“I want Hunger Games to stir up a revolution,” said Donald Sutherland, who played the despotic president Coriolanus Snow in the first two films of the saga. The recently released Catching Fire does fan the flames of revolt. We watch the brutal subjugation of destitute workers labouring unceasingly to support the extravagant, wasteful lifestyle of the privileged few in Panem, an authoritarian state created in North America in the not-so-distant future. Predictably enough, the poor grow tired of being exploited and stage a rebellion. Sure, we root for the oppressed, while sipping soft drinks and eating popcorn in the comfort of our movie theatres. But will the movie really make revolutionaries of us all?
The two Hunger Games films released thus far can certainly be interpreted as a dark parable of contemporary societies. With a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, uprisings are bound to erupt. The hunger that gives the movies their title is and has always been a powerful incentive for political action. The films’ plot could thus be regarded as a gigantic mirror reflecting the current economic situation for the benefit of complacent, affluent audiences, in the hopes that they will raise their overweight bodies from their seats and go change the world.
There is clear evidence pointing to the fact that the movies are meant to be a call for action. The spirited teenage heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), an unlikely “everywoman” who embodies the resilience and defiance of the underdogs, serves as a brave, tenacious role model for our fickle adolescents. The latter were the primary target-audience of Suzanne Collins hugely popular book trilogy, upon which the films were based.
The very juxtaposition of the technologically advanced Panem metropolis and the thirteen districts surrounding it, whose workers evoke the proletariat of the Industrial Revolution (and wear period clothes!), conjures up images of political uprisings. The film nostalgically harks back to the Golden Age of revolutions, so as to light our rebellious spark and jolt us into action. And when Katniss is again forced by the government to participate in the murderous Hunger Games, used to instil fear into the souls of the wretched labourers, we feel like screaming: “Proletarians of all districts, unite!”
The task of a true revolutionary movie is to rethink the possibilities for rebellion against injustice in a contemporary setting and not just to replay old models for uprisings that no longer apply.
But don’t run to build barricades and dig up your revolutionary trenches just yet. This is, after all, a Hollywood movie. For one, there is a stark contrast between the destitution depicted on screen and the lavish film production. Unlike some directors from the sixties, who employed an “aesthetics of hunger”, making their films on a shoestring to match the poverty they were denouncing in their narratives, Catching Fire director Francis Lawrence did not save on expenses. With a budget of around $130m, this is a film about the poor, but not necessarily by or for them.
Another weightier impediment for translating the rebellion from The Hunger Games into real political action is the social structure of Panem. With the seat of its centralised, tyrannical government conveniently located in one large city, the central nervous system of this post-apocalyptic state is easy to identify. The solution to all of Kantiss and Co’ s problems is simply to chop off the Leviathan’s head in good, old-fashioned French revolutionary style. Once the capital has been decapitated (pun intended), the districts will be freed from oppression, the riches of the metropolis will be evenly distributed and everyone will live happily ever after. Or so we hope, as we eagerly await the two forthcoming movies.
This neat social organisation is replicated in the arena where the infamous Hunger Games take place year after year. The space is geographically arranged around an island where all the competitors’ weapons are stored, and then divided into sections shaped like slices of a round cake. For some mysterious reason, the same life-threatening perils, computer-engineered to finish off participants as quickly as possible, are repeated in each section with clockwork regularity at different times of the day. And when Katniss and her friends find out that the energy feeding the arena is also concentrated in one location, it is easy to guess that this particular instalment of the Hunger Games will not last much longer.
But contemporary revolutions are not that easy to accomplish. Look hard as we may, we cannot pinpoint that one structure without which the rest of the system will come crumbling down like a house of cards. If one dictator is toppled, two or three corrupt “democratic” candidates immediately line up, eager to try their hand at more covert forms of despotism. When unjust economic practices are overthrown, old elites unhelpfully join forces with upstarts to fashion new forms of exploitation.
Oppressive power is, at once, more pervasive and more diffuse than in The Hunger Games, and it stubbornly reconstitutes itself after each attempt to stamp it out. This is perhaps the underlying cause of the political apathy pervasive throughout the Western world. Even if, Katniss-like, we risk our lives to shoot our bow and arrow at perceived tyrants, we might still wake up the next day in another power game, inside an arena whose invisible prison walls we will not even quite be able to identify.
The task of a true revolutionary movie is to rethink the possibilities for rebellion against injustice in a contemporary setting and not just to replay old models for uprisings that no longer apply. Maybe the last two films of the The Hunger Games will do just that and the beacon of revolution will, once again, shine from America.
Patricia Vieira is Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese, Comparative Literature and Film and Media at Georgetown University. In 2013-14, she is Ikerbasque Visiting Professor in the Institute for Democratic Governance in San Sebastian. She is the author of Seeing Politics Otherwise: Vision in Latin American and Iberian Fiction; Portuguese Film 1930-1960. The Staging of the New State Regime; and co-editor of Existential Utopia: New Perspectives on Utopian Thought. Her website is www.patriciavieira.net