The Hunger Games (2012), based on the book of the same name by Suzanne Collins, is not an easy film to watch. It follows the story of an adolescent girl named Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) made to fight in a gladiatorial battle against other adolescents selected from districts within a dystopian society ruled by “the Capitol.”
The contestants are forced to battle to the death while surviving in the woods. Only one of them is allowed to survive. While the book has been marketed to a young-adult audience, the film is incredibly violent, with its content being about as mature as one can get, touching on a number of themes which, ultimately, can be seen as a critique of capitalist society.
Barbarism as the Solution to Revolution
From the very opening scene, we are given the back story to The Hunger Games through an interview with the game maker, played by Wes Bentley. It is explained that there was once a rebellion, and after this rebellion was put down, the districts were punished by having to send two adolescent children, one boy and one girl, to fight and die in a televised pageant of brutality.
While the specifics of this rebellion are not laid out for the viewer, the scenes depicting District 12, where our protagonist comes from, and the scenes depicting the Capitol, demonstrate a clear class antagonism between the poor workers in the districts, and the decadent, ostentatiously-clad denizens of the Capitol. While the game maker insists that the 74-year-old tradition of the Hunger Games is “much more than that,” giving a nationalist and trite explanation about how watching children butcher one another “brings us together,” the true purpose is a combination of continuing subjugation of the Districts and the intoxication of the masses with blood sport.
The concept of The Hunger Games is similar to the concept behind the show featured in The Running Man combined with a format similar to the NBC show Survivor. Alliances, gimmicks and television cameras projecting the violence into every home in the society provide the viewer the idea that our current obsession with competition, with creating a dog-eat-dog world in both entertainment and in broader society, has the potential to bring us back to the days of the Roman Colosseum, where violence and exploitation were concealed and distracted from using a different flavor of violence and exploitation. Even the least political viewer imaginable may see this film and look upon our current reality television and society with fresh eyes, though this film, nor any single film, can be counted on to confront and defeat entire systems of stratification, exploitation and illusion.
The Capitol as a Metaphor for Capitalist Exploitation
The contrast between the Capitol and the districts in this world is like comparing different planets, with the districts suffering in nearly pre-capitalist conditions of poverty, starvation and barter economy, with sparse access to electricity and inadequate plumbing to the point where the viewer first wonders if this part of the world is in a time warp from the 1700’s, while those in the Capitol enjoy futuristic technology, elaborate costumes and are able to chatter jovially while communities outside of the Capitol suffer, hunt game and worry about where their next meal will come from.
As a “reward” for the probable death sentence the contestants are faced with, each contestant is able to live for a week in a lavish apartment, complete with decadent cuisine, opulent clothing and a taste of a society completely divorced from the pain and struggle of their former existence. The character from the Capitol in charge of receiving the contestants from District 12 mentions that the contestants, both of whom are terrified of being killed within the Hunger Games and having parted with their weeping families, that they are in for a “treat” which includes being able to touch “platinum doorknobs.” The implications of this statement, the reality of the districts and the character of the Capitol denizens with their “treats” should serve as a wake-up call to any semi-conscious viewer who would ignore or deny a conflict among classes.
It is also important to note the ideological implications for the Capitol’s society, and capitalism’s society, of the role that “rags to riches” stories play. The leader of the Capitol’s society, a grey old man played by Donald Sutherland, explains that “There is a reason that there is a winner. We could easily select 24 people from the districts and execute them in order to keep them in line. The reason we allow one to win is hope. Hope is the only thing more powerful than fear. A little hope is good, but we can’t give them too much hope. That’s dangerous.” (Quote paraphrased)
If we think about it, this is very much a central point for understanding capitalist ideology. We have a little “hope” in the form that, one day, provided we work as hard as we can, we may have a chance to become one of the owners of society, of the “people who matter.”
That hope is what is defended in ideological attacks on concepts of socialism and anti-capitalism, since the hope of a society free of exploitation is “dangerous” but the illusion that one might join the ranks of the ruling class is “safe” and “productive.”
