The film I chose to analyze for this paper is The Hunger Games. Based on the popular novel by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games is a sci-fi adventure film directed by Gary Ross that takes place in a dystopian world. In the remains of what was once North America, the Capitol of Panem maintains control over its twelve districts by forcing each of them to select a male and female “tribute” at random to compete in a nationally televised event called the Hunger Games. The citizens of Panem must watch as the tributes fight to the death until only one is left. The main themes in this film include power, society and class, love, the importance of appearance, and suffering for entertainment, or voyeurism. Although The Hunger Games became a huge success and a major pop culture phenomenon, it isn’t implausible to associate it with film theory. Therefore, I see a lot of potential in the analysis of The Hunger Games, and believe it is worth discussing in film theory because it covers various theorists and their ideas.
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One theorist that comes to mind when I watch The Hunger Games is Sigmund Freud and his theories on fetishism. According to Freud, “A fetish is recognized by its adherents as an abnormality, it is seldom felt by them as the symptom of an ailment accompanied by suffering. Usually they are quite satisfied with it, or even praise the way in which it eases their erotic life.” (152). Fetishism is an excessive fixation or obsession with a particular object, and can be demonstrated through repetitive imagery. For example, throughout The Hunger Games, there are several objects that are seen repeatedly and can be classified as fetish objects. These objects include the bow, the arrows, and the mockingjay pin that Katniss gives to her sister, Prim.
The bow and arrows appear to be fetish objects because Katniss is a highly skilled hunter, and throughout her time in the arena, she obsesses with getting ahold of them. As soon as she enters the arena, she sets her sights on a bow, which lies directly in the middle of the cornucopia. However, she resists the urge to rush in for it, as she knows it would be a bloodbath. Later on in the Games, when she finally does get her hands on them, she caresses the arrows with her fingers for a moment before taking off with them. The mockingjay pin could be another fetish object because it becomes a nationwide symbol for hope. Katniss herself could even be considered a fetish object for the people of Panem. This is because the Capitol fears that its citizens will rebel, and Katniss is the ‘fetish object’ that gives them both the hope and the confidence to start an uprising. Throughout the series, she becomes known as “the Mockingjay,” the symbol of hope and the revolution.
Another theorist that can be applied to The Hunger Games is Theodor Adorno. Adorno once said that popular culture is full of “easy pleasures,” and he believed that the consumption of these pleasures satisfied people and made them content. He also believed that mass culture rejects individuality. For example, in his essay The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, Adorno states “In the culture industry the individual is an illusion not merely because of the standardization of the means of production. He is tolerated only so long as his complete identification with the generality is unquestioned” (154). He also goes on to say that “Culture today is affecting everything with sameness” (94) and, “Under monopoly, all mass culture is identical, and the lines of its artificial framework begin to show through. The people at the top are no longer interested in concealing monopoly: as its violence becomes more open, so its power grows.” (95). Adorno’s theories can be applied to The Hunger Games because the tributes are used by the Capitol for the benefit of capitalism. They are not viewed as individuals and are only seen for their value. Additionally, the Capitol appears to represent first world countries, while the districts represent third world countries. The further away from the Capitol a district is, the more poverty-stricken it is. While those in the Capitol live in luxury, the people who live in the districts are forced to work long days for extremely little in return.
As mentioned, the film takes place in what used to be North America. Although it is merely fictional, this film discusses some very realistic issues and themes. With the addition of the shaky camera, the way certain scenes were shot gives a sense of realism and immersion. While the editing does take away from some of that immersion, giving the film a more action oriented feel, Bazin states that “on the other hand, cinema is also a language.” (16). It can be argued though that this film is an extension of our reality because the events that take place, such as total government control and poverty, are events that could potentially happen, and in some places, are currently happening in real life.
The final theorist I would like to reference for this film is Laura Mulvey and her theory on the “male gaze.” Mulvey states that a major part of the male gaze is scopophilia, which “arises from pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation” (60). Not only does the male gain pleasure from looking at the female that is being displayed, but he also suffers from castration anxiety, which can be relieved in one of two ways. The first way this can be relieved is through “reenactment of the original trauma.” This can be counterbalanced by punishing, or saving the “guilty object.” The second way this castration anxiety can be relieved is by the substitution of a “fetish object” so that the figure becomes reassuring rather than dangerous (62). In addition to representing an ideal woman, Katniss Everdeen also represents a victim of the male gaze.
