He was an 18-year-old private serving in the U.S. Marine Corps at the tail end of the Korean War. “Korean kids your age were lazy and filthy,” he told us. “I used to watch them digging in garbage cans for food. They didn’t want to work.” He would then hand my brother a mop, me a bottle of Windex, and assign us both chores around the house.
At night, sometimes, when he was drunk, he would tell a more disturbing story.
Dumpster diving was tolerated. Theft of food, on the other hand, was punished, and my father, a military policeman, had orders to turn thieves over in to the ROK. Once, he caught a 12-year-old boy trying to steal food from a supply truck. He grabbed him, and marched him over to a South Korean sergeant, who ordered two of his men to throw him to the ground, and pin down his hand.
“Before I could stop it,” my father would say, slurring his words through his third glass of Scotch. “They broke his hand with a rifle butt. Those people were all lazy, filthy, violent savages. You kids don’t know how good you have it.”
I wonder what my father would have thought of Katniss Everdeen.
The Hunger Games, a trilogy of novels by an ex-TV-writer named Suzanne Collins, and now a movie starring Jennifer Lawrence, is set in a dystopia called “Panem.” After a series of disasters, North America is divided into 12 satellite states ruled over by a imperial city located somewhere in the Rockies. Think of the capital of Panem as “London” and the 12 satellite states as “India,” or the capital as “Apple Computers” or “Palo Alto” and the 12-districts as “the Chinese working class,” and you’ll get an idea of what the economy is like. It’s pure extraction. A wealthy, parasitical ruling class lives off the labor of its colonial subjects, who are kept in line by a massive, technologically advanced military industrial, torture surveillance complex.
In other words, it’s not fiction, or, to be more accurate, it’s not exactly science fiction.
The title of the book is the best short summary of its plot. Every year, as punishment for a rebellion decades before, each district has to send two children between the ages of 12 and 18 to the capital to participate in a reality TV show called “The Hunger Games,” a a combination of Survivor, American Idol, and child snuff porn. Katniss, who’s 16-years-old at the beginning of the novel, lives in District 12, a coal mining area which is roughly the equivalent of Appalachia and Northeast Pennsylvania.
After her 12-year-old sister Prim is drafted, chosen as a Hunger Games “tribute” in a lottery that, like the Vietnam draft, exempts the rich and privileged, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She, and a local boy named Peta are put on Panem’s high-speed rail system, and sent to the capital. They and the 22 other “tributes” are given a few days of basic training, paraded like show dogs, then sent into a large, open air arena, where they have to forage for food and kill one another for the entrainment of the city’s elite. Katniss, who is a master hunter and outdoor survivor, skills she learned poaching food in the woods outside District 12, and Peta, who, years before, had taken a beating stealing food for her family, prevail. They kill the other 22 tributes and “win.”
Was the Korean boy my father witnessed being tortured stealing food to impress a girl? Did his broken hand at least get him a kiss on the cheek? I wonder.
It’s all a pretty sick idea, and sadly, as my fantasy about the Korean boy demonstrates, not particularly difficult to believe. Indeed, the handlers chosen for Peta and Katniss, a stylist named “Cinna,” who turns the sullen olive-skinned Katniss of the book into the effervescent Jennifer Lawrence of the film, and Haymitch Abernathy, a surly 40-year-old drunk, who won the Hunger Games a quarter century before, set up a romance between the two young “tributes.” Once in the arena, tributes can receive gifts from “sponsors,” wealthy residents of the capital tuned into the games. Since these gifts, usually food or medicine, can mean the difference between life and death, and since the more appealing a “tribute” is, the more likely he or she is to get donations, Haymitch’s little setup of a “romance” between Peta and Katniss makes sense.
But you really have to stop a moment to think about how sick it really is. People are paying money to watch children make out on TV in between killing one another. And you also have to stretch your imagination a bit. Since the Hunger Games is a “young adult” novel, Suzanne Collins can’t write it as the combination of Blood Meridian and the writings of the Marquis DeSade, and, since the films have to have a PG-13 rating to make any money, the director can’t film it as the second coming of Pasolini’s “Salo.” But that’s pretty much what it is. Panem’s elite isn’t watching a tame love story between the 22-year-old Jennifer Lawrence and the 20-year-old Josh Hutcherson. They’re watching kiddie snuff porn. They’re watching something that, as sick as our society is today, would still get you 20 years in jail if they found it on your computer, and its all broadcast on live TV.
