The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

It would appear that
we have reached a
point in our cultural
development where
popular culture is
incapable of
addressing any
issue other than
that of parental
authority.
Last summer’s Star
Trek Into Darkness
continued the
series’ rolling reboot
by steering the
venerable franchise
away from stories
about competent
people making
difficult grown-up
decisions and
towards stories
about overgrown
teenagers trying to
cope with layer after
layer of impacted
daddy issues. This
theme was also
evident in Zack
Snyder’s lamentable
Man Of Steel, which
burdened the DC
Comics powerhouse
with not just two
separate fathers but
a third quasiadoptive
father
figure whose
presence in the film
allowed Superman
to work through his
tedious man-pain
by devastating a city
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and killing tens of
thousands of
people. When did
we become so
terrified of our
parents? Why do we
require so many
$100 million
cinematic therapy
sessions? Whatever
the answers to these
questions may be,
chances are that
they also explain the
ever-increasing
popularity of ‘young
adult’ literature.
Despite drawing on
images from a wide
array of literary
genres and
historical periods,
successful YA fiction
seldom refrains
from addressing
issues of parental
authority. For
example, J.K.
Rowling’s Harry
Potter books have
an endearingly oldfashioned
tendency
to depict grown-ups
as people deeply
invested in passing
their skills and
values on to the
next generation.
Yes, some of these
adult characters
may be good and
others evil, but both
Voldemort and
Dumbledore spend
the bulk of their
time recruiting kids
and helping them to
become as
competent as they
can possibly be.
While the Harry
Potter books and
films are primarily
about the
relationship
between children
and parental
authority figures,
they also contain
characters that lack
the authority of
parents but possess
more skill and
knowledge than the
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protagonists by
virtue of having
spent more time on
the margins of the
grown-up world.
These ‘adolescent’
older sibling
characters dominate
the landscape of
Stephenie Meyer’s
Twilight novels, and
Bella’s desire to
become a vampire
can be read as a
yearning to progress
past childhood and
assume an
adolescent identity
in much the same
way as Harry
Potter’s ability to
wield magic allows
him to participate in
the grown-up world.
Taking its cues from
Romeo And Juliet
by means of
Westside Story, the
Twilight series
deals with
squabbling gangs of
teenaged vampires
and werewolves
until the grown-ups
eventually turn up
in the form of the
Volturi, a group of
powerful Italia
vampires who
enforce the rules of
supernatural society
in a decidedly
parental fashion.
Aside from their age
and power, the
Volturi also
represent adulthood
with their fondness
for another of YA’s
recurring motifs:
young people being
frozen out of grownup
conversation.
The anxiety that
young people
experience at the
fact that their future
is being decided by
grown-ups having
conversations out of
earshot is absolutely
central to the allure
of Holly Black’s
Curse Workers
series.
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Concerned with the
adventures of the
youngest member of
a crime family made
up of people with
magical powers,
Black’s series
features a
protagonist who has
his memory and
personality
reshaped by his
family to suit their
own ends. Much like
the Potter and
Twilight series, the
Curse Workers
books follow the
protagonist as he
progresses from a
state of childish
impotence to one of
adolescent
competence before
eventually coming
into direct conflict
with the wielders of
parental authority.
In fact, The
Hunger Games:
Catching Fire is
all about the
moment in which its
teenaged
protagonist is
dragged out of
childhood and into
grown-up
conversation.
Based on a series of
eye-wateringly
successful novels by
Suzanne Collins,
The Hunger Games
films take place in a
post-apocalyptic
North America
where the
leadership of a
corrupt and
decadent Capitol
city supports itself
by systematically
brutalising the
inhabitants of 12
outlying districts.
One of the forms
this brutalisation
takes is that, every
year, two children
are taken from each
district and forced
to fight to the death
for the amusement,
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distraction, and
intimidation of
everyone else. Gary
Ross’ The Hunger
Games (2012)
follows a resident of
District 12 named
Katniss Everdeen
(Jennifer Lawrence)
after she volunteers
to take her younger
sister’s place in the
Hunger Games.
