Dystopian and utopian texts are incredibly important for envisioning our world otherwise, a point emphasized by Ursula K. Le Guin at the 2014 National Book Awards. In her speech, Le Guin noted that we need writers who “can see through our fear-stricken society … to other ways of being,” and she named the profit motive within the publishing industry as the destroyer of such arts. “Books, you know, they’re not just commodities,” Le Guin argued, “Resistance and change often begin in art …the art of words.”
Books as a revolutionary force are a key motif in the dystopian canon, of course, but it seems particularly apt that Le Guin’s words were spoken a few nights before the release of the third film adaptation of The Hunger Games series: Mockingjay Part 1.
Though I agree with Le Guin’s passionate support of artists, and her implied condemnation of the corporations in which they must labor (publishing houses, movie studios, Amazon), I think one can find a silver lining in some cases with literary/film franchises–which I do find in the case of The Hunger Games. Though the series is indeed part of the profit-driven machinery Le Guin criticizes, the revolutionary message it contains is not lost amidst its commodification. Looking on the bright side, we can be optimistic that the popularizing of dystopian fiction—a political genre—is a good thing not only for audiences and publishers/film studios, but for authors/artists too.
Though I agree with Le Guin that, “The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art,” in some cases turning a book series into a mega-blockbuster franchise can have, as we feminists like to call it, consciousness-raising impact.
Are the messages of The Hunger Games series watered down in their more commodified film packaging? To some extent, yes. Does the selling of Hunger Games-themed make-up contradict the saga’s indictment of capitalism and appearance obsession? Of course. However, what seems to resonate most with people is not the latest Katniss-themed T-shirt, but the messages about rebellion, injustice and oppression. Perhaps even more significant is just how closely the book resembles readers’ own lives; this is certainly the case when I teach the book in my freshman-level college literature courses.
But, you might be thinking, isn’t it obvious that the series critiques U.S. society? Well, yes, but knowing something is a critique and taking that critique to heart, really thinking about it and relating it to your own experience, is a different matter. Most of my students are not the moneyed, privileged citizens of The Capitol (Panem). They realize this, but they have grown up learning the American dream is real (despite our ravaged economy) and been given the message that doing well on standardized tests or excelling in rote memorization is a mark of intelligence. Discussing the series brings about political discussions filled with “It was there all along, how did I not see it?” moments about, not Panem, but early 21st century U.S.A. The series sometimes sparks interest in the Occupy movement, concerns about the corporate media machine or indignation about political corruption. At the very least, there is often a heightened interest in reading more books. This is a win. As LeGuin puts it, “Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.”
Resistance and change are also often brought about by images, and although the film adaptations of the series are not likely to spark mass revolution, they do present resistance, subversion, questioning authority, bearing witness and truth-telling as not only positive but necessary. In fact, the three-finger salute that represents solidarity to the cause spread to the real world—to Thailand, specifically, where demonstrators used the salute while protesting against militarized government, which led to a banning of the salute and cinema chains not airing the films.
According to the series, a key way of getting the masses to “get their revolutionary on,” so to speak, is the careful deployment of pre-fabricated media messaging. The wizard in this department in Mockinjay: Part 1 is Cressida (played by Natalie Dormer), the Capitol-born director in charge of creating propos (propaganda shorts) for District 13. Her films underscore the point that it’s easier to create mass sentiment that can translate into supporting a cause than to muster revolutionary sentiment at the individual level that translates into not only sentiment but action.
We see this with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) particularly, who is portrayed as not even sure whether she supports the uprising, let alone whether she wants to serve as its spark. Though she knows what a tyrant President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland) is, Katniss cannot even act convincingly in a “propo.” Rather, it is not until she sees and hears the many wounded, hospitalized members of District 8 and her own destroyed District 12—of which only 915 out of 10,000 citizens survive—that she is moved into action.
This third installment of the series is mainly about this: how those convinced of the need for revolt spread the fire of revolution. Katniss, of course, becomes the match. In this portion of Mockingjay (the final book of the series), the idea of districts coming together to overthrow the Capitol—a Marxist revolution, if you will—is presented as the solution.
Author Suzanne Collins has noted that The Hunger Games was inspired while flipping through TV channels filled with reality shows and Iraq war footage, and these inspirations are obvious. But other real-world phenomena critiqued in the series—such as a militarized police force—also resonate at this cultural moment. The repressive Peacekeepers of Panem, with their armored suits, helmets and automatic weaponry, are redolent of the type of militarization we see currently in Ferguson.
Taking the metaphor of Peacekeepers as a militarized police force even further, doesn’t this make District 13 (the possible supplier of the military weaponry) the fictional equivalent of our Department of Defense, which has equipped police with more than $4 billion worth of military equipment? Are we, the audience, being encouraged to rally behind a covert, underground Defense Department of the future?
A song we hear later in the film (which initially appeared in the first book in the series), “The Hanging Tree,” is even more evocative in relation to the complex line between fighting for freedom and fighting to annihilate. In the song, a man sentenced to lynching for alleged murder calls to his love to meet him in the hanging tree, suggesting that this will allow release from the “Strange things [that] did happen here.” The very plaintive and haunting tone in Lawrence’s performance brings extra nuance to the song’s deeper question: Are you coming to join the revolution, or are you going to put up with all the “strange things”—such as executions of the innocent.
The song brings to mind Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” which was adopted as one of the anthem’s during the civil rights era. “The Hanging Tree” in the film has similar revolutionary undertones, suggesting that people must not let their oppressors use fear as a divisive weapon, but must instead resist their oppression, and in so doing risk ending up “in the hanging tree.”
This song, which argues death is preferable to putting up with oppression or becoming like the oppressor, is in striking juxtaposition to the romanticization of militarized images which saturate the film. Of course the whiz-bang-techno weapon-loving look of the film accords to the franchise’s profit-seeking aims.
Though many reviewers suggest that the fact that there are no actual Hunger Games makes this film far less gripping than the others in the series, I disagree. True, there are no gladiator-style games, but there are mind games, war games and a battle for hearts and minds. Also, thankfully, there are fewer love games—less attention to the Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) /Gale (Liam Hemsworth) /Katniss triangle. In this film, the focus is largely on Katniss and what her role will be in the uprising, rather on whether she loves baker boy, hunter boy or both.
Other components of the film also, refreshingly, lack any romantic focus. Natalie Dormer (Cressida), in discussing the wave of films which focus more on women and frame them as heroes rather than love interests, says of her character, “She’s a woman, she’s a person who’s defined by her profession. It was refreshing to play a character who wasn’t defined by a love entanglement or a marital ambition. She is there because she the best at her job.”
As much as I love Le Guin and despise corporate capitalism, I can’t entirely condemn the franchising of literature of which The Hunger Games is a part, for it takes important stories to the masses. I am with Le Guin wholeheartedly on supporting the subversive, innovative visions art allows, but I also must admit that good images sell. Propos are useful tools—and need not always serve the master. If we can use the Hollywood system to sell some revolutionary feminist spark, why not?