Panem Et Circenses

[Note: This post contains film spoilers for “The Hunger Games.” You have been warned.]

The only cinema in town showing “The Hunger Games” in English is the Central Airport Plaza, and I was a bit concerned that it was too expensive to travel there (it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, only about a dollar per trip, so I will be coming back if there are films worth watching and enough money). As it happens, that particular theater has a very fancy version of the obligatory royalist anthem, with children singing the royal theme to scenes of farmers grateful to their king for making the crops grow, and even for promoting wind energy.

Quite honestly, I’m surprised that Thailand allowed The Hunger Games to be shown, given that I could not help but be reminded of the Thai royalist propaganda film when I saw the scene at the reaping where before the names were chosen a film with the same sort of soaring music showed how all the blessings that people receive are due to the power at the center, at Panem (which means bread in Latin). The oppressive centralist government is the source of all that is worthwhile to men in official rhetoric even if in reality all the center does is siphon off the resources of others for its own political purposes.

Regardless of one’s political affiliation, official rhetoric of servant leaders in reality is full of venality and corruption toward specific special interests. It is just that those special interests differ depending on their political inclinations. Thailand gave the film a 15+ rating, halfway between a PG-13 and an R. I’m not sure why the film got that rating, but in truth the film is a powder keg. The fact that Thailand’s own policy of royalist propaganda mirrored the totalitarian Panem government’s forcing all of the people in outlying provincial areas to stand before people would be chosen for blood sport struck me as particularly chilling. The film made it very plain that the world of Panem is not so far removed from our own world for us to feel comfortable. It made me feel angry, for a variety of reasons, and made me feel uncomfortable and worse, complicit in the abominable state of affairs.

Let us be blunt. A great deal of my own personal great emotional resonance with the book, and with the movie (which did a fantastic job of capturing the furtiveness and futility of life in Panem in a way that shows the trends and deep flaws of our own society in chilling ways) comes from the fact that I can deeply empathize with the struggles and lives of its main characters. Katniss is a young woman not dissimilar from me. Even at the beginning of the movie, she has the deep, sad eyes of a girl who has seen too much even at her young age. She has a basic sense of human dignity, an ambivalence (if not hostility) toward the corrupt authorities over her, and a fierce and prickly spirit determined even under very adverse circumstances to keep her dignity intact, which she succeeds at.

The film is highly seditious, but that is immensely high praise. The stakes in life as well as the film are ominously high. A corrupt core of moral decadence and perversion of nature in many senses (including the genetic modification of animals) proclaims itself to be the source of legitimacy and blessings while crushing underfoot its periphery and preventing that periphery from joining together against the oppressive core by pitting them against each other, literally and symbolically, through a Hunger Games that leaves only one survivor, American Idol-style, while the rest eliminate each other in a very literal sense for the enjoyment of the television audience.

This part of the story hit home to me in a particularly poignant way. The most touching moment for me in the whole movie (which is full of them) is the moment when Katniss holds Rue as she is dying, closes her eyes and kisses her on the forehead, then dignifies her grave with flowers all around and a wreath of Rue flowers in Rue’s dead hands, sings a mournful Appalachian tune, and then holds up three fingers to show her solidarity with Rue, which prompts District 11 to riot against Panem over the inhumanity of their regime. Katniss is an unconscious revolutionary, from volunteering to save her sister from certain death to taking the advice of her mentor to play down up the romantic angle and play down her deadly serious politics, which have deadly consequences for Seneca Crane in a particularly ironic death when his games go out of hand.

The film as a whole is designed to make us feel complicit in the state of our societies and our world. We are hopelessly divided, and we are partly to blame. We take out our frustrations on those who are fellow strugglers and fellow wounded souls. We accept the forced competitions we are a part of, because we want the crumbs that fall from the table of the elites, not recognizing that the best way to sabotage the power games (of which the Hunger Games is but a particularly ferocious symbol) is to deny a victor, and to refuse to sacrifice our dignity and our humanity merely to be someone’s lapdog.

It is clear to me at least that this film was written with revolutionary intent, as rebellion seethes from Cinna’s fiery costumes for Katniss and in the sullen refusal of the people of District 12 to cheer for the Tributes, but rather the silent and hostile offering of the three fingered solute of solidarity for the brave Katniss. We are divided as a society–divided by race and class, by different mixtures of virtues and vices, and we let ourselves be divided and conquered by the evil and corrupt powers that be. We are all complicit in this–I know I am. We war on those who are fellow sufferers instead of seeking to make war on the root of our troubles and of the evil in our lives, by failing to see that those we fight against are generally not our real enemies, but are fellow prisoners like ourselves in the same arena with their own dignity and honor to defend.

Revolution is in the air. We may not always appreciate the results of revolution, as most revolutions have tragic and ironic consequences even in the best of times. These are not the best of times. “The Hunger Games” stands as a reminder that the seeds of revolution are not only present in faraway lands but all over the world, and all it takes is a spark to ignite the tinderbox of frustrations and oppression, so long as people are capable of uniting with those who are in the same boat as they are, and rising above the divisions that so easily weaken us and leave us powerless to resist evil. We have been warned. Unless we repent, and unite, soon, we will all face grave and terrible judgment, whether from within our own midst or without. Time runs short to repent and forgive and unite. By showing a depression-era world with a corrupt and decadent elite that closely mirrors or own, the film gives us warning that we are reaping what we have sown now, and that it is likely to get out of hand very easily.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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21 Responses to Panem Et Circenses

  1. Susan the Singer says:

    Well said, Nathan! I’ve read the books, but haven’t seen the movie yet, and you’re right. Suzanne Collins managed to capture what any society can easily turn into. America is on its way to this state right now. Well said.

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