Donald Sutherland as President Snow in a scene from “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” (Lionsgate/Murray Close)
Can a movie series help spark a social revolution? There is reason for hope.
We had a sold-out show for the 3rd film in our Futurist.com science fiction series, this time for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, hosted by The Big Picture, Seattle. We had a great time, with lively discussion following the film on its opening weekend. Excellent movie, great audience.
When the original Hunger Games film came out in 2012, I had not been a reader of the Suzanne Collins series, and was therefore fascinated that this strange sounding story about a game to the death involving children and young people would be so popular, with more than 50 million copies sold. The original Hunger Games quickly became the biggest film of that year and the 14th all-time grossing film ever. Catching Fire just set the record for a film opening in November, and has opened globally more than twice as big as the original. We’ll see where it ends up.
So I read the trilogy, and like most people was absorbed into the world that Collins paints – a United States destroyed by apparent civil war, a new country of Panem in its place, a tiny percentage of the population ruling from its super advanced, super rich Capital, controlling the lives of those who toil away in poverty in 12 districts to provide the goods and services that the elite demand. 74 years before, a 13th district had led a rebellion against the ruling capital, only to be put down and wiped out. In penance each year a young girl and boy from each district is “reaped” to participate in The Hunger Games, where they fight to the death for the televised entertainment of the Capital and as a way to terrorize the Districts and keep them compliant. When Katniss Everdeen, played by Academy Award winning actress Jennifer Lawrence, volunteers to take her young sister’s place in the games, thus begins the story arc of Katniss’ evolution from a young woman trying to keep her family alive to reluctant symbol of and finally a leader of a revolution. With compelling characters, wild settings, a touch of powerful futuristic technology, and deep conflict it is story telling at its best.
Having read the trilogy I purchased the Blu Ray of the original Hunger Games, and found myself quite moved by the story.
Then I watched the “extra features” including an interview with Donald Sutherland, who plays the diabolical president of Panem. I sat up when he said, in that interview, that he believes this film series (it will be four movies before it is complete) will be the most important movie series of the early 21st Century. Why? Because it is a powerful allegory of our time, taking our 1% and 99% division of rich and poor, along with the excesses of the militaristic surveillance state to absurd allegorical heights and holding them there for us to see. And then suggesting that one person of courage, joined with others, can make all the difference.
More specifically, Sutherland hopes that the movie series will help inspire a generation of youth to rise up. He put it this way in a recent interview with The Guardian.
Donald Sutherland wants to stir revolt. A real revolt. A youth-led uprising against injustice that will … usher in a kinder, better way. “I hope that they will take action because it’s getting drastic in this country.” Drone strikes. Corporate tax dodging. Racism. The Keystone oil pipeline. Denying food stamps to “starving Americans”. It’s all going to pot. “It’s not right. It’s not right.”
Millennials need awakening from slumber. “You know the young people of this society have not moved in the last 30 years.” With the exception of Occupy, a minority movement, passivity reigns. “They have been consumed with telephones.” The voice hardens. “Tweeting.”…
…today’s young are too fretful about finding jobs to change society, he laments. “I just think they’re not organized. It’s not something that’s happening in the universities, which is normally the breeding ground for that kind of activity.” Does he despair of the young? The famous drooping, pale blue eyes widen. “No, no, no. Otherwise there would be no point making this film. I have great hope and faith in them…
The Hunger Games, Sutherland suggests, is a coded commentary on inequality, power and hope. “It just puts things out in the light and lets you have a look at it. And if you take from it what I hope you will take from it, it will make you think a little more pungently about the political environment you live in and not be complacent.”
But the message is multi-generational and one that the people watching Catching Fire with us this week seemed to take to heart, even as they enjoyed heart-stopping action. In the discussion following Catching Fire, Science Fiction writer Brenda Cooper asked “Are we, in fact, the Capital?” It may be easy to identify with Katniss and to imagine yourself as a heroic member of the revolution, but what if we, in our comfort and complacency, are nearer to citizens of the Capital, turning a blind eye to suffering and oppression so long as enough affluence flows our way. An audience member commented on the comparison of the televised Hunger Games to our own “Terror-tainment” as he called it. The networks fill time with images of disaster and even horror, which the public eats up so long as it involves watching others in a struggle of life and death. We read about killing drone strikes and hear about the hatred they can engender in an entire village, and then we turn away. We hear about the surveillance state and hope we are not doing anything suspicious and leave it at that.
Noam Chomsky recently called us a “Terrified Country,” and that echoes a scene in Catching Fire, where the head game maker advises the president to televise the romantic engagement of the two hunger games winners, then beatings, then televise the wedding, then executions, and so on. All to keep the districts in uncertainty and fear and in that fear to keep them docile and producing goods and services.
Andrew Slack in the LA Times raises similar issues, when he asks whether the message of the movies can get lost in the marketing tie-ins. He pulls no punches when he writes,
At its core, “The Hunger Games” is about economic inequality. In the books, the country of Panem is a future version of the United States, after nuclear disaster wipes out most of the population. In Panem, the fraction of people living in the Capitol controls almost all of the wealth. In 12 outlying Districts, people work long hours in Capitol-approved industries at dangerous jobs with low pay. Starvation is a daily reality.
If the books are supposed to function as a cautionary tale against the real class divide in the U.S., we need not look far for evidence. The future of Panem is upon us: More than 20 million Americans can’t find full-time jobs, 22% of children live in poverty and middle-class wages have been largely stagnant since 1974. Meanwhile, corporate profits are at an all-time high.
If the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist, the same can be said of systemic economic inequality. The pull of the American dream is still so strong that many believe the only reasonable explanation for poverty is that it’s poor people’s fault. We don’t blame the system — and in Panem, you don’t blame the Capitol.
Thus, the rhetoric of austerity does not touch the 1% who own 40% of our economy. Instead, the rest of us fight over which crucial (for us) but hardly costly program to cut: food stamps, health insurance, unemployment benefits, Head Start, domestic violence counseling, even education.
But there is hope for change. As I have often said, the astonishing concentration of wealth and power now under way cannot continue forever, because anything that gets so far out of balance eventually must fall over. Such as been the historical pattern. The question is whether this falling will involve revolution or simple political change. Probably the answer will be both.
Chomsky notes the brief but powerful impact that Occupy had, in his November 23, 2013 Salon interview that
It’s actually striking that there are Occupy offshoots all over the world. I’ve talked at Occupy movements in Sydney, Australia, and England, all over. Everywhere you go there’s something. And they link with other things that are happening, like the Indignados in Spain; the student actions in Chile, which are pretty remarkable; things in Greece, which are enormous; and even movements in the peripheral parts of Europe trying to struggle against the brutal austerity regimes, which are worse than here and which are just strangling the economies and destroying the European social contract. We look progressive in comparison with Europe.
Can movies wake us up, can movies wake up a generation? Actually I think they can help and I suspect that The HUnger Games and Katniss Everdeen will light a spark in the real world as well as on screen.
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