The Hypocrisy of The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games: a best-selling, young-adult, post-apocalyptic book series turned Hollywood franchise. However, there are several ways in which the themes of both series are contradicted. Although they convey a “fight the power” and anti-capitalist message their becoming of capitalist products somewhat refutes this. Along with the lack of filmic creativity shown to reflect these themes as well.
The story and theme of The Hunger Games fits into a Marxist point of view. There is a struggle between social and economic classes i.e. the lower and the upper classes. The poorer, labour working proletarians (citizens of the Districts) work and produce the wealth of the bourgeoisie (the Capitol) while they remain in a state of low income and poor wealth. When these contradictions become apparent to the proletarians this can become a catalyst for revolt against the bourgeoisie in an attempt to remove these class boundaries. This sets the scene that this particular series will thematically have an anti-capitalist, anti-establishment and even Marxist message. This Marxist contradiction is evident in the way the films have been made. While stating an anti-capitalist message with its story as films, creatively The Hunger Games do not show via any means of filmmaking.
This anti-capitalist message is seen throughout the series as part of the narrative many times. One of the first instances is when Katniss and Peeta attempt a joint suicide at the end of the 74th Hunger Games. This sends a message of rebellion throughout the Panem (and specifically directed towards President Snow.) This is the catalyst that eventually sees the Districts rise up against the Capitol with a civil war ensuing. Is The Hunger Games series really that much of an anti-capitalist series, though? Beyond what the story is trying to say, no it isn’t. The Hunger Games films contradict the anti-capitalist, anti-establishment theme of the story by not in a filmmaking or production sense doing the same thing.
There really isn’t that many ways either series “fight the power” or “stick it to the man.” Even in the books, Suzanne Collins explicitly uses the three-act structure, separating each book into three acts. This is the most widely recognised narrative structure for plays, films and novels. Even biopics and documentaries, two genres based on reality use this formula when being constructed for film and television, even though life does not follow a structure. However, in defence of Suzanne Collins and the books, there aren’t too many ways a novel (especially one intended for young adults and teenagers) can do to really break convention in too dramatic a way. So, perhaps the books can be let off in this sense but the films have nowhere to hide.
The books do show off a lot off anti-capitalist themes, but the films trample on this theme in several ways, almost destroying the theme the book series laid out. For the purpose of this article I will focus mainly on the films as there are so many ways in which the film adaptations could encapsulate the theme of anti-capitalism (that the books did pretty well) but just don’t.
Anti-Capitalist Products Courtesy of Capitalism
With the popularity of the books it seemed inevitable that there would be a film adaptation and with that, a problem is already created. It is about to become a franchise and a franchise is (almost) always in need of a big film company. The tone and theme of the books suggested that perhaps an “Indie” production company or some lesser known filmmaker would be brought onboard. However, this was never going to be the case with the demographic the book series attracted along with it being sold as a trilogy. This format makes it perfect for a filmic adaptation and this is something that has happened so many times before. Harry Potter, Twilight, Divergent and Maze Runner have all been adapted from a series of books to the silver screen. A couple of these series share the trope of splitting a film into two parts and a couple even share a film production company in Lionsgate. Both the Harry Potter and Twilight film series had their final installment split into two parts and Twilight shares its production company with the Divergent series: Lionsgate. These two things even stretch to The Hunger Games; it has a two-part final film, produced by Lionsgate. Even though Lionsgate supposedly works on smaller films recently it has delved into producing commercially profitable films based on young-adult fiction such as The Hunger Games.
While Lionsgate is not one of the traditional “Big Five” film production companies (such as MGM or Paramount) and is more of a minor film company, it has seemed to go against its own ethos and turned its focus toward films that have high chance of profit. The young-adult genre is just one part of that. Lionsgate has also delved into the superhero genre with Kick-Ass and Dredd, adapting well-known children’s shows such as Postman Pat and even high-budget, A-list action films such as The Expendables. This is much different compared to some of their earlier films from the 90s and early 2000s that, for the most part, had limited releases with their first wide release being Dogma in 1999.
