Saturday, April 28, 2012

Serious themes in “The Hunger Games”

The recently released movie, “The Hunger Games”, based on Suzanne Collins’s book of the same name, continues to attract moviegoers.  Although targeted at teens, both the book and movie have attracted a widespread audience. The popularity of the “The Hunger Games” probably has more to do with its plot and marketing, than with themes of voter apathy, pop culture’s focus on the self, and the moral relativism prevalent in western society.

Plot Summary
The “Hunger Games” is set in post-apocalyptic North America, in a territory called Panem, which is Latin for “bread”.  A totalitarian government, operating out of a luxurious, decadent Capitol, controls the 12 districts that comprise the nation. Every year, as punishment for a rebellious uprising, each district sends 2 tributes, a male and female between the ages of 12 -18, to compete in the Hunger Games. The games are in their 74th year, and something is about to change.

In a survival of the fittest contest, the 24 tributes compete over a two-week period until only one remains alive. The games are played out in a fenced off wilderness area, equipped with cameras that broadcast the event throughout Panem. The contestants are ranked, and citizens bet on the tributes. The state manipulates the games with technology. The Gamemakers, who dutifully do their jobs, send in fireballs, poisonous blueberries, and ferocious man eating dogs in attempts to eliminate tributes. This manipulation makes the games more exciting for the fans, and more profitable for sponsors and government.

Overtones of the Roman Empire
The philosophy of the games is aptly summed up in the Latin phrase “panem e circenses”, meaning “bread and circuses”.  The Roman poet Juvenal coined the phrase in the 1st century to describe the political strategy of providing free grain and lavish gladiatorial games to control the people, and distract them from any meaningful participation in civic life.  The phrase also denotes a decadent and hedonistic populace; people who satiate themselves with entertainment, instant gratification, and pleasure.

In the Panem games, Big Brother and the media team up to keep the people in line and ensure the status quo. For the citizens of Panem, the games are both entertainment and a yearly reminder of the consequences of rebelling against the established order. The games are definitely reminiscent of the gladiatorial contests that symbolized the moral decay of Rome.

Gladiators from the Zliten Mosaic (Libya)

Satire and visual criticism
The movie satirizes the reality TV genre, its popularity and its fans. The hunger games are an extreme version of “Survivor”. The citizens are fans with no moral compass. They happily gobble up the questionable values on display, which are attractively packaged and excitingly presented.

“The Hunger Games” visually portrays criticism of the gap between the rich and poor.  Those in the Capitol enjoy an abundance of food, while the heroine, Katniss, illegally hunts and sell squirrels to provide food for her family. The city dwellers wear extravagant, absurd fashions (that satirize the runway) in contrast to the poor, simple attire of those in the outlying districts.  The powerful ignore the plight of the poor while the wealthy are oblivious to it.

Moral relativism fills the spiritual vacuum
The Capitol is a spiritually bankrupt place. The citizens have lost their sense of the sacred, and of the transcendent soul within each person. “The Hunger Games” depicts a sad world populated with pitiful people who feverishly seek fulfillment in empty and cruel pleasures. The collective moral compass is broken, and the average citizen has no moral touchstone.

In such an environment, the only life that has value is one’s own; others are expendable, especially the marginalized. They can be voted off the island in the most callous manner, as in the lottery selection process, called “The Reaping”, that takes place to select the tributes.

Relativism flourishes in this spiritual vacuum, and insidiously creeps throughout the entire country. In “The Hunger Games”, the spin-doctors have lulled the population into accepting the unthinkable, teens killing teens for the amusement and profit of others.  The people of Panem accept the games as an honorable tradition instead of an atrocity, and the tributes as self-sacrificing heroes instead of frightened children trying to stay alive.  The people are complicit in endorsing an evil.

While I thought the movie was highly overrated, unnecessarily violent in places, and occasionally boring, the movie raises questions about modern day politics, pop culture, morality, and spirituality that deserve consideration. If it does not, our society is as shallow and spiritually bankrupt as the government and citizens of the Capitol.

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