The Hunger Games franchise acts as an hysterical and deluded warning – one more Mardi Gras and next they will be coming for your children.
Imagine if you could make a film that pandered to the worst prejudices and false grievances of the most ignorant, privileged and socially paranoid; a film that was not only homophobic, but also cast queer stock characters as decadent overlords hell bent on sacrificing god-fearing children.
Imagine how much money you could make producing such a film – if only you could get away with it.
Now go back and watch The Hunger Games. That’s right, you needn’t rent William Friedken’s Cruising, or the best of Leni Riefenstahl, if you want to experience mob-rousing propaganda on screen. Simply view the first film adaptation of the Suzanne Collins literary trilogy, or worse yet, watch the sequel to be released in November.
A scene from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
The Hunger Games franchise, described by many placid reviewers of teen fiction as exploring themes of independence and interdependence, is realistically the isolated nightmare of a small-government, anti-progress lunatic.
Like the shockingly racist action flick 300, it’s part of a disturbing trend in modern Hollywood to make dog-whistle epics – using fantasy and sci-fi to say things no filmmaker would dare endorse otherwise.
The consequence is millions of impressionable minds feeling stirred up and energised by feelings they can’t quite pin down, and cynical studio executives banking billions.
For those unfamiliar with the franchise, The Hunger Games is set in a fantasy/futuristic world where North America has been transformed into a dictatorship called Panem. The seat of power in this dystopia is the Capitol, where party-loving and heartless urbanites, dressed like guests at Elton John’s birthday party, sacrifice children in a televised all-on-all Bear Grylls-themed fight to the death.
The film begins in a poor, overwhelmingly white rural town, which feels disturbingly like the US Bible Belt. Katniss Everdeen, our heroine, is plucked from this bucolic paradise to travel to the Emerald City of Oz cum Sodom and Gomorrah, inhabited by pop stereotypes of queer culture. The men prettify themselves with make-up, fancy hairdos and foppish clothes, while the women dress like drag queens.
The hysteria of this premise somehow transforms the irrational hatred, fear and cruelty of intolerant bigots into something justifiable. It presents queer stock characters as symbols of inhuman decadence, when the truth is far duller.
The apogee of modern decadence isn’t a transsexual performer living in a one-bedder over a Thai restaurant. It’s a prejudiced, rich, white suburban family with eight cars, a heated swimming pool and a walk-in freezer. It’s a white teenage girl who dreams of archery lessons and being murdered by Saturday night’s third act at Stonewall, while sleeping in an air-conditioned mansion drawing down the same power as a medium-sized Javanese village.
Not only is the attempt to make a very narrow but instantly recognisable stereotype of LGBT culture into the aesthetic for a class of oppressors captivated by child murder beyond ridiculous, so is the attempt to cast the "city" as the site of contemporary moral decline. Yes, history services names like Caligula and Louis XIV. But peasant revolutions, led by closed-minded country folk, who are hell bent on making doctors and lawyers pick beans and dig holes, were the great fear of Marx. On the few occasions they have happened - in China and Cambodia - they have killed millions.
The Hunger Games plays to a suburban fear that the freedom to embrace an alternative body image, sexuality and lifestyle - a freedom enjoyed by many in the metropolis - must ultimately be leading to an apocalypse of compassion, rather than greater enlightenment. The franchise acts as an hysterical and deluded warning – one more Mardi Gras and next they will be coming for your children.
Unfortunately, insane delusions about the sacrificing of innocents by cultural outsiders are nothing new. If anything they’re sadly familiar.
Indeed, a newspaper article claiming that Jews were killing Christian children to use their blood for Passover rituals sparked the Kishinev Pogrom of 1903, an infamous massacre of some 50 Jews in the Bessarabia province of the former Russian Empire.
The infamous pogrom was fed by a European-wide superstition known as "blood libel" – a false scuttlebutt that lasted for centuries, whereby Jews were supposed to be regularly sacrificing children during their religious festivals.
Blood libel persists amongst anti-Semites in places like Syria and Russia, and as recently as this year Khaled Al-Zaafrani of the Egyptian Justice and Progress Party was quoted in the Israeli media as claiming that it is "well known" that Jews "slice" the throats of children during Passover and "fight over who gets to eat Christian blood".
A similar fiction about the private tastes of typecast androgynous city dwellers will be gracing your local cinema screen shortly.
Like the big screen adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300, The Hunger Games uses dog-whistle filmmaking to endorse a narrative no actor or director would dare put their name to in any literally minded production. In 300, people who should know better, like Dominic West, act out a cartoon tale where valiant white soldiers slaughter corrupt, decadent and wicked Persians. The film went much further than Black Hawk Down or Zero Dark Thirty would dare in endorsing tales of American exceptionalism during a time of war. As Slate’s film critic Dana Stevens put it: "If 300 had been made in Germany in the mid-1930s, it would be studied today alongside The Eternal Jew as a textbook example of how race-baiting fantasy and nationalist myth can serve as an incitement to total war."
But unfortunately stories thick with race-baiting (in 300) and homophobia (in The Hunger Games) work. The Hunger Games transformed a $US78 million budget into $US691 million profit, and 300 likewise made over seven times its money back. It seems millions relish having their prejudices stroked so long as the CGI, intervening symbolism and A-list eye candy make it socially OK.