My mind has been drawn to another of Rilke’s poems – Dreaming:
This my labour:
crowned by desire
to wander the paths of days.
Then sturdied, strong,
send rootlet streamers down
deep into life as I may —
and through its pain
mature far beyond it, and long
past the end of time.
I treated myself today to a luxury I rarely allow myself – a trip to the cinema, the choice of movie, The Hunger Games. I had not heard of the trilogy until the movie was released recently and have not read the books. I may well do at some time, but I find it best not to read a novel immediately before watching the movie – the inconsistencies often grate upon me and if portrayal of characters does not match that in my mind’s eye, then I tend to judge the movie less favourably.
So I went into the movie knowing only the basic plot, about children who must fight against each other in a battle to the death. I did not know what the reason was, but I did recognize the oppression depicted in the trailers and read reviews by people who found the tale disturbing and unsuitable for children.
The Hunger Games is an entirely enthralling tale painted on a cool palette, the cinematographer giving the battle scenes that sense of harshness in the tones of the images, contrasted deeply with the highly brilliant hues and haute couture of the scenes of the Capitol. They’ve still managed to infuse a sort of coldness in the scenes of decadence through the hard lines of the Capitol architecture, creating a third contrast with the few scenes in which a true sense of warmth pervades the images. The imagery is brilliantly constructed and it is perhaps this that children will not perceive and hence the underlying message of a cold, dehumanized existence will be missed.
At the heart of this movie is oppression by a powerful and elite upper class, oblivious to the suffering of the ordinary people … perhaps even accepting that they deserve the mistreatment for past misdemeanors. These 74th Hunger Games, now surely having passed through two or possibly three generations, commemorate the uprising of the working class against the elite as they have done on an annual basis since suppression of the revolution; that is all we are told in the movie. As reminder of the cost of rebellion and as a means of maintaining control, a child between the ages of 12 and 18 is selected from each of twelve districts as ‘Tribute’ to fight until the death. It is a classic tale of divide and conquer, with fences separating districts, too little food, a subsistence lifestyle and highly visible troops on the streets.
The problem in the tale emerges when the central character, Katniss Everdeen, volunteers to be Tribute for District 12 to save her younger sister whose name is called via the lottery. She tries not to play the game, tries not to be drawn into the propaganda, but if she is to live, she has no choice. She allows herself to be painted as a pretty, desirable young woman – a concession that pays off later when she is sent supplies during battle – but she does not actively seek support.
There’s the inevitable inequality with children from District 1 receiving professional training for many years and hence, generally winning the Games; but of course, there’s no unfair advantage! It is the competitors from District 1 that form allegiances to whittle down the others before turning upon their own comrades. It’s not unlike Survivor, part of the inspiration for the author’s novel, especially when the rules are twice changed, first to allow two victors provided they come from the same District. Katniss and her male counterpart from District 12, Peeta, are the only pair remaining at this point and are able to capitalize on a theme, suggested early in the film, of star-crossed lovers.
In her attempts not play the game, Katniss befriends a young competitor from District 11, Rue, a black girl who had effectively saved her life twice. The youngest competitor in the game is killed despite the attempt of Katniss to protect her. Katniss offers a few moments of respect in death. Knowing that her every move is watched back in the Districts via huge screens, she acknowledges the loss and the bond between all the oppressed. District 11, seeing the honour in their neighbour’s efforts, descends into riot that threatens a return to the unrest of 74 years earlier. In a scene I found crucial to demonstrating the artificiality of racism, the people of District 11 are shown to be mostly black. Katniss has become an unwitting focus for rebellion and inter-District union, a martyr if she is killed now, an unwitting leader if she lives.
The play on racial themes is never overtly stated, but for an adult should be clearly evident. Whilst District 11 is apparently a black ghetto, another district is comprised primarily of people of Asian appearance. Although we are not shown the people of District 1, its two competitors are blond, fair skinned and tall. It’s impossible to miss the parallel with the real world, for whilst many argue that the racial divide has narrowed in Western countries, the reality is that the overt stereotyping that underpins racism and one that enforces eugenics theory is fundamentally a tool of control of the masses for the benefit of a singular racial group.