This is where the hypocrisy starts, from the very top. A film company that does work on a lot of independent and foreign films seems perfect for a series that is anti-capitalist, but sadly this has not become the case. Creativity and values are quickly being lost by the bigger studios – with Disney recently coming into the frame and focusing a lot on franchises and sequels – but, at least, there always used to be a somewhat lesser known film company coming out with genuinely well-made, thoughtful films. All that matters in the film industry at this current moment in time is profit. Each film seems to be pre-made with a specific formula in mind with the sole aim of making money, not entertaining, educating or enhancing the audience’s filmic knowledge. The only aspect of the audience film companies care about is whether they can persuade them to go and see their film. Even films with a narrative that suggests going against this capitalistic profiteering mindset are prone to this sort of problem.
As audiences have become more disillusioned with the same old thing in several popular culture industries (especially the film industry) more and more productions coming from popular culture has started to go against the grain. This is probably most evident in the superhero genre of film where every single film has the same generic formula, with the only real gratification coming from the abundant action sequences. To counter this monotonous genre, DC and Warner Bros. are releasing a supervillain film this year, Suicide Squad. How different this will be can only be judged after its release, but this is an example of a large corporation in the film industry taking notice of a certain portion of the audience’s disillusionment with the genre and doing just enough to make it marketable to those who both want some variation with the genre and those who are quite content with seeing the same thing over and over.
The Hunger Games is really the optimisation of being an anti-capitalist product of capitalism. Even though its whole purpose is for the oppressed to stand up for themselves, to “fight the power,” it in no way does that itself. In fact, it is a part of this oppressive hierarchy and it uses its hypocrisy to draw in audiences that want to see an anti-capitalist film. This is even evident in the narrative of The Hunger Games. To stand up against a broken system of power is to join a separate organisation with opposing views, but that is just as broken and oppressive as the force you are fighting. Thankfully, this is eventually shown towards the end of the series when Katniss decides to kill Alma Coin instead of Snow, as she realises that she is just a different version of him. Even though this part of the story recognises the contradictory nature of rebellion and standing up against oppressive powers, there are a small number of other examples in the story that contradict the anti-capitalist message.
This film series is part of a large company with a huge amount of control over its products. There is only one goal even with anti-capitalist films: profit. Lionsgate is essentially the Capitol and its respective films and filmmakers are the Districts; they have overriding control.over the powerless giving themselves to and working for a higher power. An anti-capitalist film series that is produced by a capitalist company and system is a massive contradiction and hypocrisy.
“Fight the Power” with the Camera
The production and commercial aspect of The Hunger Games is not the sole aspect of hypocrisy concerning the film series. There was an opportunity for filmmakers to use cinematography, editing or any aspect of filmmaking (to an extent) to portray the series anti-capitalist message. Yet, maybe because of the pressure from Lionsgate directorial creativity and individualism lost out in favour of making sure the film was a standard box-office hit. However, that’s not to say a hugely profitable film can’t offer something creatively unique or different.
In fact, when a really well-known film is released that does break convention is some way it only highlights the hypocritical nature of films that say they are going against convention (with their story) but as a film, they do nothing creatively adverse. In the past couple of years Academy Award nominees (and winners in certain categories) Gravity and Birdman have broken convention in staggering fashion. The employment of long, one-take shots (and the illusion of) is something that was sparingly used in films and was only really a tool of auteurs such as the directors of these two films, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Both films utilise the one-take shot in different and similar ways with its use being perhaps the most extreme in terms of how long the one-take shot goes on for in cinema history. With Iñárritu’s Birdman, the entire film appears as one uncut shot. Even though the several cuts that are used are fairly easy to spot, this utilisation of unconventional filmmaking fits in with Iñárritu’s directorial style and the theme of the film. This type of cinematography and editing gives the film a theatrical quality and with a large portion of the story revolving around an actor’s transition from Hollywood superhero star to “serious” stage actor. This type of filmmaking matches the story and characters of Birdman extremely well and gives a nice sense of irony that even though Michael Keaton’s Riggan is can’t seem to (and perhaps doesn’t want to) move on from his former superhero role, life never stops.
