Last week, during one of the interviews I gave the Los Angeles Times on the movie The Hunger Games, this year's record-breaking blockbuster, writer Steven Zeitchik asked me a question about the topicality of the decade's top tween/teen cultural phenomena. Do Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games really have anything to say to us?
Steven's point-and he's not the only critic to suggest it-was that these works seem to many to be entertainments largely devoid of topical content. The Guardian suggested that Katniss Everdeen's story in The Hunger Games is about as relevant to the everyday lives of its readers and viewers as the stories of Harry Potter and Twilight's Bella and Edward-which, they implied, is not very relevant at all.
My own take is different, and grows out of my work as literary and cultural critic. Science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories are often about things a lot deeper than their obvious storylines. Politics. Ethics. Morality. As C. S. Lewis noted half a century ago, when readers enter into a story that isn't identifiably their own reality-whether that reality contains a school for wizards, gentle and sexy vampires, or a dystopian reality show-they are actually more, not less, open to learning from the story's themes, since they don't automatically erect defenses against ideas. That's why really good popular culture is almost always in some ways about the society that makes it so popular.
I wrote in my book on Harry Potter that the Potter books-and films-actually draw increasingly from post 9/11 events, which helps explain why the series becomes progressively darker as we near the end. They may be entertaining, but they're also dealing with recent issues such as torture, government control of information, and executive power.
While I don't get Twilight myself, it's clear from their amazing popularity among girls and women that these stories are tapping into some very real tensions among women about the inadequacies of today's men and being forced to take care of themselves. (I think, for example, of all the single-parent families headed by a female, think of all the absent mates and partners, think of men putting off marriage because they can't find jobs.) Twilight offers some wish fulfillment for even supremely capable females about being supported, protected, and loved up by someone strong and sparkly-for eternity!
The Hunger Games too deals with some powerful current socio-political tensions. Author Suzanne Collins spoke of how the story originally grew out of her channel-surfing that conflated reality TV and footage of the War on Terror. The story forces us into the uncomfortable perspective of identifying with the reality-game consuming citizens of Panem (think the Latin phrase "panem et circenses," or "Bread and Circuses") as we root for Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in the Games and celebrate the deaths of the contestants we dislike. (Although, I thought the film had a bit more sympathy than the book for its hyper-cruel contestant Cato [Alexander Ludwig].) We can't turn away-which is the same situation of many of those watching.
This satire on reality TV is certainly relevant. Since 9/11, more and more of American television seems to be devoted to game shows, reality show contests, and follow-the-character drama. "Unscripted TV" (I know several writers who have worked on reality shows) is much cheaper than a scripted one-hour drama, and a successful reality show translates to coffee-klatch or Internet buzz. But as The Guardian pointed out in its review, this satire feels familiar, and has been done at least as well in other movies, particularly The Running Man (1987). Let's all agree that reality TV makes us stupider and less moral, so we don't have to continually satirize it.
The depiction of a society where a tiny cross-section of the young is chosen to fight on behalf of the whole also seems relevant-only our soldiers and their families have truly suffered in our decade-long war in the Middle East-but the level of allegory may be so high that viewers don't easily make the connection. And as a couple of writers suggested to me, young readers are connecting the horrific events of the story in some way to their middle school or high school experiences. For many of them, it really is a jungle out there, and the fact that people aren't literally killing each other doesn't mean that there isn't clear and deadly-feeling competition in the hallways.
But one of the things that's happened since Ms. Collins began writing that has become especially relevant is The Hunger Games' depiction of a society in which a vast number of people scramble to get by while a tiny group of elite and ultra-wealthy make all the rules and control power, money, even food. Although Ms. Collins cannot have known when she began her epic that last year the Occupy Movement was going to draw the world's attention to the conspicuous gap between the haves and have-nothings, this story is a powerful retelling of our Great Recession, with those of us in the Districts toiling to get by while the 1% have big fun.
Whether or not Ms. Collins intended The Hunger Games to be about the worldwide economic downturn, her book and this record-setting film are here, with us now. As The Times pointed out this week, we actually underestimated the extent of income inequality in America of late. In 2010, 93% of new income generated went to the top one per cent, and a substantial chunk of that went to the very very richest-the one per cent of the one per cent, if you will. It hurts the head, and the heart, and the wallet. But even clearer than a bar graph is The Hunger Games, where we are able to dramatically see the excesses of the rich, the pain and suffering of the poor, and the wondering about what is going to happen next.
Maybe we're even wondering what we can do about it in the real world.
In Ms. Collins' story, injustice festers and the people are going to rise up-note the film's representation of District 11's revolt following the death of their young contestant Rue, a scene which isn't in the first novel. Katniss is already, by the end of The Hunger Games, becoming a figure around whom hope can organize itself-hope for a better, fairer, more equitable future.
In real life, though, the Occupy movement has lost steam, we have lost our sense of outrage, and bread and circuses have diverted our attention. Really? 37 per cent of additional wealth went to the wealthiest 15,000 people in Americain 2010? Sorry. Can't possibly focus. Snooki is going to have a baby. The Desperate Housewives are at each other's throats. The Kardashians are losing their men.
Since our situation is not yet as desperate-or as deadly-as that of the Districts in The Hunger Games, I fear we may watch the movie, shake our heads, be glad for a nanosecond that our kids are not being taken away, and miss everything The Hunger Games might teach us.
Most importantly, we might miss this final message-that one person can actually make a difference. Katniss is a poor girl from an impoverished town in a beaten-down district. (For that matter, Jesus was a laborer's son from a backwater village in an unimportant Roman province.) She's only one person-or with her friends, a few. But as Margaret Mead said, never doubt that a small group of committed individuals is enough to make a difference. It is, in fact, the only thing that has ever made a difference.
Steven Zeitchik interviewed a college student who held onto this hope, that The Hunger Games would remind viewers that they can change the world: "I hope [the movie] opens up kids' eyes that if you do something about [injustice], it really does make a difference, because if one person stands up, other people start following."
Millions of people are sitting down to watch the movie. Will one person-at least-stand up?