Forget Katniss, We Need Montag

How in the hell did those bombers get up there every single second of our lives! Why doesn’t someone want to talk about it! – Guy Montag in Fahrenheit 451

For the last month or so the mass audience has been flocking to, and analyzing the bejesus out of Katniss, the beautiful but forlorn and quite capable celluloid huntress who by the cruelness of a lottery and her own self-sacrifice, becomes the hunted in the annual Hunger Games.

The movie The Hunger Games is based on the first in a trilogy of popular young adult novels by Suzanne Collins, who once said she got her inspiration for the dystopian country called Panem and its annual mandatory games — which feature children ages 12 to 18 plucked by lottery (or volunteer) killing each other for survival — by channel surfing through a reality TV competition (presumably Survivor) and coverage of the Iraq War.

"I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way," Collins told Publishers Weekly in 2008.  Perhaps, on the edge of sleep, she also conjured the dark muses of Stephen King, Shirley Jackson and Margaret Atwood. For there is no escaping the familiar themes advanced by Running Man (published first under King pseudonym Richard Bachman in 1982, later made into a 1987 movie of the same name); The Lottery (Jackson wrote this horrifying short story in 1948); and The Handmaiden’s Tale (though admittedly, The Games never reach the level of Atwood’s politically charged 1985 dystopian vision), weaved within the very girdle of Collins’ popular literary garments.

At best, The Hunger Games is a homage to science fiction past, at worst, it’s a cleanly written patchwork of derivative memes and plot devices borrowed — subconsciously or perhaps through hypnopaedia — and smartly repackaged for modern teen readers, all with an eye toward the broader demographic. And, looking at both book and movie sales, it’s worked.

Obviously a market that made Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which itself borrowed heavily from others’ work, including The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail (in fact, the authors of the 1982 non-fiction sued Brown over it) is ravenous (no pun intended) for this particular brand of literary sausage.

According to Publishers Weekly, "Scholastic (publishers) acquired the trilogy in a six-figure deal (in 2006)… and The Hunger Games quickly became an in-house favorite."

Collins’ confection was thus mass-produced for the mass market, and again, a triumph in media cross-branding saturation, the movie The Hunger Games topped the box office this weekend with a take-home of $21 million.

By now this kind of post-apocalyptic vision is very much a popular trope in modern Hollywood. It’s easy and comfortable, and like the trilogy’s first book and the movie’s namesake, there is very little effort at explaining just how America could become a totalitarian state with the majority of inhabitants painfully subjugated by a capital city that looks and behaves like pre-Revolution Paris and the last days of Rome. Most people are eager to read and see how Katniss will struggle through and possibly subvert the confines of her oppression, not why or how she and her people got there.

Most assume a 1984 palette – and no doubt, George Orwell is the most borrowed from among all sci-fi writers in the modern age. Since 1984‘s debut in 1949, we have widely entertained the premise of a tyranny made all-powerful through fear and punishment and the obliteration of individualism and all its trappings of identity, liberty, and property — a creation of one mass human organism existing in complete obeisance to the State.

But I think it’s just as important – even perhaps more so – to address and take heed of an equally disturbing, but quite different perception of the future, one held by Orwell’s peer Aldous Huxley, who once said quite presciently, "government-through-terror works, on the whole, less well than government through non-violent manipulation of the environment and of the thoughts and feelings of individual men, women and children."

In other words, the successful tyranny is one with velvet chains, one that makes man "love his slavery."

Huxley, who wrote Brave New World in this vein in 1931, made this statement in the 1950’s at the onset of post-war, television/advertising-induced mass conformity. Sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury, obviously impressed by Huxley’s vision, wrote Fahrenheit 451 in 1950, which, while borrowing from Brave New World in a broad sense – a world of self-imposed, self-enforced tyranny through ignorance and displaced gratification – brought it into the context of an American society already sliding into the vortex of anti-intellectualism, the homogenization of culture, the slow and steady surrender of liberty.

Most importantly, Bradbury saw how the lobotomization of America would eventually disarm the people’s ability (and desire) to understand politics and foreign policy, allowing the government to wage war indiscriminately, putting the entire planet at risk of annihilation.

Sound familiar?

Bradbury’s metaphor is about an American era in which literature is literally banned from public consumption, the result not of government decree but of a societal decline in intellectual pursuit in favor of a modern era yielding to technology and instant gratification.

