Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 28, 2013

The Hunger Games and radical politics

Filed under: Film,popular culture — louisproyect @ 8:43 pm

From what I’ve heard from some people on the left, the price of a ticket for a Hunger Games flick will give you the same experience as watching “Salt of the Earth” or the “Bicycle Thief”. I gave it a shot last year without spending a penny. After putting on a DVD screener the studio sent me to review for the 2012 NYFCO awards meeting, I hit the eject button after 15 minutes or so. I guess the best thing you can say about it was that I stayed with it longer than “Django Unchained”. What could others see that I could not, I wondered.

Ted Glick raved: “I was surprised to find that, in addition to another impressive performance by Lawrence, the movie was also about oppressed people rebelling against hunger, poverty and a brutally repressive government, and it was well done.” But then again this is the same Glick who picked David Cobb over Ralph Nader in 2004.

Then there’s Donald Sutherland, who plays the evil dictator in Hunger Games. He was written up in the Guardian calling for a revolution:

Donald Sutherland wants to stir revolt. A real revolt. A youth-led uprising against injustice that will overturn the US as we know it and usher in a kinder, better way. “I hope that they will take action because it’s getting drastic in this country.” Drone strikes. Corporate tax dodging. Racism. The Keystone oil pipeline. Denying food stamps to “starving Americans”. It’s all going to pot. “It’s not right. It’s not right.”

Of course, some cynics might devalue his words simply on the basis of where they were uttered: “We are high up in a Four Seasons hotel overlooking Beverly Hills, sunlight glinting off mansions and boutiques below, an unlikely cradle of revolution.” The cheapest room at the Four Seasons costs $605 per night, hardly the sort of place that would qualify as a new Smolny Institute.

Then there’s Frank Giustra, whose Lionsgate studio made the film. Think he would be interested in fomenting a revolution, particularly one that was going to throw a monkey wrench into projects like Keystone? Check this out then:

Frank Giustra – key power broker and close colleague of former President Bill Clinton – has taken a seat on the Board of Directors of U.S. Oil Sands, an Alberta-based company aiming to develop tar sands deposits in Utah’s Uintah Basin.

U.S. Oil Sands – in naming several new members to its Board – also announced it has received $80 million in “strategic financing” from Blue Pacific Investments Group Ltd., Anchorage Capital Group, L.L.C. and Spitfire Ventures, LLC.

The funding will help get the ball rolling on “tar sands south,” a miniature but increasingly controversial version of its big brother to the north, the Alberta tar sands. Giustra will likely help in opening the right doors for tar sands industry interests in the United States.

In the same way that I sat through “Django Unchained”, as necessary for a survey on slavery films, I decided to watch Hunger Games, part one and part two. My goal is not to spend that much time on the films themselves but to take up the question of why so many superficially “radical” films set in some future dystopia have been coming out of Hollywood in the recent past.

But to take up the films as art, generously speaking, you have to start with where they fit in. In my view they have much more to do with the teen romance market that includes the Twilight series than they do with a film like “Elysium” that was also greeted with much fanfare from the left. In fact that probably explains why “Catching Fire” (part 2 of the Hunger Games) has generated nearly 251 million dollars in profit, while “Elysium” is still $22 million in the red. A 15-year-old girl can go see “Catching Fire” without caring a lick about a youth-led uprising. She’s there to see a hunky boy making out with Jennifer Lawrence while her aging uncle who was in Columbia University SDS can see it for its “politics”. Then there are the 15-year-old boys who like it for the video game type violence. Clever marketing all in all.

I think unless you have been in a coma for the past 2 years, you probably know what the film is about. It is set sometime in the distant future when a failed uprising against the rulers of America has been defeated. The winners live in the capital of Panem, a city that looks something like the Emerald City in “The Wizard of Oz”, while the losers live in 12 different districts that look like the coal town in “How Green was My Valley” or where the Joads came from. The winners dress like they were in the court of Louis IV while the losers wear clothes that might be carrying a Carhartt label. While there are no specific references to the sexual preferences of the people who live in the capital city, most of the men will remind you of the lead characters in “La Cage aux Folles”, pretty much like this:

The hunger games are yearly events in which each district sends two youngsters off to the capital to participate in gladiator fights to the death until only one is left. The winner gets off with their life as well as some prize money. Suzanne Collins wrote the first of the novels that the films are based on in 2008. She said that she got the idea from watching a reality show like Survivor while the war in Iraq was still going strong. Some wonder if she plagiarized the Japanese movie “Battle Royale” that has a similar theme but she states she had never seen it. (“Battle Royale” does not try to make any overarching social statements and is little more than an hour and a half of nihilistic gore.)

