Volume 10, Number 1 (January 2013)
Spoiler Alert: Baudrillard’s Hunger Games
(Doctoral Candidate in Social and Political Thought, York University, Toronto, Canada)
In this paper I utilize the work of Jean Baudrillard to explore the recent phenomenal success of the film The Hunger Games. I argue that the film, the book on which it is based, and its sequels fascinate because: they are a simulacrum of a real that we have lost; show Katniss Everdeen to be a penultimate example of Baudrillard’s seductress; and enact a simulation of the material colonial relationship between the ‘West and the Rest’ through the relationship of Capitol and the Districts. Our obsession with the event of The Hunger Games is indicative of our desire to have events, lost as we are in virtual reality, even if they represent and are the self-devourment of our reality. I conclude by noting that if the future sequels are to be faithful to the books, then Hollywood as our Head Gameskeeper will be forced into the ideological self-contradiction.
Spoiler Alert, but…
We really must discuss the recent success of the movie The Hunger Games at the box office and the likely future success of films based on the best-selling trilogy of Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins. Until the release of The Avengers, The Hunger Games set the earnings record for both the opening weekend and the opening day for a non-sequel movie (Subers, 2012a, 2012b). And really, to claim that The Avengers is not a sequel is to ignore that most of the characters have already had one or more successful movies based on them.
Unlike The Avengers or other all-time top-grossing films there is something fundamentally more important here than simply another recent financial success of a product of the Hollywood spectacle-machine. The other recent additions to that list fall into four categories: high-cost experiments in computer generated technology (Avatar), classic escapism (Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, and Captain America), coming-of-age stories (Harry Potter and Twilight), and what I’ll call “escapism with a (light) moral undertone for ‘the betterment of public sensibility’” (Batman and Avatar).
None of these films really say anything meaningful about contemporary society or act as groundbreaking speculative fiction in putting forth that which cannot be said outside of fiction. While having a major female lead in the Twilight franchise, Kristen Stewart’s character is hardly the poster child for any of the various feminisms - actually, if you could find me even one feminism that she could stand for, let me know and I’ll put a gold star beside your name. Likewise, James Cameron’s Avatar is more offensive than effective in highlighting either environmentalism and/or aboriginal rights or lack thereof in relation to primary resource extraction. And both topics have been in, or at least peripherally discussed in the mainstream media - albeit often in a negative light - since the 1960s and 70s. And getting kids (and adults) to actually pick up a written book - or seven of them to be precise, since that is the number of books in the Harry Potter series - is less socially groundbreaking than the inverse: a depressing indicator of childhood and adult illiteracy rates.
The Hunger Games film and book series are seductive, especially to a first-world audience, for a different reason: they are pure simulation of what we have lost in our telematic screenal existence, mediated as we are by an increasing number of technological devices. A simulacrum of nature and the real, of material scarcity, and of pre-Leviathan Hobbesian survivalism which the competition in the book mimics. They also play out and revel in the spectacle of the repressive dynamic of Capitol to the Districts as the ‘real world‘ enacts this dynamic between the first- and third-world. The spectacle of the The Hunger Games becomes our ‘Hunger Games’. We are avid spectators to the movie because it ‘cannibalizes the carnivalesque’ image of ourself that is played out, taking the continued victims of colonialism with us (Baudrillard, 2010:19). The spectacle of ultra-violent Reality Television with forced colonial participants occluding the real-world relationship between first- and third-world? Can Virilio’s claim regarding the linkages between the development of the cinema and war machines be made any clearer? (Virilio, 1995: 54, 56).1
The trilogy follows the story of Katniss Everdeen in the post-apocalyptic nation of Panem where since a civil war one city-state named “the Capitol” has ruled over another twelve “Districts.” While the high-tech and telepresent post-humans of the Capitol live in material splendor afforded to them through their colonial relations with the Districts, the Districts, outside of a favored few which provide the disciplinary forces of the Capitol with their manpower, live in abject poverty, dominated and under constant surveillance by the Capitol. Each District is geographically isolated, literally fenced-in, and provides the Capitol with a set of goods or natural resources.
As punishment for their rebellion, and as a hyper-media spectacle of distraction and control for the residents of the Capitol, each year each District is required to send one male and one female child - called tributes - to fight to the death in a battle arena. In the first novel and movie, Katniss and Peeta representing District 12, both survive by a skillful manipulation of the televisual contest by playing the role of lovers for the cameras and audience - or Katniss plays while Peeta acts out of love. For allowing hope and resistance to be televised within the Capitol and Districts provoking unrest, Senneca Crane the Head Gamesmaker of the 74th Games is (privately) executed by President Snow who rules over Panem.