The concept of male dominance consistently appears throughout pop culture, specifically in Hollywood cinema. Mulvey claims that films are created using a masculine, as well as heterosexual point of view. This objectifies women and forces a passive role onto them. Additionally, the audience is subject to inevitably view the film through the gaze of a male character. The main purpose of female characters in film has almost always been objectification by both the characters in the film and by the audience. It seems that in Hollywood films, viewers are compelled to see through a male point of view, even when female protagonists are considered to be the hero. The main protagonist is clearly Katniss, and yet, the way she is viewed is heavily influenced by President Snow and the Head Gamemaker, Seneca Crane.
The entire premise of the Hunger Games allows both the audience and the characters to take part in a pleasure that Mulvey refers to as scopophilia, or “taking erotic pleasure from viewing other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze” (395). The Games pulls tributes away from their loved ones and old lives, and forces them into an arena where they are not only tracked, but recorded and broadcasted to the people of Panem, then potentially killed in brutal ways for the Capitol’s enjoyment. Therefore, the Games themselves can be compared to filmmaking in the sense that someone is responsible for editing the footage as well as creating and controlling what is seen by the audience.
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This role falls upon Seneca Crane, the Head Gamemaker who is in charge of the events in the Games. As the Head Gamemaker, his role allows him to be in control of the specific point of view of the Games, so the people of Panem view Katniss in the way he decides to portray her. The citizens of Panem are forced to view Crane’s perspective while watching the Games. Therefore, the male gaze is clearly in control of Katniss’ portrayal, as well as her role and actions. Although empowerment shines brightly through Katniss, this film still suggests that the male gaze still controls the female image and how they are received by an audience. Because she is tomboyish by nature, Katniss is also required to become more attractive and more feminine to please the spectators, and the male gaze.
Before the Games, Cinna and Haymitch pair Katniss up with Peeta, the boy from her district, to make them look like star-crossed lovers. This is done to make the audience fall in love with both of the tributes from District 12. When Peeta admits to his crush on Katniss during his interview, she feels betrayed and lashes out at him, angrily stating that he made her look weak. Haymitch then counters her outburst by saying that Peeta made her look desirable. Apparently, it is not enough that Katniss scored an eleven out of ten during her training, or that she sacrificed herself so her little sister wouldn’t have to participate in the Games. She must also be beautiful and desirable to make people like her. Once the initial shock passes, Katniss reluctantly agrees with this plan and continues to exploit her desirability in the arena by pretending to be hopelessly in love with Peeta. This is one of the only aspects of the film that really bothered me because romance is made to be a constant theme, whereas the novel didn’t focus too heavily on the romance.
To some degree, I agree with Mulvey’s theory. I do agree that Katniss is being objectified throughout this film, but not in the typical sexual way. Yes, she is forced to be more attractive and dress up for the audience which is objectifying; this is without a doubt true. But the way she is dressed isn’t revealing or scandalous in any way. Katniss is objectified in a different way. Not only is she being objectified by the ridiculous beauty standards of the Capitol, but President Snow wants to see her die, and would get pleasure out of seeing it. This is because he is aware that she has the potential to start a rebellion in the districts and he does not want that to happen. He sees the spark; the fire she creates within the people of Panem, and he wants it contained before it gets out of his control. Therefore, he aims to have her killed by any means necessary, including forcing her to participate in the next Hunger Games with the hope that she will perish.
In conclusion, I believe that Mulvey is right in her “male gaze” theory, as Katniss shows that women will be objectified regardless of what role they take in the film. Katniss is a prime example of a strong and independent woman, yet in a way, she is still seen as an object for male pleasure. She is forced into the passive female role, even though she is the hero and the story is about her. Finally, she is subject to the dominating gaze of both President Snow and Seneca Crane. Even in a film that is highly praised for its strong feminist values, the male gaze and domination still maintain their power. I decided to choose this film because I believe it is worthy for a discussion on film theory as it covers many theorists ideas such as Freud’s theories on fetishism, Adorno’s theories on culture and capitalism, and Mulvey’s theories on the “male gaze.” I believe that through the analysis of this film, The Hunger Games is now richer and has new meaning. I don’t feel as though this film has been ruined by theory analysis because I feel as though I understand it and its themes better than I did previously.
- Adorno, Theodore. “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.” Dialectic of Enlightenment. Ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. 94-136.
- Bazin, André. “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” 9-16.
- Freud, Sigmund. 1927. “Fetishism”. Trans. J. Strachey. The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1927. 152-157.
- Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Feminism and Film Theory. Ed. Constance Penley. New York: Routledge, 2013. 57-68.
- The Hunger Games. Dir. Gary Ross. Lionsgate 2012. Film.
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