Though often
compared to the
film and manga
Battle Royale
(2000), The Hunger
Games has a
structure far closer
to that of a
traditional school
story in so far as it
features a childish
protagonist who is
forced to learn the
rules of a new
environment in
order to compete
with a bunch of kids
that are richer,
tougher, cooler, and
a lot more popular
than she is. An
outsider to the
games and a
reluctant
participant in
anything that does
not involve
frowning and
looking after her
younger sister,
Katniss initially
reacts to her new
environment by
refusing to play
along until a group
of ‘adolescent’
handlers manage to
convince her that
the only way to
survive the Hunger
Games is by
following the rules
and doing exactly
what the
government expects
of her. By showing
us the tangible
rewards of
compliance, the film
does an excellent
job of following
Katniss’ journey
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from a state of
childish ignorance
to a state of
emerging
adolescence where
the protagonist
understands the
rules of her world
despite lacking the
grown-up ability to
influence them
herself. However,
while the succession
of pretty frocks,
scrummy meals,
and glowing report
cards, may bring a
smile to Katniss’
grumpy face, they
never entirely
consume her
doubts.
The most
interesting things
about the original
Hunger Games
novel are that it is
written entirely
from the perspective
of a neurotic and
under-socialised
teenage girl.
Katniss’ narration
captures the joys of
trying on pretty
frocks as effectively
as it does the waves
of self-loathing and
paranoia that
accompany the
realisation that
someone in your
class appears to
fancy you. The
classmate in
question is Katniss’
fellow District 12
tribute Peeta
Mellark (Josh
Hutcherson), who is
either head-overheels
in love with
Katniss, or
pretending to be in
love in order to get
the audience on
their side and drum
up the kind of
sponsorship money
that will allow them
to receive care
packages once
inside the arena.
Katniss’
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increasingly evident
scepticism
regarding Peeta’s
plan to market them
as a pair of starcrossed
lovers not
only foreshadows a
wider set of doubts
about the
government’s use of
the games in
quelling rebellion, it
also hints at
Katniss’ refusal to
allow her fate to be
decided by grownups
having
conversations about
her in another
room. Rooted in her
home world and
capable of seeing
past the fictions of
her new one,
Katniss takes charge
of Peeta’s narrative
and uses it to
manipulate the
audience into
demanding a
change to the
Hunger Games
rules. This change
saves Peeta’s life but
it also identifies
Katniss as someone
with the potential to
function on a
grown-up level and
thereby pose a
threat to the
existing parental
authorities.
The Hunger
Games: Catching
Fire begins with
Katniss and Peeta
travelling from
district to district
delivering
government
speeches and
helping to quell
dissent. While Peeta
takes both his job as
victorious tribute
and role as starcrossed
lover
incredibly seriously,
Katniss’ boredom
and detachment are
such that people are
beginning to notice.
Fearful that doubts
about the narratives
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of previous Hunger
Games might
develop into doubts
about the Hunger
Games in general,
the president of
Panem (Donald
Sutherland) visits
Katniss and speaks
to her as an adult:
play your role and
do as you’re told or
we’ll murder your
entire district.
However, try as she
might, Katniss
simply cannot
refrain from being
herself and
undermining the
role dictated to her
by the grown-ups.
This opening act
really suffers for the
decision to shoot
The Hunger Games
in a traditional
Hollywood style
with no voiceovers.
Much of the drama
in this first act
comes from the fact
that Katniss is
under enormous
pressure to perform
the role that grownups
have assigned
her, despite the fact
that she is still
coming to terms
with who she is and
what she wants to
be. Had the
filmmakers followed
the book’s example
and allowed us
access to Katniss’
thoughts, this
section would
undoubtedly have
added real depth to
the characters, but
all we get is a flood
of ill-conceived
melodrama that
drowns the strength
and quiet dignity
that Jennifer
Lawrence displayed
in both the first
Hunger Games
film, and the
marvellous Winter’s
Bone (2010) that
launched her career.
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The real problem
here is that the
process of
adaptation has
casually discarded a
vital element of the
book and
completely failed to
replace it. A more
perceptive director
would have realised
that this sequence is
not about tragedy
and melodrama, but
about the conflict
between the need
for Katniss to keep
up appearances and
the need for Katniss
to be herself. A
bolder director
would have taken
inspiration from
films like Patrice
Leconte’s Ridicule
(1996), and novels
like Wilkie Collins’
The Woman In
White (1859), and
turned this entire
section into a nailbiting
social thriller:
will Katniss resist
the urge to be
herself for the sake
of her family?