So what exactly is the point?
The right-wing-conspiracy theorist Alex Jones tells us The Hunger Games is “predictive programming,” that Suzanne Collins, who, oddly enough, lives in Sandy Hook Connecticut, wrote the novels as a way to condition us to accept the “New World Order.” Panem does look like the right wing’s fantasy of “a new world order.” Is there a “North American Free Trade Highway in Panem?” There’s certainly a culturally decadent urban elite. Katniss prevails because of the skills she learned as a redneck back on the farm in District 12. There is gun control, and there are black helicopters.
My leftist friends, on the other hand, tell me that The Hunger Games is a call to revolution.
Unlike the teenagers in Pasolini’s Salo, the “tributes” in The Hunger Games are able to demonstrate solidarity and fight back against the totalitarian state. Katniss is helped by a younger girl named “Rue,” whose death she takes especially hard, and by a boy from Rue’s district named “Thrush,” who lets Katniss live because she built Rue a memorial. Peta and Katniss, who according to the original rules of The Hunger Games, are supposed to kill each other, are both allowed to survive the games after they threaten to commit suicide. By that time they’re both so popular the “game makers” have to give in. The overall message of The Hunger Games is that “competition is bad. Solidarity is good.”
“If everybody read The Hunger Games in school there would be a revolution.”
At least that’s how the young woman who gave me my copy of the book phrased it.
So what does she know?
Here’s where dystopian fiction crosses over into reality.
The young woman who gave me my copy of The Hunger Games was one of the early leaders of Occupy Wall Street. In fact, she was one of the women attacked by the NYPD during the famous “pepper spraying” incident near Union Square that launched it as a national movement. If that weren’t enough, a big photo of her violent arrest made the front page of a NYC tabloid.
The photo wasn’t exactly kiddie snuff porn, but it wasn’t exactly respectful. On the contrary, it was played for lascivious comedy, the tabloid photographer having bent over to get a cleavage shot while she was being slammed to the ground by the police.
It’s worth remembering just how badly the tabloids and the NYPD miscalculated the country’s mood late in September of 2011. Where only a few months later, Americans would see police brutality against young people who looked like their sons and daughters as a necessary corrective evil against “dirty hippies who were too lazy to get jobs,” that initial and (at the time) shocking incident of policy brutality got the protesters “sponsors,” liberal members of the media elite like Keith Olbermann and Lawrence O’Donnell, ordinary people who dropped by Zuccotti Park to donate money or who ordered pizza for the demonstrators over the Internet.
The women who were attacked by the NYPD that December didn’t have Cinna as a stylist or Haymitch Abernathy as their trainer, but they were so naturally sympathetic that Occupy Wall Street was able to maintain an ongoing protest in Panem’s Capital City for just short of two months.
When the police trapped 700 protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge a week later, they accidentally flipped the narrative on themselves, their elaborate intelligence gathering process becoming a magnificent photo-op on the most iconic structure in all of downtown Manhattan.
The Korean boy my father witnessed being tortured, like most residents of District 12, never made it to the Hunger Games. Like any one of millions of the Capital City’s colonial subjects, he scrounged for food in out of the public view, and got punished in the dark, far away from the TV cameras.
The women at Occupy Wall Street briefly captured the public mood, but never underestimate the ability of Panem’s elite media to flip the narrative back in favor of their employers on Wall Street.
Shortly after Katniss Everdeen arrives in the capital city, she is waited on by a young woman with red hair. This young woman, known as an “Avox,” can’t speak. She’s had her tongue cut out. Katniss learns that when a member of the capital city’s elite rebels, he or she is either killed or rendered mute.
It’s not too different from the kind of punishment that’s currently meted out to members of the American elite who rebel. Think, for example, of the Dixie Chicks, who were silenced for years after criticizing George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Think about Julian Assange and Wikileaks, who had their ability to raise money over Paypal revoked. And think about Occupy Wall Street, who, after an initial success, were eventually turned into laughing stocks.
