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After 20 years at the University of Oregon, I have retired. So, I will begin posting about my new experiences here and hope you find them interesting.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Reading between the lines of The Hunger Games

A science fiction review by  © 2012

 Several days ago I watched a brief interview with Donald Sutherland who played the subtly sinister President Snow in "The Hunger Games". Apparently, Sutherland agreed to be cast in the role despite the fact that he would have relatively little screen time in the film. Sutherland said he felt "The Hunger Games" was a film that could be a catalyst for the younger generation who he feels have been dormant for far too long and should take a cue from the young people in the Middle East engaged in the Arab Spring.  He emphasizes this film needs to be seen not just by young people but by all of the 99% who are suffering from the oppression we have experienced in recent years - ostensibly at the hands of a government corrupted by greed and increasingly oblivious to the needs of the citizens it is sworn to represent.

 If you read between the lines of "The Hunger Games" you must conclude that the social conditions in the outlying "districts" where most of the people live, is the result of a society ruled by the wealthy 1% who reside in "The Capital".  These "few" apparently have no compassion for "the many" less fortunate and no social conscience about the wealthy's ostentatious consumption of both food and other resources while the working poor scrape by on burned crusts of bread or a deer or rabbit snagged under the watchful eyes of surveillance aircraft. All social programs have apparently been eliminated, surely under the pretense of providing more "freedom" from government interference in their daily lives and as a "necessary" strategy to reduce the deficit created by military spending in the recent rebellion. (Sound familiar?)   Katniss, a member of a poor family of a now-deceased coal miner killed in a mine explosion, helps feed her mother and sister by clandestinely hunting in the surrounding forest. There was apparently no workmen's compensation survivor benefits or food stamp programs to help the family with basic needs after the primary breadwinner was killed and Katniss' mother is obviously suffering from severe clinical depression.  She doesn't even show much emotion when her daughter is selected in the annual lottery to compete in "The Hunger Games" even though it represents a virtual death sentence since only one of 24 contestants will emerge alive.  But apparently, there is no health care either let alone mental health care to restore her as a loving parent to her two daughters or bring her back into society as a functional individual who can successfully take up her responsibilities as head of household.

In a flashback we see Katniss shivering against a tree in the pouring rain watching Peta, the baker's son, tossing burned loaves to a handful of pigs, hoping she will be able to snatch some of the bread out of the mud after Peta leaves before the hogs wolf it down.   Peta sees her there and surreptitiously tosses part of a blackened loaf into the mud at her feet, looking around apprehensively as if  he would be scolded if he was seen.  So apparently charitable giving to others is also frowned upon or even the working class needs every scrap to survive.  The society has truly devolved into an "every man/woman for himself" existence.

Meanwhile the 1% in the capital are a garish, supercilious lot who paint themselves up and don ridiculous (but I'm sure outrageously expensive) costumes while they consume vast quantities of elaborate dishes apparently without a thought as to the near starvation being suffered by the subordinate peoples around them.  People might compare them to the ancient Romans but even the Romans provided daily bread, public latrines, entertainment and public bathhouses for even the lowliest citizen in their midst.  Wealthy Romans built aqueducts to bring fresh water to the masses and constructed roads, temples, theaters and amphitheaters.  But the wealthy of "The Hunger Games" seem consumed only with self-interest and maintaining power - much like many members of Congress in our own capital today.

The day before I saw the Donald Sutherland interview, Good Morning America had a piece on over-the-top baby showers by the rich and famous that included the gifting of Gucci shoes and $6,000 rhinestone-studded infant bath tubs for the new arrivals.  What was most disturbing, though, was that the piece was presented as if it was something we could all aspired to!  I found it revolting.

Of course the main focus of the film is the struggle of the competitors in "The Hunger Games" itself.  According to President Snow, the games were devised to give the masses a little hope.  He patiently explains to a subordinate that "A little hope is effective...a lot of hope is dangerous."  Therefore, he points out, hope must be contained.  The Hunger Games, although it results in the deaths of two young people from each of 11 districts plus one from the 12th district every year, provides the opportunity for someone to escape the confines of a miserable existence and find out what it is like to truly live as a member of the privileged few - much like our own state-run lotteries only without the penalty of death for the losers.

I thought this lesson about hope was amply illustrated this past weekend when news of thousands of people lining up for a particularly large lottery jackpot was broadcast on television - so many people, probably thousands who have been out of work for such a long time, looking to the lottery as a last resort, pinning what little hope they have left on random chance and that small piece of paper.  It's really quite tragic if you stop to think about it.  Why do so many people hunger for a lifestyle enjoyed by so few?

I hope Donald Sutherland is right about "The Hunger Games".  We need the young to become inspired and lend their energy to the struggle to preserve human rights, dignity and opportunity for all, not just the privileged few.  Some people blame President Obama for not being able to reverse the financial damage caused by the "Great Recession" fast enough, claiming he promised them hope and didn't deliver.  I say he didn't promise us fixing the mess we were in was going to be quick or easy.  He asked us to hope so we could foster the momentum that was needed to overcome the years of fear mongering and division that had characterized American politics for far too long.  We should not abandon that hope now with the work only part done.  After all, like President Snow said, hope IS the only thing more powerful than fear.
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