One boy and one girl are chosen each year from each of the Districts. This also brings to mind the tributes King Minos demanded to feed his Minotaur each year. Perseus, the hero who finally defeats the monster, has to descend into the Labyrinth just as the sacrifices do - in other words, he has to play the ‘game’ in order to win it. Unlike Perseus, however, Katniss does not enter the arena intending to defeat the system. She has no choice but to play the game, yet playing the game sparks resistance in her.
In the first two books, the author is mixing up and playing with a profusion of political ideas and historical connections that readers will have, either consciously or subliminally. The country at the heart of the drama is an amalgam of many different types of national systems.
What is Panem? It has a ruling ‘Capitol’ presiding over thirteen defeated subject ‘Districts’. These serve the Capitol and keep it in luxury at massive cost to themselves. The most obvious parallel to this idea of thirteen ‘districts’ is the United States in its colonial years. There was the capital, which would have been Jamestown, and then there were the thirteen colonies. Here we have the ‘Capitol’ (matching the spelling of the government building in Washington D.C.) and thirteen ‘districts’. Some of the districts are very large indeed. In this vision they are oppressed by their political masters, who hold them in servitude, but they are rebellious and wish to win their freedom.
Of course, in the history of the USA, the thirteen colonies rebelled successfully and formed a new country. In this dystopic future, the rebellion was a failure, punished by these gladiatorial games. It is a very clever twist to set the story not at the time of the rebellion, but seventy-four years later. We see the entrenched political system, and the stagnation of the economy.
There was an unsuccessful rebellion in America, too. The South rose, and failed. It was severely put down by the victorious Union, with widespread poverty following for the defeated Confederacy. There were eleven secessionist states in ‘Dixey’ plus another four territories and states claimed though not officially part of the rebellion. Not quite the thirteen of Panem, but there is an analogy here. The dates may also connect. The South rose up eighty-four years after the founding of the USA, which is close. Seventy-four years after the defeat of the South would bring us to 1939, seeing the world back at war again, yet this parable alludes to another model too.
The Soviet Union was founded in 1917 and fell apart in a revolution seventy-four years later, in 1991. The USSR comprised one vast region (Russia) and fourteen smaller ‘Soviet Socialist Republics’ ranged around its borders. Not thirteen ‘Districts’, but close. As in The Hunger Games’ Panem, not all the ‘Republics’ were the same size. Some, like Moldova, were tiny, while others, like The Ukraine and Kazakhstan, were huge. The non-Russian states had been variously conquered or coopted by Russia and incorporated into the territory of the Soviet Union in its early history. There were civil wars and rebellions, but these were put down and massive purges, show trials and famines followed. Hunger Games, perhaps. We know that Panem’s District 13 was left radioactive, and, in the Soviet Union, The Ukraine famously had a nuclear disaster at Chernobyl which resulted in large tracts of it also becoming radioactive.
It is not clear from the first two books that the nuclear weapons were used other than by the Capitol in suppressing the rebellion. The third book, however, changes direction and suggests that Panem originally came about as a result of a global nuclear holocaust, which places the series in the category of Fiction of Last Things, along with works like A Canticle for Leibowitz and Riddley Walker.
What kind of political system does Panem represent? In the second book, Catching Fire, we read (on page 300) that when people in District 12 marry, they apply to the Justice Building and they are ‘assigned a home,’ which tells us that there is a kind of Communistic system in which people’s housing and work placements are decided for them by the state - as in the USSR. A brutal police force, very like that of the Soviet Union, keeps the slaves under control, punishing lack of productivity with physical pain or death. We are told, in the first book, that the ‘arenas’ are all preserved permanently as tourist attractions, yet we learn from the story that these spaces are of enormous size and cover hundreds of square miles. How could all these seventy-three regions be segregated and kept uninhabited in this way without taking up a giant chunk of the Capitol’s territory? If the Capitol is meant to be the District (!) of Columbia, this would be impossible. On the other hand, if the allusion to the USSR is right, then this would be no problem. Russia has long exiled its troublesome citizens to Siberia, and there would be more than enough ‘empty’ land in the north and east of Russia for any number of Hunger Games arenas.
Snow - just like a Soviet leader - is president for life. We see that he was in office at the previous ‘Quarter Quell’ twenty-five years before. His name brings to mind age (white hair), coldness and death. He smells of blood, and Katniss wonders if he drinks it, thus connecting him with a vampire.
