“Sorry, I can’t stay out too late tonight: I have to go watch some starving children murder each other.”
Two weeks ago I talked about the success of Catching Fire and how money and inertia, not ability or appeal, influences unbalanced gender roles in Hollywood. Speaking of money, have you seen how those who made licensing agreements with Lionsgate, the studio that made Catching Fire, have been using it? In case you haven’t, let me get you up to speed: CoverGirl’s “Capitol Collection” offers beauty inspired by the movie’s fictional Capitol, while Subway released a line of sandwiches which have “caught fire” with spicy toppings. Neither company seems to understand that their ad campaigns were in poor taste.
The Hunger Games movies and books are about the systematic oppression and deprivation of a huge underclass by a small privileged caste—the residents of the Capitol—who routinely gorge themselves on lavish excess while everyone else starves. In other words, promoting a “Capitol Collection” or a line of Hunger Games-inspired sandwiches is about as appropriate as marketing a line of concentration camp-inspired clothing or frozen dinners in order to promote Schindler’s List. In other words, not out of the question, but loathsome nonetheless.
This is probably the best argument I’ve seen against the idea that anyone in charge in Hollywood or Corporate America has any idea what they’re actually doing (maybe no one does, anywhere)—and an unfortunate reminder that the success of The Hunger Games as a movie might have more to do with the author of the novels hitting a home run in terms of rights agreements than some kind of change of guard in Hollywood. But there is reason to hope.
What I like about The Hunger Games, especially as a series marketed to young adults, is that it contains the instruments of criticism for the franchise’s worst excesses. There is no ambiguity about this: even though the Capitol’s citizens are guilty to varying degrees (complicating binary notions of good and evil), there’s no doubt that the Capitol itself, as an institution devoted to exploitation and repression, is evil. And the immoral, luxurious Capitol isn’t very far removed from what the real holders of power and money look like in the West of the real world. Its average citizens might even look uncomfortably like our middle class, accustomed to excess and entertainment no matter the cost to the environment or quality of life of the men, women, and children who produce our consumer goods so cheaply or who are forced to live in their toxic wake.
Appreciate the irony: what has become a multi-billion dollar entertainment franchise might be indoctrinating its viewers against the very market forces that allowed it to exist. Maybe it’s naive to think that real change can come from a blockbuster movie franchise which, even as it might complicate the narrative, only upholds the status quo—but, so far at least, the franchise hasn’t let us down (at least not the books or movies). Maybe seeds can come from anywhere, and the larger the platform, the better. In this way The Hunger Games reminds me of the work of Soviet writer Alexei Tolstoy, who made a career of hiding in plain sight.
Alexei Tolstoy is not sure even he buys the idea that he’s subversive.
After 1930, most challenging Russian writers were either in exile, dead, or circulating their work in samizdat. But there was another option, and this was to work obliquely, to nominally conform to the dictates of Socialist Realism but also to bury your complaints so deep that you not only had the recourse of plausible deniability but the reasonable assurance that only sympathizers would catch on. This is exactly what Alexei Tolstoy did with The Golden Key, his popular Russian adaptation of the Pinnochio story.
On the surface, The Golden Key is about a wooden doll named Buratino who escapes a capitalist puppet master and founds a socialist theatre troupe owned by puppets in common. But the puppet master looks suspiciously like Karl Marx, and lies, instead of making Buratino’s nose grow larger, are employed again and again to save his ass. The novel’s final vision of a puppet house run by and for the puppets, though it would seem to conform to communist ideals, looks suspiciously like a refuge of artists and other free-thinking individuals evading an oppressive state. Lying, after all, is not something a good citizen is supposed to do. There’s even evidence that other writers still living in Russia were wise to Tolstoy’s scheme: Yuri Olesha speculated about Buratino’s secret message in his private journal1.
What complicates this story is that Tolstoy was a Soviet hero, who also wrote a hagiographic account of Stalin’s life and lived on a street named after himself during his lifetime. He wasn’t happy with the life of the exile and actually returned to the Soviet Union after emigrating. It’s possible he did more harm, with some of his other work, than good. But probably, for Tolstoy, who wanted to live the good life (and couldn’t in emigration), that wasn’t the point. And it’s also possible that The Golden Key really might have taught schoolchildren the realities of living under Soviet rule, at a time when those kids would have as little access to criticism of the state as possible.
I’m not suggesting that the level of repression in The Hunger Games’s Capitol—or in the Soviet Union at its worst—is anywhere near what’s experienced in modern liberal democracies, at least not on “our” side of the border. But I do know that money often speaks loudest, and the voice with which it often speaks is one of complacency and ignorance, drowning out anything contradictory. I like thinking that, thanks to The Hunger Games, a generation of children will be wise to the problems of globalism, war2, and poverty, long before their educators ever bring it up in class. Is that enough? I don’t know. But it could be a start.
1 Most of the work done in favour of this interpretation is not currently available in English, and comes to me courtesy Professor Leonid Livak of the University of Toronto.
2 I haven’t touched on it here, but that’s also a major virtue of The Hunger Games: it doesn’t make any attempt to sugarcoat violence or pretend that it offers easy (non-traumatizing, non-life altering) solutions to difficult problems. In fact, Douglas Sutherland has said that he hopes the movies will inspire a new generation to become politically active, while Collins explains in the books’ acknowledgments that one of her aims was to educate children on war and peace.