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What “The Hunger Games” Tells Us About the Media Industry

In my last post, I took a break from policy and politics to discuss some arts and culture, namely The Hunger Games. The basic premise of that post was that The Hunger Games functioned as a self-reflexive look at the media industry, with each character or group of characters fulfilling a specific role in that industry. I did not, however, discuss what I think the film says about that industry.

But before I begin, I should say that, as I write this, I have not yet read the books — only seen the film. I should also say that I do not think reading the book is any sort of prerequisite to discussing or analyzing the film. While films may be based off of novels (and, from what I understand, The Hunger Games was very faithful to its source material), they are an inherently different form of storytelling from their print counterparts. There are stricter time constraints, the need to reach a broader audience in order to make the costlier production financially viable, and the societal/thematic changes occurring between the time the book is published and the movie is made that might affect content, among many other factors.

To the extent that The Hunger Games as a film reflects what is printed in the book, it represents what the film’s creative team (writers, director, cinematographer, producers, actors, etc…) accepted as necessary and proper for a film. These choices (and changes) are often the source of much debate, but the fact remains that they are made, and this analysis will discuss those choices — whether they represent the choice to illustrate the book’s descriptions and narrative or not.

I should also note that while my last post discussed The Hunger Games solely in terms of the filmmaking process, this post will work off of the assumption that it contains a broader ideology regarding the media industry. I do not think this is contradictory. It make sense that a film would be self-reflexive of the film industry, though it might also resonate more broadly.

Consider Watchmen for a moment. The Alan Moore comic book contained a “comic within a comic” in which the narrative would shift to the panels of a comic book titled Tales of the Black Freighter that one of the Moore comic’s side characters was reading. Tales of the Black Freighter, as a comic book, reflected and commented upon the comic book Watchmen and its characters. When translated to film, Tales of the Black Freighter was (in the director’s cut, since it did not make the theatrical edition) remade as an animated “film within a film.”

Unifying the media type in both Watchmen cases reinforced their self-reflexive function, and the messages they contained (though I should note that I believe Watchmen is a prime example of a creative team trying too hard to “remain faithful” to the source material when they should have altered elements for the screen). The Hunger Games functions, I think, in a similar fashion. I assume that the book plays out with visual media as well (and not in, say, newspaper, or other print media) but, again, my analysis is only going to focus on the film.

And, though it may be blasphemous to many fans of The Hunger Games, it seems to me that having the “visual media within a visual media” might be a stronger self-reflexive tool than “visual media within a print media.” This is not to say either is superior — it is just an observation. Besides, the novel, from what I understand, allows a window into Katniss’ mind that film simply cannot, making the two forms quite different (and perhaps further strengthening the ‘visual media as self-reflexive of visual media’ critique because in the film we can no more see into Katniss’ mind than we can into the minds of people in any other film or show).

Additionally, the importance of the media critique to the film is underlined by the filmmakers’ creative choices. First, as noted in the previous post (and touched upon throughout this one as well), The Hunger Games provides a self-reflexive look at the film industry’s participants and their relationships.

But on a more basic level, that the creative team deliberately chose to highlight the role of Panem’s media is a testament to its significance. Unlike novels, which have more leeway in their focus and length, films are limited by runtime, which generally forces the filmmakers to excise elements that they consider unimportant.

Yet the media critique was not excised (nor marginalized), but, rather, figures prominently in the film. Indeed, the primacy of the film’s media ideology is demonstrated by the fact that the very first image the audience sees is Seneca speaking on Caesar’s talkshow. This opening scene immediately orientes the audience as media consumers (and, to take it one step further, as Capitol media consumers), and stresses the importance of media structures to the film.

All that being said, I think The Hunger Games contains three main points regarding the media industry:

  • The “narrativization” of non-fiction
  • The media product is not simply a top-down imposition but, rather, supported and reinforced by many actors
  • The role of violence in the media

The film reinforces, at many points, the importance of creating a narrative for public consumption. Haymitch stresses this to Katniss and Peeta when he describes to them his strategy for staying alive, and later when he advises them to play up their roles as star-crossed lovers. Caesar, likewise, guides the narrative with carefully targeted questions meant to nudge the participants toward a narrative that can be easily consumed by the Capitol audience.