The Hunger Games is a trilogy. The first installment is titled “Hunger Games” and the second, now playing in theaters everywhere, is titled “Catching Fire”. The last is titled “Mockingjay” and should come out in the next year or so. Like the Twilight vampire novels and Harry Potter, these sorts of multi-part oeuvres are made to order for a Hollywood studio’s financial department. You get the 15-year-olds to show up religiously, and can even expect them to go to see the same film multiple times. This is what struck me last night as the final minutes of “Catching Fire” were unfolding. I had no idea what was going on when around a dozen people rose from their seats and started streaming for the exits. Now that’s the way I felt 15 minutes into the film. What could have taken them so long?

When the closing credits began appearing out of the blue, I figured it out. These were people who were watching the film for second or even maybe the third time. What could possibly have gotten into them? But considering the popularity of professional wrestling and “Dancing with the Stars”, I should know better than to ask that question.

The first installment of Hunger Games concludes with its heroine Katniss and hero Peeta both surviving the gladiator games. When they announce that they’d rather commit suicide than fight each other, the rulers decide to spare both their lives in accordance with the TV audience’s wishes. So disgruntled is President Snow (Donald Sutherland) by their lack of a killer instinct that he plots to return them to a special hunger game that includes past winners, sort of the kind of contest seen in “Project Runway”, a far better show in my view.

To put it bluntly, “Catching Fire” is basically a repeat of “Hunger Games” except nearly an hour longer. While the movie was wending its way toward its conclusion, I found my mind drifting off to old girl friends. (Don’t mention that to my wife.)

In terms of both politics and entertainment, I found “Elysium” a lot more compelling. That, as you might know, is another futuristic dystopian piece with a lot more solid connections to the way we live now.

When I thought about the Hunger Games films, “Elysium”, that was preceded by “District 9”, a dystopian film set in South Africa also directed by Neill Blomkamp, as well as others that have hit theaters in recent years, I wondered what it all meant. Like the Hunger Games films, “Elysium” and “District 9” were hailed as the filmic equivalent of a Molotov cocktail.

The always useful Wikipedia tells us (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dystopian_films) that hundreds of such films have been made since the early 50s starting with “1984”, a prototype for everything that followed. Nearly all of them portray a future society ruled by a cruel dictatorship employing capricious and violent tactics to keep the masses in line. Interestingly, the first film in this mold was made decades earlier and is arguably the best: Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”.

Despite their abundance, none has had the slightest impact on changing American society in the way that a documentary can. Despite Michael Moore’s dreadful Democratic Party politics, a film like “Roger and Me” opened our eyes to the greed and depravity of General Motors. When I was growing up, you could take the slogan “What’s good for GM is good for America” seriously. After “Roger and Me”, you could not.

There’s another reason that an audience seeing “Catching Fire” would make few connections with American society today. Despite the moral turpitude of its rulers and the ruling class it represents, it is a parliamentary democracy resting on a consensus around the belief that success is a function of your own talents and nothing else. When you lose a job, you can get pissed off at the system but you see yourself more as a victim of circumstance rather than a member of a social class in specific kind of relationship to another social class that has interests opposed to your own. Ironically, most Americans are okay with survivor of the fittest, as long as you don’t have someone like President Snow forcing villages to turn over a couple of kids each year as if it was for an Aztec type human sacrifice ritual.

Bourgeois democracy is a perfect instrument for class rule. That is why I always scratch my head over those who see fascism around the corner when someone like Richard Nixon is in the White House. Why would you use the iron fist to rule the workers when their open consent guarantees systemic stability?