The movie’s second attempted rule change comes when Katniss and Peeta are the only remaining Tributes left of the twenty-four. Predictably, the Games controller announces that the previous rule change allowing two victors has been revoked. Katniss and Peeta instead choose suicide and with the prospect of no winner and unrest in District 11 already causing concern, the organizers are forced into a hasty concession to allow the two to share victory.
A clever tale, one not suitable for young children, but one with a theme not unlike that of Les Miserables or Macbeth or even Theseus. We allow our youth to study such texts, in fact exhort them to do so in the latter years of high school. I see no more harm in allowing them to read or see The Hunger Games, because THIS IS REALITY. Divide and conquer is not a new tactic. Andrew Forrest uses it in Western Australia. The Indonesian’s use it in West Papua. The Australian Government uses it in the implementation of the Northern Territory Intervention. The media use it to manipulate the tensions between multi-racial groups.
There are unexplained scenes in the movie. How the male competitor from District 11 knows that Katniss tried to protect Rue is one such instance, but the overall theme is very politically and realistically fashioned. Even those few scenes in which you wonder how someone knew some piece of information is conceivable in a Game about politics. If the Games masters can control the environment, they can most certainly allow news to filter to a specific contestant.
I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, but I was also so acutely aware of the very political theme. Katniss never actually deliberately kills out of rage – only out of self-defence or mercy. It’s a cruel reality that fashions a heroine who must make some very hard decisions to survive the Game and her altered perceptions will undoubtedly impact upon the next installment. She will go one of two ways – walk the high road preaching stability and peaceful protest like Aung Suu Kyi– or a rebellion, more like Joan of Arc.
There is a third option, suggested by Bakchos. Katniss could be the catalyst for change in the districts, being forced into a leadership role rather than willing taking on the mantle. It’s not quite the same as Martin Luther who openly challenged the Catholic Church without actually deliberately setting about to institute Protestantism, but close enough to draw the comparison.
However Katniss has been affected by the Games, she won’t be able to simply settle into District life again, although the establishment will expect that and try to force her that way. The teenager, forced into the Capitol, having seen the inequities within her nation and forced to fight in a gladiatorial contest against her will has become a grown woman in a matter of days. It’s pretty obvious that she’s going to continue to rattle the gilded cages of the castles in the Capitol and now, with the focus of the establishment upon her for disrupting the social norms, she will be a target. She has taken the Game and forced it to bend to her rules, a rule that says not only does she not have to play by the rules of the system built upon deliberate inequality, but that the system in acting as God through its manipulation of the Game, is no longer worthy of her belief. This creates a two-fold problem for the establishment – hope and disillusionment. The underclass can hope not to sacrifice their children, hope for better treatment, hope that they can affect change, that they are not powerless. It is this last point, not being powerless that is the most poignant, for in claiming their power, the people of the Districts will be able to challenge the system, the ‘god’ and when that god fails to provide acceptable responses to the people’s concerns, they will cease to believe in the system. Revolt is inevitable.
If the teachers of politics and literature were to dissect this tale, even the predictable convenience of the interwoven love tale, they would be able to teach a great deal about the sources and development of societal dysfunction, activism and rebellion. Applied to current national and international circumstances in a “compare and contrast” fashion, the parallels are quite clear. No, this is not a children’s tale. It is violent, it is distressing in some ways and yet, it must make the individual wonder, pushed to the same extents, what would I do? Would instinct kick in, would I reason and make choices or would I simply be so angry that I became determined to endure whatever was thrown at me if for no other reason that burning indignation. To acquiesce is to accept defeat, the terms of your oppressor and the complete loss of your liberty. In such a situation there is nothing to lose if you fight to be treated with equal respect to all others.