By Ellen Finnigan
November 11, 2014
On November 21, Mockingjay: Part I will be released in theaters. This will be the third of four films based on Suzanne Collins’ young adult trilogy. In anticipation I have re-watched the first two films, The Hunger Games (2012) and Catching Fire (2013), and reread the books. Collins has said that with these stories she wanted to educate children about the “realities of war.” The realities she seems to be concerned with are not only the realities of fighting in a war, but also the realities of living in a country at war. What Collins is teaching American children is very important: that a government of the few can dominate a populace of the many using not only the brute force of a police state but also the more subtle, insidious, and hypnotic power of mass media. It is a valuable lesson for us all.
In case you haven’t heard, the trilogy is set in a future America called Panem after the Latin “panem et circenses” or “bread and circuses.” Divided into twelve Districts, most of the country is impoverished, except for the Capitol. Each year, one boy and one girl from each District are chosen by lottery and sent to fight to the death. They are called “Tributes.” The Games provide live, reality-television-style entertainment for the masses and yield exactly one “Victor,” who becomes an instant celebrity. The Hunger Games are touted as a pseudo-religious festival that brings everyone together in a ritual of punishment and atonement necessary to maintain unity and peace. Everyone must participate in the Hunger Games – as a Tribute or as a spectator — to maintain the illusion of unity. But how do you get an entire country to watch something so horrific on television day after day, to pay attention to the spectacle let alone support it?
Well, the Capitol threatens to nuke any District that rebels, and the people take that threat seriously. On the day of the lottery, citizens let their children be “herded into roped off areas like cattle.” The Hunger Games are a demonstration of power that terrorizes the people and instills fear. But the secondary purpose of the Hunger Games is to distract and mollify the population, especially those in the Capitol, with “circuses.” Part of the job of the Head Gamemaker is, with the help of talking heads in the media, to invent and disseminate storylines that will drum up interest in and enthusiasm for the Games and keep the people titillated, using each child’s unique personality and background to create “characters” of interest. The narratives they concoct create sympathy for the Tributes among the viewing audience. Lesson about war: Give citizens someone to root for in war, and they will be less likely to root against the State or against the wars themselves. Make sure they can’t see the forest for the trees, or the circus for the act.
It is not hard to see a few parallels at work here in our own society as convenient feel good narratives and soldier pseudo celebrities emerge with regularity in the War on Terror. Remember Jessica Lynch? Pat Tillman? Chris Kyle? Just like we have Internet articles titled “Where Are They Now?” about child celebrities or one-hit-wonders from the 80s, we have “Where Are They Now’s?” about War on Terror celebrities. The American government now uses the most sophisticated techniques of advertising, public relations, storytelling, and Hunger Games-style celebrity making, harnessing the full power of the mass media (print, television, radio, and film) to shape and mold the public consciousness, to influence our attitudes and beliefs about war, and to propagate American “wars” by keeping us enthralled and distracted with titillating stories. This is not difficult to do in a society in which six companies own 90% of the media, reduced from 50 in 1983. But before I come back to the here and now, let me tell you a little bit more about the plot. (I won’t include anything about Mockingjay that you couldn’t learn from watching the trailer.)
In the first book, our fifteen-year-old protagonist Katniss Everdeen wins the Hunger Games in more ways than one: Through cunning and compassion rather than outright resistance, she manages to undermine the Capitol. She emerges as a Victor and a symbol of potential revolution in Panem. Victors have to play their roles long after the Games are over, though, or else. They are forced to go on publicity tours, be spokespeople for the Capitol, and mentor new Tributes from their District. In exchange they get to live in wealth and luxury for the rest of their lives. In the sequel Catching Fire, Katniss is on tour, smiling, waving, and trying her best to convince everyone that she is not a dissident, for fear her beloveds will get killed. She stands in front of the people of each District and robotically recites the lines written for her on cue cards, but the people aren’t buying it. The people are restless and looking to her for hope. They yell from the crowd, “Tell us what you really think!” The police are cracking down. People are getting publicly executed for showing even the smallest signs of solidarity with her. She just wants the tour to be over and to go home, so nobody else will get hurt, but her mentor reminds her that the game never ends. Every year the Capitol will trot her around like a show pony. “Your job now,” he says, “is to be a distraction, to make people forget what the real problems are.” Resigned to her fate as a puppet of the Capitol, she decides to get engaged to her friend Peeta, even though she is not in love with him, in a desperate attempt to keep up appearances.
Despite Katniss’ best efforts to play nice, President Snow knows she is a threat. He sends her back to the Hunger Games in hopes she will die. In the third book and upcoming film, Katniss has been broken free from the Games by a group of rebels, many of them her friends (she was unaware of the conspiracy), and they are hoping she will agree to lead the resistance. The rebels have somehow managed to take control of the airwaves, and like the Hunger Games, the revolution, too, will be televised. She finds she is still a celebrity, with a hair and make-up team, her own designer, and a costume. She is still being given cue cards. Cameras follow her into the battlefield. There are discussions about who should and should not appear with her on camera. How are they going to “cast” her friend Gale? Should he be her new lover or her cousin? What would play best with the audience? The rebels, like the Capitol, seem more interested in telling stories than in disseminating information. Image is everything. Truth is optional. The storyline that developed while she was in the Hunger Games: She must do nothing to contradict it. Why? Because the viewing audience is emotionally invested in it. In their constant concern with emotional appeal, the rebel “coverage” smacks of propaganda. Katniss wants to do what she can to help the people, but she is conflicted because she knows she is being used. She decides to embrace the role of “The Mockingjay” anyway in hopes she can use her power of celebrity for good. In a moment of genuine passion, after seeing the Capitol engage in a particularly horrific act of war, she curses President Snow and threatens him through the camera. Then somebody shouts, “That’s a wrap!”
People found the premise of The Hunger Games to be so offensive and obscene because it blurred something as serious as war with something as frivolous as entertainment, but in America, the lines between war, entertainment, and propaganda are increasingly hard to draw. They practically don’t exist. There was a BBC documentary exposing the rescue of Jessica Lynch as a PR stunt. A local eye witness described the incident as follows:
“Like a film of Hollywood they cry ‘Go! Go! Go!’ and shout ‘Go! Go! Go!’ and with guns with blanks, without bullets. Blanks and the sounds of explosions…They make a show for the American attack for the hospital. Action movies like Sylvester Stallone or Jackie Chan, with jumping and shouting, breaking the door, with the photos, with the photos.”
Who doesn’t love a good “Rescue the Young Blonde P.O.W.” story to kick off a war? Lynch became America’s sweetheart, a real life Disney princess. She doesn’t remember a thing about her “rescue” (convenient) but that didn’t stop her from getting a seven figure book deal to tell her story, which became a bestseller.
Growing up in the 80s, I was exposed to films like Born on the Fourth of July, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon. They were the scary movies of my childhood, far scarier than Nightmare on Elm Street or The Hunger Games. The Pentagon didn’t like how its activities were being reflected in our culture, so rather than cleaning up their act, they polished up their image by collaborating with the makers of a movie called Top Gun (“How Top Gun Made America Love War”, The Washington Post, August 26, 2011). Add an awesome soundtrack, and suddenly the military was cool again.