The second novel, Catching Fire, follows the 75th Games or the Quarter Quell, where the representatives to the games are taken from a limited pool of the past victors from each District, with Katniss and Peeta again representing District 12. In these Games they team up with other tributes from some Districts, and although Katniss is oblivious to the plan, they hack the spectacle and confines of the arena from the inside, while various Districts go into all-out rebellion. Importantly, this entire plan is assisted by Plutarch, the new Head Gamesmaker and forces from District 13 which was not destroyed in the civil-war because of a nuclear deterrent which they hold.
The final novel, Mockingjay, follows these previous threads to their conclusion: the relationship between Katniss and Peeta; the colonial struggle of the Districts against the Capitol; the use/creation of “Mockingjay,” a spectacular and seductive form of Katniss which she became through the Hunger Games [the game within the book and series]; and the cynical play for power between President Snow and President Coin (leader of District 13) through the manipulation of the media, the creation of televisual events, and their interaction and attempted use of Katniss/Mockingjay to further their respective agendas.
The televised spectacle of children forced to fight to the death in an arena as a form of overall social control and punishment for past resistance to political power is not new. The Hunger Games in this sense is but an updated and highly sanitized recombinant version of the Japanese crossover hit from 2000 Battle Royal. In Battle Royal, a class of the worst behaving school children in Japan is sent to an island to fight to the death as a televisual spectacle and form of social control for those at home. Like the legislation which authorizes the Huger Games, the Battle Royal Act is a result of a former ‘rebellion’ by students to political authority. There are many similarities in addition to the Reality Television aspect of Battle Royal that appear in The Hunger Games. Like the tributes, the students are provided with items to help them ‘win the game’. Tributes and students who attempt to evade fighting are forced back into the game or killed through the creation of “death zones.” Most importantly, some of the children in Battle Royal attempt to fight back against the televisual military programmers and hack the spectacle and bring down the rules of domination from the inside like Katniss and other tributes do in the second novel Catching Fire.
Although it got a fair bit of press - especially online - the racist tweets and racist questioning of casting decisions for the movie doesn’t really highlight anything we didn’t already know. As Adewunmi (2012) and Dodai (2012) make clear, racism is alive and well when people will post in public and under their own identity messages such as: “KK call me racist but when I found out [R]ue was black her death wasn’t as sad” (Dodai, 2012). They also point out that Collins explicitly specifies skin color of some characters (i.e. Rue and Thresh) in language accessible to a pre-teen which the producers of the movie followed when casting for these roles. This obviously has implications which argue against the thesis that the Harry Potter books have made us (good) readers again. And if you have ever thought that we are living in an accepting, open, and inclusive society with respect to race and skin color, you are living under a rock and have been ignoring some of the following: the rising percentage of the vote for far-right parties in Europe; the mainstream depictions of the President of the United States on Fox News or by segments of the Republican Party; continued systemic barriers to advancement in the workplace based on race; and continued social and economic inequality and ghettoization for many minority groups. Just to point out a few examples.
What is new with The Hunger Games, that which piques our interest and seduces our wallets is that it allows us to watch ourselves on screen but identify (morally) with those whom we oppress. Hollywood gives us a cynical spectacle of ourselves and as residents of the ‘real’ Capitol we cheer at the most basic of - highly sanitized - survival and combat skills evidenced in The Hunger Games which we have lost, and perceive these images and themes as suitable for young children. And remember, the overall message that is depicted is our own depraved relationship with our 'former' colonial possessions. One must remember that the residents of the Capitol don't participate in the Hunger Games. They watch, existing telematically through the tributes on whom they wager and place bets - colonial subjects, most of whom will soon be dead. Of course we cheer for Katniss, not recognizing our own image on screen in the supplemented and augmented post-human bodies of the residents of the Capitol. We don’t recognize that when Katniss becomes “The Girl on Fire” (later “Mockingjay”) and (apparently) bests those who control the simulacrum and disciplinary apparatus that is the Hunger Games that we root AGAINST ourselves! Are we this far lost in simulacrum that we wish for our own death? This is an endless speeding up of the cycle of self-devourment where “reality is disappearing at the hands of the cinema and cinema is disappearing at the hands of reality. A lethal transfusion in which each loses its specificity”? (Baudrillard, 2005:125)2 One then asks: how will the box-office fare in the overseas ‘Districts’?
