With the recent cinematic release of the latest installment of The Hunger Games series, Mockingjay- Part 1, it seems to be the perfect time to look into some of the more predominant themes and allegorical references in this wildly popular franchise. Being that these films have been adapted from Suzanne Collin’s trilogy of bestselling novels geared toward the younger adult crowd, they have come to be some of the most anticipated blockbusters of the last few years, bringing in massive box-office success. Despite the well-defined financial achievement and reverberant hype of the saga, the series of films, soon to conclude with next year’s Mockingjay- Part 2, has not done particularly well with critics. Some reviews suggest that the Battle Royale storyline turned moody propaganda display is becoming rather thin, gratuitous as well as underdeveloped. Yet what does seem to keep audiences returning to the theatres, year after year? It most likely has to do with the motifs that make up the very foundation that these films are based upon; motifs that audiences cannot seem to get enough of.
One of the first things that is most evident in The Hunger Games is the reality television aspect that centers around the very games themselves. During what is labeled a “reaping ceremony” in each of the twelve “districts”, two players, a boy and girl, between the ages of twelve and eighteen called “tributes”, are chosen at random to fight to the grisly death until only one remains, becoming the victor. Each year, the winner of the games becomes an instant celebrity; he or she is given a healthy income from the Capitol for life as well as being granted permission to move to their respective district’s “Victors’ Village”, which boasts large houses with comfortable amenities.
These tournaments are televised annually for all of Panem (a nation that was established in post-apocalyptic North America) to witness. It is interesting to discover that the very word “Panem” is derived from the Latin expression panem et circenses, meaning “bread and circuses”. The thought behind this phrase is that if given enough sustenance and diversion, the people of any society will become distracted and blindly give over their political rights. Since the majority of the twelve districts are poor, it is really the rich and powerful inhabitants of the Capitol that find any kind of amusement with the slaughter of the lower classes. The very fact that this dystopian society (more so the utopian Capitol) is getting serious entertainment value from murder is downright disturbing. Just like with the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome, audiences want these tributes to battle each other violently, for as long as they can, for when one of them dies, some of the entertainment is over.
However this fictitious method of barbaric delight is executed (no pun intended), it bares some resemblance to the type of television that the majority of today’s audiences watch on a regular basis. Viewers primarily consume reality television to escape the troubles or boredom of their day-to-day lives. For instance, people tune in to watch other people strategize and endure (Survivor), possibly fall in love (The Bachelor), become famous (American Idol), and fight over just about anything (the Real Housewives franchise). These same elements are essentially what make the audience in The Hunger Games so bloodthirsty for these annual events: they want to be part of a spectacle.
Another theme that is prevalent within the series is that of objectification through appearance. Through all the suffering and struggle that the players endure, it is their physical appearance and the way they comport themselves that has a lot to do with how they are treated during the games. A tribute has to play a certain part, essentially perform for the audience, in order to be deemed a favorite and possibly be rewarded with tools to win the battle. During the “opening ceremonies”, training and interviews, the players must show that they are worthy of sponsorship. They must stand out amongst the other tributes, effectively the games becoming a popularity contest to the utmost degree. By standing out, the player is giving the impression that he or she will be stronger, more appealing and highly desirable. At the end of the day, it is all strategy.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) becomes somewhat of a curiosity because she volunteers to participate in the 74th year of the event in lieu of her younger sister, whose name was drawn in the lottery. Because the games are a compulsory matter, only if someone volunteers in your place are you allowed to refute. When Katniss bravely steps in to protect her sibling, the audience takes notice. She quickly becomes a form of interest for the viewers as they begin to watch her every move. This leads to sponsors willing to represent her during her fight in the arena and possibly showering her (literally, via silver parachutes) with food, medicine, tools and other trinkets that could possibly help her win the battle.
Throughout the films, Katniss consistently uses her appearance to demonstrate to the public that she is a strong and agile contender. She quickly learns how to manipulate the ever-present camera and begins to monitor the manner of her speech as well as her behavior. During the games in the first film, she figures out that the only way to survive is to convince the viewers that she and her fellow district tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are falling in love. Again, as a strategic maneuver, she and Peeta put on a show as star-crossed lovers in order to survive. In the second film, Catching Fire, they must continue this charade for the public, even going so far as to fake a pregnancy, their lives becoming more and more like a rehearsed soap opera.
