Saturday, 22 November 2014

Politics, Ideology, and the Hunger Games (VOR)



Young adult films often get a lot of shit for being bland, derivative and aimed squarely at teens, but one film franchise stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to having something to say. To me, The Hunger Games has always had an intriguing social and political undercurrent to its narrative, and nowhere is that more evident that in the latest instalment, Mockingjay Part 1

So, with this in mind, is it about time we start taking these films more seriously?

A wasteland ruined by nuclear fallout. A rigid caste system ruled by an uncompromising and uncaring totalitarian government. An institutionalised blood-sport designed for exercising authority over the masses. This might sound like the premise for a new Mad Max or Logan's Run film, but it's also the device behind the most popular young-adult film series of the moment, The Hunger Games.

For a series of its popularity and stature, The Hunger Games is oddly outspoken and uncompromising in its depiction of Panem, the fictional near-future dystopia that is locked in a vicious power struggle between the ruling classes (the Capitol) and the masses (the Districts). Not only is it fronted by a strong and independent female character (something I deconstructed last year), but it also contains a lot of striking imagery that isn't too far removed from what we see in our own world today.

And whilst the latest entry, Mockingjay Part 1, is the most notable example of this to date, I was also argue that this has been a visible overarching theme since the first instalment of the series.

Let's rewind to March 2012 when the series first debuted. I felt like it took popular media awhile to catch on with the first film, struggling to grasp that this series isn't another Twilight carbon-copy where the fanbase can be carved up into #TeamBoyA and #TeamBoyB. Sure, our hero Katniss has two dashing young men in her life, but the story has never been (and never will be) about which hunky piece of spunk she ends up living happily ever after with. Now, two and a half years on, and I feel like this notion of Gale vs. Peeta has been completely swept aside - it's as plain as day now that The Hunger Games isn't going to concern itself with such trivial, shallow matters. The misguided comparisons to Twilight are a thing of the past - series' now strive to be compared to The Hunger Games, and not the former.

I commented in my review of Mockingjay Part 1 that this was The Hunger Games at its most cerebral and political. It's not hard to see why. In addition to popularising underage violence, The Hunger Games has also introduced an element of political satire and subversive sentiment to mainstream blockbuster cinema.

This is a franchise that concerns itself with ideology as much as it does with action and adventure. Said ideology is anti-authoritarian and non-conformist, and the series is also occupied with philosophical questions relating to responsibility, political accountability, morality, media culture, consumer society, poverty, oppression and social division. It's heavy stuff, and it isn't painted in broad strokes either. Something that Mockingjay Part 1 proves is that the well-written and nuanced characters combine like pieces of a puzzle - particularly characters like Gale, Plutarch, Coin, Haymitch, Effie, Finnick, and most notably, President Snow - to make a rich tapestry of viewpoints.

Of course, this isn't unique to The Hunger Games (hell, even Harry Potter dabbled with its pure/half/mud-blood undercurrent) but it is possibly the most explicit here. And that's an inherently good thing - that the series has taken a serious, grounded approach and still managed to strike a chord with young audiences shows that there is a place in mainstream cinema for intelligent, highly philosophical blockbusters.

In Mockingjay, the revolution imagery is strikingly real. One scene where the revolutionaries bomb a dam (many of them killed by Captiol Peacekeeper gunfire) caught me completely off-guard, and I was actually shocked by how impactful the scene was. Another scene where Snow and his press agents discuss how they are going to manipulate his speech to frame the rebels in a certain way also struck a chord with me.

The main theme running through Mockingjay is propaganda, and how the two sides are vying for the allegiance of the masses. On the one side is Snow, who is exercising control through fear, intimidation and media hype. On the other side is Katniss, a young girl being framed as a symbol of the revolution, representing freedom, hope and defiance (and recalling historic figures like Joan of Ark, Che Guevara, Guy Fawkes and George Washington in the process). So whilst the film wasn't paced very well, I felt as though it was still a strong entry in the series for not shying away from the core themes of the book.

I also think this has been the biggest factor in getting adult audiences interested in the series as well. Judged on the audience from my screening of Mockingjay on Thursday, the majority of the audience present were actually adults, not squeeing Tumblr fangirls hungry to fawn over Josh Hutcherson.

For all its flaws (and it does have flaws), Mockingjay is still an inherently positive film for the kids of today to digest. Katniss, our hero, isn't a flawless ray of perfection that can charm her way out of any situation. No, she's tough, sometimes tactless and fiery whilst being loyal, caring and loving towards her family. She's haunted by her past, but ultimately faces her destiny and rises to the occasion, putting the cause before anything else. She cares for Peeta and Gale, but doesn't lust and drool over them like some brainless bimbo. She understands the task in front of her, and the importance of standing up for what she believes is right.

Combining all of these elements together, and it becomes instantly reasonable to suggest that The Hunger Games needs to be grouped under something greater than just 'YA fiction'. The series is teeming with contextual commentary on our society, history and media landscape. If even the tiniest sliver of this galvanises the audience into taking action, or simply opens up their minds to what the film is trying to say, then it's doing a good thing and we need to start taking them more seriously than we are right now.

Thanks for reading my latest opinion piece - I'd love to read your thoughts on the political ideology present in The Hunger Games series - make sure you leave me a comment below!

Here are some links to past posts on The Hunger Games;

Review: The Hunger Games
Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
Column: The YA Invasion
Column: Heroines and the Hunger Games

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