29 February 2012
Bread and Circuses
According to the Romans, ‘bread and circuses’ were the key to keeping a population content. As long as their immediate physical needs are met, and they are sufficiently distracted, people will turn a blind eye to almost anything. Sophie Lister writes…
It’s a tactic central to the world of The Hunger Games, a dark dystopian trilogy whose first instalment arrives on cinema screens this March. In post-apocalyptic America, people in 13 impoverished districts struggle for survival, oppressed by a wealthy minority. To keep the peace, the governing Capitol stages a yearly tournament in which ‘tributes’ from each district fight to the death on live television. These tributes, selected at random, are young people aged between 12 and 18.
When her beloved little sister is chosen, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to go in her place. In a competition where losing means certain death, there’s no room for friendship – even with fellow tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who once saved her life years ago. Swept away from her family and forced into the arena, nobody expects her to last very long. A lifetime of struggling against the odds, however, has taught
Katniss a few valuable lessons. Not only will she refuse to go quietly, but she might just change the game forever.
Novelist Suzanne Collins dreamed up the idea after idly channel-hopping one night. Flipping between reality television and coverage of the Iraq war, she noticed how “the lines began to blur in a very unsettling way”. With the screen placed firmly between us and the real experiences of those involved, it’s all too easy for war to become a kind of game – for suffering to become entertainment. What we call ‘reality television’ thrives on conflict
and discomfort. What we call ‘news’ is often packaged just as much to keep us watching as to tell us any kind of truth. In The Hunger Games those in power are able to manipulate the game, creating heroes and villains, manufacturing moments of peril and tension. The populace is hooked by the unfolding drama.
The success of the Roman ‘bread and circuses’ policy – and the increasing trend for cruelty in our own reality television – tells us that such a response is far from implausible. In his well-known book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that Brave New World was a more accurate prediction of today’s society than 1984. In George Orwell’s 1984, an oppressive government forcibly takes away people’s rights. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the population give up their freedoms willingly for the sake of a pleasure-giving drug. Are we, too, somehow medicated into submission by the entertainment we consume? What truths might we be missing because the media offers us a simpler, more appealing world to lose ourselves in?
Karl Marx famously said that religion is the opiate of the masses. But in today’s world, another force rules hearts and minds. The endless stream of information and images with which we’re bombarded can crowd out our ability to ask the big questions. All the noise from our phones and television screens is able to disguise the fact that, in one of the freest countries in the world, we’re not as free as we think we are. The answer is not to simply switch off. We may not live in a totalitarian regime like Katniss, or Orwell and Huxley’s heroes, but in some senses our problem goes deeper. We’re as willing to deceive ourselves as we are to be deceived, and even without the media’s influence, we’d still find ways to avert our gaze from the things that matter. The Hunger Games is a warning about our capacity to not just accept the unacceptable, but actively embrace it. The film takes us to a deeply corrupted world – and in doing so, opens our eyes to look more wisely at our own.
The Hunger Games is released on 23 March.