Let me start with a large caveat: before last Saturday, I knew absolutely NOTHING about The Hunger Games book trilogy, or the new film adaptation of the first book in the series, other than that the books were the biggest hit in publishing since Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code, and that the film was breaking box office records. None of this hype had raised in me any particular desire to read the books and/or to see the film.
Then, as part of family holiday activities, I wound up tagging along on Saturday to a showing of the new film, with no expectations other than that it would probably be a well-made action movie. [From here on in, be prepared for some spoilers, if you don’t know about the books or the film]
Imagine my surprise when two hours passed quickly with no squirming in my seat (always a good sign), and with my mind working at the end. As I walked out of the multiplex, I found myself thinking that this big-budget, mass market film, while simplistic, had nonetheless managed to produce a satisfying and powerful resonance with one of the most crucial issues in current American politics— it was clear to me, even before I sampled some online interviews with the author, Suzanne Collins, that the same populist sensibility informed the story told in this film as provided the energy that fueled 2011’s global Occupy Wall Street movement--a movement which I strongly support, as evidenced by the following-linked sample of posts at my blog during the past year:
In The Hunger Games as depicted in the film, we have an authoritarian, cynical central government, which enforces its tight control over the oppressed 99% for the benefit of a morally degraded, grotesquely flamboyant and self-absorbed 1%, in part by means of a futuristic form of gladiator entertainment, The Hunger Games, which both intimidate and entertain the downtrodden plebeian masses, as well as providing spicy entertainment for the jaded elite.
As many have pointed out, this is a futuristic reimagining of the Roman Empire, emphasized via character names (Caesar, Brutus, Portia, Cinna, Cato, etc.) and even the “Capitol” of “Panem” (from the Latin for “bread”, as in “bread and circuses”, and as in the crust of bread thrown to the heroine in flashback earnly in the movie).
And speaking of ancient Rome brings me to the serendipity when has led me to write this post today, because, by pure coincidence, I saw The Hunger Games right after my own literary sleuthing had independently led me to a close examination of the one Shakespeare play which I had never previously taken seriously, Titus Andronicus:
At a future time, I will post about the OTHER literary sleuthing I was doing that led me to look closely at Titus. What occurred to me as I was watching The Hunger Games, however, was that there was an eerie parallelism between the way that the 24 contestants were rapidly whittled down, one by one, and the way that pretty much every one of the (14, by my count) main characters in Titus Andronicus winds up dead by the end of the play—what these two high body count stories have in common is that the dead are killed by each other, bloodily and in close quarters.
So,with all the Roman imagery and names in the Hunger Games, I had a strong gut feeling that it was not only Shakepseare’s very famous and popular play, Julius Caesar, which Collins had in mind while writing this trilogy. No, she was also slyly pointing to the much less well known and much less well loved early play of Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus.
I was so sure of my gut feeling, because my closer look at Titus had already led me to understand that the endless parade of grotesque violence that occurs in Titus Andronicus is NOT gratuitous, it is not frivolous or cruel, it is actually thematic and carries a highly moral message. Close study reveals that the young Shakespeare was grappling with the universal theme of revenge head-on, and was laying out a carefully constructed sequence of falling dominoes, which illustrated what happens in any human society when people begin to take the law into their own hands. What happens is that mercy goes by the boards entirely, and humans, tragically, choose instead to perpetuate a cycle of violence, until everyone is dead. In this sense, Titus Andronicus is closely akin to other greater and more famous Shakespeare tragedies in which the blood lust for revenge leave corpses strewn everywhere, such as Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet.
And doesn’t that sound like the Hunger Games? Here is the cruel logic of President Snow and his government, who created the Hunger Games so that a dog-eat-dog, shoot-first mentality (yes, the awful tragedy of the murder of Trayvon Martin is ALSO anticipated by Titus) would be celebrated and enjoyed, instead of being seen for the true horror that it is. Or, in Occupy Wall Street terms, let the 99% fight it out for the crumbs, and learn to love the fight, while the 1% indulge in their gluttony and titter.
And now I approach my punch line. Thinking about revenge in Shakespeare’s plays got me wondering why the central tragic character of Titus Andronicus had not made an appearance in The Hunger Games—I refer to Lavinia, the daughter of Titus, who suffers the especially cruel sequential fate of having her fiancé brutally murdered; then being dragged off to the deep forest to be raped, with the rapists using the fiance’s corpse as a pillow (and “raping” chillingly sounds a lot like the “reaping” which describes the selection process for the Hunger Games); then having her tongue cut out and her hands cut off so that, like the mythical Philomela in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, she cannot accuse the culprits; then, after she does manage to nonverbally identify them nonetheless, her final fate is to be slain by her own father, Titus, because….she was raped! Sounds a great deal like the fate suffered by Jesus during his last days, doesn’t it? And that’s NOT an accident, nor, I suspect, is the opening of The Hunger Games only two weeks before Easter Sunday!
Anyway, out of curiosity, I Googled “Lavinia” and “Hunger Games” and was led to the following:
As those of you who’ve read the trilogy carefully already know, “Lavinia is an Avox [“no voice”] girl who worked as a Capitol servant for Katniss before the 74th and 75th Hunger Games…..Years later, Lavinia waited as an Avox whose tongue had been cut out for committing crimes against the Capitol….”
Not having read the trilogy myself, I will not attempt to interpret this allusion to Lavinia in Titus Andronicus beyond the superficial analysis I’ve provided, above. But don’t you find it curious that I just knew that Shakespeare’s Lavinia had to be somewhere on Collins’s radar screen when she wrote this trilogy? This illustrates the power of reading allusively.
I merely wanted to illustrate that there are not only allusive shadows in the novels of Jane Austen or the plays of Shakespeare, as I have been writing about online for the past decade, they are also to be found in popular literature and movies, if one tunes one’s antennae and listens carefully---and one’s appreciation of such popular stories can be enhanced by knowing and learning more about the high literature that undergirds it.
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