Chances are you’ve read, seen, or at least heard about The Hunger Games, the young-adult book and film
sensation by Suzanne Collins.
The crux of the story centres on The Hunger Games itself, an annual event in a dystopia in which twenty-four teenagers are forced to fight each other to the death – the winner is the sole
survivor. Unsurprisingly, this has proved rather a controversial storyline. While the film has smashed box office records and the books have sold over 23 million copies, the books are also among
some of the most complained about works in America. (Albeit in good company with To Kill a
Mockingbird and Brave New World.)
Key to the controversy is all the violence. Indeed, the brutality is very shocking, made all the more so when seen on screen, when the youth and vulnerability of the contestants is visually
inescapable. But I’m surprised that so little has been said or written about Suzanne Collins’s portrayal of surveillance, especially given the government’s recent controversial
plans for greater access to internet data.
The Hunger Games (the fictional event, not the book) is televised, which means that the teenage contestants are on camera all the time. Yes, it’s essentially a reality TV show – albeit
one with a sick, macabre, disturbing twist – so of course we expect the stars to be on camera all the time. But what about our own society, in which we are caught on camera 300 times, on
average, every day? The UK has twenty per cent of the world’s surveillance cameras – 4.2 million, compared to China’s 2.75 million, to cover our 62 million people, as opposed to
their 1.3 billion. Reality has become a TV show.
What I find so fascinating about The Hunger Games is that because Katniss – the teenage heroine – is perpetually aware of the cameras, she tempers her actions and reactions for
them. Take this instance, after her first night in the Games, when she’s just witnessed something pretty alarming:
‘Until I work out exactly how I want to play that, I’d better at least act on top of things. Not perplexed. Certainly not confused or frightened. No, I need to look one step ahead of the
game. So as I slide out of the foliage and into the dawn light, I pause a second, giving the cameras time to lock on me. Then I cock my head slightly to the side and give a knowing smile. There!
Let them figure out what that means!’
Instead of looking ‘confused or frightened’, she controls her instinctive reactions, choosing instead to give the invisible camera ‘a knowing smile’, something she thinks
will intrigue and win over the audience.
In London, in spite of the huge number of cameras – and let’s not forget all the snazzy new ones, with biometric processing and numberplate recognition, that are being brought in to
heighten security for the Olympics – most of us seem to go about our lives without paying them much attention.
I say most of us – a friend of mine confessed that whenever he does something silly like trip up or narrowly avoid walking into a lamppost, he gives a smile, sometimes even a wink, to the
cameras that he knows have zoomed in on him. Occasionally, someone forces us to acknowledge the pervasive presence of CCTV. Banksy’s subversive ‘One Nation Under CCTV’ is a good example, which he painted just feet away from a CCTV
camera in Fitzrovia. But these instances of acknowledging and playing up to the cameras are few and far between. We don’t think like Katniss yet.
Or at least we don’t think like Katniss for CCTV. Rather than playing up to an unknown or hostile audience in a CCTV control room, we are far more adept at playing up to our friends and
acquaintances on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.
Whenever we Tweet or update our Facebook status – actions which many of us do with alacrity – we are trying to influence how others perceive us. We
are aspiring to say something that will be engaged with, that will get a comment, like, or retweet. Like Katniss, we filter our actions in order to make a favourable impression on our audience.
The disparity between CCTV and Facebook was felt particularly keenly during last summer’s riots. The rioters didn’t give a thought for CCTV, which often caught them in the act and was
used extensively to name, shame and bring down the full force of the law. Instead, their brags and boasts, their ‘knowing smiles’ for the cameras were posted on Facebook and Twitter.
Given the government’s plan to gain access to these platforms, which have been purely social, will we start recalibrating our tweets and status updates to take into account this different
audience? And, once we’re altering our actions in response to online surveillance, will we begin to change our behaviour around CCTV cameras too?
Katniss’s survival in The Hunger Games depends on how well she can play the audience – how well she can hide her plans and schemes behind a surface calculated to manipulate.
She’s good at it. I wonder whether some of the 23 million people who have bought the books, will learn her tricks.
Emily Rhodes blogs at Emily Books and tweets @EmilyBooksBlog