Thursday, November 19, 2015

Case Study: How the First "Hunger Games" Movie Turned Us Into Sadists

Metalepsis - How the First Hunger Games Movie Turned Us Into Sadists

Tomorrow is the big day when Mockingjay Part 2, the last part of the Hunger Games movie series, is going to be released. It seems like a good occasion to talk about the very first part. The one that unlike all the others had a very special effect.

Maybe it's just me; maybe you noticed it too. Maybe it was done consciously; maybe it was done unconsciously. But if you ask me, the effect of a narrative metalepsis is there, and this effect is the reason why the first movie impressed me so much. It's the effect of blurring the line between the viewer and what's happening on the screen.

In narratology we speak of a metalepsis when one narrative level enters another one. This happens, for example, when a narrator starts meddling in the affairs of the characters instead of just telling the story. Or when a novel is about the reader reading it. Or when the characters decide to kill their author for all the horrible things he did to them. Or when the reader somehow turns out to be a character in the story. ... You get the idea, right?

Now how does the first Hunger Games movie achieve this effect? Well, what's important here is that in the story the Hunger Games are a big TV event, publicly shown on huge screens. At least for the people of the Capitol it's just plain entertainment. Yes. They watch teenagers kill each other for entertainment just like the movie viewer watches the same teenagers kill each other for entertainment. During the second half of the movie we actually turn into those Capitol people sitting comfortably in a chair and crunching popcorn. Neither the Capitol citizens nor us are evil. We all have our favourite participants and desperately want them to survive. But we watch for entertainment.

Are the Hunger Games a Metaphor for the Real World?

As I said, maybe it's just me. Yet I really did feel dirty after watching the first part, like some sadist who escaped her daily life by watching kids kill each other. Moreover, what makes this "dirty" feeling worse is that the Hunger Games can be understood as a metaphor for the real world with the "Western" countries and their allies being the Capitol and the poorer countries being the rest. The real world is too complicated to fit this metaphor exactly, of course, but there are similarities: We (I say this as a German citizen) consciously destroy the economies of many other countries (especially those on the African continent), so we can have all kinds of luxury goods for a low price. We make others dependent from us and if they oppose us, we destroy them by overthrowing their democratically elected government, as for example in Iran in 1953, or by some other imperialistic means like military interventions, forcing our so-called "Western values" onto others, completely ignoring their history, culture and mentality, and by doing so turning our "morals" into a mere tool of suppression. We start wars, we make others kill each other, and then we watch them do it live on TV.

Identifying with the Victims

The dirtiest thing about all this is that in fiction we, the oppressors, like to identify with the oppressed. Ulrike Jureit and Christian Schneider even wrote a whole book on how the Germans deal with their Nazi past by identifying with the victims instead of their actual ancestors. I can add that everybody is sick of this "Look at how eeeeeeeevil your ancestors were" talk by now, especially considering that there are almost no Germans left who have anything to do with the Holocaust. It's very similar to the issue with the Native Americans in the US, I guess. We were never taught to identify with the "bad guys", we all consider ourselves the "good guys", and so we identify with the "good guys" in history and fiction. But the horrible truth is that the most horrible crimes aren't committed because of plain evilness. The people who committed them were just people like you and me, just doing their job, chasing their dreams and trying to find a place in the world, maybe even being oppressed by somebody else and just trying to escape this state.

Actually, it's very likely that you're the "bad guy" in somebody else's life without even realizing it. And it's even more likely that every "bad guy" in your life considers himself a poor victim. - This is why I think that always identifying with the poor victims is dangerous: It makes us blind for the bad things we do to others, mostly not even meaning it. Or do you believe that most citizens of the Capitol want to hurt anyone? No, they seem to really like their favourite champions and probably wish all the good things for their family and friends, completely ignoring the fact that if they and all the others weren't part of this sick entertainment machinery their beloved champions wouldn't have to suffer and die.

So you see what makes the first movie special for me. The other movies of the series seem just like your generic "Oh, let's make a revolution and overthrow that asshole government!" kitsch and identification with the victims. Very well made kitsch, but still kitsch. I can't say how I feel about the books, since I haven't read them, but I'm spoiled about the ending and ... Well, for me, the ending makes up a bit for the kitsch and I'm excited to see it on the big screen.

And now it's your turn! Please tell me: Is it really just me or did you feel this metalepsis effect too? How do you feel about fiction focussing so heavily on the victims instead of trying to actually make the audience identify with the oppressors and by doing so make them aware of their own faults? Do you think this identification with the oppressed and even the common idealization of rebels has to do with puberty and the desire to escape the control of one's parents? Please let me know in the comments, and you're also welcome to argue with me about politics, as long as it relates to this article.

And if you liked my thoughts, please don't forget to share this post!

Looking forward to your comments,
Feael Silmarien

Ulrike Jureit, Christian Schneider: Gef├╝hlte Opfer. Illusionen der Vergangenheitsbew├Ąltigung, Stuttgart 2010.

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