Of course, the brutal nature of the government in Panem could just as easily suggest a parallel to the Nazis, and the thirteen districts might be analogous to the states conquered by the Germans in World War Two, which is debatable in terms of numbers, but would be somewhere around thirteen (if we discount the territories claimed by Italy).
So, Panem is not meant to be Russia, nor America, nor Nazi Germany, nor yet Ancient Rome or the British Empire. It alludes strongly to all these places - perhaps most strongly of all to the USSR - but it remains ambiguous as to what or where it really is. Could this be not merely a future world but a far future fantasy, in which present-day borders are long forgotten? In any case, it plays on memories, half-memories, vague notions and partial understandings that readers may have about a wide variety of historical and political entities, blending everything they think they know or might once have been taught, and making it live. The next most interesting thing is to ask why such a story should emerge now? What does it tell us about the world we are living in that children are reading it in such numbers?
On one level, Panem’s politics do have some points of contact with those of the futuristic Britain portrayed in the film V for Vendetta. These proved popular with younger audiences, were heavily promoted and the latter has had a striking visual influence on the anti-capitalist movements in North America and Europe.
Panem is a savage, repressive surveillance state, which can watch all its citizens at all times, and casually execute any of its critics, just like the British government in V for Vendetta. As in V for Vendetta, Katniss is a young woman who has a mentor, a veteran of past bloody conflict (Haymitch) but who is placed in the position of having to fight not of her own volition. Both book and film pre-dated the ‘Occupy’ movements by some years.
The choice of bow and arrow as Katniss’ favoured weapon is interesting. It is motivated in the story because hunting is illegal and she must be silent, but has to bring in the game. However, it also recalls Robin Hood and William Tell, both freedom fighters against a repressive occupying government. The image of a woman archer also suggests Diana the Huntress and the Amazons. The arrow was also the traditional weapon (both for hunting and fighting) of the First Nation Americans against their invaders, another symbol of resistance.
The Hunger Games themselves resemble the gladiatorial games of Ancient Rome - that much is clear. ‘Slaves’ are forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of their rulers. The differences are also significant, though. They fight until there is only one victor and every detail of their struggle is shown live on television. The early years of the twenty-first century saw an upsurge of television elimination games and quizzes. The shortlived Survivor and the worldwide phenomenon of Big Brother saw audiences watching housemates live, day and night, and voting for their favourites. The Weakest Link was an elimination general knowledge quiz that had one contestant knocked out at each round. We saw alliances form and then turn against one another. There were a number of music and variety shows on both sides of the Atlantic with a similar elimination theme, such as The X-Factor, Pop Idol, American Idol, Britain’s Got Talent... So, on this level The Hunger Games fits in with a new model of competitive TV games in the new century.
It may even be worth mentioning the influence on shows like Big Brother of a bizarre but popular game which aired in Japan in the 1980s. Famously much mocked by popular culture commentator Clive James in his weekly round-up of weird TV, The Endurance Game put contestants through actual physical tortures to eliminate the least doughty. After having to run away from live lions and suffer imprisonment and near-drowning, the last two were presented with a feast. They had been starved for days in the previous trials and so this looked at first like a reward until they were told that the first one to eat anything would lose. This agonising torment lasted for a very long time. It was a Hunger Game for certain!
Another television show/cultural phenomenon with an elimination-contest theme in these years was the Japanese card-collecting game, Pokémon and its spin-off TV series and films. In order to ‘get them all’ would-be Pokémon ‘trainers’ had to battle, one on one, with other trainers who controlled the creatures they needed. Rival alliances, like Team Rocket (‘Career tributes’ if ever I saw them!) would pool their resources to make the plucky amateurs’ lives more difficult. Like the contestants in The Hunger Games, the Pokémon each have special, unique fighting skills and also distinct vulnerabilities. BeyBlades (a weaker cash-in/rip-off of Pokémon on the theme of battling spinning tops) also featured arenas with ‘sudden-death’ play offs and elimination rounds to reach the prize. In turn, a lot of these stories look back to the computer games of the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat in which only one champion can survive arena-based fights to the death. Worth mentioning here, perhaps, might be other, earlier quest-based films, such as Conan the Barbarian and Highlander (‘There can be only one!’) in which most combatants would expect to die along the way.