This film makes very clear a class distinction and conflict, with both a history of resistance from the workers in the districts against the bourgeoisie in the Capitol, the struggle of some of the contestants to defy the rules of the Hunger Games, and even contains images of an uprising resulting from a tragedy occurring during the games. Whether the writers and producers of the film intended it or not, the film itself points a finger to capitalism as the cause of barbarism, deprivation and pain.
Fascism’s Purposes, Expressions and Hegemony Revealed
In addition to capitalism itself, the film also levies criticism against the fascistic form of capitalist society. In the beginning, at the “reaping” (the drawing of ballots where contestants for the Hunger Games are selected) the audience of coal mine workers, their children and their families are shown a propaganda film about how the Hunger Games emerge as “the solution to war” where contestants of each of the twelve districts can demonstrate each district’s “pride.”
If the nationalist rhetoric and class-collaborative purposes behind the Capitol’s propaganda wasn’t enough, the film makers make obvious allusions through the symbology of the stormtrooper-esque military uniforms (complete with jackboots) of the white-clad police, the Nazi-esque eagle symbol and red banner imagery, the open Rome emulation of one of the districts dressing one of their contestants as a Roman Centurion giving a Roman salute to crowds of spectators, all make it clear that there was a desire to compare the society of the Capitol with that of either the Third Reich or ancient Rome.
In the Capitol, we see decadence and opulence, but in the districts, we see a clear military rule where men in military garb and body armor stand in wait to beat back any hint of resistance. The counterrevolutionary legacy of the games depict clearly a fascist response to the struggles for liberation mentioned in the beginning culminating in “the rebellion.”
Just as fascism responded as a means of protecting the bourgeoisie in Germany, Italy and Spain through violence and terror, it would seem that the same has occurred with the Hunger Games emerging to protect the Capitol from resistance from the coal miners and other toilers within the districts. The games enforce the hegemony of the Capitol through terror, as it was in the case of fascist countries in the 20th century.
No Human Nature Argument Here
One thing that we found to be a pleasant surprise was that, rather than taking the reactionary and typical ideological position that the violence we see is the result of “human nature,” the message we get is much to the contrary. Altruism is an essential theme in The Hunger Games, with our protagonist offering herself as a sacrifice to prevent her young, traumatized sister from being forced into participation.
Throughout the game, she is able to survive (and helps others to survive) because of moments of collaboration. While we will not spoil the film, martyrdom is an essential concept that we see throughout the film. As well, those who are the most brutal, it is revealed, were specially conditioned to be brutal and effective, being specifically trained to be contestants. The “human nature” message is actually one of the more progressive in recent media, in that it shows our nature for its social and material context, rather than a metaphysical “good or evil” approach to defining the general activity of human beings.
Let-Down, or Protraction of a New Saga?
The only criticism of the political content of the film that this reviewer can muster is that, while we heard in retrospect and saw glimmers of conflict against the larger system, the film ends without this system being effectively challenged. This could be for two reasons. For one, it could be a political message in and of itself of postmodern despair. Yet, the more probable reason for the Hunger Games and the Capitol not being challenged as a whole likely has to do with the idea that this is the first film in a series that is already on its third book. Will we see class war break out in earnest against the Capitol and the Hunger Games? It’s too soon to say, although we hope that this deeper struggle will come to revolutionary fruition in later media.
Conclusion: A Must-See, Though Not for Everybody
The Hunger Games is an impressive film, rich in political content and well executed. However, due to the violent nature of the film, and the victims of violence being predominately children, this film is not for everyone.
The world and events of The Hunger Games are tragic and depressing, though if the viewer keeps in mind the political content, and understands that there is a revolutionary alternative to the butchery, exploitation and cruelty of both the film and capitalism itself, one will find the movie more sobering and empowering than alienating and demotivational. The APL strongly recommends this film.