After just five minutes of the stomach churning opening scenes of The Hunger Games I was already panicking about the length of time that would have to pass before the sequel was released. The vibrant costumes, tasty male leads and scream-out-loud-and-grab-my-boyfriend-worthy action scenes anaesthetised my Harry Potter grief as I submitted to a new cinematic love affair.
Yet there was something oddly familiar about the whole film. As it progressed and the Capitol was revealed as an impressive, concrete wonderland of luxurious contrast to the twelve districts, I was reminded of George Orwell’s 1984. The Capitol’s autocratic rule over the districts, the fear, poverty and most of all the propaganda of the Hunger Games were all so reminiscent of Big Brother.
Not only was there an undeniably Orwell-esque quality to the film, but a Roman one too. The idea of the Capitol’s citizens watching the tributes fight to the death, incorporating the wrath of nature and its beasts to create an exciting spectacle was a technically advanced version of gladiatorial combat.
What was frightening, apart from fireballs and packs of giant, hungry hounds, was how much I was reminded of us, of present day society. With the obvious exception of actually wanting to see people kill and be killed, the television interviews, voting and favourite-picking of the Hunger Games are all incorporated into popular forms of modern entertainment where we like to watch people crack under the pressure of a situation that we have designed for them.
I can’t help but worry that if just a few decisions had been altered in history, that the Hunger Games – in its essence – would have been a reality. “Civilised” or not, the desire to see real death exists: millions of people watched mobile videos of Saddam Hussein’s hanging on YouTube, for example. Gladiator fights and public executions may not be advertised in Time Out magazine as the week’s entertainment but we do subscribe to horror films and television programs showing footage of people seriously injuring themselves. We watch reality television shows filmed in hospitals and documentaries following overweight, deformed or ill people as they undergo operations.
I’ve no doubt that the significant majority of us subscribe to these forms of entertainment more out of curiosity and fascination than an actual, conscious desire to see people get hurt. However, we are not far away from the pre-modern societies that turned out to watch public executions for entertainment. Empathy is easily removed by the idea that “we” are different from “them”. Many may say that we watched Hussein’s hanging because he was an evil man. True. But it was because we differentiated ourselves from him so greatly that watching a human die was suddenly acceptable in our civilised and empathetic society.
We partly define who we are by identifying who we are not. Programs about obese people, for example, are so prolific not just because it’s a current issue but because so many of us enjoy watching their struggle, safe in the knowledge that we would never be like them. I am in no way suggesting we would want to see overweight people fight to the death but I am pointing out that, like blood-lust, the inclination to separate “ourselves” from “the other” is an unavoidable human instinct – one which has the potential to remove any empathetic reaction to “the other’s” pain.
Furthermore, the doors that technology, commercialism and television have opened allow us to distance ourselves from the reality of what we are witnessing. Much in the same way that the citizens of Capitol regard themselves as separate from the tributes, the television of death and pain removes the need for empathy. If we found ourselves in A & E, for example, we would be disturbed by some of what we saw and yet so many of us tune in to shows that depict those very scenes.
What if slavery had not been abolished or colonial empires not collapsed? People question how so many people accepted slavery in what was supposed to be a civilised society – the answer is because it was a world away from their own. The abolitionist movement gained momentum when plantation owners brought their slaves back to England and people were faced with the humanity of the slaves and the reality of the situation.
I am not saying in any way that modern day humans lack empathy and consciously delight in the pain of others. What I am saying is that there is a subconscious fascination of watching another in their most primal, vulnerable state, especially when we consider them to be different fro ourselves. There is unquestionable evidence of this in the array of reality television shows and films that cater to this instinct. Had a few (more) of the wrong people been in power, had there been different victories and different decisions, the underlying demand for a television show like that of the Hunger Games is present. It was that frighteningly mirror image that the cinema screen showed me last week that has had me talking about the Hunger Games ever since.