The Hunger Games: Mockingjay’s bombed-out dystopia is all too familiar: it could be Syria, Gaza or Iraq

Suzanne Moore

That the Jennifer Lawrence-starring films are such big box office means someone is paying attention to what teenage girls like – and it isn’t pretty

The Hunger Games Mockingjay's bombed-out dystopia is all too familiar it could be Syria, Gaza or Iraq

I took two 13-year-olds to one of the bleakest films I have ever seen. In it, hospitals full of children were bombed, there were public executions, prisoners paraded in hoods, and there was torture. This was not some kind of punishment: the 13-year-olds were excited beyond belief. When I told my youngest that I had preview tickets for Mockingjay Part 1, the latest in the Hunger Games series, she emailed: “Oh my I am not prepared I am dying just start planning the funeral I love u.” Yes, this is how teenage girls talk, and yes, they know it’s kind of funny. Bouts of this intense hyperbole – everything being too much, all of the time – punctuate the deadpanning of everything being boring the rest of the time.

Why this film, rightly described as one of the grimmest dystopian movies of the decade, is being lapped up by teenage girls fascinates me. This is some distance from Zoella and the haul girls flogging makeup. But the huge success of The Hunger Games is revealing. If you don’t “get” why Jennifer Lawrence is such a huge presence, watch her as Katniss Everdeen, where she earths the dark energy of the intensely violent films. For she is fighting a brutal regime that literally sacrifices its young people on a reality TV show. Unwittingly, Katniss with her bow and arrow becomes a symbol of the revolution. She refuses to play the game for either side, becoming a tough but reluctant hero. A hero for our times, then, when real-life revolutionaries appear to adopt the Stokely Carmichael line that the position of women in the revolution is “prone”.

That this is huge box office means that someone is paying attention to what teenage girls like. The darkness of this movie tells us that what would have once been the province of German arthouse or Japanese cinema is now mainstream. The future imagined in these films intimates that something very bad is happening and we all know it. It also tells us that films no longer have to stand alone and can operate more like a TV series (the concluding part of Mockingjay will be out next year). Nor do we need old guys to curate the soundtrack when we can have an 18-year-old. She happens to be Lorde.

Obviously the penchant of teenagers for dystopian fiction is not new. We can go back to Lord of the Flies. Cinema has long turned teen angst into action. Heathers remains a favourite in our house – “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw” – because, of course, rebellion against conformity is part of being young. An individual against a brutal authoritarian system is basically what school feels like to some. The Hunger Games ramps this up so that the teens are pitted against each other. It isn’t just a popularity contest, it’s a matter of life and death, and in this third film, it is all-out war, revolution and moral complexity.

What is truly shocking about this film is that a lot of it looks like the present, somewhere else in the world. These are the kinds of images our children see, whether we want them to or not. When Katniss stands in the rubble of her district razed to the ground, it could be parts of Syria, Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan. Wild dogs pick over piles of corpses. Hospitals are deliberately bombed. What matters is getting the right images of conflict to incite the rebellion. Katniss fails to make authentic propaganda until she sees the damage and destruction for herself. Then her battle cry to the evil dictator President Snow is: “If we burn, you burn with us.” As in Suzanne Collins’s original books, the references to Coriolanus come thick and fast.

Watching Lawrence in her fetching armour amid the ruins resembles a lot of news footage, and that is why it is so disturbing. This film is a 12A, whereas the new Paddington film is PG because of mild sexual references (don’t ask). Our systems of censorship have essentially broken down. They often seem innately meaningless, so we bypass them. Showing Carrie to my daughter when she expressed an interest in horror was telling. What shocked her were not the final scenes, but the abundance of pubic hair in the first few.

What is evident is that horrific images are everywhere: beheadings on the front of newspapers, footage of dead children, pictures of dying dictators. “This is what we need to see to understand war,” goes the argument. But I question this need to stick cameras into the faces of people dying from Ebola as much as I do the continual pictures of corpses. All parents censor, but much of this is now unavoidable. The internet makes everything available and, as we know, Isis now uses torture and murder as propaganda.

Mockingjay mirrors this. It is violent and despairing. A generation brought up with increasingly graphic imagery “gets” it. Teens who are told that the future is one of environmental catastrophe and global financial collapse flock to see these films; films full of grey, bombed-out zones, totalitarian regimes, morally compromised rebels, unremitting cruelty, and the media used as a weapon of war. These films of the future say much about what entertains our young people. And it is very far from childish.

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