How Hollywood Greed Turned 'The Hunger Games' Into a Tacky, Toothless Mega Project
The spirit of rebellion is haunting America, most lately seen flickering across our television screens in images of buildings aflame and eyes burning with tear gas. Beneath a festive banner announcing “Seasons Greetings,” members of the Ferguson Police Department duly met its appearance in full riot gear, countering a force they can neither predict nor control with redoubled aggression.
Just as it dawned on Americans that there would be no indictment for Officer Darren Wilson, the white policeman who fatally shot African American teenager Michael Brown, moviegoers lined up to watch the third installment of The Hunger Games, a blockbuster saga of authoritarian oppression widely hailed for its revolutionary fervor and timely critique of elite power structures.
No doubt, The Hunger Games has stirred an American population simmering in resentment toward police brutality, government oppression, and economic inequality; the very title of the saga expresses the desperation that comes when our deepest needs are not only unmet, but brutally turned against us. Since the first film’s debut in 2012, viewers have thrilled to watch a corrupt, illegitimate order straining under the weight of its own lies and met with implacable resistance in the form of kickass heroine Katniss Everdeen. We have recognized the voluptuous way the elites of Panem enjoy their tyranny and we seize the chance to participate vicariously in the rebellion of our Everywoman, her innocence and decency serving to rebuke the cool sadism of Coriolanus Snow, president of the totalitarian government of Panem.
"I want Hunger Games to stir up a revolution," said Donald Sutherland, who portrays the despot. But against what, precisely?
Shrewd viewers and pleased conservatives have noticed that in the world of Panem, evil resides solely in the candy-colored palaces of the Capitol. Glaringly absent from the story are the corporate powers and market forces that shape and constrict our lives here in the United States of America. In Panem there is neither hide nor hair of the sorts of bad guys who reside in boardrooms, bank suites, and the corridors of multinational headquarters — that wicked force hardly any American politician dares tangle with. As long as Katniss can survive high noon with the state imperium, all will be well. The Invisible Hand is truly invisible.
And why argue with powerful market forces when they bring such good things to life? After all, they bring us The Hunger Games, a rebel-tainment vehicle of almost unprecedented popularity and profit. The first film set a revenue record for a non-sequel, pulling in $155 million on its opening weekend, more than twice the haul for Twilight’s debut. Following the second film, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Lions Gate posted the highest revenue report in its history.
The bean counters at Lions Gate have left no stone unturned in their heroic quest to further the franchise, hiring Kelly Phelan, erstwhile pusher of Lego products, for the newly created position of “executive VP of global franchise management and strategic partnerships.” The revolution will be franchised, cultivated for world-wide market penetration and positioned for optimal profits.
Fictional characters like Katniss Everdeen are like the figures on the cave wall of our ancestors, manifesting our collective anxieties and ambitions. But is it the spirit of revolution, or the comfort of consumption we really crave? Hollywood is betting on the latter.
To wit: Hunger Games fans may choose this holiday season from a cornucopia of tawdry and superfluous products. Behold the Barbie Collector Hunger Games Katniss Everdeen Doll, courtesy of the duopolistic Mattel toy company, which retails at Walmart for $33.99. According to advertisements, this plastic simulacrum stands ready to “make impossible choices in the arena that weigh survival against humanity and life against love” while sporting the “iconic mockingjay pin” to “complete the look.” Pin replicas, naturally, are churned out in Chinese factories where underpaid workers make the “symbol of rebellion” available for the bargain price of $5.91 through that great monopolistic power of the Internet Age, Amazon.com. Iphone cases, hoodies, messenger bags, pajama sets, and even, inexplicably, a Hunger Games light bulb, are all stocked up and ready to be placed beneath the tree.
The Hunger Games has created not just a franchise, it has added a new behemoth to the American movie oligopoly. The erstwhile upstart film studio Lions Gate has recently emerged, through a series of cleverly orchestrated mergers and acquisitions, as a major conglomerate boasting billion-dollar properties. It joins the likes of Paramount, 20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures in the great consortium which has persisted for more than a century and has worked like a well-oiled machine to squash competition and exploit labor.
Ever-vigilant, Lions Gate is using our tax dollars to sue anyone who dares to produce unlicensed Hunger Games paraphernalia. The firm has even gone after parodists aiming to poke fun at its mighty Twilight franchise. Lions Gate, like the other Big Boys, has dedicated itself to offshoring post-production work, hoovering up tax subsidies, and even allegedly misclassifying interns and refusing to pay them minimum wage. Jon Feltheimer, chief executive officer of Lions Gate Entertainment Corp, made $63.6 million in compensation last year, much of it in stock, making him one of the highest-paid entertainment executives on planet Earth.
But has Lions Gate gone too far with this last offering to the gods of capitalism? For all the marketing frenzy, the franchise saw its lowest opening with the third film The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1.
The saga is based on Suzanne Collins’ book trilogy, but of course a trilogy only gives you three movies. So Lions Gate followed the recent Hollywood gimmick of breaking up the final book in the series into two films to generate more dollars. Many film critics have noticed that this maneuver tends to produce weak movies; the first part of the final two often serves as little more than a plot bridge, and in the case of Mockingjay, it is a particularly dull bridge where people mostly stand around yammering expositions and staring at giant screens. If there were intriguing political maneuverings happening or compelling passions explored, this lack of action wouldn't be so bad, but Mockingjay seems to have lost the heart of the series.
This go-round, the beaten-down residents of Panem, destitute in their tattered clothes, are only shown fleetingly as heaps of corpses, while an inordinate amount of screen time is devoted to the evolution of Katniss’ elegant bird-warrior outfit, complete with designer sketches and asymmetrical breastplates. Revolution becomes a fashion statement: the look is definitely more couture than kickass.
America’s capitalist robber barons will have little to fear as long as they can cultivate moviegoers whose habits are much at odds with the often unphotogenic and unsexy work of real political challenge. Revolution, after all, rarely gets professionally applied eyeliner. They are banking on the notion that our anxieties will be exorcised in the darkened theater and helpfully monetized for corporate executives who, unlike America’s youth, never fail to make their presence felt on election day. The young people who flock to The Hunger Games can expect crap jobs, a frayed social safety net,and an economic system that is literally killing them slowly, but never mind: their right to shop at Walmart is inalienable.
Over the last decade or so, movie studios have plowed their awesome financial resources and creativity into ginning up franchises geared toward adolescents. They know that young people will embrace movies that portray them in a positive light and celebrate the spirit of rebellion that can be turned against parental authority but never channeled against consumer culture or corporate dominance. The cash nexus must be kept intact. Thus The Hunger Games is leached of nourishment, and in Mockingjay, the joke is on us. The Invisible Hand just gave us the finger.