Was The Hunger Games a documentary? (2024)

Was The Hunger Games a documentary? (2)

Opinion

Witnessing the spectacle of the Met Gala juxtaposed against images of the war in Gaza has left many disgusted by the global gulf between rich and poor

One night in the early 2000s, as novelist Suzanne Collins flipped through the TV channels, she was struck by the dissonance between footage of the Iraq war and scenes from a reality TV game show. The jarring incongruity piqued her imagination, and she set about penning a novel set in a futuristic dystopia, where the elite cavort around in eccentric finery, gamifying their power over the rural working class. She called the novel The Hunger Games.

A similar sense of dissonance has come over social media users in recent years. But at the beginning of this month it was brought into sharp relief. Our algorithms proffered us images of Kim Kardashian, waist preternaturally snatched in a Galliano gown against the backdrop of Met Gala pageantry, alongside footage of the simultaneous invasion of Rafah, where 1.3 million displaced Palestinians were sheltering. “Seeing Met Gala coverage felt like when the tributes showed up at the Capitol in The Hunger Games all glitzy and everyone in the Capitol cheered, [while] the rest of the Districts are starving and dying and living in a totalitarian state,” one user posted on X. TikToks disseminating a similar sentiment also went viral, with clips of celebrities such as Zendaya, Ariana Grande, and Cardi B posing on the red carpet set to sombre music from The Hunger Games.

“We’re obliged to metabolise images of unspeakable horror mingled with seductive, beautiful eye candy,” says Professor Dominic Pettman, the author of Infinite Distraction. “There’s something very pacifying, paralysing, and Clockwork Orange about it.”

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Ironically, this year’s theme, ‘The Garden of Time’, was based on a short story that thrums with the same revolutionary sentiment as The Hunger Games. The cautionary tale by JG Ballard depicts “a vast concourse of labouring humanity” closing in on a palatial villa laden with art and literature. People were quick to point out that the story was a paradoxical choice: the Gala saw the rich descend upon a flower-brimmed night of excess while pro-Palestine activists — our own “vast concourse of labouring humanity” — protested outside.

The Hunger Games is one of the most accessible mainstream films to allegorise our life under 21st-century capitalism, so it tracks that it’s become the go-to analogy for our unique nexus of economic disparity, social upheaval, worker exploitation, and celebrity culture. In the franchise, as in real life, the poor are encouraged to turn on each other lest they turn on the ruling class; the elite help the occasional “tribute” through “sponsorship”, AKA an empty philanthropic gesture, and getting “people to like you” is touted as the way to win, not unlike the path to modern celebrity. “It captures the merciless, competitive, individualistic ethos of our age,” says Pettman of the film's enduring popularity. “From Survivor to Squid Game, our binge-watching diet seems to acknowledge the ruthless logic of a system that pits everyone against everyone else.”

We are living in the hunger games. #Rafah #MetGala pic.twitter.com/8BZXY1poyl

— Syrian Girl 🇸🇾 (@Partisangirl) May 7, 2024

In the film, Panem’s “Capitol” is home to the government and the metropolitan elite, while rural districts are neglected and its inhabitants are exploited. It’s a geographical choice reminiscent of the economic disparity between rural and metropolitan areas in many countries in the Western world: a TikTok trend even emerged last year which saw users likening their agricultural hometowns to The Hunger Games. Meanwhile, the Capitol rules its districts like European countries ruled their colonies – pillaging their resources and controlling them through a violent military, the effects of which are still being felt today by the global south. The Hunger Games seems a natural analogy because the narrative is about long-standing issues, many of which, such as inequality gaps, have gotten more pronounced in recent decades,” observes Joshua P Gamson, Professor of Sociology at the University of San Francisco and author of Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Modern America.

Of course, it’s governments and long-ingrained systems, not actors and entertainers, that are to blame for war and injustice. And even in an unjust world – or especially in an unjust world – there’s a place for fashion, frivolity and escapism. “Some of the most passionate political activists I know are also big fans of The Bachelor or The Real Housewives franchise. Being a 21st-century citizen involves a kind of conflicting familiarity with many different domains, from the sublime to the ridiculous. And while switching between them can be exhausting, it can also provide psychic relief,” observes Pettman. There’s also no question that the artistry and craftsmanship at the Gala deserves to be appreciated.

But in a world where entertainment overshadows human rights violations, fame carries power. In February, the Super Bowl too drew The Hunger Games comparisons, where the rich and famous splashed out between $5,000 and $50,000 – during the spectacle, a commercial promoting the Israeli state aired, calling to mind a scene in The Hunger Games in which a propaganda film is screened to the gathered throngs. Meanwhile, the IDF launched a strike on Rafah. Between this and the Met, many deduced that Israel may be using the West’s infatuation with celebrity culture as a diversion tactic. “The Met Gala points at a new dynamic in the weaponisation of distraction,” remarks Pettman. It’s a sentiment echoed by Gamson, who argues that “celebrity culture is one part of a kind of very well-financed distraction factory.”

As aforementioned, Collins was inspired to write the Hunger Games after flicking from a news report on a warzone to a reality show on her TV. Today, the advent of social media has mean that most of us scroll between similarly incongruent content on a daily basis: from cat videos, to red carpet live streams, to horrifying images from Gaza. In light of this, you’d think that we’d all become entirely desensitised – but the numbers of people drawing attention to the fact that we’re living in a Hunger Games-style dystopia suggests that the infinite scroll hasn’t numbed our minds entirely just yet. “It’s heartening to see that we’re still capable of switching to active, activist mode, despite the great incentive to inertia,” Pettman surmises. If anything, as the divide between rich and poor grows ever wider, it seems as though the discord playing out on our TV screens and social media feeds has actually played a role in making us ever more alert to injustice.

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Was The Hunger Games a documentary? (2024)
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