Recently, I saw Catching Fire and greatly enjoyed it, which might be part of the problem.
I liked Catching Fire even more than the first movie, which is saying a good deal, since I also enjoyed that one. So far, the Hunger Games franchise has the best film adaptations of young adult books I’ve seen. The movies are extremely well-paced and structured (Suzanne Collin’s time as a scriptwriter showing there), the screenplays are surprisingly well-written for mainstream action movies, the acting is excellent (Jennifer Lawrence embodying both Katniss’s fierceness and vulnerability) and the production qualities are outstanding (America’s best export has long been movie wizardry). But what fascinates me the most is how these movies also contain a not-very-subtle criticism of the culture which spawned them. In short, we are the capital that’s criticized in the movies.
This claim is nothing new. Many other critics and bloggers have made the same observation. For those who haven’t seen these movies, I’ll summarize it pretty simply. They take place in a dystopian North America called Panem that’s divided into thirteen districts. The name, “Panem” comes from the Latin phrase “Panem et circenses” (Bread and circuses) which is a metaphor for superficial means of appeasement that originates from the Roman poet Juvenal’s Satire X (circa A.D. 100). Basically, in Satire X panem et circenses was used to criticize the lack of heroism in contemporary Romans who were selling out their political power for superficial appeasments like bread and circuses. Now, the phrase is often used to describe (as Wikipedia puts it), “a populace that no longer values civic virtues and the public life.”
In the movie, the superficial, vain, frivolous citizens of the capital are shown living in extreme luxury, while remaining clueless to the plight of the eleven (or twelve) other districts who are oppressed and suffering. Instead, the citizens of the capital are distracted from the problems of the rest of the world by lavish feasts and entertainment spectacles (like the hunger games, and The Hunger Games). But in Catching Fire, Katniss, a contestant in one of the hunger games, starts to inspire awareness and a desire for revolution in the districts, and in a few rare members of the capital (may he rest in peace).
What’s immediately clear in watching these movies and reading the books is the gross income inequality that’s present in this dystopian world. While those in the capital have more than they can eat, citizens in the rest of the districts, who must labor in mines and factories and fields for a crust of bread, barely have enough to survive. As extreme as this seems in the movie, it begs the question, is our own world so different?
This isn’t meant to be a rant about income inequality, or the 20,000 children who die each day simply because they don’t have enough food or water to survive. As important and deserving of attention as those topics are, this post is about writing.
I believe that stories shape the way we think and act. As a writer, I’m very interested in how creating narratives can inspire people to become aware of problems and find the courage to act to solve them. But how much can a narrative by part of pop culture and still be critical of the “bread and circuses” distraction that pop culture provides?
Oftentimes, the stories that are popular are the stories that make people feel good. Yet, in order to create change, people need to be disturbed. As the artist Andy Goldsworthy put it in one of my favorite quotes, “Discomfort is a sign of change. Every so often I feel as birds must before their first migration —a gut instinct that something is wrong where they are, a strong sense that they must now go where they have never been before.”
I think some of the most important stories are the ones that unsettle us and give us the sense that “something is wrong” where we are. But these stories, by making people uncomfortable, often have a hard time becoming popular. So is it possible to have a popular story, that’s part of the popular culture it’s criticizing, also serve as a call to action to change that culture? Or do such stories simply co-opt popular outrage to reinforce the systems they’re part of? Are they, in short, just part of the circus?
The Hunger Games series gets away with its criticism of the frivolous, distracted privileged populace (which might also describe many of the viewers in the audience) through the use of a dystopian setting. By putting us in a world that’s based on our own but not quite our own, the story is able to avoid a direct confrontation of the audience. For the audience, then, the story can act both as escapism and a call to action, as long as the audience is willing to think critically about the story. And therein lies the rub. What exists in the story to provoke the audience toward a more critical awareness of the story?
Perhaps the fact that I loved Catching Fire is part of the problem. Rather than feeling outraged and inspired to fight against the injustices in the world that were so clearly illustrated through the excesses and obliviousness of the capital, I left the theater feeling thoroughly entertained and satisfied.
And what sort of role-model for teens is Katniss anyway? At best, she’s a reluctant revolutionary who doesn’t serve as a leader so much as a symbol used by both sides. I think it would be far more interesting to see what would happen if Katniss had grown up in the capital instead of District 12. If she’d had a life of privilege, would she then have become a champion for those less fortunate? Or would she be like most of the other citizens in the capital —more concerned about fashion and food than starving children?
Then again, perhaps it’s not the story itself that needs to direct the audience to a more critical awareness, for to do so would cause the story to become didactic (and fiction is a jealous god). Instead, it’s up to society to encourage such critical readings. I think it’s no wonder that this franchise is popular now, when, in the U.S. at least, the gap between the rich and the poor is reaching record levels. The story speaks to an anxiety many of us feel. And yet, it seems to be determined whether the Hunger Games will be a pacifying part of the distraction, or part of inspiring the awareness and discomfort that changes the way people think and act.
It’s important to remember, though, that things can change. Most of the big problems we face are caused by people. And human-caused problems have human solutions. Often, it simply takes the awareness and the will to act. Imagine, for instance, what could be done if the wealthy in “the capital” (or the richest 10% in our world, who own more than almost all the rest of the world’s population combined) used their wealth to address problems of poverty, environmental destruction, disease, and economic inequality. Or, do we spend our wealth on perpetuating distractions and staying oblivious through buying neat new stuff? Perhaps, like Katniss, we only want to survive, until we realize, whether we like it or not, that we are part of both the circus and the solution.
So what do you think?
—Can a story be both part of popular culture and critical of popular culture?
—How can writers best create stories that are consciousness raising without being didactic? And stories that appeal to large audiences while provoking discomfort and a critical self-awareness in that audience? Or must an author choose to do one or the other?