There is also a strong similarity between the idea of The Hunger Games and the plot of the fourth of the Harry Potter novels, Harry Potter and the Chalice of Fire. In this, the young wizard is chosen by lottery to compete in a trial of magical powers. He and the other competitors face a series of perilous and potentially fatal challenges in a huge arena. Although there is no supernatural element in The Hunger Games, there are science-fiction equivalents. Harry Potter confronts wild dragons: Katniss finds herself attacked by genetically altered ‘zombie/werewolves’. Although Harry survives his contest, a close friend does not, and the real victor is the undead-wizard, Lord Voldemort. The real champion in The Hunger Games is the ‘vampire’ President Snow, who bears no small resemblance to Voldemort, especially in his political organisation, with networks of spies and a deadly, soul-sucking police force secretly working for him.
In fact, one of the other clever things about the Harry Potter series is that instead of dealing with the story of the great battle, it places its big defining political action in the past. When the stories start, the war against Lord Voldemort is long over and he lost. Likewise, in The Hunger Games, the rebellion of the districts is history but by contrast it shows the world after its own ‘Voldemort’ has won. An important point to remember here is that history is very partial in this world. We know nothing about it except what Katniss or her friends know, or are prepared to tell us. They know only what the Capitol has chosen to teach them. A lot of Panem’s history may be false, or concealed - which leads us back to the parallel to the USSR again, really.
Much has been said (not least - though with serious reservations - by critic Mark Kermode) about the closeness between The Hunger Games and Battle Royale, but the differences between them are more marked than the similarities. In Battle Royale, a school class is picked at random, so all the ‘contestants’ know one another already. It is meant as a means of defusing mayhem in Japanese schools, rather than any wider national political purpose. The Hunger Games resembles Enter the Dragon more than it does Battle Royale, in the form of selected fighters commanded to a tournament in which the defeated will die.
It owes much more to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), which has a strong political subtext, and had a disturbing prescience, focusing as it did on the succession of Marcus Aurelius and coming out in the very same year that the USA saw the son of a president become president himself. It was also a much disputed vote. Commodus is portrayed in the film as an unworthy winner, misrepresenting his father’s wishes (however absurd this may have been in the historical context).
The character of Buffy Summers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer presents a clear prototype of Katniss Everdeen in the form of the heroic teenage fighter. Although she has supernatural strength, Buffy could die at any time in her unending battle with the blood suckers. The mayor of Sunnydale in Season Three of Buffy has a very different personality to President Snow, but is like him in many other ways: long-lived and attracted to evil and vampirism.
What is happening politically here? These stories come out of a changing time. It might be argued that some of the back-story in the Harry Potter series harks back to the cultural and political upheavals in Britain between the hard left and the hard right in the 1980s. Indeed, the original battle against Lord Voldemort is supposed to have taken place at that time. The Cold War dominated discourse then, but after its end, old certainties were over and new insecurities took over. The early two-thousands saw a revival of the focus on world poverty, especially in 2004 with the movement to cancel the debt burden on the poorer countries and a pledge to ‘make poverty history’. In some ways, this may have been sewing a mindset of ‘social justice’ in many that might later be brought closer to home. Poverty and hunger are the prevailing concerns of the districts in The Hunger Games as they are kept poor by the luxury-loving Capitol-dwellers. This has a vague resemblance to the way in which the ‘rich world’ of North America and Western Europe were portrayed in contrast to the starving African nations by the Make Poverty History movement.
Why would the ‘Occupy’ Movement and The Hunger Games - with their twin themes of rebellion against the Capitol / Capital - appear in tandem? There are deep trends in recent cultural history. In the western world there had been a clear enemy for fifty years. This had fostered paranoia and fear of the rival empire. The end of the Cold War brought less anxiety but more uncertainty. The mass visual culture reacted first with more free-floating paranoia with fascination for conspiracy theories (reassessing the past/revising history) and an overwhelming sense of helplessness. This emerged first, perhaps in Richard Linklater’s Slacker, progressing to The X-Files, Dark Skies and Millennium. As the 1990s progressed, the search for a new enemy became evident, with the Chinese appearing in US Marshals, the Japanese in Rising Sun (1993) and more extraterrestrials in Independence Day. At the end of the decade, existential angst took over, with films doubting the very reality of the world (Dark City, The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, The Thirteenth Floor) or expecting its immediate destruction (Deep Impact, Armageddon and the Independence Day parody Mars Attacks!) In this sense, the idea of a conflict against the state itself, in the absence of a tangible enemy, would be the natural progression. V for Vendetta (2006) was directed by the same team as The Matrix and is a credible next step in the idea of turning inwards in the search for the new conflict arena.
