The Capitol, Ugliness and the Desert of the Real

Originally published on Hummus For Thought on April 29th 2012.

One of the main features of the Gary Ross science fiction action film The Hunger Games is the extremely disturbing and ridiculous looks of the wealthy and powerful inhabitants of The Capitol. They are shown to enjoy the glamorous and yet abhorrent event that are the Hunger Games. They are not so different from us as to be unimaginable but they posses certain characteristics that seem to us to be utterly unappealing.

None of us would enjoy watching children and teenagers battle to the death for our entertainment. However, part of the Hunger Games’ attraction is our fascination with horrible events as being curiously revealing of aspects of our modern world. In other words, under certain conditions, every one of us would be able to enjoy the Hunger Games.

The people in The Capitol have had to redesign their universe in order to tolerate, and indeed enjoy, the sight of children and teenagers fighting to death. They have excessive lighting, excessive colors, excessive food, excessive entertainment to effectively distract them from any sense of being part of a single humanity. The classification that is necessary to distance themselves from the brutal and very real suffering that they are causing could not have been possible without a serious change with everything that has to do with their daily lives; routines are an absolute must to keep them passive and ‘joyful’.

Aren’t we, to a certain extent, in the same situation? We know that there is unspeakable suffering in the world, we know that we are approaching climatic catastrophe and we know that we are all responsible to a certain extent of everything that is going on, with our consumerism and our passive lifestyle but we do not really know it.

The viewer or reader would understandably feel more connected to the lovely Katniss Everdeen, the brave Peeta Mellark, and the innocent Rue rather than the absurdly looking Effie Trinket, the fake Ceasar Flickerman, or indeed any of the other rich aristocrats inhabitants of the Capitol. The backgrounds of the former are more familiar, more real and that of the latter are more bizarre.

What is even more interesting about dystopian universes such as that portrayed by Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games is the experimentation with possible realities. It is not impossible to imagine a world where such a thing as the Hunger Games would be a reality. Indeed, we had something similar not so long ago. Gladiatorial and Venatio events played a similar function in the entertainment world. Our fascination with cruelty and absurdity continues today with blood sports such as Bullfighting and Dog fighting. Our attention may have switched from humans to animals – although I suspect that cruel human fighting still exists somewhere – but the essence remains the same. After all, no moral human being can ever justify, I claim, the absurdity of bullfighting for it is purely the act of torturing an innocent creature for entertainment. And yet, it exists. It wouldn’t be possible if we constantly maintained the reality of the situation, if we all remembered that that bull must be suffering atrociously. Similarly, the inhabitants of the Capitol are able to enjoy suffering by the same mechanism which is the dissociation from any natural sense of empathy.

The participants, called tributes, are all given the attention worthy of any superstar before entering the Games. Clown-faced smiles, ridiculous ‘aww’s and frantic clapping make us forget for a moment that 23 of the 24 people being virtually worshiped are about to be killed. The way the introduction to each tribute is made is designed to give the momentary illusion that the Games are nothing more but pure entertainment, entered by will and devoid of any horrible connotations. This momentary illusion is an absolute must for the Games to exist. It matters not if the members of the crowd agree or disagree with the killing of innocent children and teenagers. Indeed, they may go back home and debate among themselves on the morality of the whole situation. Nothing stops them. But they are stopped. The show must go on.

Every single member of the crowd knows that these people are about to be killed. But they do not realize it. In other words, there are two realities: one Virtual Reality and one Real Reality. We saw this in two other movies, the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix and Peter Weir’s The Truman Show. Morpheus welcomed Neo with a well-known sentence of the Matrix trilogy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real. Is it not what Truman Burbank experienced as well? The characters of the three universes are experiencing a dual reality, one ‘fake’ and one ‘real’. A sentient supermachine, called the Matrix, may be necessary to control the characters in the Matrix universe but such a machine is not absolutely necessary. The inhabitants of the Capitol require only excessiveness, absurdity and entertainment without any supernatural or superintelligent being to keep them passive and ‘inhuman’. Don’t we have something similar today?

Anyway, may the odds be ever in your favor.