If you don't think the world's weird, you're not paying attention.

Hollywood’s Really Big Themes: Freedom and Survival

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This is something that requires a book, so it’s going to be a bit rough because I’m not going to waste my time writing a book that no one will read anyway. (You would have thought that someone would have written a book, but as far as I know there is no book on this subject.)

So, here goes:

Am I the only one who sees the themes of freedom and survival everywhere in Hollywood movies? In film after film, we see a hero fighting to free himself or others from some type of enslavement, fighting to stay alive, or both.

But why are these themes so common? Is life really nothing but an attempt to stay alive? That is, is everything we do nothing more than maintaining the status quo of our existence? There’s another type of story which used to be more common. The hero attempts to get ahead, to improve their status in life, only to find out that they were better off staying where they were. This is the plot of films such as The Wizard of Oz and Damn Yankees. Even Citizen Kane can be categorized with these films. However, it seems that this type of story today is much less common than stories in which the hero merely fights to stay alive. There’s no longer any question of improving their lives when their life is under attack. Often, it’s not just the hero’s life, but  the life of the entire planet that is at stake. Perhaps this shift is the result of the decline of our society.

Then we have stories about the fight for freedom. This usually takes the form of an Robin Hood type outlaw fighting a corrupt government. An early example is Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood (1922). But these stories about the fighting for freedom never explore the concept of freedom, and more or less assumes that everyone already knows what “freedom” is and that it’s worth fighting for? For example, there’s never any question that “freedom” means something different to a factory owner than it does to a factory worker. By ignoring these differences, the films preserve an illusion that “freedom” is universal. The result is that these stories ultimately reinforce the society that made the films, a society which is based on inequality and therefore lacks of freedom.


A) In what sense can it be said that watching stories in which characters battle for their freedom, frees the people sitting watching the screens that display these stories? Although the spectators are not chained to their seats, the end the result is the same as it would be if they were. That is, they remain tied to one place, dreaming of a virtual world acted upon by virtual characters, therefore reduced to being non-actors in their own world. At least while they are engaged with the story. But nowadays, films don’t necessarily end when the end credits role. The fan does not leave the fictional world when the film or book ends. Thanks to facebook, twitter, discussion groups, etc the fan can remain in their chosen fictional world practically forever.

 Is this truly the life we dreamed of when we first began to dream?

B) The Hunger Games, released today in the USA, is an especially obvious example of a film about freedom and survival. And of course these themes are present in the earlier films and TV shows that are similar to it.

This is a very brief list of some of those earlier works, limited to TV and films:

1. The Most Dangerous Game (1932). The film was based on a short story (1924) by Richard Connell, and there have been numerous remakes and reworkings including Hard Target, John Woo’s first American film. Shipwreck victims on an island are given the choice of being killed immediately, or entering a game in which they are hunted by the island’s proprietor. If they last till dawn, they win their life and freedom.

2. The Tenth Victim. Based on a short story by Robert Sheckley. This story is different from all the others on this list in one important aspect: the game is to the death and for the benefit of a TV audience, but the players enter the game voluntarily.

3. The Outer Limits: Fun and Games. Adapted from a short story, “Arena” (1944) by Fredric Brown. This story was also used as the source for Star Trek’s “Arena” episode.

3. Star Trek: “Bread and Circuses,” “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” “Arena.” Superior beings force the Star Trek characters to battle to the death.

4. Death Race 2000 (1975). Death sports as mass entertainment.

5. Rollerball (1975). A roller derby type game, but to the death.

6. The Running Man. Based on a short story (1982) by Stephen King.

7. Battle Royale. Not a Hollywood movie, but a Japanese film based on a Japanese book. Teenagers forced to fight to the death to provide entertainment for the masses.

The common element of these stories, man forced to fight man, can, of course, be traced to the gladiator games in the Roman Coliseum which of course has produced films such as Spartacus and Gladiator. (Some might point out that horseracing today, especially in the USA, resembles the world of The Hunger Games because horses are forced to race against each other. Although it’s not a race to the death, quite a few of the horses end up dying due to racing. Of course, any situation in which soldiers are placed and told kill or be killed is also pretty much it.)

C) In my post about Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone, I asked, “Are revenge narratives merely the means to provide the hero with a circumstance in which he or she can kill with impunity and justification?” The Hunger Games suggests a more general question: are stories of any kind merely what Freud called Secondary Revision, that is the work of the Unconscious by which primal desires that are unacceptable to the conscious mind are altered in such a way that they are presented in a disguised, but acceptable, fashion. In the case of The Hunger Games, the primal desire would be murder. So we create a story which allows a good hero to kill others. The story protects us in a number of ways. First, it’s the character, not us, who does the actual murder, meaning we cannot be held accessories to murder. Second, the story provides clear justification for the hero’s killings, ie. a license to kill. Third, the fact that we it’s a mass phenomenon is probably important. We get reassurance from the fact that we are not the only ones attracted to this.

Don’t think this is remotely true? Check out this quote:

Nearly two dozen teens bite the big one in The Hunger Games, sure to be cinema’s most popular source of adolescent bloodshed. There’s no darker vicarious thrill than watching someone perish on screen, as many an action junkie will certainly tell you. (Source.)

Is the secret behind The Hunger Games‘ success a dark view of human nature?

D) As some have pointed out, the world of Hunger Games doesn’t quite make sense. If a government does not want its citizens to rebel, why give them even more reasons by forcing them to sacrifice kids? Instead of forcing tributes, perhaps a more sensible setup would be for the government to offer payment to volunteers. You can be sure that in a world of poverty, there would be no shortage of volunteers. Then create an additional incentive to play the game by providing the winner a huge prize. But the real kicker would be to offer betting on the outcomes. Why? Because instead of rooting for the home team, everyone who bets would be rooting for the one they think will actually win. And make the betting free for everyone. This creates the possibility of a hero whose own district does not support because they think he or she has no chance of winning. But, of course, they are wrong.

E) Like many artists, author Suzanne Collins appears to have constructed The Hunger Games out of bits and pieces from her favorite books:

Are there books you’ve gone back to and read over and over again?

It’s embarrassing to admit how many times I’ve reread the following: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1984, Lord of the Flies, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Germinal, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and A Moveable Feast. (Source.)

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: girl’s coming of age story

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: ditto

1984: Authoritarian government

Lord of the Flies: kids killing kids because at heart, by nature, man is evil. (Which, of course, is an argument that can be used as a justification for an authoritarian, 1984-like government: i.e. such a government is necessary to protect man from himself.)

Germinal: exploited working class miners

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, who, of course, also wrote “The Lottery,” which I would guess is also a Collins fave.


Written by David Kilmer

March 23, 2012 at 4:33 pm

Posted in Films

Tagged with , ,

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