Friday, May 11, 2012

The Hunger Games Mythos

Humans are many things, both fair and foul, but in our heart… at the core… we are essentially story tellers. The art of story telling has evolved with humanity. It arguably is the driving force of civilization. A good tale brings us together, illustrating our commonalities as a tribe or culture. It is what brought us around the campfires of old… it is what gathers us around luminous screens today. The ancient tales, the good ones, have stayed with and evolved with us.

In modern times, television and film producers wrack their brains trying to predict and produce a good tale… a tale that resonates with the public… a tale that “enchants” their target audience. In their minds, this equates with a box-office or Neilson Ratings hit… a financial success. They know that they need the right formula… the right ingredients (ie: sex, violence, product placement, storyline), in the right proportions… for commercial success.

But when does a film or series go beyond covering costs? Not in the sense (cents) of turning a profit, but in a deeper, more profound way. When does a story resonate with the heart and soul of a “critical mass” of the population, speaking to their psyche so that the true value of the story moves beyond profit, to act as a prophet? Again… the good tales, the ones that really matter, have stayed with and evolved with us. They may modernize periodically… trading in a leprechaun for an almond-eyed alien… to keep the magic fresh… but the good tales tell us who we are and where we’re going.

Based upon a young adult book by Suzanne Collins, the movie “The Hunger Games” became box office gold because it met all the criteria for being a good tale… one that really matters. First and foremost, The Hunger Games is good Science Fiction, touching upon several current hot-button trends. It is a cautionary tale of what might come to pass if these current socio/political trends, including trends in media, play out to their extreme conclusion.

Set in post-apocalyptic North America, the totalitarian nation “Panem” has risen from the ashes of the “Dark Days.” Ruling over Panem’s 12 districts, the Capitol district holds all the economic and political power. The annual event known as The Hunger Games serves as entertainment and tribute to the Capitol district, where one boy and one girl are picked from each district, to compete in a last man standing “reality show run amok” televised death match.

Public interest is peaked for each contestant via interviews and gala events, leading up to the actual game itself. Citizens of the Capitol, should they favor a contestant, can gift them with food and supplies during the game. In a future where the subjugation of the 12 districts (who act as resource extractive colonies to the Capitol) is not only televised but is required viewing… imperialistic exploitation, Big Brother and media manipulation is the inevitable outcome that this cautionary tale warns us of. Our contemporary 24 hour news cycle, that treats war as entertainment, has started down the road that leads to Panem.

The Hunger Games goes beyond Sci Fi, delving into the realm of mythology and archetypical imagery. Although the original idea for the Hunger Games came from “channel surfing” between news programs and reality TV, the story’s author, Suzanne Collins has indicated that she was inspired by Greek mythology, particularly by Theseus, the half god half human founder-king of ancient Athens. Collins described her story’s heroine, 16 year old “Katniss,” as a futuristic Theseus. It was Theseus who slew the Minotaur within the labyrinth built by Daedalus on the Isle of Crete, ruled by King Minos.

The story, steeped in Greek Mythology, conjures up still deeper, archetypical imagery. The indirect reference to the Minotaur suggests Taurus the bull, second astrological sign of the zodiac. The zodiac is an ancient celestial coordinate system that tracts the ecliptic, or apparent path of the Sun across the sky, over the course of the year. This ecliptic is divided into 12 distinct regions, whose dominant constellation was assigned a symbolic attribute or sign, by ancient astronomers. Katniss, whose weapon of choice in the Hunger Games is the bow and arrow, could be taken to depict Sagittarius the archer, ninth sign of the zodiac. Continuing on this thought, the 12 districts could be analogous to the 12 signs of the zodiac, encircling the Capitol district in their servitude.

Another interesting plot device in The Hunger Games is the vast discrepancy in wealth, technology, superfluous culture, etc. between the citizens of the Capitol District and that of the other districts. Watching the games from the overview of their technological Mt Olympus, the citizens of Capitol are as gods, watching the heroes who have journeyed to their realm… for their entertainment… partake in a battle to the death. Should they favor a specific hero, Capitol citizens can gift them with needed items, which magically appear before the hero, through technological wizardry. Thus do the bemused Gods provide boons to the intrepid combatant.     

Katness the archer, the reluctant hero, wears many archetypical hats. She is both healer and warrior… the goddess Libertas… the great and fearful Kali, bringer of life and death. She can also be viewed as the sacrificial child… sent to the slaughter to appease the angry gods. As Sagittarius, she represents our dualistic nature… half human, half beast (Sagittarius is commonly depicted as a Centaur). Interestingly, Sagittarius is governed by the planet Jupiter within astrological cosmology. In Roman mythology, Jupiter is the ruler of the gods and their guardian and protector, and his symbol is the thunderbolt.

Much has been written concerning the symbolism in The Hunger Games trilogy. The curious need only google it to continue their investigations. Given the synchronistic power of the internet, there is no telling where such a search might lead. What is worthy of consideration is the relation between modern myth and the ancient ones. These stories are modernized and retold because they resonate with humanity. The characteristics and the moral of these tales reveal much about where we came from.

One thing for certain… the components of these retold mythologies… the gods and heroes… did not originate with the ancient Greeks. The Greeks, in turn modernized and re-packaged still more ancient tales that were handed down to them by their ancient predecessors… and they in turn by theirs… ad infinitum.