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.