I’ve heard from so many people that the Hunger Games films will have the same kind of radicalizing effect on young people that Peter Camejo’s speeches had in 1968. If so, I find no evidence of that in a forum dedicated to discussion of the Hunger Games books and movies at http://www.reddit.com/r/Hungergames/. I searched in vain for anything about relaunching the Occupy movement. Mostly, this is what you will find:

Katniss talks about this rhyme that her father used to tell her sometimes, and she also talks about how it had a dark connotation that she only realized later in life. Also her mother got angry at her father for singing it to Katniss. That’s about all I understood about that rhyme. In a series in which just about everything has symbolism, what is the symbolism/significance of this? Also why does Katniss’s mother gets so angry about it?

But the one post that suggested to me that the film was much more about style than substance was this:

Screen shot 2013-12-28 at 3.36.11 PM


  1. Hi Louis,

    You are wasting your time and ours for reviewing a nothingness, empty, meaningless movie that has no message for anybody including old folks, let alone poor people in their twenties and teens. Even kung fu movies of 1970s and 80s have better messages–fairness, revolt, unions, food justice, and…–in them than this crap. Just because a few ‘big’ names are behind a movie, for the sole purpose of making and having more money, does not justify you spending this much energy on it. Please let the dead society remain in its grave!

    If you want to review movies, check out Chinese movies about their revolution and Korean ones. There are a lot of revolutionary messages coming from other land.

    Value your time so we can value you more,

    Comment by mansoor — December 28, 2013 @ 9:38 pm

  2. The “Hunger Games” trilogy was derived from a great Japanese novel of the late 1990s, “Battle Royale”, a novel with the same premise, but with more overt radical politics. Of course, it, too, was made into a film, the last by Fukusaku, I think, and the sequel supposedly involves the protagonists forming an al-an underground cell to launch terror attacks upon the US, evocative of the Weather Underground. At least, that’s what I’ve heard.

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 28, 2013 @ 11:09 pm

  3. Down with Louis Proyect!

    Vive le Katniss!

    Smash Panem Through Workers Revolution!

    Comment by Doodlebug Anklebiter — December 28, 2013 @ 11:37 pm

  4. Yeah I mean, WTF is “Hunger Games” and why should anyone over the age of 14 care? Isn’t this the new Harry Potter craze? And how about that little twerp Justin Beiber or whatever his name is?

    Comment by Tom Quinn — December 29, 2013 @ 4:43 am

  5. Down with the Doodlebug Anklebiter @ #3 — & Long Live mansoor @ #1 (who wrote the review I would have).

    While I confess I haven’t seen this sequel yet (and never will based on the 1st offering) I saw the original at the urging of my girlfriend of 20 years who read all the novels and was convinced I’d see some leftist message.

    On the contrary. I saw a lackluster movie that had the aesthetic value of upchuck utterly devoid of any future reality except for the bourgeoisie’s perverse desire for austerity so great that prostitution for food becomes the driving force of the working class.

    I got news for them. Long before that — heads will fucking roll!

    A movie like “Fight Club” has more modern prescience wherein the rich will get fresh urine in their lobster bisque and then beheaded with cleavers in a bathroom stall while the latch key kids of the wait staff kick their freshly lopped skulls down the boulevards in a grand soccer match — such is the origin of the world’s most popular sport from the French Revolution.

    Get the fuck out of here with that doomsday-prepper, tea-bagger, Prison Planet bullshit because it’s utterly reactionary and will be proven Doomed.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 29, 2013 @ 4:45 am

  6. Louis, your own apparent hairstyle fixation has been noted a few times. Anyway, similar, no?

    Comment by godoggo — December 29, 2013 @ 5:53 am

  7. 2nd try: similar, no?

    Comment by godoggo — December 29, 2013 @ 5:55 am

  8. Eh, good enough.

    Comment by godoggo — December 29, 2013 @ 5:58 am

  9. I too was very disappointed with the original.

    The (British) Guardian has signalled it was of importance.

    I got the DVD out only a couple of weeks ago and I (as a big Sc-Fi fan) was really looking forward to it.

    Frankly it was thin, thin thin.

    If you want something to stir the cockles of your leftist heart watch, Blue is the Warmest Colour.