Unfortunately, as
Francis Lawrence’s
previous films I Am
Legend (2007), and
Water For
Elephants (2010)
suggest, he is a
director who is
neither bold nor
particularly astute.
As in the source
material, the film’s
middle act is almost
identical to that of
the first: Forced to
compete in a second
Hunger Games that
pits her against a
load of fellow
survi
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overly familiar, and
utterly incapable of
making us care
about a fresh cast of
largely disposable
characters, the
second act is only
kept alive by the
suggestion that the
rule of Sutherland’s
President Snow
might be coming to
an end. A
magnificent actor in
his day, Sutherland
brings little subtlety
to the part of Snow
but, in truth, all that
is required of him is
to sport a beard,
make threats, and
have conversations
about younger
people in
comfortable-looking
offices and drawing
rooms. Much like
Dumbledore, he is
nothing but a
symbolic
representation of
grown-up power
and parental
authority.
The author and
critic Adam Roberts
has published a
fascinating essay
about YA fantasy’s
obsession with the
trappings of
Victorian society on
his blog Sibilant
Fricative. While The
Hunger Games is
not particularly
Victorian, it does
draw on historical
and generic imagery
in a very similar way
to those types of
work. According to
Roberts:
What these YA
fantasies all
share is a
fascination with
history not as
history, but as a
way of
conceptualising
the parental
generation.
Tolkien-Lewis’ far
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distant medieval
pageant has no
relevance here: it
is too far back.
‘Victorian times’
might seem a
little remote too –
but the key, I
think, is that
these fantasies
operate by the
symbolic rather
than
chronological
logic. The
VictorianEdwardian
period
is a style (of
dress, of
machinery); a
code (repressive
and authoritarian,
if elegantly so),
and embodiment
of ‘past-ness’
itself. The key
conceptual
perspective here
is Jameson’s
Postmodernism
(1990), and his
argument that
one of the
features of postmodernity
is the
replacement of
history as lived
experience with
history as a
pastiche of empty
visual styles (of
dress, of
architecture and
so on) that are
then shuffled
about by culture.
Collins’ use of firstperson
narration in
The Hunger Games
books forces the
reader to be aware
of the fact that what
they are reading are
descriptions of
people, places, and
events that have
been filtered
through the mind of
a scared and
overwhelmed
teenage girl. The
strength of Katniss’
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voice is a constant
reminder of her
status as an
unreliable narrator,
and her imperfect
understanding of
people and events
lends the books a
psychological
element so
pronounced that it
frequently blurs the
line between
psychological
realism and outright
metaphorical
fantasy.
The highly emotive
nature of Katniss’
narration
encourages the
reader to take
everything she says
with a pinch of salt.
Collins makes
frequent use of this
effect as a form of
misdirection that
encourages us to
view characters in a
certain light only for
their true nature to
be dramatically
revealed at some
later date. In fact,
Collins’ use of
misdirection and
flawed narration is
so systematic that it
is easy to fall into
the habit of
accounting for the
flaws in Collins’
world-building by
pointing out that all
we ever have to go
on is Katniss’
impressions of the
world.
Thus, the fact that
the Hunger Games
and their role in
Panem’s political
system makes not a
jot of sense is not
seen as a sign of
Collins’
incompetence but as
a sign of Katniss’
incomplete
understanding of
the world around
her. Once we accept
the possibility that
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what we are seeing
is not Panem itself,
but an emotional
landscape inspired
by Katniss’ reaction
to Panem, then it is
possible to read
almost every aspect
of the book as a
metaphorical
representation of
how Katniss feels
about her world.
This not only
accounts for the
inconsistencies in
Collins’ worldbuilding
but also the
fact that the world
of the Hunger
Games feels like a
postmodern collage
comprising images
lifted directly from
an assortment of
books and real
world historical
events. Thus, the
world of The
Hunger Games feels
a little bit 1984, a
little bit reality-TV,
a little bit Nazi
Germany, and a
little bit American
dustbowl as those
images evoke a set
of emotional
responses that are
intended to help
convey not what
Katniss literally sees
but rather how she
feels about her
world.