What makes Katniss different, and what makes her an ideal heroine for the new generation? I would say it is because she is a hero who is also a victim. The classic Stan Lee superheroes had greatness thrust upon them, but learned to integrate their new identity into their fraught lives. Even the Incredible Hulk. Banner is helpless as to whether he becomes the Hulk or not, but, like HG Wells’ Invisible Man, he is the victim only on his own back-firing scientific experiment. Buffy is chosen to be the Slayer, but, like Spiderman or the X-Men she finds a community into which she now fits.
Katniss is chosen to take part in a murderous game by an evil government and has no control over her fate, save her own cunning. Were she merely to play the game for survival, she would be no different to any other murdering victor, yet half by intent and half by default, she becomes aware and rebellious to the system. She has an extra layer of heroism in that she sacrifices herself to save her own sister from the games, but given the circumstances she has as little choice as had she been chosen herself.
V in V for Vendetta is also a victim of state violence who turns against it. V is for Victim. He and Katniss represent the new figure of the ‘victim-hero’, the put-upon resister... more proactive and decisive than Andy from Little Britain, but essentially kin to him. I’m reminded of a news item a while ago about a school that had a special dressing up day for the children the theme of which wasstyle="mso-spacerun: yes">
to come as the person you wanted to be when you grew up. Five of them came, in wheelchairs, as Andy. The question as to how he could possibly be an aspirational figure may be answered here.
To what extent do the 99% see themselves as ‘victim-heroes’? That is for you to judge, but the French cultural analysts Caroline Eliacheff and Daniel Soulez Larivière in their 2006 book Le temps des victimes have already addressed this question of the victim-hero. As their abstract puts it: “Even as our society preaches the cult of the winner, the figure of the victim has come to occupy the role of the hero. Media coverage of disasters has revealed that unanimity of compassion is in the process of becoming the ultimate expression of social ties. while requests for redress from psychiatrists and lawyers are endless. Where are we going with this generalised “victimisation”? Caroline Eliacheff and Daniel Soulez Larivière ... explore and dismantle this trend that emerged in the ’80s on all fronts and which feeds the egalitarian ideal of democratic individualism. They denounce the dangers that make us maintain this primacy of the compassionate and the emotional, which is sometimes already affecting the interests of victims and could turn against the whole of society...” [my translation].
As Eliacheff and Soulez Larivière see it, there is an underlying trend in western culture that arose in the 1980s and which now celebrates the victim, indeed sees the victim as the ‘hero’ of modern society. Without the victim, our contemporary concept of compassion would not even be possible. The victim informs the very values that hold our social threads together. This contention would certainly chime in very well with the progress and development of visual culture since the 1980s and the present triumph of the victim-hero. Indeed, ‘the egalitarian ideal of democratic individualism’ which they see as being ‘fed’ by the victim-hero concept stands at the forefront of the present-day political opposition movement.
[Amusingly, I came up with the term ‘victim-hero’ in the morning of 22nd June, and read the very same phrase for the first time - in French - in the publisher’s abstract for this book in the evening that same day - having seen it referenced by Libération’s sex-blogger, Agnès Giard!]
Saturday, June 23, 2012
Talked to a friend about the ending of the Hunger Games. Totally agreed with her. I had seen all the twists coming a mile off and wasn’t surprised by anything in it at all. In a way, there was nowhere left for her to go other than to try and plunge her created world into its own civil war, but in the end it unbalanced the whole thing, making this a totally different kind of book to the first. It was hard to care about the people involved. I even lost the will to care about Katniss herself... she wasn’t the victim any more but now the victimiser. The war made her an active participant in the destruction of the oppressive state, and so more responsible.
I secretly think this is what the anti-capitalist movement of the present age really wants - protest without responsibility. In the 1960s, it was clear what the Paris protesters wanted - basically they wanted France to be like the USSR - their agenda was hard-line Marxist and they were all signed up for that. In the wake of 1968, the French Communist Party was a major force in their politics through the 1970s and into the 1980s. What sort of system do the new protesters want? Well.... um... er, it’s hard to say. In The Hunger Games, Katniss takes responsibility for her beliefs, but in the end she shows that what she wants is not President Snow and not President Coin either.* A plague on both your houses. Let’s just settle down and play nice and forget about politics altogether. She’s about what she doesn’t want, not what she does want... again in step with the present day anti-capitalist movement.