After their initial miscalculation, the corporate media cut out Occupy’s tongue, deprived it of its voice, and they did it by casting Occupy Wall Street exactly the way the game makers at Panem wanted to cast Peta and Katniss, as an ongoing reality TV show. The newspapers and TV stations rarely if ever addressed the issues the Occupy protesters were trying to make public. They didn’t talk about the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act or the bailout of AIG. Instead, they framed the occupation of Zuccotti Park as a second Woodstock, as the second coming of the hippies.
They made up a split between the occupiers on the west side of the park and the occupiers on the east side. They found two young people who had met at Zuccotti Park and decided to get married reported on the “occupy wedding.” They found villains and damsels in distress, women who were sexually assaulted and their alleged rapists. They began to talk up the virtue of the “peacekeepers,” police who were “struggling to keep order.”
It all became one big, apolitical soap opera that eventually wore out its welcome. When the “peacekeepers” finally rolled into Zuccotti Park under cover of the night, destroyed Occupy’s library, and hauled everybody off to jail they couldn’t chase away, Panem’s elite had long since moved onto new sources of entertainment.
So is there any way to flip the narrative back? Will the second installment of the Hunger Games film series make the idea of overthrowing Panem’s elite popular again?
In some small way, perhaps it already has. I don’t think it’s any accident that the corporate media started ginning up hysteria over the so-called “knockout game” shortly after the Hunger “Games” became the most popular movie in America. Jennifer Lawrence, who’s a multimillionaire at the ripe old age of 23, got her start as a member of the underclass in the film “Winter’s Bone,” where she played the daughter of a meth cooker in a world quite different from the “aspirational,” upper-middle-class world of Breaking Bad.
The most striking parts of The Hunger Games aren’t the scenes set in the arena at the Capital City. They come in the first few chapters, where Katniss, in her solemn, preternaturally mature voice narrates her struggle to keep her family alive, to protect her little sister, to find a few moments of happiness in her great poverty.
Katniss is much more interesting as a slum girl than as a superhero. Or, to be more specific, Katniss is a slum girl as a superhero. The Hunger Games has given a voice to that Korean boy who was tortured for stealing food decades before I was born. He wasn’t “lazy” at all. He was the hero of the whole story.
Will The Hunger Games stir up a revolution in the United States? I doubt it. The capital city’s residents are far too corrupted to rebel. But it may teach some us to understand the people out in District 12 when they do.
Will ‘The Hunger Games’ spark a revolution?
Last updated: 12 Dec 2013 09:00
“Sure, we root for the oppressed, while sipping soft drinks and eating popcorn in the comfort of our movie theatres,” writes the author [Getty Images]
|“I want Hunger Games to stir up a revolution,” said Donald Sutherland, who played the despotic president Coriolanus Snow in the first two films of the saga. The recently released Catching Fire does fan the flames of revolt. We watch the brutal subjugation of destitute workers labouring unceasingly to support the extravagant, wasteful lifestyle of the privileged few in Panem, an authoritarian state created in North America in the not-so-distant future. Predictably enough, the poor grow tired of being exploited and stage a rebellion. Sure, we root for the oppressed, while sipping soft drinks and eating popcorn in the comfort of our movie theatres. But will the movie really make revolutionaries of us all?The two Hunger Games films released thus far can certainly be interpreted as a dark parable of contemporary societies. With a widening gap between the haves and the have-nots, uprisings are bound to erupt. The hunger that gives the movies their title is and has always been a powerful incentive for political action. The films’ plot could thus be regarded as a gigantic mirror reflecting the current economic situation for the benefit of complacent, affluent audiences, in the hopes that they will raise their overweight bodies from their seats and go change the world.There is clear evidence pointing to the fact that the movies are meant to be a call for action. The spirited teenage heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), an unlikely “everywoman” who embodies the resilience and defiance of the underdogs, serves as a brave, tenacious role model for our fickle adolescents. The latter were the primary target-audience of Suzanne Collins hugely popular book trilogy, upon which the films were based.The very juxtaposition of the technologically advanced Panem metropolis and the thirteen districts surrounding it, whose workers evoke the proletariat of the Industrial Revolution (and wear period clothes!), conjures up images of political uprisings. The film nostalgically harks back to the Golden Age of revolutions, so as to light our rebellious spark and jolt us into action. And when Katniss is again forced by the government to participate in the murderous Hunger Games, used to instil fear into the souls of the wretched labourers, we feel like screaming: “Proletarians of all districts, unite!”