This is why
President Snow is
little more than a
vaguely threatening
beard: Collins is
drawing on a
particular set of
cultural images to
create an image of
patriarchal
authority that will
be comprehensible
to her intended
audience. Though
not a particularly
common approach
to writing, this
transition from
psychological
realism to
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metaphorical
fantasy is fairly
common in
psychological
thrillers as well as
T.H. White’s
children’s novel The
Sword And The
Stone (1938), where
Arthurian knights
sit around drinking
port and discussing
Eton because even
though neither of
those things actually
exist in the world of
the novel, the words
‘port’ and ‘Eton’
serve as
placeholders for a
drink, and a
training
establishment, with
a comparable set of
emotional and
cultural resonances.
The problem with
this psychological
reading of the
novels is that it
simply does not
apply to the films.
Nothing in either
The Hunger Games
or The Hunger
Games: Catching
Fire suggests that
we are seeing
anything other than
the complete
unvarnished truth
about what it is that
happened to
Katniss. This means
that rather than
being a film about
the experience of
moving from
childhood to
adolescence in a
world dominated by
malign and
absolutist parental
authority, The
Hunger Games
films are about a
young woman
coming of age in a
poorly imagined
world filled with
thin and derivative
imagery wrenched
from dozens of
better books and
films. Indeed, one of
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the most striking
things about The
Hunger Games
films is the
decidedly uneven
quality of their art
direction and
cinematography.
Gary Ross’ The
Hunger Games
benefits from a
relatively
uncomplicated
aesthetic line: the
film begins in a drab
and povertystricken
coalmining
town only to
progress to the
Capitol and finally
to the Hunger
Games arena itself.
To his credit, Ross
made the most of
that simple
aesthetic line by
having the film
become louder and
more colourful as it
progressed.
Undoubtedly the
standout section of
the first Hunger
Games film is the
section where a
drab and mousy
Katniss meets the
absurdly dressed
and hyper-primped
people working on
the Hunger Games,
including Elizabeth
Banks’ human
poodle Effie
Trinket, and Stanley
Tucci’s human grin
Caesar Flickerman.
While this sequel
takes its cues from
the first film, the
narrative’s tendency
to move Peeta and
Katniss back and
forth between
luxurious
apartments and
impoverished
districts fails to set
up the same set of
resonances, and
Francis Lawrence
would rather rush
his audience
through the talky-
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bits than use the
first film’s visual
language to stress
the moral
differences between
life in the Capitol
and life in the
districts. The same
lack of attention to
detail is evident in
the way that
Lawrence wastes no
time introducing the
rival tributes or
Philip Seymour
Hoffman’s Plutarch
Heavensbee.
Much like Woody
Harrelson’s trainer
Haymitch
Abernathy, and
Lenny Kravitz’s
designer Cinna,
Heavensbee is one
of those adolescent
characters who
understands the
nature of the world
he inhabits despite
having little ability
to change it. Having
raised the
possibility that
President Snow
might be about to
die, the film
introduces
Heavensbee as a
man on the rise; a
hugely ambitious
pale-haired man
whose position as
head game-maker
allows him to gain
access to those
grown-up
conversations in
which the parental
authority figure
discusses the fate of
the younger
generation. Given
the point at which
Heavensbee ends in
the film, it seems
reasonable to
assume that Collins
intended him to be
something of an
ambiguous figure
that stands on the
brink of adulthood
and whose growing
power and apparent
sympathy for
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Katniss suggest the
possibility of
change. Sadly,
Francis Lawrence
misses the
opportunity to make
Heavensbee appear
ambiguous, and the
film’s limp script
gives Hoffman so
little to work with
that it seems as
though he might
well have wandered
in off the street, and
read his lines from
cue-cards without
bothering to get into
costume; such is the
character’s lack of
visual, dramatic or
thematic impact.
However, as
bungled as the
introduction of
Heavensbee may be,
it is as nothing
when compared to
the train wreck that
is this film’s arena
sequence.
Gary Ross’ Hunger
Games was let down
by the fact that
while the story
builds and builds
towards a savage
battle to the death,
the source material
as well as the
studio’s desire for a
family-friendly
rating conspired
against the
inclusion of
anything even
remotely savage.
While Lawrence’s
failure to present
his arena battle as
anything more than
yet another chore
dumped on Katniss
by an unreasonable
parent means that
this film’s battle
feels like less of an
anti-climax, it is still
striking how little
spectacle and
excitement $130
million will buy you
in today’s
Hollywood.
