The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
Apr 222012
 

So why has Hunger Games broken so many box-office records in its first few weeks in theaters?  Sure, the trilogy was a huge YA reader hit before it became a movie.  But the books weren’t exactly Tolkien, nor did they have the same celebrity status as the Harry Potter series.  And even if the books did generate a lot of buzz behind the movie, that just begs another question: Why was the trilogy so popular to begin with?

I have no idea.  But I do think there are several themes in the film that strike an obvious resonance with 4T America.

Theme One is the overwhelming imagery of the 1930s.  In the film, we see images either of America’s dire want and deprivation—think of dirt-eating Appalachia before the TVA arrived—or we see images of National Socialism triumphant.  On the one hand, scenes of semi-starved District 12 are deliberately filmed as a black-and-white evocation of rural America in the middle of the Great Depression.  Think of the Time Magazine’s cover picture for October 13, 2008: A stark photo of breadlines in the early 1930s.

On the other hand, the computer-assisted scenes of the Capitol of Panem look like Berlin as it might have been redesigned by Nazi architect Albert Speer.  Fortunately, history did not allow him time to complete this task.  He did a brilliant job, however, with the Nuremberg rallies, which look like Panem’s Capitol on a smaller scale.  And what isn’t directly Nazi-inspired comes from Art Deco or Art Nouveau.

I’m certainly not the first one to point this out: See this article in the Atlantic for example or this very nice blog post.  I’ve even seen a youtube video pointing to the striking similarity between the Hunger Games Mockingjay pin and Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe badge.  I’ll show a couple of examples here, the most striking of which is the CGI movie image of “Avenue of the Tributes.”  The insignia for each district look disturbingly similar to badges handed out by the U.S. National Recovery Administration (NRA).  Note btw the task assigned to District One: “Luxury.”  Hey, it’s a job and someone’s got to do it.

 

 

Why is this important?  Because the specter of National Socialism loomed large over America at the depths of the Great Depression.  As government aggregated greater authority under FDR, many suggested (both on the populist left and the authoritarian right) that perhaps government should go further.  In 1935 Sinclair Lewis wrote the novel It Can’t Happen Here about a fascist take-over of the United States, which was popular enough to be turned into a stage play in 1936.  In Lewis’ novel, it was not so much that large numbers of people really wanted a dictator.  It was just that no one any longer cared much for the liberal and democratic alternative.

Theme Two is the imagery of a vast gap or distance between the privileged and the subjected.  By most calculations, inequality by income in the United States (as measured by the Gini Coefficient) has recently reached the highest levels since the late-1920s and 1930s.

In Hunger Games, the rich are hi-tech and garish.  The poor are resilient and plain.  In the OWS era, the relevance is clear.

 

 

Theme Three is the imagery of a staged yet savage competition among the young for survival.  I think Hunger Games can be read as a metaphor for team-working and risk-averse Millennials entering a young-adult economy defined by survivalist Gen-Xers, who are accustomed to competing against each other in a no-holds-barred, winner-takes-all economy without safety nets.  Gen-Xers know all about Survival Games.  They think nothing of working for businesses governed by the Jack Welch managerial philosophy–which is to fire X percent of your workers every year “pour encourager les autres.”  Life is a gigantic Las Vegas casino.  “May the odds be ever in your favor.”  How X can you get?  If Millennials fear anything, it is this future.

How things have changed.  When Boomers were young, William Golding wrote a much-discussed novel about kids killing each other that was quickly turned in a movie.  It was called Lord of the Flies.  And why were the kids killing each other?  Because they wanted to.  Because they were accidentally separated from the adults who would otherwise have enforced order and restrained them.  Hunger Games turns the story entirely around.  In this world, it’s the adults who deliberately stage the teen-on-teen gladiatorial contests.  Hunger Games is by no means the first in this genre.  During the Gen-X youth era, we’ve seen novels and movies like The Long Walk (Stephen King) and Battle Royale (a ‘90s Japanese classic).  And how many Xer “reality shows” have followed this same basic model—with Donald Trump or Simon Cowell or some other middle-aging Boomer yelling “you’re fired” at a young person?  The number is beyond counting.

If you’ve seen the film, then you recall the scene where the competition-trained blond jocks chase down and kill an unseen screaming victim.  An image came to my mind: Karate Kid I (1984), where the Aryan Cobra Kai kids (dressed in skeleton uniforms) chase down and catch Daniel-san and would have beaten him to a pulp had not Mr. Miyagi intervened.  This enormously popular movie persuaded countless millions of young Gen-Xers to practice martial arts, buy a gun, or do just about anything to defend themselves in a friendless world.

