Missing the Mark?

Disclaimer:  This is not a formal review of either The Hunger Games books or the movie.  For the record, I LOVED this movie.  It’s first rate popcorn cinema.  I’d go see it again in a heartbeat.  However, my conscience will revolt if I don’t get this off my chest:

“Our version of Big Brother, unlike Orwell’s, is the product of the free choice of both its viewers and participants. It wasn’t created by corporate monsters or the military-industrial complex to keep us in our place. If, as The Hunger Games seems to imply, reality TV is an evil opiate for the masses, we’re eagerly doping ourselves. Panem’s problem is straightforward compared with our own: sadly, the failings of our free society are our own fault, and can only be addressed on that basis.

Nonetheless, the film sticks to the comforting message that misery stems from the actions of the authorities. Its protagonists are the innocent victims of a system that they’re powerless to influence. Its target audience, the young, are invited to pride themselves on the blameless nobility of their age-group, but not expected to interrogate the realities of their world, or question their own passion for The X Factor.”

-David Cox, from his article “The Hunger Games fails to give teenagers food for thought” in The Guardian

While I don’t entirely agree that every failing of a free society can be blamed on (all) its people, Cox is right to point out how uneasily Suzanne Collins’ simultaneous critique of vanity culture and totalitarianism sit side-by-side in her world-famous novel series.  The Hunger Games is a deft mixture of criticizing pleasure-seeking via mass media a la Brave New World spliced into an oppressive and controlling government dystopia reminiscent of 1984 and V for Vendetta.

The disappointment here is the shotgun marriage of two opposing themes to create a middling sci-fi scenario that misses the opportunity to come down convincingly on one side or another.  Seen in this light, The Hunger Games is a way to eat your cake and have it too.  It’s V for Vanity Fair.  Giving a nod to A Culture of Narcissism while spinning a, by all accounts, pedantically similar tale as countless dystopian scenarios before it.  The Hunger Games manages to dodge all the uncomfortable realities of what actually drives the voracious media-machine and the inequalities of our nation, namely, our own appetites.  

There is certainly room for a dual attack on consumerism and inequality, but it’s important to keep the themes straight so as to be properly relevant.  It’s very telling that the most widely-watched reality series is called ‘Big Brother’.  But the trouble is, dystopia is already here, and it doesn’t take too much sci-fi speculation to bring it to light.  Reality TV is here.  Ravenous sports culture is here.  Social media is here.  Mind-consuming subcultures of video games and fantasy roleplaying is here.  The uncomfortable reality is that it’s our own penchant for voyeurism, not the insidious forces of societal oppression that drives it all.  To truly attack our own appetites would be both bad for business and the sort of self-reflection that America is incapable of:  the notion that freedom of choice and a boundless horizon from which to explore human freedom may be just the thing that has brought about a ubiquitous media machine, countless violations of human rights and the degradation of education and critical thought.

This, incidentally, is also why we’ll never see a big-screen version of the original and perhaps best-loved teen dystopian novel:  The Giver.  Inconveniently for our own dystopian times, the evil in that great book is the callous euthanising of unwanted infants which sure sounds a lot like…um…abortion?  Oops!  Sorry evil America.  Didn’t mean to step on the toes of freedom of choice.  We’ll turn our sights back on dictators and stuff.  Mainstream America can only handle one kind of dystopia:  the kind that we’re not.

The Hunger Games is a great film, but it’s another nail in the coffin for my dream:  to see a decent version of Brave New World hit the screen.  The elements of Huxley’s singular, prescient vision of our future, the only one to actually come true, have been so thoroughly cherry-picked by other cinematic pretenders that it’s unlikely a faithful film version will ever be allowed to exist.  The Hunger Games, for all its cinematic grace, is just another one of those pretenders.  A shot just left of the consistent vision of Brave New World.  It keeps our attention trained on the insidious nature of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, painting it in the flavor of a Huxleyan pleasure-culture.  The truth is that there is a selfish pleasure in the fantasy that one’s personhood and freedom of expression is being oppressed by a dominant force, and this is exactly the kind of ‘feely’ The Hunger Games is.  Once again, as The Hunger Games goes mainstream in cinemas, the real villainy of self-love and consumerism will go unnoticed.  How do I know this?  Because China Glaze launched a line of cosmetics based on the wild fashion tastes of the twisted vision of America in The Hunger Games.  The only way a corporation would create such a boldly ironic product is if they were confident enough in the American dystopia of self-interest that it would not affect sales.

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About alexwilgus

Twentysomething from Texas. Living in Chicago. Working for a living. Writing for life.
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2 Responses to Missing the Mark?

  1. Matt says:

    Thanks, Alex for the fine and thoughtful critique of the Hunger games and contemporary American society.

  2. Matt J. says:

    Excellent thoughts Goose. You get to have your cathartic “Rage Against the Machine Moment” and then you leave and go and buy the entire line of clothing that lets everyone at your high school know just how much you “rage against the machine.”

    It’s like Dr. Pepper’s latest ad campaign. “Show how much of a unique individual you all are by all drinking the exact same beverage produced by a massive corporation.”

    Also, I think there is some interesting work to be done on cinema-as-moral-catharsis more broadly. I think it would be interesting to compare movies like the Hunger Games and The Help–two totally different plots and subjects, but both serve to make you feel like you’ve achieved something admirable just by paying your $8.50 for a ticket and then sitting in a seat for 2.5 hours.

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