Kate’s point was a very sharp observation - the mother just disappears out of the narrative. Katniss doesn’t talk to her any more and there’s no reason for that, she just doesn’t. The little sister stops being a character and then, ultimate tragedy, gets killed off - and she was the very reason this all happened in the first place. Without her Katniss wouldn’t have become involved. and what would the rebels have done then? It’s meant to be a terrible irony, but in the book it just comes across as another piece of laziness, just adding one more twist without thinking it through. The emotional reactions of the characters just don’t engage here. Peeta and Katniss swip-swap love/hate all the way and it becomes confusing at first and then just boring. I didn’t care whether these were his true feelings or the ones Snow had implanted... Get over it!
The weakness of this last book was the sheer scale of the conflict it tries to describe. The Hunger Games themselves are like war in miniature, and are superbly depicted. One of the strengths of the first novel was how little exposition Katniss provides. She assumes her readers are familiar with the Games, have seen many of them already on television. We are surprised by new turns in the plot, but we understand, without pages of explanation. This is not the case in Mockingjay, where massive screeds of print are needed to fill in back story and explain the progress of the war. The scale overwhelms the storytelling. The second half is stronger, but the ending is a let-down. There’s a Harry Potter coda, of course, which basically tells the audience just what J K Rowling wanted hers to hear - there’ll be no more books. But in this case there is not the satisfaction of that end. It’s just too pat, too simplistic. It reads almost as though she’d become tired of explaining and wanted it to end.
The one area where she scores is in how eerily her imagined scenarios have come to look almost like predictions of real life events. The ‘Hunger Games’ arenas with their ‘career tributes’ hunting down and killing the innocent children - how closely does the killing spree on an island haven by the Norwegian murderer Anders Breivik resemble this situation? He even used the same trickery to lure the hiding out into the open that the Gamesmakers and ‘Careers’ employ - making fake police safety announcements. He relished the pleas of the dying, just as Cato would have done. The very setting, in this countryside park on an island in a lake could so easily be a Games arena... Breivik, like President Snow, even tried to paste a ludicrous ‘political’ justification across his atrocities, as though he were ‘saving’ Norway through his actions, and maintaining its peace. In the same way, the spectacle of the Games is pure, grisly entertainment for the Capitol’s TV viewers. They are encouraged to believe that they are somehow preventing another war. Ironically, they end up starting one.
And... and then there is the Arab Spring. How do the Hunger Games begin? With ‘the girl on fire’. How did the Arab Spring begin? With a man on fire - an unemployed Tunisian who immolated himself as a protest against his government. This desperate blaze ignited first his whole country, then Egypt, then Libya, then Yemen and Bahrain, and now Syria. How closely does the conflict in The Hunger Games look like the Libya war? Very closely, is the answer, with the ‘districts’ fighting against one another, getting closer to the Capital, with Gaddafi trying to obliterate entire regions, just like President Snow. Compare Snow’s destruction of District 12 with Gaddafi’s plan to obliterate Benghazi. Compare Snow’s bombardment of 13 with Gaddafi’s onslaught against Misurata and then that city’s heroic defiance... And finally...
How very similar was Gaddafi’s final hour to that of Snow? Superficially different, but in both cases the assassins track down the leader in the firm belief that killing him will end the war. In both cases the death of the leader is shown live on TV as his executioners parade him in front of the cameras. In both cases the body is surrounded by a maddened, chaotic crowd. In both cases, uncertainty surrounds what really happened. In the final Hunger Games book, President Snow is tied to a stake, fully expecting Katniss to shoot him. Yet when she doesn’t, he strangely dies anyway, perhaps from some kind of poison... Wonder who gave that to him?
In the real war in Libya, an intensive search of the capital, Tripoli, ended when rebel fighters found Colonel Gaddafi hiding in a sewer pipe. They dragged him out of the drain, where he had been cowering like a rat. He sobbed and begged for help, saying he was hurt. Later, when Gaddafi’s bloody dead body was displayed to the world on a stretcher, the rebels swore to NATO that they hadn’t shot him. They claimed instead that he died before they had a chance to kill him, from wounds apparently inflicted earlier, by his own men... Did we believe them? Probably not. Did we care? Certainly not. Gaddafi was a mass murderer and, as in the case of Saddam, a trial would have been highly inconvenient to the West. Many of the same desires to avoid awkward questions and cover up disquiet over the evils of the rebels are strongly suggested in Mockingjay.
