According to the Romans, ‘bread and circuses’ were the key to keeping a population content. As long as their immediate physical needs are met, and they are sufficiently distracted, people will turn a blind eye to almost anything.
Bread and Circuses
It’s a tactic central to the world of The Hunger Games, a dark dystopian trilogy whose first instalment arrives on cinema screens this March. In post-apocalyptic America, people in thirteen impoverished districts struggle for survival, oppressed by a wealthy minority. To keep the peace, the governing Capitol stages a yearly tournament in which ‘tributes’ from each district fight to the death on live television. These tributes, selected at random, are young people aged between twelve and eighteen.
When her beloved little sister is chosen, sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to go in her place. In a competition where losing means certain death, there’s no room for friendship – even with fellow-tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who once saved her life years ago. Swept away from her family and forced into the arena, nobody expects her to last very long. A lifetime of struggling against the odds, however, has taught Katniss a few valuable lessons. Not only will she refuse to go quietly, but she might just change the game forever.
Suzanne Collins, who wrote the novel on which the film is based, dreamed up the idea after idly channel-hopping one night. Flipping between reality television and coverage of the Iraq war, she noticed how "the lines began to blur in a very unsettling way";. With the screen placed firmly between us and the real experiences of those involved, it’s all too easy for war to become a kind of game – for suffering to become entertainment. What we call ‘reality television’ thrives on conflict and discomfort. What we call ‘news’ is often packaged just as much to keep us watching as to tell us any kind of truth.
The bloodthirsty competition at the centre of The Hunger Games serves its purpose well. Those in power are able to manipulate the game, creating heroes for the masses to root for and villains for them to hate, manufacturing moments of peril and tension. The populace, instead of rising up against the cruel system, is hooked by the unfolding drama. The success of the Roman ‘bread and circuses’ policy – and the increasing trend for cruelty in our own reality television – tells us that such a response is far from implausible.
In his well-known book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that Brave New World was a more accurate prediction of today’s society than 1984. In George Orwell’s 1984, an oppressive government forcibly takes away people’s rights. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the population give up their freedoms willingly for the sake of a pleasure-giving drug. Are we, too, somehow medicated into submission by the entertainment we consume? What truths might we be missing because the media offers us a simpler, more appealing world to lose ourselves in?
Karl Marx famously said that religion is the opiate of the masses. But in today’s world, another force rules hearts and minds. Perhaps it’s not that the big questions of life have become irrelevant to a postmodern culture, or somehow been answered by the advance of science. Rather, the endless stream of information and images with which we’re bombarded can crowd out our ability to ask them. All the noise from our phones and television screens is able to disguise that fact that, in one of the freest countries in the world, we’re not as free as we think we are.
The answer is not to simply switch off. We may not live in a totalitarian regime like Katniss, or Orwell and Huxley’s heroes, but in some senses our problem goes deeper. We’re as willing to deceive ourselves as we are to be deceived, and even without the media’s influence, we’d still find ways to avert our gaze from the things that matter. The Hunger Games is a warning about our capacity to not just accept the unacceptable, but actively embrace it. The film takes us to a deeply corrupted world – and in doing so, opens our eyes to look more wisely at our own.
Film title: The Hunger Games
Keywords: Survival, life, death, power, television, reality TV, morality
Director: Gary Ross
Screenplay: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins & Billy Ray, based on the book by Suzanne Collins
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks
Distributor: Lionsgate (USA/UK)
Cinema Release Date: 23 March 2012 (USA/UK)
Certificate: PG-13 (USA); 12A (UK) Contains intense threat, moderate violence and occasional gory moments
Book title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Publication Date: 14 September 2008
Related articles / study guides
- Culturewatch Podcast – Film releases 23 March 2012
- The Culturewatch Discussion Guide on The Hunger Games
© 2012 Damaris Trust
First published in Idea magazine, Mar / Apr 2012.