Culture Warrior

Most dystopian science-fiction narratives feature stories in which a protagonist experiences a process of ‘waking up,’ transitioning from a state of blind ignorance to one of newfound enlightenment. The protagonists of The Matrix (1999), Brazil (1985), and the ur-text for dystopian futures, George Orwell’s 1984 (and its numerous film adaptations), all feature primary characters who transition from a state of passivity and complicity in an oppressive and manufactured society and transition to a newly critical, empowered state of being in which they are able to see beyond the veil of ignorance and witness the world for what it ‘really’ is for the first time. These protagonists are made capable of seeing beyond the structures of propaganda and carefully constructed illusion that they previously accepted to be objective reality and develop a political impetus in direct reaction to their previous state of complicity and ignorance.

As someone previously uninitiated to the world of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games (I hadn’t read any of the books prior to seeing the film), what struck me most about Gary Ross’s adaptation is the spin it puts on the typical ignorance-to-enlightenment narrative of dystopian science-fiction.

The emaciated, pre-industrial-chic sartorial makeup of District 12 stands in stark contrast to the economically-advantaged citizens of Capitol who come to round up “tributes” for The Hunger Games. Effie Trinket’s (Elizabeth Banks) uncanny bricolage of fashion can only be described as a mix of Victorian aristocratic garb and the film Liquid Sky; it stands out like a sore thumb amongst the meager and raw humanist authenticity which composes the members of District 12. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) may be a remarkably smart, adept, and empowering protagonist, but very little in the film suggests that she has any less investment in the ideology surrounding The Hunger Games than any of her co-habitators in District 12.

Katniss’s narrative is not one that sees her move from ignorance to enlightenment; Katniss is already keen enough to see through the ways that the society of Panem and its disproportionate power relations are constructed in order to make the underprivileged-but-numerous continually subservient to the wills of power. So, rather than sobering a character up to the reality of the ideologies that determine her, The Hunger Games chronicles how an already-enlightened individual wields (or, as this is the first installment of a trilogy, begins to wield) an unexpected level of power to correspond with her already-existing critical knowledge.

What’s interesting about the makeup of Panem – especially in the relationship depicted onscreen between The Capitol and District 12 – is that it presents a dystopian future that is not necessarily invested in making its citizens into unthinking 1984/Metropolis-esque automatons. When Effie encourages District 12 to clap for the chosen tributes, Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), none of the District’s inhabitants comply. Effie seems completely unfazed by this.

The relationship between enlightenment and power is almost reversed in The Hunger Games in comparison to typical dystopian narratives: those who wield power and have control over the masses are more blindly invested in the ideology that they carefully construct and perpetuate than those they wield power over.

Consider, for instance, Katniss and Peeta’s arrival in Panem, where the audience is first exposed to the visual onslaught of The Capitol’s residents which was only hinted at with the presence of Effie: they are all decorated through obscene fashion styles that suggest (in opposition to District 12’s more “authentic” peasant garb) a distinct push away from anything resembling a “natural” appearance: exotic hair colors, gargantuan jewelry, Stanley Tucci’s snow-white teeth, etc. Because we enter the world of The Hunger Games from Katniss’s (and, by association, District 12’s) point-of-view, through visual difference we can see the constructions and inauthentic ornaments that the members of The Capitol are intoxicated by: they, after all, don’t think they look ridiculous.

Thus, Katniss’s character exists in a state of double consciousness that the privileged members of Penem’s society can’t. Because she interacts with her family and friends in District 12 and has exposure to the privileged class as indices of centralized power and control, she is better able to understand her role in contrast to the privileged than the members of the Capitol are able to do the reverse.

This is why her act of shooting the pig’s apple in rallying sponsors is so shocking to Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) and company: even though there is no real barrier between them and Katniss (merely an elevated interior porch which signifies hierarchical difference), Crane and his peers perceive there to be a symbolic separation so strong that they could never conceive of a tribute shooting an arrow in the opposite direction. For Katniss, however, such an action is conceivable as she is able to understand the economic and social difference between herself and those occupying The Capitol as a carefully regulated construction rather than an essential given. This is how Katniss and Peeta are not subject to propaganda, but are instead able to manipulate it to their advantage, while members of the Capitol clap blindly. It doesn’t matter, then, that nobody in District 12 clapped alongside Effie at the beginning of the film; she’s no iron-fisted dictator, but is simply rendered oblivious by her privilege to the fact that tribute status is no honor.

But there is gradation in Panem. The members of the more economically-advantaged District 1, for instance, train their young to be prepared to succeed in The Hunger Games. Unlike those in Districts 11 or 12, the people of District 1 are more ideologically invested in The Hunger Games, and are thus not as cognizant of the power disparity that the Games perpetuate. The more one benefits from the system, then, the more invested (and blind to alternatives) they become in it.

The Hunger Games’s model for dystopia is perhaps a more fitting and convincing narrative choice for our times than past cinematic dystopias. In the Information Age, after all, nobody thinks that they are ignorant, unenlightened, or subject to propaganda. The Hunger Games was easily the most-publicized cinematic event this past weekend; so it’s interesting, then, that the most-publicized television event this past weekend was Mad Men’s season premiere. Mad Men, after all is a show (in part) about how advertisers manipulate consumers – and a show, by the way, that is accompanied by regular commercial breaks (often with car commercials featuring the voices of its leading male cast members) to no apparent contradiction.

We are all simultaneously consumers and critics of mass culture. We are hyper-aware that anything from cable news to coffee commercials seek to manipulate us, and we leer at these cultural products with a skeptical eye. Yet, we are still part of it.

It is conceivable, then, to imagine a dystopia in which the masses are not held in a state of blind ideological complicity, but are fully aware of their oppression and the class disparity that surrounds them as they live within it. In The Matrix, Brazil, and 1984, characters who become enlightened suddenly feel an urge to do something productive with their newfound knowledge. The Hunger Games states (less idealistically, and perhaps more realistically) that knowledge doesn’t preclude action. After all, we live with an overabundance of knowledge, but this doesn’t curb “slactivism” or complacency. The Hunger Games posits (at least, with the next two installments) that change can only happen when one is given power by the powerful themselves to act on that knowledge.

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