Is The Hunger Games Publicity Too Hunger Games-ish?

Ooh, I love my new forged metal heels!

Josh Hutcherson stars as 'Peeta Mellark' in THE HUNGER GAMES.
Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark in The Hunger Games

Photograph by Murray Close/Lionsgate.

I am finding the days leading up to the Hunger Games movie to be their own Hunger Games-ish spectacle. Some of the energetic and inspired yearlong marketing effort seems as if it could have been lifted from the pages of the book, as if Lionsgate took publicity tips from the endlessly inventive selling of the evil Capitol in Suzanne Collins’ dystopian future.

There is for instance the sweepstakes to bring five fans to the movie set in North Carolina. There is the couture section of the elaborate Hunger Games Facebook page, with fashions of the Capitol, that displays for instance, “Alexander McQueen industrial forged metal heels inspired by the past 74 years of tributes,” which look as if there are tiny metal corpses and feathers fused in the heels, shown on a McQueen signature bruised ankle. 

Tim Palen the marketing guru at Lionsgate says, “We made a rule that we would never say ‘23 kids get killed.’ We say ‘only one wins.’ ” This sort of doubletalk seems worthy of Caesar Flickerman, the host of the Hunger Games, exactly the type of Orwellian unease and slipperiness the book so brilliantly pins down.

A description of Tim Palen in a New Yorker piece a couple of years ago further reinforces my sense that he could be a character out of Hunger Games: “Palen, who is 47, has a shaved head, a graying beard, and the bulging, tattooed arms of a steamfitter. Usually he wears jeans and a hoodie, but this evening he was in a black Prada suit, a black Prada shirt, and black Prada shoes: his première outfit. His uncommon mixture of traits—he is warm, incisive, competitive, loyal, and catty—makes him fun to be around, even at premières, where he often feels anxious and out of place.”

For me the most fascinating part of the swirling publicity surrounding the movie is the studio’s tangible discomfort with the subject matter: The Hunger Games movie people do not want to seem pro-Hunger Games, that is, they want to obscure or recast the central event of the movie, which is watching kids kill each other until only one is left standing. They have left the games themselves out of every advertisement or trailer for the movie, and they make a big point about how they are tactfully refraining from using the phrase “Let the games begin,” as if this very specific omission transforms the premise of the movie into something warmer and fuzzier.

The point of the book, of course, is the brutality, the viciousness; it is both a critique and an enactment of the fascination with watching children fight to the death. It is very intelligently taking on voyeurism even as it exploits it for its own irresistible readability, a brutal meditation on how absurd and bloody and prurient our worst impulses are for a generation interested in the outcome of America’s Next Top Model.

Tim Palen says “These kids are victims,” and the lavish People special spread reinforces the idea that “Katniss is a hunter but not a killer.” The book, of course, takes the ambiguities of its diabolical situation further, in that the kids are both victims and killers, that they are confronted, as in a war, with terrifying things within themselves. There is in the book a comfort with its own darkness, a willingness to delve pretty deeply into ugliness and power and survival that characterizes great children’s books from Lord of the Flies onward.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the team at Lionsgate was determined that “the marketing materials would downplay the story’s most dramatic and potentially disturbing moments, according to people present in meetings who were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.” The reason for this downplaying of potentially disturbing moments is not just moral concern over issues of exploitation or violence. As the article explains, “Some at Lionsgate were also concerned that out-of-context shots of teenagers hunting and stabbing one another and snapping one another’s necks could alienate potential viewers.” In other words, they are as interested in manipulating public opinion, or what Palen calls a “potential perception problem in marketing,” as say, the sinister President Snow.

The novel is, among other things, a clever critique of celebrity culture, of reality shows, of the relentless recycling of pain or insecurity or fear or desire into entertainment. The elaborate makeovers of the characters, the exquisite crafting and controlling of their images, even in the arena, fighting for their lives, is part of a send-up of contemporary life. And one feels that the great publicity apparatus surrounding the movie, the iPhone game, “Girl On Fire,” the elaborate spread of costumes in People, which tells you how to get the look of the Capitol, the joyous, frenzied consumption of exploitation, the decadent cultural frothiness of the People package, are precisely what Collins is so eloquently critiquing or describing.  

There are currently at least 800,000 people creating fake digital ID cards for Panem, which tells us how inextricably this cleverly plotted critique of our culture has mingled with it. An argument could be made that these 800,000 people could find better uses for their time: We are already living in our own Panem.

In fact, given the glorious confluence of marketing and message, the fusion of satire and Facebook, one almost wonders if our entire world wasn’t written by Suzanne Collins, if there is some great, cosmic library somewhere, where her name is printed discreetly on its spine.

See all of Slate’s coverage of The Hunger Games here.