Similar can be said of Gravity. Cuaron has used the one-take shot in many of his prior films, the most notable being Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In these films, Cuaron has used this to create a sense of unease, building of tension, loneliness and constant movement (of story, character development and action.) Using Gravity as a specific example we see Ryan Stone’s (Sandra Bullock) loneliness and longing to go home personified by her environment, outer space, but this is also reflected by the one-take shot. Conventional filmmaking makes use of quick cuts between two characters in conversation, creating a shot then reverse shot dynamic. However, Ryan Stone spends a huge amount of Gravity alone. There is little conversation, there is only one goal and the story is very tunnel visioned. The utilisation of the one-take shots throughout the film reflects all of these aspects. There is, most of the time, no one for Ryan to talk to and hence no one to cut the shot to. She is alone and so the camera and, therefore, the audience stays focused on her.
My argument here isn’t necessarily that these films use unconventional aspects of filmmaking (which they actually do heavily) or that The Hunger Games should have used long, one-take shots to represent its anti-establishment theme. ) I am suggesting that it in some way shape or form should have incorporated aspects of filmmaking that can match the theme, its characters and overall story arc. Yes, this could then mean that the one-take technique could be made useful, as it is predominantly an unconventional filmmaking device. Recently, though, it has become popular and used more often, but only for the sake of the director, producer or anyone else saying that this film has made use of such a cinematic technique. Spectre (the last James Bond film released) is perhaps the best example of using the one-take shot with no other purpose than just to include it. The technique was essentially shoehorned into the beginning of the film serving no real purpose to the film overall and wasn’t used another time for the remainder of the film.
For a film [series] to make it’s overarching themes blatantly anti-establishment as The Hunger Games does, it must in more than just the story portray its focus on anti-establishment themes in ways the audience can see, not just in telling them. This is in part, just a portion of The Hunger Games‘ hypocrisy. It says it is one thing but in its actions, it shows us that it is the very thing that Katniss and et al are trying to fight.
Saying all this The Hunger Games DID, in fact, go against convention, yet it still failed to affirm its anti-capitalist themes when it brokes the “180 degree rule.” This rule establishes an “action line” between two characters and that one character will appear on the left side of the screen while the other will be on the right-hand side. The rule is well illustrated by the image to the left with the example in the bottom right corner exhibiting the breaking of the rule. This rule is usually employed during a conversational piece between two characters utilising a shot-reverse-shot technique. When this rule is broken as is shown in the image it can take away from the film, potentially disorienting the audience. The Hunger Games breaks this rule in this scene between Katniss and her sister Prim (found via this Brent Pierce blog) with the rule break occurring at roughly 00.20 when Prim hands Katniss the mockingjay pin. Prim has been established to appear on the left-hand side of the screen and Katniss the right, but when it cuts to the handing over of the pin Katniss’ hand is on the left and Prim’s on the right. This film series does actually break convention! Although, this is one of the few examples in the entire series when it does. This is actually just a poor piece of filmmaking and is what is commonly known as a screw-up. This isn’t a purposeful rule break just as there is a shot of the symbol of the forthcoming rebellion. In fact, this would be a great place to link rebellious filmmaking with a narrative symbol of revolt. But alas, this is too small an example of the film(s) breaking convention to be considered anything else other than a mistake. Even if this shot is purposeful and trying to reflect the theme of the narrative by breaking convention and is by some miracle portraying anti-capitalist beliefs, there are still not enough ways to consolidate the film [series] as a filmmaking feat of anti-establishmentism. Unfortunately, this can only be chalked down to being a filmmaking error.
This is the type of thing the films should have been looking to do, though. To break rules and conventions of filmmaking to show some sort of anti-establishment message. Employment of jump cuts could have shown the “broken” system within The Hunger Games world with the cuts becoming more or less recurrent depending on whether the situation improves or worsens. There could have been a transition from black and white to colour to show the proletarian realisation of the contradictions within this capitalist system. These are just a couple of ways (which may be too experimental) in which the films could have portrayed an anti-capitalist theme reflected by the narrative and doubtless there are many more. However, the films didn’t in any way via editing, cinematography or use of colour portray a filmmaking aspect of anti-capitalism.
Lemon is the New Black
Although the story is very solid in terms of its anti-capitalist message, there is one part of the story that doesn’t quite make sense regarding “fighting the power.” One crucial part of the Games is the opening ceremony, showing of each couple from the twelve Districts. The tributes usually get to wear extravagant clothes, unlike they usually do. Each design of the clothing for the tributes traditionally reflects the industry of their District. For example, District 12 should reflect their coal mining background.
