As you have no doubt heard, the film version of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins comes out this week. Even if you haven’t read it, you’ve likely seen the magazine covers or the ad campaign.
And that’s where things get weird. (Or more meta, as the case may be.)
Quick recap: the premise is that in a future version of the United States, teenagers are chosen to fight each other to the death in a televised reality show. Think Survivor, except more so.
Throughout the book, we’re continually reminded of the reality show aspect. (Minor spoilers follow.) Before the games start, Katniss gets dolled up to present the maximum possible spectacle. When she’s in the arena, her thoughts keep returning to the viewers who are watching this brutal show — what they must be thinking, how they’re reacting to events. And so on.
When the book was turned into a movie, we-the-readers suddenly became we-the-viewers. We’ve been placed into the position of the voyeuristic, bloodthirsty hedonists who are (metaphorically) munching popcorn as they watch teenagers thrown into an arena to die. Our gaze forcibly becomes their gaze.
The moment when I knew I’d stepped through the looking glass was when I discovered the existence of Hunger Games nail polish.
There’s official merchandise from CafePress, including T-shirts, water bottles, and 50’s-style propaganda.
There’s unofficial merchandise from Etsy, including jewellery and other wearable stuff (WARNING: spoilers for later books in the trilogy).
There are self-referential animated advertising posters (get Cinna’s gold eyeliner!).
You get the idea. The more I discover, the weirder it feels.
On the other hand…a book is not just a book. It’s an action-adventure story with plenty of drama and heartache, but it’s also a critique of our reality-show culture. Survivor and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition were one thing, but now we’re watching Toddlers in Tiaras and Jon & Kate Plus 8 — freak shows, really — and tuning in to the lives of rich people who are famous for nothing more than being famous. When people are inventing things like soccer with tasers, suddenly the Hunger Games don’t seem so unlikely.
If you look at it that way, the fact that the Hunger Games nail polish makes me uncomfortable is actually a good thing. It reminds us that we’re viewers too. So when Katniss looks at the cameras and her face fills the screen, she really is looking at us.