Dystopian thoughts (29/4/12)
* Spoiler Alert – if you haven’t read the Hunger Games trilogy and you’re planning to and don’t want some spoilers, go and read it now – it should take you about 72 hours. If you haven’t read it and don’t plan to, this post doesn’t really have all that much to do with it – so go ahead and keep reading if you’ve made it through this first paragraph.
In a dystopian future, the totalitarian nation of Panem is divided between 12 districts and the Capitol. Each year two young representatives from each district are selected by lottery to participate in The Hunger Games. Part entertainment, part brutal retribution for a past rebellion, the televised games are broadcast throughout Panem. The 24 participants are forced to eliminate their competitors while the citizens of Panem are required to watch. When 16-year-old Katniss’s young sister, Prim, is selected as District 12′s female representative, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She and her male counterpart Peeta, are pitted against bigger, stronger representatives who have trained for this their whole lives.
- the Hunger Games movie summary, www.imdb.com
The first time I read the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy, I was a little confused at the end. It was recommended to me by a sweet medical missionary mother I met at a conference in Missouri, so I was just flummoxed – Really? You loved this book? I’m just depressed now.
But I’ve read the trilogy twice now, and just went and saw the movie. Some of my friends are appalled by the premise, or were disturbed by footage of fictional children killing each other. So I’ve been trying to figure out the gradual allure of this series for me, and I think I’m getting there. I don’t think these books and movie are great escapist entertainment. I do think I like entering into a fable that is just a more palatable introduction than raw news footage to the world in which we actually live.
Since 1963, Syrians have been subjected to tightly controlled expression, association and assembly. Human rights activists and anyone critical of the government has been harassed and imprisoned, often detained and tortured indefinitely. Websites such as Facebook, Wikipedia and YouTube were blocked until January last year but internet cafes still record all comments on online chat forums. In January 2011 the people decided they were no longer willing to endure an interminable Ba’ath Party rule and began to rise up against their oppressors . This has resulted in at least 16,000 people killed to date, including around 1000 children who have been arrested and tortured or killed according to UNICEF. The fictional depiction of the deaths of 22 fictional characters isn’t really so horrific to me.
The North Korea propaganda machine proclaims its utopianism to the populace, feverishly attempting to perfect airbone agents of death while the people starve. The US State Department cites arbitrary and lengthy imprisonment, forced labor, public executions, severe restrictions on freedom of speech and religion, and of course denial of the citizens to change government. Radio, television and news organizations, are controlled by the government and heavily censored. The fictional Capitol of Panem isn’t so far removed from reality that I don’t recognise it.
Children are wrenched from their parents daily, not annually, in a lottery of fear, with children killing children in the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa. It is estimated that between September 2008 and July 2011, the group, despite being down to only a few hundred fighters, has killed more than 2,300 people, abducted more than 3,000, and displaced over 400,000 across the DR Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. It may not be for the entertainment of the masses, but misplaced political idealism isn’t a particularly good reason either.
It’s impossible to know how many girls are currently enslaved as sex workers in the world. There are probably at least half a million each year trafficked across international borders alone, and as many as 30 million girls and women involuntarily working as prostitutes around the world, 12 million just in India. Finnick’s tale in Mockingjay is far less disturbing.
Violent fundamentalists in one of our war-torn neighboring countries blocked relief groups from bringing food to famine victims, as a cholera epidemic and poverty spread and millions fled in desperations. And even now, with the worst of the famine over, a group claiming to be the defender of pure religion seizes girls as spoils of war, gang-raping and abusing them, forcing families to hand over girls for arranged marriages that are essentially sexual slavery to their ranks’ morale. Lawlessness and desperation are not so far from the movie theatre for me.
The word “dystopia” is a word I’ve only ever really seen referred to in a fictional setting – a novel or a movie. According to the LA Times (quoting the Oxford English Dictionary), “the first recorded use of the term came in 1868 when Mill addressed the House of Commons: ‘It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians; they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians.’ ” It has come to mean a society that is oppressively structured with deliberately miserable living conditions – poverty, violence and scarcity, disease and pollution. A select minority usually benefits, to the detriment of the majority.
I wonder why this word isn’t used more in journalism. And why in fiction it’s always about a “dystopian future”. There are currently dystopian villages, dystopian countries – is our entire planet not just a little dystopian?
I think that’s why I like the Hunger Games. It’s a caricature of the world I live in, and I like to be reminded to take my head out of the sand. We live on a planet where, for all intents and purposes, children are killing children in a gladiatorial arena for the entertainment of the masses. I’m glad to be disturbed by the stories, whether in the novels or on the big screen – I hope you are too. I think each one of us should be trying to foment a small revolution, in whatever arena is open to us.