Even though from a story perspective this is the opportunity of the tributes to earn favour with the Capitol so that they get supplies during the Games, there is also a chance here for the clothes to subtextually show their discontent with the Games and President Snow. Even if this hasn’t been established in the narrative yet.
This seems like the perfect opportunity for the rebellious District 12 tributes and their designer Cinna to show their intentions, but instead, Katniss and Peeta wear something one would expect for an opening ceremony. They adhere to the Games’ traditions and, therefore, the Capitol’s. Even Katniss’ and Peeta’s clothes that catch on fire or the wedding dress that transforms into a mockingjay are supposed to act as “sticking it to the man” but these are perhaps the most elaborate entrances and costumes in the series. Of course, this can also be seen as them trying to appeal to the gullible sheep citizens of the Capitol and getting them on side, but this is also meant to send a message (especially with regards to the transforming wedding dress) to the oppressive government of the Capitol led by President Snow. A message telling him that they will stand up against him, they will fight to destroy the Capitol, but they will still honour your traditions. Even with a wonderfully creative designer like Cinna, the opening ceremony and interview clothes are an act of oppression on behalf of the Capitol’s government. Materials used for the clothes will most likely be from Capitol warehouses, made by Capitol employees and even the wonderfully creative Cinna is provided by the Capitol to create Katniss’ breathtaking attire. Even when her white wedding dress transforms into a black mockingjay dress in Catching Fire Katniss is still being somewhat oppressed. She is being used but this time by a yet unknown organisation that is no different to the Capitol and Snow with its oppression.
This can actually be a nice mirroring of the film industry, where a film company will essentially be the ones making a film and not the director. Filmmakers are oppressed by the powerful film companies into making the film they want to be made and should the director disagree or dare make the film they envision they will be replaced by a more “agreeable” director. One of the more recent examples of this was Edgar Wright with Ant-Man. Wright controversially left the project because of “creative differences” with Marvel and Peyton Reed was the vessel Marvel chose to control the movie through. This goes against the Marxist belief of homo faber; the essential characteristic of man to find creativity within their labor and this cannot come to fruition when oppressive powers are pulling the strings. Much like Ant-Man, The Hunger Games also seems to fall within this bracket of having a lack of homo faber.
Although homo faber is not entirely lost concerning the design of the clothing for the tributes at the opening ceremonies, if the tributes, the rebellion or even just Katniss really wanted to stand up to Snow in this regard then why not just turn up in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt? Maybe a nice cardigan, too. Yet instead, they go along with what the Capitol has established as normality. If one goes to a wedding the established thing would be to go in your finest dress or suit, as is expected. That is “socially acceptable” and has been drilled into us, but turning up in a onesie would be totally out of the question.
What would be really “sticking it to the man” would be doing something completely unheard of or something abysmally boring. The concept of boredom is an incredibly anti-establishment thing, especially concerning film. To not enjoy oneself, to daydream during a film and not give it your absolute attention is something that goes against what an audience is meant to do with film, or rather what an audience has been indoctrinated to do over the years. To truly act as an anti-establishment film, the audience must do something incredibly frightening to film companies. They must form thoughts and opinions of their own. Something avant-garde cinema advocates.
Avant-garde cinema is a more experimental form of fimmaking. It is meant to provoke the audience into thinking of things that may be unrelated to the film they are watching. Avant-garde films are not necessarily meant to be sources of gratification, in fact, they can be incredibly dull, confusing and even pretentious. They are not meant to be viewed as “normal” films. How can one discuss the narrative in a short film that is essentially just cloud watching? However, this may be the best way to describe how an audience should view an avant-garde film and perhaps film in general. When we watch clouds one person may see one thing, but your friend may see something entirely different, the same thing or even, crazily enough, just a cloud. None of what someone sees in a cloud is right or wrong, it is possibly the purest form of opinion we as humans can generate and something that we have seemed to have lost concerning mainstream cinema.
In this short avant-garde film by Hollis Frampton entitled Lemon (link here,) there is nothing more than a titular lemon portrayed as the lighting illuminates the lemon before darkening again. There is no meaning behind this piece, but that is not to say there is no point to it. The audience is not asked to concentrate on the lemon or its riveting story but rather supposed to think about any number of other unrelated things culturally, politically, socially, anything. By having no meaning, Lemon is given infinite meaning as each individual viewer will watch and think of something different. Maybe one observer will think it has no meaning and are completely bored by it and that’s ok. In fact, that’s more than great. That boredom is special and differentiates it from other viewing experiences.
