04/16/2012 05:56 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Politics of The Hunger Games

I am not from the poverty-ridden politically repressed District Twelve of The Hunger Games, but I am from Quadrant Three: that elusive group of thirty-and-over movie-goers who get pulled into watching the next big thing, because it has become the next big thing, successfully making it the next big thing. So I went in cynical that there was anything for me, but to my shock and delight, despite its direct ambition to appeal primarily to teens and twenty-somethings, The Hunger Games was as cynical as I am. It marks a new moment in American movie-going that truly shouldn't be missed. Nothing as acutely critical of our political situation has been embraced on such a widespread level since Orwell's 1984 or Huxley's Brave New World, neither of which was ever received so eagerly by nearly as many people. Really.

[Spoiler Alert: if you haven't yet seen The Hunger Games, this article starts at the ending, but, if you truly haven't seen it yet, perhaps the ending is the only thing that might bring you in].

I draw your attention to the last shot of the film. During the first two hours, Catniss, a young poor woman from District 12, has been forced to fight 23 other young people in a tribute meant to distract the nation from its own desires for rebellion. Yet, the last shot is not, as one would expect, the young Catniss and her partner standing before a cheering crowd, having finally won the deadly competition. It is of the dystopian President, his repressive tendencies so delightfully under-played by Donald Sutherland, watching the two be cheered on a large television set. What is the meaning of this shot? Why end the film there? Certainly, the new Lionsgate-Summit Entertainment conglomerate hopes to continue the tension between these characters to entice us into a sequel; but what is this tension made of? On one side, we know that Sutherland fears the popularity of Catniss, he has been expressing such fear all along. And yet, he holds a certain power as well. He knows that in having Catniss and her partner win the Hunger Games, he has successfully put down a national and much-needed rebellion.

In other words, The Hunger Games ends with its main characters winning their private battle, and yet advancing the agenda of political repression in their world. This is wildly different than Luke Skywalker escaping the dictatorship of Darth Vader at the end of Star Wars or Neo returning to the inside of The Matrix, ready now to fight it, threatening their agents that "anything is possible." Even Avatar, super-endowed with its 3-D eco-message overwhelming us at every turn, did not contain such deep rooted political cynicism -- the tree people do beat the evil humans in the end; but The Hunger Games ends with a plea, not a promise. It reminds us that with every personal victory inside the screen comes a political loss outside of it.

We must remember that Hollywood films today are created by an ongoing ever-evolving dialectic. No hundred-million dollar film is made without serious effort to gauge an audience, and most, despite these attempts, continue to fail to read it appropriately. We only know if it has gone well when tag-alongs like me show up at the theater, the tail end of the popular crescendo, wondering what all the fuss is about. A box office smash isn't just a film, its a Hegelian synthesis of the national zeitgeist.

So what then is the zeitgeist suggested by the success of The Hunger Games? Alienation, unrivaled media sophistication and heart-felt political cynicism. Were Bush still president, the cynicism could be explained away by party politics; had Obama been recently elected, would this film have been so successful? Three and half years into Obama's government, a man half-elected by the very crowd now turning out to see The Hunger Games, can we say anymore that this is a surface cynicism, only to be relieved at the next national poll?

The nation knows how it's feeling. Our economic environment makes District 12's Appalachian poverty seem quaint and contained, and with The Hunger Games audience possibly the most highly unemployed group of youth since 1939, they are unlikely to have missed this fact.

Those of us who keep up with the oddities of the 1% even know that the bizarrely over-the-top Hunger Games emcee Effie Trinket is so out of this world as a fantasy fetishistic fashioneer that it seems she has ALMOST caught up with her real-world version: the French war-propagandist Bernard Henri-Levy's American socialite wife Daphne Guinness (see pictures below). That's how stratified and bizarre our nation has become. Fantasy only approaches fact when it come to social stratification.

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Can you tell which of these two is the real human being?

The HG is a success because we feel alienated and powerless, as pitted against each other for the few jobs remaining as Catniss and her fellow fighters, searching for some way to overcome the national nightmare, but unable to find anything to believe in much more solid than watching our heroes fight to gain their personal freedom, knowing full well that it reinforces our own political repression.

And yet the success of The Hunger Games suggests this isn't the bottom of our cynicism.

Realizing, at the end of the Games, that her victory in the competition is a victory for the peacocked-political elite, Catniss and her partner consider an heroic option: to kill themselves and thus potentially ignite a real national rebellion, and what do they do? Our heroes choose instead to save themselves and help quell the rebellion they believe in. And we believe in it. We still like them! Could this have been the case during the release of the film Matewan in 1987 -- the story of the actual Appalachian attempt by coal miners to unionize violently and viciously be put down by the government in 1920? No, our heroes in John Sayle's remarkable film would never have put themselves before the revolt.

It speaks to our national sense of desperation that we are still capable of cheering heroes who put themselves before the cause. And yet it marks brilliantly the current state of the American psyche. We know we are tuning out our politics to watch our film and TV avatars achieve personal glory and escape from the competition against each other the rest of us have been forced to fight every day; but we know too what we are doing, how its being manipulated, and, who exactly is the enemy. We may be alienated, but we aren't stupid. We're just hungry. May the odds be, ever, in our favor.