His discussion of Katniss’ sister, Prim, for example, is on one level a question about why Katniss volunteered for the Hunger Games, but can also be understood as creating a simple narrative for the Capitol audience. I forget the specifics, but I seem to recall one character (Katniss, perhaps?) commenting on how the situation is more complex than presented and understood by Caesar and the Capitol citizens. Caesar’s discussion of Prim serves to eliminate that complexity in favor of a clear-cut narrative: Katniss wants to win for her sister.

And, of course, the manipulation of the Hunger Games by Seneca is the ultimate narrativization. He consistently tries to sculpt the Games in such a way as affect their outcome and perception. He suspends the ‘single victor’ rule in order to play up the ‘young love’ angle for his audience, then reinstates it to heighten the drama. Then, significantly, he suspends it again when it appears that Katniss and Peeta are about to commit suicide, in order to preserve an acceptable, ‘happy’ ending.

President Snow also recognizes the narrativization when he discusses the dangers that Katniss and Peeta’s ‘young love’ narrative could pose if not strictly controlled. Crucially, he also acknowledges the fact that the entire concept of the Hunger Games is based on the (contained) hope that is produced by the manufactured narrative.

Of course, Katniss and Peeta are young lovers. So how, then, can this narrative be described as “controlled” or “manufactured?” Well, interestingly, the ‘young love’ narrative precedes their development as ‘young lovers.’ That is, the Capitol audiences perceive the two as young lovers long before the two actually fill those roles truthfully (I write “truthfully” because they seem to act the roles for the audience’s benefit before actually falling in love). Yet, those viewing the Games in the Capitol and the Districts seem to take what they are seeing at face value. They accept the narrative that is being produced as true, regardless of its actual veracity.

Also consider that, while the characters vary with what level of control they actually have, the final media product of the Hunger Games is ultimately determined by many, different actors (‘actors’ in the sense of ‘participants,’ not in the theatrical sense). President Snow’s attempts to impose a particular narrative, in the end, fail. Were he the only actor whose decision mattered, the film would have likely ended with Katniss and Peeta dead, and another tribute victorious.

President Snow (described in the last post as the ‘movie executive,’ or here as the media executive) may control the levers of power within an organization (whether Panem or, say, a television station), but there are still certain powerful elements outside his and his subordinate Seneca (directors, news editors, etc…) control. “The facts on the ground” is one such element. Broadcasting the Games live is a barrier to some manipulation. For instance, Seneca could not simply send Peacemakers into the game to shoot Katniss and then release a story that she’d been killed by Cato, because the audience is watching the Games in real time. So, to a certain extent, all actors are bound by events in the Games as they unfold — thus giving Katniss, as a principle actor in these events, some small level of power to affect the perception and outcome of the Games.

Perhaps the most powerful element constraining Snow’s direction of the Games, however, is the audience. Haymitch tells Katniss and Peeta to construct a narrative so that they can attract attention and win over investors. This, of course, is exactly how our media industry functions.

Films are not produced in order to please audiences — they are produced, first and foremost, because of revenue. Films are designed to attract large audiences in order to make money. A person will spend $10 to see The Hunger Games in theaters because they are interested in Katniss and Peeta’s narrative. (Producers and other investors act similarly, though they are distinct because they have the additional incentive of monetary return, whereas audience members are driven mainly by the narrative).

The news side of the media industry, likewise, is sustained by a business model of attracting an audience (despite what many people would like to believe). And here, especially, the narrativization element figures prominently. The news media (particularly the broadcast media, like radio and television, which are limited by airtime) have the difficult task of maintaining audiences in order to keep revenues up and sustain themselves economically. As with films, the news media raise revenue through larger audiences, though usually not through direct charges. Instead, they make money through charging advertisers to air commercials on their channels (or, in the case of print media, printing advertisements in their magazines and newspapers). The larger the audience, the more they can charge advertisers.

Katniss’ friend Gale notes the power that audiences hold when he questions what would happen if everyone simultaneously decided against watching the Hunger Games, depriving them of their power. Yet, as could be expected, large crowds reliably turn out to watch the Games (though Gale is not among them). The Hunger Games (like media products in our own world) has been designed with the specific purpose of holding its audience’s attention.