And in Syria - see how closely President Assad follows the same pattern of attack against his own districts as President Snow does in the final book. The turning point in this story is the killing of the children and the most recent massacre of children in Syria by the government’s forces may finally have turned the tide of opinion in the outside world towards arming the rebels and overthrowing the regime. The shelling of unarmed civilians, the desperate measures taken by the ruling elite to stay in power all are strange echoes of the events in the last book.
These things don’t really make me care much more or even at all about the characters in the book, though, but there is a sense in which these novels have caught a remarkable scent on the air of history, have tuned into a real underlying theme in modern politics. No-one in the west saw the Arab Spring coming, but perhaps Suzanne Collins, in a subliminal way, had a foretaste of it.
that masked man?”
there are many political and thematic differences between The Hunger Games and Battle Royale, if they are stripped back to their most basic
level, that of a fight to the death televised for a watching audience, then
they are part of a curious genre.
The idea of
life-or-death games as popular television entertainment in a future, dystopian
world crops up a number of times in science-fiction. There are many (perhaps
too many… no, forget that word ‘perhaps’) episodes of the 1960s US television
series Star Trek in which gladiatorial
games feature. In two of them, Captain Kirk is teleported off the bridge of his
ship to fight on some alien planet, the results of the combat being shown to
his crew on their TV-like monitor (‘Arena’, Season One, 1967, Writers Gene L.
Coon and Fredric Brown, and ‘The Gamesters of Triskelion,’ Season Two, 1968,
Writer Margaret Armen) In another, they encounter a world exactly resembling
Ancient Rome, in which the Arena is televised for a blood-thirsty public
(‘Bread and Circuses’, Season Two, 1968, writers Gene Roddenberry and Gene L.
Coon). In yet another (‘Amok Time’, Season Two, 1967, writer Theodore
Sturgeon), Kirk and Spock must fight each other in a Vulcan marriage ritual,
once again, to the death in another Roman-style arena. This plot surfaced yet
again in Season Three in ‘The Savage Curtain’ (1969, Writers Arthur Heinemann
and Gene Roddenberry).
possible that the emphasis Star Trek
placed on this type of story, and the regularity with which it returned to it,
was not entirely coincidental. For American television viewers of that time,
coverage of the Vietnam War was itself a real-life version of this idea and
would have provided immediate inspiration. Conscripts into the US army were
chosen at random by lottery (just as in The Hunger Games). The state-run ‘Draft Lottery’ converted dates of
birth into numbers. These were then entered in the draw. The ‘winning’ numbers
were published in the newspapers. As in the fantasy gladiator games, these
‘contestants’ were sent to fight to the death in an alien environment,
monitored by photographers with stills and film cameras. The footage was relayed
to nightly TV news broadcasts to audiences back home. Vietnam was the first
televised war, and this concept almost certainly influenced the science-fiction
dealing with gladiator-style TV gaming. This was history, not fantasy, however.
Harrison’s short story, ‘The Rollerball Murders’ (first published in Esquire, September 1973) was made into the hit film, Rollerball (1975), but also inspired Paul Bartel and the Roger
Corman studios to produce an arguably superior ‘rip-off’, Death Race
2000 (1975). In both of these films, the
population of the future is kept pacified by watching an excessively violent
game-show on television, featuring gladiatorial contest and real murder. In Death
Race 2000 there is an explicit link made
between the celebrity of the racers and the political power of the president.
It also shows how vulnerable this political system is, as even the highest can
be legitimate ‘kills’ in the Death Race.
