The classic drama of yesteryears requires that the hero must have noble birth. He must also have one tragic flaw that will show his humanity and cause his downfall. The hero’s fall must incite pity or fear from the audience, inasmuch as it will result to the hero’s self-awareness – that of being human. Oedipus from Sophocles’s works and Prince Hamlet from Shakespeare’s Hamlet are the classic examples of tragic heroes. The hero is up on the pedestal at the beginning and descends his way through the story. The climax of the drama is the fall from grace and the realization of his humanity, necessarily uniting the audience and the hero. He is but one of us, he commits errors.
In modern day drama, noble birth has been replaced with ordinariness. This is often termed in Literature as the anti-hero – the average member. In this paradigm, the reversal of fortune is not caused by the action of the flawed hero but due to circumstances, accidents, that could befall any member of that society. Heroic deed, therefore, is not restricted to a man with a larger- than-life presence, but rather, to anybody. He or she will exhibit his heroic sides as he struggles against the hardships and challenges thrown his way. The audience will identify with the hero, not because of his weakness, but because he does something extraordinary while still remaining human – one of us.
Katniss Everdeen, the character in the movie, Hunger Games, is an example of today’s anti-hero. She volunteered in behalf of her younger sister, Primrose, in Panem’s annual ritual called the Reaping. She has become our accidental heroine, unwillingly thrown into the fray, to play the game of death – to kill or be killed. She was very ordinary, in many ways. She came from a very poor village, known as District 12, living the close- to- starvation existence, a rather common lot. She provides for her family – a mother who chose to escape from reality after her husband’s tragic and untimely death, and a sister, who is still young and innocent.
The Reaping is a tradition in that country. It is a killing spree with only one survivor in the end. It is a public spectacle, as the “meet” is televised in the whole kingdom or territory. The drawing of lot at the village level is a much-dreaded point among the citizens, but the actual fight among the delegates in the center is a much-awaited event. It is organized at the highest level, with all the glamour and glitz, as it is followed by every citizen with zeal. The Reaping calls to mind the ancient tradition among the Aztecs, the rite of offering up virgins to the gods. On the other hand, there is also the gladiators – slaves made to fight among themselves in the arena – for the amusement of the emperor, his friends and family. We are no strangers to people killing each other to wow the roaring crowd; world history has these episodes.
Catharsis or the idea of an organism bleeding itself is also a feature of the classic drama. In the play, Oedipus Rex, Oedipus blinds himself, to pay for his errors and finally see the truth. In Shakespeare’s Othello, Othello commits suicide. In Hunger Games, the Reaping appears to be a catharsis of the system. The battle among the delegates, is Panem’s annual rite to renew its people’s way of life. What kind of life, we may ask. It is hinted, the unequal kind – the rule-maker versus the rule-follower, the cosmopolitan people versus the village people, the life with the wide economic and technological divides. Another way to put it – the Reaping is a tradition to keep the peace, to keep the lid on constituents who dare to rise in mutiny to upset the system. Successive attempts at rebellion are prevented by bringing bloodshed close to people’s memory – a cruel but necessary reminder – from the point of view of those who run the system.
Thus, Hunger Games seems to be about a system based on coercion of the many by the few. It is a flawed system. It is full of defects and it is suggested in the movie’s first installment, not tenable. Over time, it will be undone. Will the heroine be the cause of the system’s undoing? Will she rise to the occasion? Will the system give way all too easily? We do not know yet… The first of the Hunger Games series acquaints us with the background of the contending parties – the way they live their everyday lives, their ties to the people around them, the pecking order or the hierarchy in the lower and the upper echelons of that society and, the motivations of the characters – what keeps them going, what do they prize? The movie takes us on tour around the heroine’s community and gives us a glimpse of her laid-back life – a young woman with a love prospect but keener on keeping what remains of her family – together.
In our earlier discussion, we pointed the difference between Utopias and dystopias. Utopias are big narratives inspiring people on what kind of world humans can achieve if we perceive and work together as humans connected. Utopias usually talk about breaking chains – the chains of selfishness, nearsightedness and discord among people to bring about a better, more prosperous, more harmonious world. On the other hand, while dystopias concede that there is a structured society woven tight by strong and well-set mechanisms and traditions, they talk about undoing it. In this sense, utopias often play the part of critiques, tirades against the system. The dystopian genre in Literature normally features collective starvation, class divide, remote governance and wide technological gap. At the individual level, it poses the questions of superficiality, loneliness and disconnect among society’s members.