But don’t run to build barricades and dig up your revolutionary trenches just yet. This is, after all, a Hollywood movie. For one, there is a stark contrast between the destitution depicted on screen and the lavish film production. Unlike some directors from the sixties, who employed an “aesthetics of hunger”, making their films on a shoestring to match the poverty they were denouncing in their narratives, Catching Fire director Francis Lawrence did not save on expenses. With a budget of around $130m, this is a film about the poor, but not necessarily by or for them.
Another weightier impediment for translating the rebellion from The Hunger Games into real political action is the social structure of Panem. With the seat of its centralised, tyrannical government conveniently located in one large city, the central nervous system of this post-apocalyptic state is easy to identify. The solution to all of Kantiss and Co’ s problems is simply to chop off the Leviathan’s head in good, old-fashioned French revolutionary style. Once the capital has been decapitated (pun intended), the districts will be freed from oppression, the riches of the metropolis will be evenly distributed and everyone will live happily ever after. Or so we hope, as we eagerly await the two forthcoming movies.
This neat social organisation is replicated in the arena where the infamous Hunger Games take place year after year. The space is geographically arranged around an island where all the competitors’ weapons are stored, and then divided into sections shaped like slices of a round cake. For some mysterious reason, the same life-threatening perils, computer-engineered to finish off participants as quickly as possible, are repeated in each section with clockwork regularity at different times of the day. And when Katniss and her friends find out that the energy feeding the arena is also concentrated in one location, it is easy to guess that this particular instalment of the Hunger Games will not last much longer.
But contemporary revolutions are not that easy to accomplish. Look hard as we may, we cannot pinpoint that one structure without which the rest of the system will come crumbling down like a house of cards. If one dictator is toppled, two or three corrupt “democratic” candidates immediately line up, eager to try their hand at more covert forms of despotism. When unjust economic practices are overthrown, old elites unhelpfully join forces with upstarts to fashion new forms of exploitation.
Oppressive power is, at once, more pervasive and more diffuse than in The Hunger Games, and it stubbornly reconstitutes itself after each attempt to stamp it out. This is perhaps the underlying cause of the political apathy pervasive throughout the Western world. Even if, Katniss-like, we risk our lives to shoot our bow and arrow at perceived tyrants, we might still wake up the next day in another power game, inside an arena whose invisible prison walls we will not even quite be able to identify.
The task of a true revolutionary movie is to rethink the possibilities for rebellion against injustice in a contemporary setting and not just to replay old models for uprisings that no longer apply. Maybe the last two films of the The Hunger Games will do just that and the beacon of revolution will, once again, shine from America.
Patricia Vieira is Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese, Comparative Literature and Film and Media at Georgetown University. In 2013-14, she is Ikerbasque Visiting Professor in the Institute for Democratic Governance in San Sebastian. She is the author of Seeing Politics Otherwise: Vision in Latin American and Iberian Fiction; Portuguese Film 1930-1960. The Staging of the New State Regime; and co-editor of Existential Utopia: New Perspectives on Utopian Thought. Her website is www.patriciavieira.net
reblogged from Al Jazeera English,, with thanks!!
- The Hunger Games and The Warfare State
Hunger Games fans urged to campaign against real inequality (theguardian.com)
Donald Sutherland: ‘I want Hunger Games to stir up a revolution’ (theguardian.com)
Anarchist Cinema: Review and Trailer of Eco-Thriller “The East”
More Images from The East (backwardsandbeyond.co.uk)
Pick of the week: Inside an “eco-terror” cell (salon.com)
A sympathetic depiction of eco-anarchists in The East (indyweek.com)
The Philosophy of ‘The Hunger Games’ – Why Rules Were Made to be Broken [Video] – John Malcolm
- My thoughts on Catching Fire (ellenvgregory.com)