Without books, history is rewritten, demanding that adults old enough to know forget that at one time, firemen were summoned to put out flames, not to torch books and destroy the homes of the few remaining readers and rebels, of which protagonist Guy Montag eventually becomes in his own awakening.

Fire Chief Beatty tells wavering Montag how things came to be, how the public’s demand went from knowledge to titillation, from challenge to laziness, books became digests, novels to comic books and tabloids (all reflecting Bradbury’s own frustration with the times; if he only knew what was to come!):

"Speed up the film, Montag, quick. Click, Pic, Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh? Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop! Bing! Bong! Boom! Digests-digests, digests-digests-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in midair, all vanishes! Whirl a man’s mind around so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters that the centrifuge flings off all necessary, time-wasting thought!

"Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?

"More sports for everyone, group spirit, fun and you don’t have to think, eh? Organize and organize and superorganize super-super sports. More cartoons in books. More pictures. The mind drinks less and less. Highways full of crowds going somewhere, somewhere, somewhere, somewhere, nowhere. …

"There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government-down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank god.

"With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.  You always dread the unfamiliar. …

"We all must be alike. Not everyone is born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. … who knows who might be the target of a well-read man?"

People here have lost all connection with each other, and more importantly, with themselves. No one really "talks," everything is too loud ("the gibbering pack of tree apes that said nothing, nothing, nothing and said it loud, loud, loud"). The television – now built into the walls as a two-dimensional "family" – features only what elicits visceral emotion: cartoon clowns hilariously chopping each other to pieces, couples yelling past each other about nothing, fireworks and endless colorful patterns of nothingness.

The entertainments, aside from talking sports and conspicuous consumption, have reached a vicious and dangerous zenith in this world — smashing windows at the Window Smashing Place, driving 120 mph in one’s car, fighting. There are pills to help you calm down and an earpiece that buzzes and hums and soothes throughout the day, yet still there are suicides and attempted suicides every night. No one seems to care much. Everything is about maintaining a simulacrum of happiness, and no one is really equipped anymore to reflect on why they feel the urge to hang themselves from the nearest tree.

Amid all of this the government is preparing for war. No one seems to know about the "bombers" overhead or care whether their spouse has been called up for service. As one woman said in the book when asked by an increasingly agitated Montag about the impending war, "the Army called Pete yesterday. He’ll be back next week. The Army said so. Quick war. Forty-eight hours, they said, and everyone home. That’s what the Army said. I’m not worrying."

So it was too late when, later on, as Montag the fugitive (after a televised chase echoing Running Man and even The Hunger Games 30 years after Fahrenheit was published), watched the city obliterated by enemy planes from his new sanctuary on the hillside. They never knew what was coming.

Montag had just joined up with a group of aging intellectuals and dissident readers living along the train tracks, like romantic hobos from another time. Having digested the books they managed to save, albeit momentarily, this former underground railroad emerges stoically from the ruins to see their Shakespeares and Keats and Hemingways and New Testaments published once again.

"Someday the load we’re carrying may help someone," one such man told Montag after the apocalypse:

"We’re going to meet a lot of lonely people in the next week and in the next month and in the next year. And when they ask us what we are doing, you can say, We’re remembering. That’s where we’ll win out in the long run. And someday we’ll remember so much that that we’ll build the biggest goddammed steamshovel in history and dig the biggest grave of all time and shove war in and cover it up. Come on now, we’re going to go build a mirror factory first and put out nothing but mirrors for the next year and take long look at them."

As I read the words at a hotel bar last week, the TODAY show (which is more ubiquitous in American stores, restaurants, hair salons, dentist offices and living rooms than air) was telling me how to dress and what to cook and bringing me up to speed on how Lindsay Lohan is being exploited. Meanwhile, I look around the metro, the park, the restaurants and shops and I see everyone glued to their ironically named "Smart Phones" and GPS locators. I follow "conversations" on Twitter and lament the growing discussion about libraries shrinking their collections due to e-books and the Internet.

The movies are getting louder and TV seems to get fleshier and bloodier by the minute, but they don’t really seem to "say" much, in between the relentless advertising that is. Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidates and the nation’s leaders poke fun at "intellectuals" and going to college and question science and evolution.

And the war is a million miles away. Let’s contemplate on whose interest it serves to keep that reality at such a distance and in blurred focus, and then perhaps, we can all take a long look in the mirror. I’m guessing it will look a lot more like Fahrenheit 451 than today’s box office smash, The Hunger Games.

As Beatty surmised: 

"Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these."

Follow Kelley Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.