Our fascination with the movie is based on our movement from the mirror phase to the video phase (Baudrillard, 1988:37). We have collectively become interested in survivalism, hunting, fishing, and personal combat only because it is a “circular hook-up” and “without this wired, instantaneous network that a brain, an object, an event, or a discourse create by being hooked up to themselves, without this perpetual video, nothing has any meaning today (ibid.). Extending his observation of America in America, we must recognize that for most of the telematic beings which make up the first-world we must start with the cinema, with online and virtualized culture, and recognize that this is what has become of nature:
here in the US, culture is not that delicious panacea which we Europeans consume in sacramental mental space and which has its own special columns in the newspapers - and in people’s minds. Culture is space, speed, cinema, technology. This culture is authentic, if anything can be said to be authentic. This is not cinema or speed or technology as optional extra (everywhere in Europe you get a sense of modernity as something tacked on, heterogeneous, anachronistic). In America cinema is true because it is the whole of space, the whole way of life that are cinematic. The break between the two, the abstraction which we deplore, does not exist: life is cinema (ibid.:110).
While McLuhan and others (cf. Kroker, 1985) have noted that Americans were the first of the hyperreal post-humans, it is time to acknowledge that most of ‘the West’ and many in the BRIC countries have followed them over that cliff into realized postmodern life lived in and through simulacrum.
Of course the survivalism of The Hunger Games is not a realistic portrayal of what life is like outside of the privileged centers of the BRIC countries and the West. And that is exactly the point. “With the very latest Virtual Reality we are entering a final phase of this enterprise of simulation, which ends this time in an artificial technical production of the world from which all trace of illusion has disappeared” (Baudrillard, 2005:37). Because no vision “makes sense without this reversal of our [European, detached, critical] values: it is Disneyland that is authentic here! The cinema and TV are America’s reality!” (Baudrillard, 1988:114). With the real “liquidated,” we move to life ruled by the code: reality broken down to its smallest constituent parts: third-order simulacrum (Baudrillard, 1983: 94-5, 105-6).
So our Hunger Games is not just a movie. It is our contemporary mode of being where we are subjected to conquest down to our genetic structure. In The Hunger Games the children are chosen by weighted lot to participate as tributes in the Games, with each entry tagged by DNA sampling. Almost all of the children are terrified to participate in the Games, other than the few that train from childhood to participate in them, all well-fed members of the privileged Districts. Like these few, we are taught to fight to become tributes, to relish becoming the hunted, which explains the contemporary phenomenon of Reality Television where the cameras prey upon and look to find our hidden secrets and exploit them down to the most binary level. In our Hunger Games the "genetic" markers of "natural sex" decide who can and can't fight to be the Canadian representative to the Ms Universe pageant, as was the recent case with Jenna Talackova’s bid for the crown (Noronha, 2012). But remember that our participation is not forced, part of colonial enslavement, but desired, hard-won, and when we get it - sometimes only after the threat of a legal battle as with Talackova’s - we celebrate the ‘progress’ made to our telematic reality.
Residents of the Capitol in The Hunger Games and we in our Hunger Games still desire events, the spectacle, and desire them at all costs.
It’s a spontaneous reaction to an immoral situation:
the excess of information creates an immoral situation, in that it has no equivalent in the real event. Automatically, one wants a maximal event, a ‘fateful’ event - which repairs this immense banalization of life by the information machine. We dream of senseless events that will free us from this tyranny of meaning and the constraint of causes (Baudrillard, 2005:134).
So the success of the movie and so the success of the Hunger Games as the contemporary mode of being, especially as represented in our obsession with Reality Television. We no longer want to be a Star in the traditional sense - fame and fortune from a crafted persona - but a desire to have ourself, in real-time lived through by various screens (Facebook, MySpace, Skype, Apple and Blackberry Messaging systems, Blogs, You Tube posts, etc.) and it is only though this that we exist. And the degradation, debasement and even destruction of our hyperreal physicality which may ensue? It is just the drive for an event, any event. Indeed, we actively seek it out if it allows us to become more intertwined in the simulacrum: “What we detest in ourselves, the obscure object of our resentment is this excess of reality, this excess of power and comfort, this universal availability, this definitive fulfillment” (ibid.:102-3). So we applaud Katniss for so expertly and apparently with ease mastering the image system of her Hunger Games, to play the residents of the Capitol and Districts and engage in constant event creation.