Moreover, it is not only behavior or how one speaks that can solidify a favorable spot with audiences. What the people want to see is an exhibition. By showcasing the more physical attributes of the tributes, this leads the audience to visualize their favorites. In all three films, Katniss is given spectacular costumes to wear that represent both her personality as well as her district. Since she and partner Peeta are representatives from the coal-mining sector, stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) creates black tight-fitting suits that burn with synthetic flames when lit. The fire is an extended metaphor illustrating the complex idea and concept behind what this couple is trying to do- win the hearts of their audience as well as survive through burning spirit and temperament.
In Mockingjay- Part 1, Katniss becomes a figurehead for the new rebellion. District 13, who is independent from the Capitol, uprises a revolt and uses Katniss’ celebrity to both lure other districts into the fight as well as antagonize the ruling government. Using the symbol of the mockingjay, a hybrid bird that is known to eavesdrop and repeat what it hears, mimicking the cries of others, District 13 is sending a clear message. The mockingjay is tough and able to assimilate to almost any environment, just as Katniss has proven to do both in and out of the arena. The uniform designed for this stage of the saga is a sleek black armored suit with wings attached to her shoulders, mirroring the feathered dress she sported in the previous film. Costume design is so important to the franchise as they lead the fictitious as well as actual audiences to recognize the function of these characters in both an aesthetic and illustrative manner.
This leads seamlessly into another important aspect that the series plays greatly with and that is the awareness of war and propaganda. Everything exemplified in The Hunger Games is about strategy, especially when it comes to battle. If a character wants to outlive the games, or even this dystopian society for that matter, he or she must know how to survive. The Hunger Games were initially created by the Capitol to punish the people of Panem because of their original revolt against the authoritarian control over seventy years before the film’s storyline takes place. The games are a threatening reminder to all twelve districts that they are not in control. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) leads his dictatorship like a well-oiled machine. He skillfully manages to manipulate the masses, obsessively and ruthlessly keeping “order”. In his government, soldiers are ironically termed “Peacekeepers”; their mission is to take care of anyone not abiding by the rules and regulations, implemented solely to oppress the citizens of Panem. Understanding that a new revolt will eventually lead to another civil war causes Snow and his regime to tighten the reigns even further, dominating almost everything and anything. The only way to survive in this world is to obey and keep quiet.
The notion of oppressive nature here is a critical one. How The Hunger Games saga tackles oppression and poverty are noteworthy because they harshly parallel present-day culture in an atmospheric and over-the-top way. Audiences are able to identify with some of the fundamental aspects that the films heavily deliberate on. Almost everyone has been oppressed at some point in their lives and most people have witnessed harsh and violent acts that can only be attributed to war and its impacts; some struggle with these issues on a daily basis. Today’s media is oversaturated with images of destruction and injustice, governments are not longer able to hide issues from the public and more individuals are taking action against what they see. The premise of war in The Hunger Games, and more so in Mockingjay- Part 1, may seem dystopian and near apocalyptic in nature, yet the reason audiences are so enthralled with its subject matter is because they understand the implications to modern-day anxieties. As a society we are every bit as burdened as the characters represented in these films.
As the media is such an imperative aspect in war, propaganda quickly becomes a topic that dominates all frequencies open to audiences. Regarding The Hunger Games films, the art of publicity and promotion are utilized tactically yet remain obvious. Even if these elaborate events are taking place in an imaginary setting and dealing with fantastical situations, it is rather recognizable to audiences that no matter the entertainment aspects of the narrative, they are able to fully notice the blaring concepts and heavy use of propaganda in these films, and how effortlessly they relate to actual media consumed on a daily basis. For example, the Capitol describes the games as being a competition instead of the gruesome slaughter of innocent children. Another would be how Katniss and Peeta are forced into a fake relationship for their audience. The entire third film is devoted to Katniss being followed around by a camera crew filming her every move to motivate the districts into rebellion. How the films employ propaganda may seem a little over the top at times, yet it is this very aspect that makes the masses take into account just how very serious these matters can be. Propaganda has been present for as long as man has and as the elements of persuasion might change with time, the theory will always remain the same.
Reading into the many illustrative arguments and rhetorical devices used within The Hunger Games saga, and witnessing the incredible amount of popularity that surrounds the franchise, it is safe to say that these kinds of films might be around for a while. The ‘blockbuster’ nature of the film, merged with prevalent themes, motivate wide-ranging audiences to take part in the much-anticipated ‘spectacle’. As The Hunger Games conclude next year, it is safe to say that another string of films will emerge that take on similar themes and allegorical characteristics that will soon fill theatre seats and produce impressive numbers at the box-office. What audiences should take away from these kinds of franchises is that there is a serious need to examine the very elements that attract them to the big screen, and that further discourse is, without any question, necessity.