The Hunger Games, a film based upon the first book of the trilogy by Suzanne Collins, is one that brilliantly expresses some of the appalling insensitivity that can gradually seep into any culture over time to the point that citizens become hardly aware of the psychotic values that their world has adopted.
I was struck by the similarity between this story and a much older one by Shirley Jackson called “The Lottery” in which the savage customs of the town are so ingrained in the minds of its populace, that those customs are accepted almost without question, even though the people cannot even remember anymore why they are practiced. Panem in the Collins story is part of what had been North America, and the metropolis is surrounded by twelve smaller, less affluent and less technologically advanced districts, which are being punished yearly for their former rebellions against the central government. This is why the lottery is used in order to choose one girl and one boy aged twelve to eighteen from each district as sacrifices for mortal combat until only one is left.
The chilling scenes are compounded in their horror due to the entertainment value of the combat, which is broadcast to the nation itself just as if it were merely a baseball game. It becomes the ultimate reality TV with the insincere Caesar and Claudius as commentators, whose only purpose is to rev up the crowd, showing no genuine sympathy at all but rather to give the audience a good show. Caesar is a real showman but rather a shallow human being dressed up like some synthetic Karl Lagerfeld in a vampire-looking costume.
I thought about ancient Rome and the games fought to the death for crowds of cheering clods, whose only concern was their own entertainment. I thought too about Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy turning off their emotions and reason through nationalistic hysteria that shut down any broader view of the horror that was taking over the world. This lack of sympathy on the part of viewers and commentators for the event was the most terrifying part of the film. After Katniss (the heroine) loses her friend, Rue, who is slaughtered , Katniss honors the corpse by putting flowers on it. This causes a riot in District 11 by all those who witnessed the emotional event. That was my greatest moment of hope, seeing people experience outrage at what is universally wrong. For that brief time, the emotional vacancy of the viewers was called into question and reviled by those who still held on to some remnant of human decency, putting its value of life above that of entertainment.
The heartless Seneca and his techno team are in charge of inventing new and ever more horrible obstacles for the participants in the the televised battle to the death. As “people” they have barely any of the characteristics of human beings. They are almost just machines with only one value left, to entertain viewers, even at the cost of the participants’ lives. President Snow, the coldest and vilest of the characters in the story, sees only his authority as having any value. The popularity of the two final winners, Katniss Everdeen and her romantic interest, Peeta Mellark, disturbs the President, who glows with hatred, jealousy, and dismay at the possibility that his authority may be undermined somehow by these two upstarts. With an evil smirk at the end of the film, wearing his black uniform, President Snow climbs slowly a staircase with his thoughts of squelching any possible rebellion that could be triggered by Katniss and Peeta, even if only unintentionally.
I kept waiting for the populace itself to figure out the mindless horror of these practices so that it would rebel. That tension is the basis for the story, that terrible waiting for reason and sympathy to return to human values in order to overcome the bloodthirsty delight in seeing fellow beings slaughtered for this barbarous entertainment. The final question becomes, “How are we in modern times like the people in this story, and how close are we to losing our emotional and intellectual sense of balance in our quest for revenge and violence as actual entertainment?”