Star Trek was probably the most influential of the
‘games’-based science-fiction, but it was not the first. The BBC TV series, Doctor
Who, featured this concept well before
Vietnam had come to dominate public consciousness. In his very earliest
incarnations, Doctor Who battled malevolent, game-playing creatures from Outer
Space, most notably the Celestial Toymaker (played by Michael Gough, faced by
the First Doctor), the Mind Robber and the Krotons (enemies of the Second
Doctor), all of whom set evil puzzles and games that must be solved, or death
would result. Another point of comparison from this period would be the deadly
jokes and games of The Riddler in the TV show, Batman.
of evil games seems to erupt in the early 1960s, but does not feature too much
before this, at least not in film. Philip K. Dick wrote many stories of
macabre, lethal games, however. In Solar Lottery (1955), an officially random, but actually rigged game selects
presidential candidates. In a second twist, an assassination game takes place,
in which ‘contestants’ are randomly picked to have telepathic control of a
robot gunman. In Time Out of Joint
(1957), Ragel Gumm solves newspaper quizzes for a living in an artificial
‘arena’, not knowing the life-or-death consequences of his play. In The
Game-Players of Titan (1963), the alien
Vugs maintain control over a conquered Earth by means of an elaborate board
game, in which all surviving humans compete.
stories all have the gladiatorial element and devilish tricks, but lack the
televised factor. No-one follows the game-playing as an entertainment in its
own right. However, the (unofficial) film version of Dick’s Time Out of
Joint, The Truman Show, does include this.
The world is hooked on a soap-opera/reality television series featuring the
actual life of Truman Burbank. The life-or-death element extends to only one
player, Truman himself, who is unaware that he is playing a game, but its
deadly implications are made clear to him, and the watching audience, when he
tries to quit.
of relevance or related interest here would include:
of the Sex Olympics (1968)
to Blood City (1977)
Running Man (1987)
anything that links the idea of gladiatorial games and the vendetta of V? Why
should these two images mesh at this time? What connects them?
‘revenge’ should come through to us. One of the key ways in which Ridley
Scott’s Gladiator (2000) differs from
its source film, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1963) is the theme of vengeance. General Maximus
wants his revenge on Emperor Commodus, ‘in this world or the next’ and finally
achieves it. His is a vendetta indeed, fought in blood in the arena, but also
via intrigues in the senate, threats of loyal troops coming to occupy Rome, a
charm offensive to win hearts and minds, and a political whispering campaign to
poison the people against the tyrannical emperor.
series of films in the early 1970s reflected these two themes very acutely. In The
Abominable Dr Phibes, Vincent Price plays
the disfigured anti-hero, tracking down and killing the surgeons he holds
responsible for the death of his wife. Each of them is subjected to a gruesome
death of their own, related to the Biblical Ten Plagues of Egypt. In many
cases, these revenge killings feature bizarre and elaborate contraptions, and
in some cases the possibility of escape is dangled in front of the victims, if
only they have the wit, ingenuity or courage to take the chance. At the end,
the lead surgeon (played by Joseph Cotton) is presented with a surgical puzzle,
a test of skill and nerve and a choice that could mean death to his own son.
Are we meant
to sympathise with Dr Phibes? He is a death-in-life figure who wears a mask (!)
because his true face is destroyed, burned down to the skull in an accident
that everyone assumed had killed him. He is clearly modelled on the figure of
The Phantom of the Opera, who also wore a mask to hide his facial
disfigurement, devised convoluted game-like tortures for his pursuers and
sought revenge! Both are very strong contenders to be the origin of the
character and form of V in V for Vendetta.
Dr Phibes is
a horror, but also is a sympathetic character. We fear him, yet want him to
exercise his anger against these enemies. Our enjoyment is in seeing them die
these intricate, elaborate deaths. In this, the successors to Phibes in the
late 1970s and early 1980s are Michael Myers, the mask-wearing vengeance-killer
in John Carpenter’s Hallowe’en, and
Freddy Kruger, the facially disfigured, highly inventive and very vengeful
ghost in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).
In the early
years of the twenty-first century, Dr Phibes rose again, this time as Jigsaw,
the terminally-ill revenger in the Saw
series. Like Phibes, devising ever more Heath Robinson devices to torment his
‘contestants’, Jigsaw uses TV and modern forms of communication to force those
trying to save them to watch their fate.
murderous version of Guy Grand from Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian, Jigsaw wants to see his tests fail. He wishes his
victims to defeat his games, to solve the puzzles, prove him wrong and live,
but they have to exhibit the required level of will to survive. Should they
prefer to avoid pain, they embrace death.