Katniss is Baudrillard’s seductress par excellence. Seduction is best understood as: “a circular construction where one presents the audience with what it wants, an integrated circuit of perpetual solicitation...Seduction/simulacrum: communication as the functioning of the social within a closed circuit, where signs duplicate an undiscoverable reality” (Baudrillard  1990:163). The cycle of seduction cannot be stopped...to seduce, or to be seduced, that is seductive. But to be seduced is the best way to seduce. It is an endless refrain. There is no active or passive mode in seduction, no subject or object, no interior or exterior: seduction plays on both sides, and there is no frontier separating them. One cannot seduce others, if one has not oneself been seduced (ibid.:81). On the most basic level she seduces Peeta and her friend and almost lover Gale. With them - perhaps because of the prudish nature of pre-teen pulp writing in general - the seduction is almost totally de-linked from sex. We know from the epilogue that Katniss and Peeta have a child, yet in the novel and while participating in the Hunger Games there is a distinctive break in the sexualization of her body. And why should there be? With seduction “the only thing truly at stake is mastery of the strategy of appearances, against the force of being and reality. There is no need to play being against being, or truth against truth; why become stuck undermining foundations, when a light manipulation of appearances will do” (ibid.:10). Katniss plays up the seduction of Peeta for the cameras and the audience Capitol to ensure his survival, participating in a non-verbal exchange of messages on her performance with her mentor Haymitch, just like Baudrillard’s seductress: “And this nothing/secret, this, the seduction’s unsignified moves beneath the words and their meaning, and moves faster than their meaning. It is what touches you first, before the sentences arrive, in the time it takes for them to fade away. A seduction beneath discourse, an invisible seduction, moving from sign to sign - a secret circulation” (ibid.:80).
But Katniss is at her most powerful, in her various image forms, when she acts instinctively and engages in seduction without cynicism. As the narrator of the books she is at her most effective in drawing us in when she herself does not see the power she wields. We feel the obsession with her image to come before her train even arrives at the station in the Capitol. When brought to the Capitol her stylists and mentors push her to recapture the moment when she rushes the stage to take Prim’s place, seducing the Capitol and the Districts. But enacting this on demand is difficult, and it is only when she views herself on the screen while she acts, when she becomes a fluid part of the “circular hook-up” of the video phase, riding into the arena as the “Girl on Fire” that she understands the power of seduction that she holds within this simulated existence.
In the books - and provided they do not significantly alter the plot - the sequels as well, Katniss seduces both the Capitol and Districts. The various images projected of Katniss mirror Baudrillard’s successive phases of the image (Baudrillard, 1983:11). First as a “reflection of a basic reality” we see her volunteer in the place of her sister to be the tribute for District 12. Second, as a “masked perversion of a basic reality” she becomes the “Girl on Fire,” unable to see her own image except through the special effects produced by her stylists projected onto the screens of the Capitol and in the eyes of Peeta. Third, once she has entered the ring of the Hunger Games she becomes “Katniss,” a fictionalized version of herself who is victorious precisely because she projects outwardly a love of Peeta which is absent at root at this point of the story. While she wants to see Peeta return home alive, it is not out of ‘true love,’ which is the fiction/image that Katniss must play and be believed in for them to survive.
The final stage of of the image - as having no relation whatsoever to the reality, as pure simulacrum - is evidenced most clearly in the third novel when Katniss becomes Mockingjay, the image that leads the revolution of the Districts under the command of District 13. Or should I say that there is now a Katniss/Mockingjay split subject as they become completely detached from one and other. Katniss, mentally unstable and refusing the leadership of President Coin, cynical of the power play between President Coin and President Snow; Mockingjay, in the Districts as a revolutionary symbol and fighter propelled by the cinema-war machine of District 13, whose life and death is played out in a screenal battle between District 13 and the Capitol which Katniss watches with growing cynicism. Thus the novelty of the ending of the books: the cynical political leader of the revolutionary forces (District 13’s President Coin) killed by Mockingjay, the simulacrum which Coin creates. This at the show-trial execution of President Snow by Mockingjay, but who instead dies choking on blood caused by laughter at the sight of Coin’s death at the hands of Katniss. Does not this last act of Snow epitomize Baudrillard’s point about the self-devourment of the highest stage of simulacrum, the carnivalesque, by its cannibalistic alter which it contains in itself? So it should provoke no wonder at the success of the books and movies and our obsession with them when they so perfectly enact our own Hunger Games mode of being? They are offered as the event with which the simulacrum collapses in upon itself like a black-hole.