But here’s what’s changing.  In today’s new 4T era, what felt OK or normal for young Gen-Xers seems outrageous and unacceptable for young Millennials.  For a generation of kids so fussed-over and protected—now to be sent out with bowie knives and machetes to eviscerate each other from throat to gut?  No, the line has to be drawn somewhere.  And this is what adds a whole new edge (so to speak) to the movie.

I originally had a Theme Four in mind, which is the horrifying Oprah-style interviews of young victims about to be sent to their death.  Here is a glimpse of modern American decadence that deserves fuller treatment.  In the heyday of imperial Rome, gladiators once shouted “morituri te salutamus!” to the clamoring coliseum crowds (we who are about to die salute you).  In Hunger Games, the contestants confess personal secrets like they were on Jimmy Fallon’s ever-nice late-night show.  The effect is truly chilling.

But the hour is growing late.  I’ll come back to this in another post.

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  • Kathy H

    Great article! I was born in 1980 and, like so many others of all ages, this trilogy and film has me absolutely riveted. So I appreciate any sort of analysis of the themes — particularly as it relates to the turnings and archetypes. I eagerly look forward to any more analysis you’ll do on the subject!

  • This is something I want to see, soon.  Sci-Fi is often about 50 years ahead of us when its’ pedictive power is on-target.  (The ‘Star trek’ Communicator looks a lot like my old Nextel i1000 and a Tricorder much like a Newton PDA, for example, and ‘Minority Report’ may be much less than 50 years in our future.)
    Do you recall a book & movie called ‘The Wave,’ about a HS teacher who tries to explain a student’s question about how Nazism spread by starting a movement among his students?  It spins out of control and he has to enlist a couple of students who reject it to stop it.  Mass media and ‘mass men’ (to use Ortegy Y Gasset’s phrase) combine to create mass political movements of this type all too easily.  Sinclair Lewis was correct to ask if it could happen here.  (The Detroit performance hearlded by the flyer you reporduce here happened not fat from where Fr. Coughlin broacast his radio show, by the way.)  ‘The Wave’ is a late-1960s work, based on atrue story; now, at the bottom of a 4T cycle, it would be much more dangerous to germinate a mkovement of this kind.  As you’ve pointed out, 4Ts can end in glory – or ruin.  A Cromwell – or worse – could spring from outs, unless we are very careful and may our courage be informed by our cares.

  • My wife is a jr. high/high school level educator. Both she and my (almost 13 year old) son have read the whole series and watched the movie. It sure resonates with the kids, and I’m not sure that many of them have a handle on why. I love asking my son questions about why he likes the stories, because it helps me tease out his perspective against the backdrop of all that cultural stuff that we’re oblivious to when we’re kids.

    One theme is the choice between duty and desire. My son is dutiful in a fashion that is completely divorced from my alienated Gen-X adolescence. While my understanding your intellectual discipline is akin to trying to hold onto an angry snake, your inquiries are utterly absorbing.

    We all watched a great cracked video that touches on this generational stuff and he had lightbulbs going off left and right as he realized that he *did* see things the way they were described, but he’d never actually articulated any of it: http://www.cracked.com/video_18261_why-everyone-wants-to-have-sex-with-vampires.html

    True, it could be confirmation bias (that’s one of the biggest issues I have with this generational stuff), but at least I got him thinking. Plus, I try to play devil’s advocate, so we don’t get *too* comfortable with our little dimestore cultural analysis stuff.

    I’m loving your renewed blog posting vigor. Keep it up! This is like candy for those of us fascinated by this messy, but useful, frame of inquiry.

  • Neil, excellent post. I’ve been waiting for you to weigh in on the Hunger Games and how it relates to your  work. There’s just too much there, for you not to. I too noticed the similarities of the Hunger Games and the ’30s.

    The appearance of the Hunger Games movie couldn’t have been timed better considering the general discontent of the public towards governments, not only in the United States – but also abroad. This discontent has been brought front and center by the Occupy Movement and Anonymous. And it is all too appropriate that both are being led the Millennial Generation. The Hunger Games is the perfect publicity campaign for these groups. And not only is the movie a topic in pop circles … it has evolved into talk show discussion – on the right, the left and all in between.

    The Fourth Turning … I believe you arrived, whether we want it not!

    P.S. Check out a recent post you may like: “The Hunger Games … the articulation of the Occupy Movement” ~ http://bit.ly/GRsGiV

    Thanks again for wonderful mind fodder.

