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The 36 Dramatic Situations: Hunger (2008) and Self-Sacrifice for an Ideal

Liam Cunningham Hunger
By  · Published on August 12th, 2010

This article is part of our 36 Dramatic Situations series.

For 36 days straight, we’ll be exploring the famous 36 Dramatic Situations by examining a film that exemplifies each one. From family killing family to prisoners in need of asylum, we brush off the 19th-century list in order to remember that it’s still incredibly relevant today.

Whether you’re seeking a degree in Literature, love movies, or just love seeing things explode, our feature should have something for everyone. If it doesn’t, please don’t make us starve to death in an Irish prison camp.

Part 4 of the 36-part series takes a look at “Self-Sacrifice for an Ideal” with video artist Steve McQueen’s feature directorial debut, Hunger.

The Synopsis

Hunger tells the true story of the 1981 hunger strike led by former IRA member Bobby Sands (played here by Michael Fassbender). Rather than focus specifically on the politics or social reality of the strike, Hunger preoccupies itself largely with the effects of prison on the human body, how the body can be used as a device for political rebellion, the limitations of such use, and the use of the starving body as a political device.

The Situation

“Self-Sacrifice for an Ideal” – This situation is pretty straightforward. It involves the Hero, the Ideal, and the “Creditor” or person or thing sacrificed (typically, also the “Hero”). The hero does what is necessary to achieve, or often dies while seeking to achieve, the ideal and gives of themselves first and foremost in order to achieve it.

The most obvious and classical example of this situation is the Christ narrative, which is why other manifestations of this situation often involve Christ-like or martyred characters (i.e., Neo in The Matrix series). “Hero” is also a term that is meant to be flexible here, for the one who sacrifices themselves can be viewed as maniacal, selfish, seekers of martyrdom with a messiah complex, or simply people who don’t understand the ramifications or special interests involved in their seeking of the ideal (i.e., whistleblower narratives like The Insider).

The Film

The complexity of the “Hero” status of the one who sacrifices for an ideal is certainly present in McQueen’s film. Sands was certainly a controversial figure, and Hunger – while, on the surface, preoccupied more with form than with politics – deals with inherently loaded political subject matter whether the film sought to or not.

But even within the IRA and its sympathizers, Sands is portrayed here as a morally complex figure. In the incredible, uncut 17-minute shot that is Sands’ conversation with a priest before initiating the hunger strike, Sands is accused of self-righteously seeking martyrdom and starting a movement that, while requiring the sacrifice of himself, also involves the expected sacrifices of his fellow IRA prisoners. In a film that is otherwise quietly concerned with the physical trials of being a political prisoner, this scene lays all the complexities and politics of self-sacrifice out on the table.

But Hunger, especially in its excruciating final act, is ultimately less concerned with the “ideal” as it is with the details of the “sacrifice.” McQueen uses images and sounds to create the reality of prison – not from a documentary perspective with the pretenses of objectivity, but one of pure emotion. The director somehow manages to make us endure the entire sensory experience of these events, from the smells of shit on prison walls to the pain of starvation. Fassbender brings Sands to life with astounding conviction, losing an inhuman amount of weight to make Sands’ last days all the more convincing. In the end, Hunger argues that whether or not Sands was a heroic soldier of freedom or a self-appointed Messiah matters little (though it’s obvious where the filmmakers stand on this issue), as Hunger is about how belief in any ideal can inspire a man to the extreme of sacrificing his body and his life.

Bonus Examples: Braveheart, The Insider, The Passion of Joan of Arc

Check out our entire series of 36 Dramatic Situations, 36 Movies.

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