Both the Capitol’s audience of the Games and film audiences have seen the same thing over and over, yet most will have never seen anything quite like Lemon. If they were to be presented with something similar audiences might be bored, they might daydream and they may even be encouraged to think for themselves. You won’t get that from fighting fire with fire, for lack of better words, as there is no difference between the two sides. If you are to “fight the power” you should find your own experimental, avant-garde way to do it. A way which will stand out to the masses as an anti-capitalist, anti-establishment message, not just a pretty dress that bursts into flames or a conventional action-filled romp.
The tributes outfits can be seen as an analogy for the film’s contradictions. They are attacking “the man” with “his” own conventions, whether this is through clothing or filmmaking. “The man” in both the diegesis of The Hunger Games (i.e. The Capitol and Snow) and Hollywood are not being hurt by “rebels” going along with their mass-pleasing conventions. Perhaps the tributes and the filmmakers should have taken a page out of the lemon’s book and to strip everything down. Sometimes no statement at all is the biggest statement one can make.
Show and Tell
It may seem a little unfair to call out just The Hunger Games in this debate, but its narrative (even with a few hitches) has an obvious message of anti-capitalism and it should have been a series that cinematically showed ways of going against Hollywood convention in terms of its marketing and filmmaking. This does not make money, though.
Gone are the times of Chaplin’s Modern Times, of a Jean-Luc Godard type figure breaking out and purposefully going against Hollywood convention, or Fight Club which shows faults in both capitalism and anarchy. The Hunger Games are nothing like the “stick it to the man” blaxploitation films of the late 60s and early 70s where the characters within the narrative actually represented an oppressed community and from a filmmaking point of view actually portrayed African-American culture and society with the use of funk, jazz and soul soundtracks. The Hunger Games cannot do this sort of thing as the oppressed societies are incredibly diverse. The Districts and its people don’t represent a specific oppressed community.
Now audiences are essentially tricked into seeing films they believe to be going against oppressive powers when, in fact, the film they are seeing does not reinforce its own message in its construction. If this is an anti-capitalist series then who does Snow represent? Well, the answer is no-one really. Suzanne Collins originally wrote the series as an anti-war book series which ended up incorporating themes of anti-capitalism into it, whether knowingly or not. Collins’ intentions do not matter, the themes of “sticking it to the man” are still present and this could be where the “hypocrisy” of the series emanates from. If Collins had no intention of incorporating anti-capitalist themes then the concept of President Snow and the Capitol would probably not represent anything specific. Perhaps calling the books hypocritical or contradictory would be a little harsh, however, the themes of anti-capitalism, anti-establishment, “sticking it to the man” are still present. This must have been evident to those making the film adaptation, yet nothing was done to portray this theme. This can be read from a Marxist point of view being that the proletarians have not realised the contradictions in capitalism. This ignorance to the (possibly) unintentional theme of anti-capitalism means that there won’t be any form of revolution against the bourgeoisie. At least, not anytime soon.
It is not just enough for a film to tell an audience its message. The characters may say and do things that are anti-capitalist, but what does the director do? The producers? The film company? Think of it like this: I tell you that I’m discontent with capitalism, there is nothing to convince you from me just saying “I’m an anti-capitalist,” I have to show you in other ways. My clothes may suggest my anti-capitalist stance, maybe the music I listen to, my job. Is having a job anti-capitalist? Am I a voter? In short, there are so many ways in which I can show a belief of my own and prove it to a stranger as well as or instead of outright stating it. The Hunger Games does not do this. From a filmmaking point of view it follows convention, the soundtrack is typical of a Hollywood blockbuster, there is no cinematography or misé-en-scene that stands out as being different or anti-establishment. Its film production company, Lionsgate, is now a massive company with high grossing films and A-List actors (see The Expendables.) Take away every aspect of story and narrative and this film only adheres to capitalism and the known establishment.
From a filmic perspective, the films have really become contradictory and hypocritical to the message that the narrative portrayed. These “anti-capitalist” films are products of capitalism, they are the thing they say they go against. This is the hypocrisy of The Hunger Games.
What do you think? Leave a comment.