Dystopian narratives provide an interesting look inside the cultural psyche, and apparently today’s adolescents gobble up the stuff. We were force-fed 1984 in high school and dutifully read it, but I don’t think we seriously considered that it had anything to do with our future, as opposed to that of, say, some unlucky Europeans with unpronounceable surnames.
These sci-fi nightmares are fun, too, especially when sympathetic heroes like Willis or The Arnold are sure to save the world by Act 3. But The Hunger Games, the current PG fantasy hit, is an eerie and slightly slant version of this category of tween imagination. It invents a new form of cruelty by pitting the youthful protagonists against each other in a gladiatorial fight. Enthusiasts of ‘Survivor’ and the pioneering Big Brother version of reality television will instantly recognize the dynamics in which participants are ousted one by one, except that in this case they’re not merely separated from the show but from their carotid arteries as well.
The Hunger Games starts and ends with the downtrodden bipeds under the heel of a totalitarian state that remains comfortably in power from the beginning to the end of the story. The scenes of an exaggerated version of ourselves eagerly consuming this blood feast provides the film’s edgiest satire as the regime’s ruling caste with its howler high-fashion crimes stand in stark contrast to the homespun virtues of the underdogs. But the film doesn’t pretend to be believable or probe its fantasy construction in any truly interesting way. The set-up is glitz for the drama, which is too bad because the story line has possibilities.
Heroine Katniss Everdeen is played by the same young actresss (Jennifer Lawrence) who did the tough Ozark girl thing in Winter’s Bone, and she’s duly believable again as another mountain gal who can survive in the woods and fistfight. The adult men in her town are miners, and Katniss’s trip to the big, gaudy, corrupt city shows us that her sector houses Good People, struggling to survive in their natural environment despite exploitation at the hands of the oppressive and decadent urbanites.
For some unfathomable reason, Katniss’s family and neighbors all dress in dowdy 1930s outfits that today’s West Virginians wouldn’t bury their grandmothers in. But verisimilitude is not the film’s forte. Despite this all-powerful state’s limitless resources, no one at headquarters has bothered to generate a convincing ideological/religious narrative that could make the oppressed endorse and sustain their own oppression as occurs in real life. Why, they don’t even have the cracker Appalachians and the lowland blacks fighting each other, which any sensible dictatorship would have figured out first thing.
Sequels may return us to happier illusions, but for now The Hunger Games utilizes the same simple trope seen endlessly in movies and television shows like ‘Person of Interest’ or the Bourne series: the surveillance apparatus combined with ruthless dictatorship is an unbeatable, overwhelming force—except for superheroes. These extraordinary individuals, and these alone, can outsmart it for a while and need nothing more than a friendly hand from someone, preferably a hot babe or two. Ho hum. But I wonder if it says something about our sense of ourselves and our future, or for that matter our past, that we entertain kids today by having them look over the shoulders of the smug and pampered rich cheering scenes of barely adolescent children—i.e., themselves—slaughtering each other in the woods, for sport.