Hollywood likes
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spectacle, or at least
the idea of
spectacle. Every
summer, the PR
machines spring to
life and begin to
disgorge empty
promises.
Hollywood talks
about the average
summer
blockbuster in
terms of wall-towall
action so
intense that it’s a
wonder they don’t
leave audiences
twitching and
drooling in the
aisles. However,
despite the
protestations of the
Hollywood PR
machine and callow
film critics the
world over, your
average summer
blockbusters are not
so much action
movies as they are
modern-day
equivalents of
traditional
Hollywood epics
like Cecil B.
DeMille’s The Ten
Commandments
(1956), or Joseph L.
Mankiewicz’s
Cleopatra (1963).
While these films
did frequently
include action
sequences, their
primary concern
was a luxuriant
pursuit of
authenticity that
aimed to recreate
historical settings in
a way that
highlighted the
economic and
creative might of the
studio system.
Indeed,
Man
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but Hollywood
chose to tell this
story in a form that
cost the equivalent
of $240 million in
today’s money. This
erroneous belief
that expensive films
are necessarily
spectacular is why
so many of today’s
blockbusters are
dull portentous
nonsense. Films like
The Hunger
Games: Catching
Fire are not
interested in action
sequences than they
are in the expensive
recreation of things
that feature in
books and comics.
Ross’ Hunger
Games suffered for
the fact that Collins
is unable to write
decent action, and
the same is true of
Lawrence who
appears to have
spent a lot of money
recreating a forest
filled with angry
baboons and poison
clouds only to
completely fail to
make that
environment feel
exciting or
spectacular.
The unravelling of
the arena battle in
The Hunger
Games: Catching
Fire begins in the
film’s bungled
second act. By
choosing to rush the
introduction of the
opposing tributes,
Lawrence not only
undermines the
drama of the battle
but also makes the
battles much harder
to follow as most of
the tributes lack the
kind of
distinguishing
marks that might
allow us to follow
their progress
through an action
scene. This situation
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is made worse by
Lawrence’s attempts
to inject urgency
into the battles by
rapidly cutting from
one shot to another.
This certainly
creates an
impression of speed
but it also makes
fights impossible to
follow, meaning
that every single
fight in this film
comes across as
little more than
frantic and
incoherent flailing
that occasionally
leaves someone
dead. As in the
source material, the
battle suffers from
Collins’ decision to
follow up every
confrontation with a
more slowly-paced
sequence in which
the characters sit
around discussing
their feelings,
mooning over dead
friends, and getting
paranoid about
their alliances with
other characters.
As with the opening
act, a savvy director
might have played
up the paranoia
underpinning these
scenes and turned
them into
simmering pots of
tension that
occasionally explode
into violence, but
Lawrence follows
Ross in choosing to
focus on the
melodrama thereby
depriving the film of
any sense of
lingering danger or
tension so that,
when the angry
baboons and
poisonous clouds do
turn up, they appear
more comical than
harrowing. There is
one particularly
wonderful scene
where Katniss’
group meets up with
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some other tributes
and decides to make
peace. Noting that
they appear to be
covered in sticky
brown liquid,
Katniss asks what
happened and one
of the female tribute
rolls her eyes and
talks about blood
falling from the sky
in the same tone of
voice that one might
talk about a ruined
wedding reception
or barbecue; a damp
squib indeed.
In truth, much of
The Hunger
Games: Catching
Fire seems like
padding. While the
first film does a
tolerable job of
introducing Katniss
and placing her in a
position where her
combination of
celebrity and
individuality risks
upsetting the
political narratives
that grown-ups have
fashioned around
her, the second film
simply re-iterates
this position in a
dramatically
uninteresting
manner that allows
them to pave the
way for the
inevitable rebellion
against parental
authority. Indeed,
the only really
moving scene in the
film is the final one
in which Katniss
wakes up in an
unfamiliar place
only to hear voices
discussing her in the
other room. Dazed
and upset, Katniss
stumbles towards
the door only to find
herself being let into
the room in which a
group of adolescents
are having a grownup
discussion about
getting rid of dad.