In Literature, dystopian works fall under science fiction, a subset of speculative fiction. Thus, the society depicted in the works are always theoretical, fictional or, theatrical. They are usually ultra-modern societies set in the future. Curiously, they are against the standardization of life, the very core of structured and modern living. Thus, many dystopian works discuss the effects of automation, industrialization, uniformity of habits and routines on the people who are but intent to go on with their lives. Using the fictive setting, dystopian works take a snapshot of the individual lost and almost helpless, amidst the new technology and the new forms of enjoyment. They normally expose the system as oppressive and bereft of essential values – sense of family, sense of self and sense of community. The individual trudging along “modern” life alienated, will he or she see her way through the system? Or, will she bring down the system to make way for a new one?
As narratives, Utopia and dystopia have been examined thoroughly in the last few decades both in Literature and the social science fronts. Academicians, historians and leading intellectuals have chastised these forms as being too system bound, system centric and system focused. The time of metanarratives has long been over, some loudly proclaimed. It is now time for people to see civilization and history as fragments and not to be tied down to analyzing power and control. These are interesting topics for those who are into the history of philosophical thoughts. In the meantime, I would recommend the works of Michel Foucault (the French guy, yes) and the writings of Noam Chomsky (the American professor). Foucault’s works on the deindividuation of power deserves a look, while Chomsky’s universal grammar is worth studying (if one has the patience and the time, haha). These two personages featured prominently in my college years. ^_^
Chomsky is still around by the way, and is actively involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Foucault, however, passed away in 1984, one of the first to die from AIDS. These figures are important in the way that they make well-argued cases against structured society and control in today’s modern world. Chomsky argues fluently for anarchy while Foucault defended sexuality and care of self for the individual. In social science, Foucault’s works have triggered new concepts like the hubs, patches and oasis approaches to development, seeming to make change a much doable thing for the individual. For the big question appears to be – does the individual still matter, in this complicated day and age? Can he still introduce change into the system? Or, will the set-up crush him and his spirit, just like the members of the society he belongs to – a collective grouping defeated – a long time ago?
As a drama, am afraid that Hunger Games, the movie, is too nuanced. It takes a swipe at several aspects of today’s living: ours. It pokes at the 99% versus the 1% equation, it mocks the pervasiveness of reality shows in our lives (shows that put premium on the individual’s competitiveness and deaden the viewers’ sense of violence), it questions the use of digital technology (are the gadgets and platforms there to spy and control the vulnerable members?) and it stirs some issues in the field of modern science (the moral use of genetic modification and engineering and bio-chemical warfare). On the other hand, I would suppose that all the conflicts mentioned are mere backdrops of the story that is yet to unfold. Hunger Games is a character-driven narrative and it is to be expected that more film rolls will be employed to show the audience – what makes for a modern-day heroine.
Does Katniss have special, inborn qualities that we do not have? Did she have special training that would prepare her for heroic deeds? So far, in the first installment, we are treated with Katniss doing the oldest survival technique: avoidance of danger. She survived the first round not by killing anybody, not by actively engaging in the fray, but by practicing the guerrilla strategy all by her lonesome. The romantic angle among the three – Katniss, Peeta and Gale – makes for a delightful touch for the movie’s distinct young adult viewership. For adults like me, I wish there were dashes more (haha, that’s just me). At any rate, I was talking about dystopia being hard stuff, reluctant heroine warming up to the role and about young people taking interests in systems and heroism in these times, even only at fictional dimension. The movie tackled the question of sacrifice – are today’s youth capable of it? The fashionable orientation nowadays is to be competitive, to win the game of life – only for the self.
Hunger Games shows the audience that the heroine is ordinary in several ways. And yet, the movie posits that she is also extraordinary. In short, I would presume that not everybody can be a heroine. How and why? It is their times, their personal circumstances and their location at that point in history that determine the role that they would play in history’s unfolding. In Literature, it is called context. Context explains that heroism is not achieved in a vacuum. The hero or the heroine must have special skills (hunting, trapping and climbing, in the movie) gained from being constantly exposed to danger, must be used to taking risks for others in her regular life and that society must affirm the heroic deed as an extraordinary act of compassion for the other members. Short of this combination, what one has may simply be called competitiveness or adventurism or, the daring of the amateur.
In short, heroes are made, not born. They are prepared to risk dangers and lay down their lives, when necessary. In this sense, while they may look ordinary to you and me, look like you and me, live like you and me, they are also special and exemplary individuals. And they do not come into their roles uninitiated. One might even say, they spent their lives preparing for it, not knowing that one day they would be commended for having performed an altruistic act. For them, the situation maybe precarious and they are vulnerable like any other, could even die, but it is a matter of duty for them to step in and be responsible for others. In this sense, heroes and heroines, fictional or not, do not come in as accidents. They come from a different cast, really feel life a bit more and see the need to merge their own with others in difficult circumstances. For only in so doing, could they realize and live up to the demands of that inner hunger. ***