Americans have a love affair with revolutionary authenticity. Not so long ago in the grand scheme of things, we won our own revolution, and created the complex system of checks and balances we stumble over and muddle through now.
Revolutionary cultures value revolution, but also fear it. We know its power, and yearn for its heroic dreams, but we also value stability and community, the winner’s prize. The Hunger Games plays on this anxiety and idealism to grab us where we feel it most: in our craving for stories of triumphant authenticity.
The blockbuster movie, The Hunger Games, based on the award winning book by Suzanne Collins., tells the story of a dystopian extreme of futuristic capitalist exploitation — the “Capital,” which takes in the resources and labor of 12 surrounding districts, where people live in continual poverty and dependence in order to support the luxurious life of those in the city. A failed revolution led to the Hunger Games, an annual gladiator-like television show that asks the children of these districts to fight to the death.
This violent spectacle is derailed by the courage, clarity and authenticity of Katniss Everdeen, a fighter from the mining district who, with her fellow tribute Peta, win the “games” and become heroes (not victims and reminders of subjugation) in the process.
A call for leadership to end inequality through art about “the future.”
It’s impossible not to make the thematic connection between ancient, decadent Rome and modern English/American popular culture’s voracious appetite for visceral/humiliating reality shows like “Survivor.” And the casual dehumanizing of the working class along with the fetishized beauty of the upper classes in the Capitol is a clear exaggeration of our current inequality.
The extreme example of futuristic technology and social isolation makes the message easier to swallow, more inspiring because it’s set in a world similar enough to our own, but far enough away that we can keep watching, drawn in by our love of revolutionary possibility and triumph over gross injustice.
Positive authentic leadership makes this identification even more powerful. Both Katniss and Peeta are driven, not by mere survival instincts, but by values of community, personal integrity and love.
As they struggle in the arena, at first separately and then together, they draw us into their fear, hope and courage. We imagine ourselves possible of youthful humanity in the face of dehumanizing force. The beauty of souls triumphing against danger gives us an idealized sense of the power of authenticity in an inauthentic world — first the viciously stacked deck of the televised gladiatorial Hunger Games, and second, the privileged playland of the Capitol.
The fact that the heroes are teenagers and beautiful makes them even more appealing. But the key to their charm is their courage and authentic (consistent, values-based) game-playing. They are always themselves, playing fairly in an unfair game.
It is an irresistable call to revolution through authentic leadership and heroism, in the form of a video-game/morality-tale/teen adventure. It sets the stage for the next two stories, where the revolution started by the teens spreads to the districts, with all the paradoxes and challenges of that messy process.
In those second and third books, Collins shows how hard it is to maintain authenticity in the long haul of battle, with its tested loyalties and traumas. Leadership, for these two, means being in the public eye and still endangered, because of the very victory that saved their lives and showed the Capitol it could no longer control the game.
It is a fitting morality tale for our time and our nation, which has been compared to the seduction and fall of the Roman empire by both sides of our polarizing cultural debates. With so much transformation around and within us, it is hard to know ourselves, what we should be, and what we might become.
The Hunger Games is a creative call for authentic leadership, in all its risky glory. We may not be fighting for our lives in a brutal arena, but there is something familiar about the challenge to stand up as ourselves, for ourselves and our communities, against the world’s nasty surprises.