    There is beautfiul moment when they do on a left demo (you can see the CGT flags behind them) they are singing “On Lâche Rien”

    Comment by Andrew Coates — December 29, 2013 @ 11:21 am

  10. Down with septuagenarian radical critiques of Hollywood blockbusters for teenagers!

    Okay, okay, the films might be crappy (although I haven’t seen Catching Fire yet), but the books made me cry, like, every third chapter. Maybe I’m overly sentimental when it comes to kiddie books, but I will personally conduct a one-man armed propaganda campaign against the next revolutionary ideologue who compares The Hunger Games to Fight Club! (Also, I might be in love with Jennifer Lawrence.)

    Srly, though, not to spoiler anything, but the end of Mockingjay provides more proof that the working class must rely upon its own strength and organization and not subordinate itself to the limited program of the “progressive” District 13 bourgeoisie.

    Smash Panem (and snobby film critics) Through Workers Revolution!

    Long Live Katniss!

    Comment by Doodlebug Anklebiter — December 29, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

  11. Daniel Davdoodles is my shadow.

    Comment by godoggo — December 29, 2013 @ 4:14 pm

  12. I think I agree with Proyect on this one. I guess you could say something is better than nothing but I wouldn’t go any further than that.

    Incidentally, I much preferred Battle Royale actually. Deliciously satirical and combining that classic Japanese teen emotion with graphic but cartoonish violence. The film seemed like quite a profound statement on being a teenager to me.

    Hunger games is what Stephen King described aptly as Tweenager porn.

    Comment by The Man With No Name — December 30, 2013 @ 11:08 am

  13. Catching Fire has lots of flaws. It’s a popular piece of overwrought teen melodrama. But when I got done watching it with my 10 year old daughter she asked questions that led to discussing exploitation, injustice, rebellion, revolution and ‘the system’ that produces these realities. Not so bad for a piece of schlock.

    Comment by Edward Brinson — December 30, 2013 @ 9:12 pm

  14. It was a good film and a book. While the movie might not have the same effect as other movies you have compared it with, I must say it is more because of the current attitude of this generation and not because of the film or the movie.

    Comment by Mon — January 3, 2014 @ 9:37 am

  15. Does everything have to be a political commentary with you guys? Is it possible for you to turn off your overtly dystopian view of the world for a couple hours to try and enjoy a movie?

    Comment by Jeremiah R. (@MagickalMan) — January 5, 2014 @ 8:32 pm

  16. Of course. I love movies like James Bond with Sean Connery or Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther. I only wish that Hollywood knew how to make them nowadays.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 5, 2014 @ 8:55 pm

  17. Surprised to see how many people actually liked Catching Fire. It was very well done, except for for the script. Much too much time in the second film revisiting the territory of the first film – lead up to contest, selection, evaluation, fight. Been there, done that in the first episode. Here was an opportunity to take us deeper into this strange society, and move the plot forward to see what happens. Yet all we got was filler, and the plot moved forward about an inch from where we left off last time.

    Comment by Lovely — January 8, 2014 @ 4:58 pm

  18. So I’d like to mention that battle royale and THG are both inspired by a Greek myth, The minotaurus, young girls and boys were put in a maze as an offer for the minotaurus. Suzanne hasn’t copied battle royale, get your facts straight! Second, I you haven’t red the books you don’t deserve to review this, I red the books, and they are far more “deep” then the movies, the love story is just exaggerated and isn’t priority number one. Also, when you say that cf is rhe same as thg, you’re so wrong, cf isn’t like thg 2 it’s not a remake of the same story like the hangover 1,2,3 and shit. You’ll see in Mockingjay (the 3d book) the rebellion gets much stronger, the book has hidden many plots, the characters mentaly changes, the revolt, … etc. I really love the books so I kind of hate it when people compare it to ¨¨¨¨¨twilight (what witnesses that you only see the superficial), I agree, the first movie wasn’t great and also this one could be better but what the books do, no movie can equal that. So please, read the books. (I’m sorry for any spellig mistakes, I’m not English).

    Comment by merel — January 20, 2014 @ 5:39 pm

  19. Merel: Most everybody concedes the novels were better than the films. Books usually are. This, however, is a FILM review blog.

