What Happened to Liberty in the The Hunger Games Movie?

As expected, The Hunger Games blasted through doors off movie theaters last weekend, raking in $152.5 million in its opening weekend. That represents the third highest domestic box-office gross in history, trailing just behind the last Harry Potter movie and The Dark Knight. This should have been good news for liberty lovers, as I noted in an earlier post on this blog based on a review of the books. But alas, perhaps not. The pro-liberty theme, particularly the individualist element, was diluted in the movie adaptation of the books. The reasons why, and the implications for future adaptations of books with liberty themes, are important for those interested in seeing liberty play a more prominent role in popular culture, particularly movies.

Movies are a different medium than books, and storytellers have to script their characters and plots to fit the visual aesthetic of conventional film. For commercial films, this appeal has to be broad to position the film for success. Unfortunately, “idea movies” simply don’t fare well at the box office. Atlas Shrugged, for example, grossed just $5 million during its run in the US, about the same as the anti-Wall Street film Margin Call (which featured much bigger name actors). The Adjustment Bureau with Matt Damon did better, breaking $60 million. That’s respectable number, but far short of a box office hit. You get the point.

The core problem is that the trappings of commercial movie production make idea movies a hard sell. Moviegoers are brought in the theaters based on emotional conflict, not grand ideas about politics or economics. These conflicts have to be personal, not abstract. So, it’s not so much the oppression of the State that motivates Katniss in the movie as much as her promise to her sister Prim to win and come home.

In the book trilogy, Katniss Everdeen is almost Randian in her individualistic quest for liberty. Before the Reaping, her biggest source of angst is against the imperialistic oppression of the Capital District. Her relationship with her best friend Gale Hawthorne hinges on a mutual hatred and resistance to the State’s oppression of their community (District 12) as well as themselves as individuals; they aren’t reacting to the oppression of the collective as much as the constraints on their own freedoms of association and economic opportunities.

Notably, a libertarian friend’s teenage child told him she hates it when people bring politics into a discussion of The Hunger Games. For most readers and movie goers, the story is more about personal struggle and survival, not self identity, personal freedom, colonialism, or even economic tyranny even though these themes are very clear and I would argue integral to the storyline of the books. Thus, the quest for individual liberty is reduced to a survival story in the movie, motivated by a sister’s undying love and self-sacrifice. These are certainly noble values, but they fall short of the liberty-laced thoughts and actions of the books. Katniss Everdeen remains very much an individualist in the movie, but it’s her practical side of doing everything necessary to win the games that drives the plot.

This is unfortunate. Most baby boomers have a contemporary understanding of the brutal realities and efficiencies of totalitarian states embodied in the Soviet Gulags, Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Cambodia’s killing fields, Rwanda’s tribal massacres, and the terrorism of dictators such as Uganda’s Idi Amin or Augusto Pinochet in Chile. The terrorism embodied in the intentional cruelty and oppression of the Capital District is not a fantastical abstraction of something left to the stuff of science fiction. For younger generations, however, the brutal efficiency of the totalitarian state is in danger of becoming an abstraction.

Moreover, these oppressive regimes, many of which were responsible for the torture and murder of tens of millions of people, were overturned through the heroic efforts of individual leaders, making individual sacrifices, and putting higher values above risks to themselves. In short, successful resistance to collective oppression has come in the form of the Katniss Everdeens in the books, not the movie. These individuals, like the Czech Republic’s Vaclav Klaus or Poland’s Lech Walesa, were motivated by ideas.

I can only hope that the commercial success of the first movie will give the screenwriters the freedom to complete the arc of Everdeen’s character toward this more even heroic figure over the next two movies.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., is director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center, a market-oriented think tank in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University in Tallahassee and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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