‘The Hunger Games’ Holds Up a Mirror to Us

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

Picasso once said, “Art is the lie” – something invented – “that enables us to realize the truth.” It’s rare for pop culture to attain that standard, but “The Hunger Games” comes close.

The movie is based on the first book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy. Aimed at young adults, the books and the movie are controversial for the disturbing notion that in some dystopian future, teenagers would be forced to fight to the death for a TV audience.

It is the function of art to provoke, and the film explores some serious themes. I wonder, however, whether the young people at whom the story is aimed are fully grasping them.

The story takes place in a ruined America of the future, renamed Panem. As punishment for a rebellion, teens are chosen to fight to the death for the entertainment of a corrupt ruling class. Collins has said that her inspiration was a fusion of the Greek myth of King Minos – who sacrificed young Athenian tributes to the monster Minotaur – the Roman gladiatorial games, and reality TV shows like “Survivor.”

One important theme is the age-old problem that Karl Marx described well – the struggle between workers who are not allowed to keep the fruits of their labor and elites who benefit from it and hold their wealth by force. The tributes sent from outlying districts to fight in the Hunger Games are (with exceptions, part of the rigged nature of the games) impoverished conscripts, with little hope of beating the system.

Grinding, hunger-riddled poverty is one of the forces that drives Katniss Everdeen, the story’s protagonist. Katniss is proud and defiant, but there is a nobility about her. She is better than those who have forced her to fight because she values life, family and freedom. Some ruthless fellow tributes have physical courage, but lack her moral courage.

The lines are sharply drawn between the sturdiness of the people of Katniss’ district and the hollowness of Panem’s rulers. The movie adeptly captures The Capitol as a city obsessed with entertainment, fashion, food and privilege. The elites are ridiculous in their attire and grooming. To them, the Hunger Games are not about life and death or even power. They are a diversion, a TV show soaked in sentimentality, with its heroes, villains and pawns.

The story holds up to us the distant mirror of the Roman empire. There are allusions in the Romanesque names (Caesar, Cato, etc.) but also in the portrayal of moral decay. “Panem” is Latin for bread, and it is a reference to “bread and circuses,” the policy that the gladiator games be accompanied by free meals to pacify the populace with entertainment and food.

It’s a striking satire about us, but do we see it? If young people go starry-eyed rooting for Katniss and ignore the lessons about the world they live in now, we will have missed an opportunity to take advantage of the artistic service Collins has rendered – to see the truth.

Consider the parallels with us: a society obsessed with entertainment, including enormously profitable blood sports on TV such as the NFL and mixed martial arts; a tendency to bathe all “unscripted” events, including political campaigns and murder trials, in sentimentality, assigning simplistic roles (hero, villain) to complicated situations; outlandish fashion shows; almost as outlandish food shows; a society in which the disparity between rich and poor has widened notably in the past 30 years.

A report just released by the U.S. Census Bureau states that in 2010, 15.3 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. In Florida, it was 16.5 percent, more than 3 million people, with a higher proportion among children – almost one in four. Hunger games indeed.

If “The Hunger Games” serves no other purpose, it might help middle-class young fans identify with an existence they don’t have to go to Panem, Haiti or Mexico to find. Some of their own classmates live like Katniss every day.

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