    Bottom line the films stunk worse than a sack of rancid pork.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 20, 2014 @ 6:58 pm

  20. Insofar as the theme is really a ripoff from Greek mythology only affirms Marx’s notion that despite modernity genuine new ideas are rare.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — January 20, 2014 @ 7:03 pm

  21. So you spend all those words on talking about how you want to check on revolutionary aspects of a movie that you admit to hate after 5 minutes, list movies you prefer (that are actually made for older viewers) and at the end you just state there is nothing?

    I agree that the movies are weak, but the first one at least touched enough interesting points to give me the feeling that just tons of stuff is missing, making me actually read the whole series in the last two weeks.

    Just some quick points:
    – The massive difference in perception between elites (capitol/politicians/1%) and working class/districts
    – Possibility of Snowball effects being triggered by rather small events (poisoned berries/arena breakout) compared to the actual big reasons (existence hunger games/oppression of districts…) due to their power gained through media and fandom, something you could the in the Ukraine right now with Boxing Champion Vitali Klitschko leading an opposition close to starting either a revolution or a civil war

    If you don’t want to do this right, just don’t do it.

    Also, whoever calls these movies exceptional revolutionary is stupid, and the books don’t even try to be that. Scenes without Katniss, like the lame discussions between president and gamemakers, or the District 11 uprising that happens way too instantly and unorganized, are crap coming from Hollywood. I know, we talk about the movie blablabla, but at least give it a fair treatment

    Comment by Henna — January 27, 2014 @ 5:41 pm

  22. Hey just to set the record straight, apparently the author, Suzanne Collins, had never read nor heard of Battle Royale when she wrote The Hunger Games.
    Since the books are inspired so much by history and Greek legend (the gladiatorial contests, Spartacus and the Minotaur legend), it is not surprising that the same thing was thought of more than once. Especially, as the review mentioned, as dystopian stories are on the rise (why? because people are thinking about it, people are afraid of these things really happening).

    Comment by Saskia — February 3, 2014 @ 11:48 pm

  23. The true irony here is that the biggest leftist ever elected President presides over the most Orwellian government in our history. Rationalize away !

    Comment by Thom Thumb — March 19, 2014 @ 3:57 pm

  24. You sound awful young Thom Thumb because fact is Nixon was arguably to the left of Obama. Hell, even Eisenhour might have been further left by the end of his tenure when he warned of the looming Danger of the Military Industrial Complex.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — March 20, 2014 @ 12:18 am

  25. Karl, How can something that is arguable be fact ? You have lost more liberties during Obama’s administration than any other. Fact !

    Comment by Thom Thumb — March 23, 2014 @ 3:53 pm

  26. No argument there. Nixon was to the left of Obama.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — March 23, 2014 @ 4:34 pm

  27. This review is wrong on so many levels.
    Your casual sexism in assuming not only that teenage girls are not interested in seeing a film or reading a book for its potential messages about society, but that they only see movies because some hunk is in them is ridiculous and offensive.
    Snow was not upset because Peeta and Katniss refused to kill each other in accordance with his general message of violence, but because they outsmarted him, tricking him into allowing both of them to live where before them, the Games had only ever allowed one Victor.
    Stories set in a futuristic dystopia are practically their own genre by now. You can’t critique a franchise for something that many other franchises have also displayed and then say that you liked Elysium, a movie with a similar setting. (I understand that your point in adding that you liked Elysium was to compare the two films.)
    The message of the Hunger Games is important. Just because young people enjoy it doesn’t mean that it’s stupid or vapid. The story does often end up being used exactly for the wrong purposes (such as people imitating the hairstyles from the film), or being interpreted the wrong ways. This doesn’t mean the story has no value, or is bad.

    Comment by Siobhan — January 22, 2015 @ 1:34 am

  28. All of you are reading way to much into this. The only message that this disgruntled ex hippie is pedaling is one of extreme nihilism. By now, she and all of her ilk , realize that the great worker’s Jihad will not be happening anytime in the near or distant future. There are to many opponents both in this country and worldwide. As a result, the only thing to do at this point is ” bring it all down girl” in true sixties radical chic parlance. That’s were the ” children” come into play. They are to fill the role as the new red guards or Khmer Rouge.

    Comment by john Lord — March 22, 2015 @ 6:04 am

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