  • I too am loving the return of the blog.  So much happens that our media today is like theme music to the 4T theory “frame of inquiry” as Matt noted.  I think your comment about the Hunger Games “Millennial role with knives to eviscerate each other” is right on the money and highlights the change in the generations which is right “on time” with the 4T.  The youth in the movie reflect the millennial role you so well describe that would happen in the 4T “as these ordinary youths transforming themselves into thunderbolt evil fighters. Their motto, The Power of Teamwork Overcomes All . . . their missions not chosen by themselves, but by an incorporeal elder. . . ”  Interesting.  

  • Pingback: HUNGER GAMES & THE FOURTH TURNING « The Burning Platform()

  • Cwk4

    The Hunger Games shows distrust of the government, but it also shows distrust between private citizens.  Could have something to do with the partisan divide between liberals and conservatives. 

  • Cwk4

    I think you are correct that the Hunger Games is a metaphor for the Millenials’ relationship with older generations.

     Feelings towards Gen X are conflicted.  On the one hand, Gen-Xers are shown as predatory and sadistic.  On the other hand, they can also be savvy veterans who – while lacking the idealism of Millenials – can serve as teachers and protectors.

    Interestingly, in the world of the Hunger Games, it is the Boomers who are shown holding all the cards.  They have all the power, forcing both Gen-Xers and Millenials to fight each other to death to maintain the system. 

  • Speaking as 3d digital artist, I can say that I see more than just Albert Speer in the design of the film, Mr. Howe. If memory serves (I saw the film two weeks ago,) the inspiration for the imagery they use seems to take from a couple of sources, nearly all of them with a dark side: by my headcount, I saw very subtle references to Soviet architecture and a lot of borrowed iconography from Battleship Potemkin (1925 Soviet film by Eisenstein, was written around the time Stalin was starting to earn his bones). I also saw a few obvious and not so obvious references to Roman customs and martial practices: the dress they put on Jennifer Lawrence is gathered towards the bottom ( like a modern party dress) in part because the sfx people need somewhere to make the particle effects work (translation: they need to make it look like she is on fire) but its also off the shoulder and its structure reminds me a little of the Roman stolla women wore (despite the mental image we get of ladies wearing pure white togas the truth is that Roman women liked bright colors, and a reddish pink would have been expensive.) The designer was a smart cookie in that he crossed a 2,000 year old design with last year’s Vogue to get an extra creepy effect that comments on modern times while still complementing the chariots, gladiator like uniforms, and the theme taken from Juvenal which is at the core of the books: PANEM ET CIRCENSIS.

  • CONTINUED….The artists on this film very cleverly threw some modern architecture and tech (look at the train and the underground scenes) in a blender with classic design elements from 1925-1947 and for an artist like me (and a millennial) my eyes were like saucers. I can tell you without reservation that this would have been very difficult to do successfully but damn, they did it. And the message is a withering criticism of 2012 America, where image is more important than truth, media is used like an opiate for the masses, and where the patricians are willfully ignorant to the deprivations of the surrounding, dare I say, 99%?

    This movie is a runaway hit: for every five tickets sold at the box office I am willing to bet that twenty pirated copies have been downloaded to computers. It is ironic that the big fat media moguls who are reaping the main profits off this film may have unwittingly unleashed the lion; they are so greedy they can’t even see the commentary hidden with in the film is in a way directed at them (did I mention that a lot of cg jobs like mine are being outsourced to Asia and that in spite of being unionized most cg houses, loaded with millennial talent, work crazy hours just to hit deadline and get paid a fraction of what their actual labor is worth?! Trust me, the little animator on the floor is letting fatso at the top know he is not happy.) The funny thing is that the books behind this film have been incrementally getting more widely read, spreading like the Harry Potter books did (from the young to the older). Maybe, since this film is resonating deeply among Millennials, the ideas behind it will spread too, and it will become a zeitgeist for something more to come.

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  • Pete

    Neil,

       The interview of the main character here is interesting,  very reminiscent of the Hero mentality embodied.  I think the Hunger games really hits the feeling that this young Hero crowd feels something is coming that will be required of them.  I think this interview brings that more to the surface…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBuaevxZ9ho

  • Pete

    Sorry,

    Meant to post this one….  Looks like the other one was edited a bit more and some interesting comments aren’t there…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBuaevxZ9ho&feature=results_main&playnext=1&list=PLCEB6A890FC10F273