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Even though the
Hunger Games
films are dull,
overlong, and
generally a
monument to
Hollywood’s
growing inability to
produce substantial
and enduring works
of art, they are a
phenomenal success
and it is easy to see
why. The Hunger
Games books and
films are aimed
primarily at
children and so
make use of
remarkably
undemanding
conceptual and
symbolic languages.
Accessible to a fault,
these works deal in
broad themes and
images that are
instantly
comprehensible to
anyone who has
either seen a film or
read a book at some
point in their lives.
Most people don’t
know much about
politics but they
know that there’s
something faintly
sinister about
armoured troops
beating unarmed
protestors, while
children are forced
to fight to the death
as part of some illconceived
plan to
keep the general
population under
control. The series’
themes of parental
authority and
individual
autonomy speak to
a wide audience as
every single human
on the face of the
planet is either in
the process of
dealing with
parental authority,
or has done so at
some point in the
past. However,
while this decision
to deal in only the
broadest possible
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themes may say
quite a lot about the
commercial and
artistic ambitions of
Suzanne Collins and
contemporary
Hollywood, its also
reveals quite a lot
about how we have
come to perceive
ourselves.
The 20th century
left deep scars on
the political
imagination of this
species. Fascism
and communism
displayed what
humanity could
achieve when it put
its differences aside
and worked towards
a single goal,
particularly when
that goal required
the industrialised
slaughter of
innocents. Horrified
by this vision of
collectivisation, the
west lost faith in big
ideologies and came
to embrace a vision
of human
civilisation that
emphasised our
unique
individuality, at the
expense of our
shared concerns
and feelings. While
this individualistic
approach to the
ordering of human
society is most
evident in the rise of
neo-liberalism and
globalised capital, it
can also be seen in
the way that people
appear to have lost
complete faith in
the democratic
process itself. In his
book Politics Of
Fear (2005), the
sociologist Frank
Furedi describes
how the political
system has shifted
from treating voters
as being part of the
democratic
decision-making
process to treating
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them as the passive
recipients of policy
decisions made by
politicians and
‘experts’:
The assumption
of numerous
policy documents
is that people are
not trustworthy
and cannot be
expected to live
their lives
responsibly. The
tendency to treat
adults as children
informs the
action of the
entire political
class. Individuals
are no longer
presented as the
‘political man’ or
even as ‘citizens’.
Today’s political
vocabulary
emphasizes the
passivity and
powerlessness of
the public. We
have the
excluded, the
vulnerable
(potential victim),
the victim, the
bullied, the client,
the end user, the
consumer or the
stakeholder, but
not the people as
political animals.
This infantilisation
of the electorate is
also evident in the
way the last two
generations of
politicians have
fallen over
themselves to
remove public
goods from public
hands. Institutions
built to serve the
public interest are
sold off and, when
they cannot be sold
off, they are placed
in the hands of
professionals and
experts who are left
to make important
decisions with
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minimal political
oversight and zero
public
accountability.
Issues of economic,
foreign, and
domestic policy are
regularly presented
as being too
complex to explain
to the general public
and so the grownups
retire to another
room where they
can talk about our
future out of
earshot. Half
convinced that they
too lack an adequate
understanding to do
their jobs,
politicians appear to
have abandoned
real politics in
favour of holding
opinions about the
minutiae of the
electorate’s lives:
are they raising
their children
properly? Are they
exercising enough?
Are they drinking
too much? Are they
reading enough?
Are they too fat?
These are the types
of questions that
parents ask
themselves about
their children and a
political culture that
allows politicians to
think of the
electorate in these
terms infantilises us
all. The reason that
people respond to
works like The
Hunger Games is
the same reason
they cower in the
shadow of their
parents and feel
empowered by
mass-market
therapy sessions
written for a teen
demographic: we
are subject to a
culture that
encourages us to
view ourselves as
creatures that are as
passive and as
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powerless as
children. Works like
The Hunger Games,
Harry Potter, and
Twilight benefit
from this cultural
mood as much as
they contribute to it.
What is the point of
art if not to
challenge the way
we think about
ourselves? A better
film than The
Hunger Games:
Catching Fire might
have passed muster
as entertainment,
but the only the
only thing it does is
pump you full of
ideology and shrink
the horizons of your
mind to the point
where intelligent,
resourceful women
are
indistinguishable
from grumpy
teenagers. At least
Ender’s Game
respects its
audience enough to
consider them
capable of genocide.