By Peter Bloom
The latest Hunger Games film, Mockingjay - Part 1, is topping the international box office. Although it's a Hollywood blockbuster aimed at young adults, it presents potentially quite subversive ideas of mass revolution, economic sabotage, and the populist fight against oligarchy.
With these themes of popular uprising, the latest Hunger Games has tapped into a certain zeitgeist of global rebellion, from Hong Kong to the United States. Thailand's pro-democracy protestors have borrowed the movie's three-fingered symbol of resistance in their own struggles against a repressive regime. Adding fuel to this fire, one of the film's stars, Donald Sutherland, recently declared: "I want Hunger Games to stir up a revolution."
The film's depiction of revolution is astonishingly simple, an adolescent vision of toppling an "evil" authority figure. This isn't surprising, as the books were written for young adults, but this antiauthoritarian vision becomes more troubling because it reinforces prevailing Western ideas of social change: All one needs do is eradicate the enemy. Worryingly, it appears that this sort of adolescent rebellion isn't just consigned to teenage entertainment, but also increasingly forms our real adult behavior.
The third Hunger Games movie takes place in the midst of a full-scale popular rebellion. Unlike the previous films, which fix their attention mainly on the games themselves, this one focuses exclusively on the attempts of the resistance to inspire mass revolt among the oppressed districts against the wealthy capital and its nefarious President Snow.
The idea of a rich capital and its citizens exploiting workers in peripheral territories resonates with existing global divides between richer and poorer countries. It also speaks to growing economic insecurities associated with the powers of the market and exacerbated by the 2008 financial crisis.
These films tap into the real anger of many, on both the left and right, who see a world of "haves" and "have nots" ruled by a privileged elite and its police forces.
The film's fixation on overcoming the malevolent leader reflects an image of popular struggles defined by fighting those in authority. Ignored is the perhaps less dramatic but more important process of collectively transforming social conventions, power structures, and identities.
Katniss Everdeen's valiant struggle against Snow and latent distrust of authority figures supposedly on her side all speak to teenagers' desires to heroically rebel against those who wield power over them. This "us-vs.-them" paradigm is, of course, completely understandable in the context of children's entertainment. What is worrisome is how closely it mirrors current political discourse in the real world.
It echoes quite problematic official views and policies of Western governments, particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom. Their discourse of "transforming the world" (for example, bringing democracy to the Middle East) centers on eradicating their "enemies." There is a continual refrain from these leaders that all can be solved by "getting rid" of the most threatening adversaries. From Saddam Hussein to Osama bin Laden to the current Islamic State bogeyman, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, complex socioeconomic and political problems are reduced to a simplified narrative of killing the "bad guys." It is not surprising, then, that while these discourses can inspire, they in no way provide long-term solutions.
The film's many scenes of popular unrest also mirror real-life examples of people on the street confronting oppressive power. These movements are depicted by the media as - and to an extent often are - fixated on achieving justice through holding in check or ousting those with authority. The focus is on the tyranny of the Chinese Communist Party or the racism of the bad police officer.
Whether on the movie screen, from the lips of those in power, or in the shouts of those resisting this power, the path to social change appears almost identical. It is one where all that is needed is to destroy the tyrant and therefore end tyranny.
This relationship with power is appealing partly because of how it touches on our deepest childhood desires. In a complicated world, we long for someone to blame, for quick fixes, for a personalized target to project our hopes and fears upon. It is only with maturity that individuals come to realize that it is usually not a person who is solely, or even primarily, to blame. Instead, it is underlying systems that drive actions and therefore require changing.
And so it is also necessary to celebrate the possibility of not just destroying but also re-creating society. This demands thought about how to do more than merely depose those in power - to also constructively change the structures that legitimate and rationalize their authority. This is the difference between an angry rebellion and a transformational revolution.
The antiauthoritarian struggles in movies and on the news are certainly dramatic. There are few more thrilling stories than those about defeating repressive rulers to bring about justice. Yet this depiction of social change misses the real creativity at its heart: the ability to individually and collectively find innovative ways to create and re-create our society.
We must make this creativity a reality in the contemporary age, in which youthful rebellion does not just dominate teenage entertainment but, scarily, is too much a part of the grown-up political culture.