Another and important novelty of the novels that thus far has not been transported into the movies is the assistance provided by some socio-political elite in the Capitol to Katniss/Mockingjay, the rebellion, and District 13. If we read the rebellion of the Districts against the Capitol as a metaphor for third-world resistance against the privileged centers of the BRIC countries and the West, Hollywood can faithfully replicate the plot of the novels only as a moment of monumental hubris unless we claim that Hollywood is gearing up with these films as the ideological component for a full scale frontal assault on the edifice of Pan-Capitalism. Certainly The Hunger Games and its movie sequels will generate at least an equal amount of funds as the Soviets gave many a third-world insurgent movements, although probably less than the ‘Capitol‘ gave to al-Qaeda back when they were friends.
In the novel, but not in the movie which otherwise is exceptionally faithful to the book, the Mockingjay pin is given to Katniss not by a member of the underclass for whom Mockingjay later fights, but by the daughter of the Mayor of District 12 with whom Katniss has a friendship, and to whose family she sells some of the game she hunts. Is this symbolism of a Capitol complicit in the creation of Mockingjay, the spectacle with which it is destroyed? Do we desire an overthrow of our own mode of being in order to escape our banalized hyperreality?
Perhaps we could ignore this change even though it is the only one of two significant plot alterations or exclusions between the first book and movie, and the only one where the change does not serve to get the film a lower rating [the “wolf mutts” in the novel are genetically engineered to have incorporate the eyes (and soul) of the children already killed in the Games]. What remains to be seen is if this trend will continue into the second and third films. In Catching Fire and Mockingjay the new Head Gamesmaker Plutarch Heavensbee is an active participant in planting the seeds with which Katniss becomes Mockingjay, and manipulates the Quarter Quell to incite revolt in the Districts and overthrow the Capitol. Seneca Crane, the former Head Gamesmaker in The Hunger Games only unwittingly allows Katniss to manipulate the spectacle and enact her role as seductress. Plutarch’s action are not done out of personalized malice towards President Snow, and there is no real explanation - i.e. through a side plot where we find out his family was executed by Snow - why Plutarch, at the ‘head of his game,’ choses to actively participate as a key figure in the destruction of his own society, deep within the “video phase.” This raises the question, addressed above: how will Hollywood, our own Head Gamesmaker, respond? Is this an enjoinment of a particular enlightened portion of the dominant class fraction in Hollywood to the struggle of the dominated, to expose the exploitive relationship between the ‘West and the Rest’ a la Marx’s claim that the progressive subset of the intellectuals or bourgeoise would join with the Proletariate in the Class Struggle? Or will it, like the gifting of the Mockingjay pin be re-written so as to not undermine the dominant ideological apparatus? Only time and the sequels will tell, although if I were a betting man, and to invert a favorite saying from the novel: “May the odds be ever in their favor.”
Graham Potts is currently completing his PhD in the Social and Political Thought Program at York University in Toronto. His dissertation utilizes postmodern philosophy, queer theory, and cultural studies to examine how social network sites and reality television impact and create contemporary subjectivities.
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1. “We ought to acknowledge the significance for mankind of the simultaneous invention of gunpowder and printer’s ink,” says Karl Kraus. Further, we might add that a similar connection exists between, say, the machine gun and the camera, nitrocellulose and film, radar and video – but also between the trick effects, of the depiction of actual events in graphic illustration, photography, film, and television and good old military camouflage, designed to conceal armaments, convoys, and troop movements from the observer’s prying eyes and to leave the enemy in the lurch, no longer able to tell where reality begins or leaves off”; or “the media evolve in tandem with the army. Today they do not much look like a republican army, itself in decline; rather, they show signs of certain military anarchy, their fields of tension gradually eluding any effective control, like the lost regiments, terrorist factions, lone killers looming up here and there around the world, provoking clashes that have become endemic.”
2. “And it isn’t just the reality of the real that’s at issue in all this, but the reality of cinema. It’s a little like Disneyland: the theme parks are now merely an alibi - masking the fact that the whole context of life has been disneyfied. It’s the same with the cinema: the films produced today are merely the visible allegory of the cinematic form that has taken over everything - social and political life, the landscape, war, etc. - the form of life totally scripted for the screen. This is no doubt why cinema is disappearing: because it has passed into reality. Reality is disappearing at the hands of the cinema and cinema is disappearing at the hands of reality. A lethal transfusion in which each loses its specificity” (Baudrillard, 2005:125).