In order to capture and maintain that larger audience, the news media employ various tactics. They try to be the first to air a particular story, use interesting soundbites, explain things in the simplest possible (and most familiar) terms, and, above all, keep the news interesting.

The result is that the news is often ‘narrativized.’ Delivering the news in a standard narrative format — consisting of a beginning, middle, and an end, and featuring a protagonist, antagonist, and central conflict — allows news organizations to make the news accessible, compelling, and easily digestible, which in turn makes them more attractive to a broader audience.

This does not amount to a vast media conspiracy. Rather, it comes down to a combination of market forces and human nature. It is important to remember that journalists are human, and so inclined to organize and categorize information in ways that make sense to them — and ‘narrativization’ provides an efficient structure for doing so.

By portraying the entire process, however, The Hunger Games critiques this process as both inaccurate and ultimately affecting the covered subject. Caesar may never physically leave his stage (though, interestingly, he does jarringly appear in the Games during Katniss’ hallucination), and the audience may imagine they are not affecting the outcome of the Games by simply watching, but both are a critical part of the media process. Both contribute to the creation of a narrative (which, as noted in the case of the Katniss-Peeta relationship, becomes reality), and affect how the Games actually play out. The narrative fuels greater media coverage, which attracts investors to intervene in the Games, sending Katniss aid packages.

Thus, when applied to the news side of the industry, The Hunger Games rejects the idea of an independent, objective media, and instead recognizes a blurring of the lines between fiction and nonfiction. Indeed, The Hunger Games’ author, Suzanne Collins, has said that this very idea was present when she first started developing the story, describing an experience in which news images of the Iraq War “fused” with those of a reality television show.

In an interview with Scholastic, Collins says that “The Hunger Games is a reality television program.” Of course, such shows are the ultimate ‘narrativization’ of supposedly nonfiction events.

Violence also plays a prominent role in The Hunger Games’ media critique. The aforementioned market forces that direct news sources to cover stories in a certain way also direct them to cover certain stories. Stories that will draw a larger audience are generally preferred.

This leads to a preference for violent stories for several reasons. First, the intense emotions that are aroused by covering a violent story often have the desired effect of ‘capturing’ many viewers. But also, such stories are often easier to plug into the narrative structure — the conflict, the protagonist (victim), and the antagonist (offender) are all already there. Furthermore, violent stories (such as murder, rape, etc…) are fairly universal, and thus easily grasped by an audience without much of a need for in-depth background and context. The ability to simply jump to emotional soundbites of family and friends without additional explanation and context can be very appealing for a news organization that needs to appeal to a broad spectrum of viewers with limited airtime.

The use of violence in fictional stories functions in a similar fashion (though, again, the idea behind The Hunger Games is that the boundary between fiction and nonfiction is fairly permeable).

The Hunger Games seeks to remind us of the horrible reality behind these violent acts. A key moment occurs when Haymitch notices a young Capitol child chasing his sister with a toy sword. The boy, mimicking the Hunger Games he watches on television, is eerily reminiscent of any average child today, playing soldier with toy guns.

Capitol citizens’ general attitudes toward the Hunger Games also indicate desensitization to extreme violence. The media coverage generally focuses on the tributes’ strength, background, and narratives, and eschews any discussion of their imminent and horrific deaths.

In the opening scene, Seneca describes the Hunger Games to Caesar as tradition, which calls to mind horrific real world acts that have been defended as ‘traditions,’ such as the practice of widows burning on their dead husband’s funeral pyre. To unveil the harsh reality behind this desensitization, the scene with Seneca talking to Caesar ends jarringly in mid-discussion with a scream, and a cut to District 12, where Katniss is comforting her sister, Prim. The talk of tradition is revealed as empty when confronted with the suffering that the Hunger Games really cause.

In deconstructing the interplay of  ‘narrativization,’ violence, and market forces in the media industry, The Hunger Games further blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction. Perhaps that is the most interesting point of all — for all its fantastical elements, The Hunger Games nevertheless provides an accurate and relevant description of how the media industry functions today.

The Hunger Games does not just tell us a story, it tells us a bit about ourselves and our world.