There is a
strong sense in which Jigsaw is a
revenger, although not with a single focus, like Phibes. His is a vengeance
against the whole of humanity. He resents their casual acceptance of life and
its pleasures while he has had to struggle to survive. He wants them to
experience life intensely, or prove that they do not deserve it. They must
redeem themselves or die. In Jigsaw’s world-view, everyone is guilty until they
prove themselves innocent. If not, his vengeance continues. He, like Phibes,
wears a mask, or, more accurately hides his identity behind a grisly
ventriloquist’s doll, or (again, like Phibes) by making no physical appearance
at all, but speaking his instructions via audiotape, telephone or video. Like
Phibes, he is rarely if ever present at the kill, leaving his devices to work
in his absence, making his ‘mask’ all the more perfect.
Most of the
classic cartoon superheroes of the mid-twentieth century were masked avengers,
but these, like the Batman, had masks to protect their anonymity. Although it
is rarely explained why this was so important, it is assumed that this was to
protect their private lives and family from the anger of criminals brought to
justice by their vigilanteism. This seems especially pointless in the case of
Superman, however, who doesn’t really need a day-job and, having all the powers
of a god, is invulnerable to anyone who might want to seek retribution anyway.
Nevertheless, he had a ‘mask’: the identity of Clark Kent, his daytime
alter-ego. A long-running series of comic-book heroes from Marvel were even
called ‘The Avengers’, although quite what it was they were avenging was never
link in the masked avenger chain is the closest to home. The Wachowski
brothers’ previous film hero, Neo in The Matrix (1999), has the biggest mask of all: his entire self. Morpheus tells
Neo that his whole identity, life and body are the ‘world that has been pulled
over your eyes’ to blind him to the reality of The Matrix, a computer-generated
illusion, enslaving humanity. Neo’s telephone call to the machine authorities
at the end of the film (spoiler!) gives them an ultimatum. He will show the
masses what the machines do not want them to see: ‘…a world … without you. A
world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries; a world where
anything is possible.’ This is a call to a form of political awakening in the
bulk of humanity, to become conscious of their situation. The way to defeat the
machines is to become able to see them, to recognise their false world for what
it is. Becoming conscious of their presence is enough to free the imprisoned of
They Live! (John Carpenter, 1988) the
donning of a ‘mask’ (the sunglasses) frees the people. Once the special
polaroids are put on, wearers are enabled to see the alien invaders who have
taken over America. The creatures normally appear to humans as young
professionals in suits (‘yuppies’) or smart business people. The glasses delete
their hallucinatory disguise and reveal them in their true form - much like the
skull-faced Martians of Mars Attacks!. Of course, the wearers of the enlightening glasses also become less
identifiable themselves. Classically, terrorists and paramilitaries from the
1960s onwards have worn dark glasses as part of their disguise. Like the
followers of V, the free-thinkers of They Live! also look alike in their glasses ‘masks’ and share a
powerful, political secret. At the end of the film (spoiler!) TV viewers across
America share in the secret knowledge. V in V for Vendetta brings this back down to Earth... Showing the mass
what can be done in rebelling against the repressive authority, he leads them
to adopt his identity and dissolve their own into a collective anonymity.
What is a
revenger? By definition, it is someone who has been a victim. Like the Count of
Monte Cristo, like Vindice in The Revenger’s Tragedy, the dearest wish of a revenger is to get even with
those who have done them wrong. The revenger inevitably fits in very well with
the concept of the ‘victim hero’, although the revenger crosses a moral line
that, for example, the ‘tributes’ in The Hunger Games do not. In making a deliberate, conscious decision
to kill or counter-attack, the revenger becomes a willing participant in the
fight. The ‘gladiators’ in these modern ‘bread and circuses’ stories are forced
into their conflicts, removing any taint of intent.
perhaps, not surprise us so much that revenger stories are popular again now.
The original Jacobean revenge tragedies proved successful at a time of rising
inflation (the early 1600s) and straitened economic times in Britain. High inflation
on both sides of the Atlantic was a feature of the 1970s. People who had made
money in the boom years of the 1960s found themselves losing it in their
aftermath, with falling wages and a rapidly rising cost of living.style="mso-spacerun: yes">
Of course, curiously, V for Vendetta and the Saw series predated the economic crisis, but their resonance with the present monetary and political situation could not be more apposite. If V for Vendetta could be seen as growing out of the ideas latent in The Matrix, there are also reasons why its 1980s storyline would fit in with the situation in 2006. It deals with rebellion against a repressive regime, afraid of terrorists in its midst. Fears of curtailment of civil liberty freedoms in the wake of the War on Terror in America appear in other films, notably Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. There is fertile ground for these ideas from the 1970s and 1980s to be resurfacing now.