: Panem is, before it is Obamaville or the some right-wing nightmare vision of the future, Rome. In a later book we go to a Panem dinner where the participants drink chemicals that make them vomit--so they can consume more food (this in a world where the districts are so consumed by hunger that they must risk their children to feed themselves). This is a common misunderstanding of the Roman "Vomitorium"--but it is 'Roman' non-the-less (the books, being Young-Adult, forego any Roman-orgy-sex).

It should also be pretty clear that Rome, more than the United States, whatever you think of ObamaCare, was way out in front of us when it comes to atrocities and gladiatorial games for entertainment. And, while we're on this topic, the first book came out in 2008, well before the Occupy movement. There is no direct analogy in the books to our current political climate. That doesn't mean it doesn't have one though. Let's look at what the (above) critics get wrong.

1. It's Not About Free Enterprise
Of the analysis above the number one thing that's wrong is that the book is about economics or free enterprise (unrelated to getting it wrong, Slate interestingly notes that the putative economy of The Hunger Games would theoretically lead to a lot less starvation as people would sign up for a greater chance of getting chosen because the odds would be low. I question that: it's children who do the signing up, not parents--and if you are chosen you are likely to die horribly--but it's a good piece of analysis anyway).

While the books--and the movie--do mention the economy (Katniss sells animals she illegally hunts and kills to help feed her family)--Panem is not evil because it controls the economy--or even because it harvests the fruits of the people's labor (each district has a unique industry that provides things the Capitol needs). It is evil because it harvests children for it's deadly reality TV show. Even the run-of-the-mill citizens are not exactly portrayed as evil but rather clueless as to just how horrible this really is.

It's true that if Panem were a liberal democracy The Hunger Games would not be happening. But it's also true that if Panem were a liberal democracy so much would be different that it wouldn't be Panem. This is the same way that Katniss' illegal bow-and-arrow isn't commentary on "the right to bear arms." Arming every citizen with bows and arrows wouldn't give them a chance against Panem's ultra-tech hovercrafts. It would, however, make them consider rebellion--which is what must be suppressed.

2. It's Not About Moral Dilemmas
The Christian review is interesting--maybe even insightful--but if the movie with kids killing each other seems artificial, that's not the point. Of course it's artificial--it's a book. Every character is a construct. When you dream about your wife being a bitch you aren't dreaming about her: you're dreaming about you. None of this is real. That said, the moral questions of whether or not Katniss is in the wrong are entirely tangential to the book itself. Not only does no character--anywhere--even question whether or not she should kill or be killed there is no indication that she struggles with it. Yes, by purely Christian morality she would martyr herself--and that's fine: but in the context of the story there is no hard decision or "what would I do here?" moment. Everybody fights--no one just gives up.

3. It's Not About Small Government
Yes, Panem is an empire--and, yes, if it were, say, Libertarian, there (again) would be no Hunger Games. But this is not the point of the books or the story. We don't know if Panem is capitalist, crony-capitalist, socialist, or what. Katniss is not political. Her "creation" by Woody Harrelson's character--but even more so by her fashion designer Cinna (played with show-stealing aplomb by Lenny Kravitz)--is only subversively political. It's about her survival. Yes: one could argue that both Palin and Katniss are media personalities--both, after all, have had a reality TV show "about them." But Katniss is not a reformer. She's not anti-corruption save for that her antagonists are corrupt. She's not a libertarian advocate, save for the fact that she wants to be free and left alone. All of this is tangential to the story. None of it is the driving core.

What Is It About?
What the above pundits get right--when they get it right--is that if there is a coherent message in The Hunger Games it is about the intersection of Class Warfare and The Media's Message (both in capital letters as they are the concepts rather than the execution). The #Occupy movement isn't a bunch of people freezing in a park--it's hashtag. The people, without the tag, don't have a message you can easily access.

Panem's pampered population (...sorry) are, as I said, not so much evil as clueless. Only one, Cinna, recognizes the enormity of what is happening. Only he tells her he is sorry she was chosen (everyone else congratulates her). Only he understands the media narrative well enough to subvert it. The Hunger Game's protagonist--the one who takes proactive action--is not Katniss who is, by events beyond her control, driven into corner after corner--it is Cinna.

When president Snow sees something he doesn't like in Katniss' arrival he isn't seeing the girl who is brave, resourceful, and driven to live--he sees her burning dress--fire that was created by Cinna. He sees her media personality--not her. He doesn't know anything about her. It's her message that is dangerous. Cinna is Facebook and Twitter: he is organizing the revolution--facilitating it. It's Katniss who has to shiver and starve in the 'Zuccotti Park' arena.

The book does not have much to say about the poverty of the many against the wealth of the few--but it does make it clear: the people living in the towers of Panem have no idea what is happening in the districts. The movie shows us some scenes that did not appear in the book--a conversation between the game-master and president Snow where the president asks if the game-master has ever visited the districts--and the game-master says "not personally."

Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 begins with a series of questions to determine how isolated you are. One of them asks if you have ever been on a "factory floor." It is a sure bet that none of the citizens of Panem have ever set foot on a factory floor--Panem has no factories. The point, hammered home over and over in the book and the movie, is that the ruling class does not understand what it is doing and is terribly, terribly insulated from those who are impacted by their polices. Murray's book finds that you, if you are reading this blog, are very likely "insulated" from the other half of America that works on the factory floors.

That's what The Hunger Game's political message is: when the decision making apparatus (which includes not only the government--but the governed--the active voters) is divorced from the reality of its actions there exists a space in which abuse--perhaps even atrocity--can flourish. Whether this applies to foreign wars seen on TV as the next, most realistic installment of Xbox games--or reality TV shows where we watch human beings debase themselves chasing fifteen minutes of fame--when the audience is not the actors there is a dangerous potential.

It isn't just or at least specifically the rich (everyone in Panem is rich and even the rich few in the districts hold no political power)--it is about the hunger of the masses for meaning that is served by fast-food TV and policy. Where Katniss is literally starving the people of Panem are hungry for her celebrity--they need her charisma. They are hungry for her (semi-real, semi-false) expressions of love. They need her drama. They are as much participants in The Hunger Games as she is--they just, being the audience instead of the actors--don't have to suffer and die.

It's an effective message because while you might think you wouldn't watch The Hunger Games ... you would. In that world? We all would.

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