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Rollerball, The Running Man, and The Hunger Games: Dystopian Cinema in a Media-Driven Age

"The Hunger Games' Secret Romance!" reads the title of Ok! Magazine, just under the photos of Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, and Liam Hemsworth. "Intimate hotel room rendezvous!"

Obviously, I will never know to which apparently scandalous event Ok! magazine is referring, because the cover has precisely the opposite effect on me that it is meant to have. I am sure the editors of Ok! were betting on grocery store or book store or eReader customers being tempted enough to discover these young stars' "juicy secrets" that they would purchase the magazine. I sincerely hope they were disappointed in the number of sales they actually made.

When you consider a story like "The Hunger Games," trashy, sensational magazine cover-speak such as that featured on Ok! positively reverberates with irony.

I loved "The Hunger Games" film adaptation. It was one of the best and most respectful adaptations I have seen, and the creators cut out much less than I actually thought they would. The acting was, for the most part, moving and effective, and I loved the costumes. But above all, it was a very serious movie. The movie, like the book, was meant to teach us and, more specifically, young people something. Beware the god Entertainment - you will end up leaving your humanity at the altar.

The name of the futuristic country in the story that is all that's left of America is Panem. Panem as in "panem et circenses" - bread and games. Apparently, at one point, the people of Panem gave up their important freedoms and their political voice in favor of full tummies and entertainment. It might have happened slowly - over the course of decades - we don't know because the book doesn't provide that much historical detail. But we do know that eventually, Panem traded liberty for sweets and delicacies, freedom for television.

If you walk away from a movie like "The Hunger Games" and all you want to know is who its stars were having over to visit in their hotel rooms, I think it's safe to say you've missed the point.

Suzanne Collins and the filmmakers behind "The Hunger Games" are not the first artists who have tried to make this point. I am seriously bummed that I was unaware of the film "Rollerball" before a few weeks ago, because it is one of the most intelligent and aesthetically interesting films I've ever seen. It's like "The Hunger Games" for grown-ups, and oh, yeah - it came before "The Hunger Games."

"Rollerball" tells the story of Jonathan E., renowned and remarkable rollerball champion. Only, there aren't supposed to be champions in rollerball - a brutal, fiery game in which the participants have to get a metal ball into a ring, all the while skating around a rink in teams equipped with motorcycles and spiked gloves. In the futuristic world of "Rollerball," the game of that name was created "to demonstrate the futility of individual effort." The omnipotent corporation in "Rollerball" doesn't like Jonathan because he rises above the system. He asserts his will over the collective will of the corporation. In other words, Jonathan is the Mockingjay.

"It's like people had a choice a long time ago between having all them nice things or freedom," Jonathan says. "Of course, they chose comfort."

"But comfort is freedom," says Jonathan's ex-wife. "The whole history of civilization is a struggle against poverty and need."

"No! No...that's not it," answers Jonathan. "That's never been it! Them privileges just buy us off."

Sound familiar?

Decidedly the least serious of the three dystopian films I've watched recently is "The Running Man," but you can't argue with the fact that it, along with "The Hunger Games" and "Rollerball" are triplets in satirical terms. I didn't know this, but my mom informed me that Richard Dawson, who plays the host of "The Running Man" in the movie, was actually the host of Family Fued up until a couple years before the movie was filmed. For me, that added an element of serious creepiness. Imagine if Ryan Seacrest played the host of the Hunger Games of Panem! It would bring the message of the film a lot closer to home.

"The Running Man"
Why do we love Katniss Everdeen? Because Katniss doesn't take any crap, and her B.S. detector is on high alert, and we wish we were more like her. Katniss doesn't take any crap, and neither does Jonathan E., and neither does Ben Richards. In their stories, they appear to be the heroes, with their own specific backgrounds and looks and personas. But don't you understand? The authors behind these characters want us to step into their shoes!

Your most valuable tool - and what makes you you - is housed inside that heavy bone structure sitting on top of your neck. That organ's capacity to think, to reason, to create, and to assert itself as an entity existing separately from everything else is quite unique in the universe. The media would have you feed it garbage twenty-four hours a day, and it's up to you - like Katniss - to turn on your B.S. detector. The media would have us think that women are things, that pain and strife in a family is just "drama" and makes good TV, that you can find true love if you date thirty people at once, that violence can be beautiful and exciting. They don't need you to agree, at first, they just need you to forget to think for yourself. And it remains to be seen whether these films and the other stories in their genre remain fictional or become prophetic. After all, Panem wasn't built in a day.


  1. Michelle
    You got it; You nailed it on the head.
    When someone told me about the Hunger Games, I said to myself that sounds like roller ball!!!!!!
    So is comfort freedom or is comfort slavery?

    1. Well, I don't think comfort in and of itself is a bad thing - it just depends what you've sacrificed (internally and externally) for the sake of comfort. In Jonathan's case, in Rollerball, even though he is kept in comfort, he is like the corporation's prisoner. Like a zoo animal, so to speak.

      I will add, though, that one sense in which comfort could be negative is if it becomes complacency and there is no desire for change or reform or progress. A small amount of discomfort is always good, I think, because that's the whole reason we came up with farming, indoor plumbing, etc., and every time we survive discomfort we come out stronger.

  2. Great post. I remember watching Rollerball (probably edited for tv) a very, very long time ago. I'll have to watch it again now that I'm a grown up. I just remember it being very violent, probably how my kids will remember HG. They have a long way to go to grasp the moral of the story, but I'll keep sending them here.

    I also have to share that I just finished book fair at the middle school, a dystopian wonderland. At least there are more than vampire books to choose from now. Kid soldiers seemed to show up in many flavors. Hopefully, the messages continue to be thought provoking and not just violent.

    1. I'm glad you liked the post. I've read before that kids can't truly think abstractly (as in symbols, motifs, themes, connections between stories, etc.) until they are 17. I'm not sure if that's true, but it is certain that they won't unless we teach them to make connections and to find the "moral of the story."

      I should have known the book fair would be overflowing with dystopian young adult fiction! I'm with you - it's not a bad thing as long as there is some purpose and redeeming value to the stories.

    2. Just realized there was a Rollerball remake. I'm excited to see the modern update. Aesthetically interesting is not the usual comment for the era of the original film.

    3. Actually, it reminded me a lot of 2001: A Space Odyssey. There was only epic music and no dialogue for the first few minutes. Also the costumes were cool but maybe those were normal 1970s clothes and they just looked otherwordly to me haha. Anyways, I don't know how it was received at the time, but it had a really high-brow, esoteric feel to it for me. I am interested to see the remake, but I'm just not sure it will be as intentional or artistic as far as colors and music and dialogue.

    4. Back to 1975 it is.


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