By Casey Wilson
With the nationwide release just over a week away, The Hunger Games is everywhere. Trailers, clips, merchandise…it’s all easy to find, if you look. Much of the time, it’s official marketing, carefully calculated to keep the film in the national conversation. And then sometimes, it’s “Hunger Names”.
Launched as a “joke” by John Holdun, Keith Calder, and Casey Koldercup, the site works quite simply: you visit the page, and it gives you a name and tells you how you died in The Hunger Games. It gives you the option to tweet the name and cause of death, which meant that, if you follow the YA community, it would have flooded your Twitter feed this past weekend. Although not a part of the official marketing campaign for the film, the site seems to have come to represent a tipping point for some people.
On Twitter, YA author Leah Cypess says, “Sorry to be a wet blanket, but I find this whole hungernames thing just… creepy & weird. And not in a good way.” Then there’s author Jeri Smith-Ready, who tweets, “My Hunger Name is Jeri. My desire to see The Hunger Games film was killed by too many promotional gimmicks.” She follows that up with, “Sorry to be curmudgeonly. But THG are serious books about kids forced to murder each other. I find the film’s hyper-commercialism creepy.” (“Creepy” is the key here, it seems.) A few others have crossed my timeline with similar sentiments; I have no doubt that there are many more on Twitter and elsewhere that would agree with them, even as thousands of people eagerly Tweet their results.
Part of what the rise of “Hunger Names” points to is an increasingly muddled distinction between official promotions and fan activities. Many have conflated this fansite with the studio’s tactics, in a way that negates the work of both sides. The studio is on the receiving end of the backlash against the fansite, while the creators of the fansite don’t get credit for their work.
Dismissing the site as just a promotional gimmick also ignores the often subversive nature of its content. The names given to visitors poke fun at the names in the book itself – I became “Marcon Pickerdod”, for instance, the kind of just-left-of-center name you would expect from the series. (Some visitors receive the first name “Labia”, which is a bit cruder but still an effective subversion of what would be possible in the book.) While some causes of death are random – “killed by a time paradox” being one example – most show an understanding of the ridiculousness of the arena: some die by an abundance of paper cuts, some jump over a land mine and onto a bear, some fall out of a tree and onto a smaller, pointy tree. They also demonstrate a critical knowledge of the book’s inner workings, as when people are killed “by loving too deeply” or “by an ironic situation used to point out your character flaws established earlier in the book”. In the most ironic example I’ve found, Marcon Pickerdod was killed “by overexposure”.
I’m not trying to give the site too much credit, to be clear. It doesn’t replace thoughtful criticism of the film’s commercialization, which I think is important and interesting. But ignoring the critical capacity of these fan-generated activities does them a disservice, just as accusing the filmmakers of crass commercialism ignores the reality that the film simply wouldn’t exist if it didn’t offer commercial possibilities. To push it even further, the film also wouldn’t exist without the original, successful promotional campaign for the book it’s based on – and that book is still capable of addressing serious topics, surrounded as it is by commercial appeals to the reading public. This is because The Hunger Games isn’t just “a serious [book] about kids killing each other” – it’s also a gripping action novel, a thoughtful reflection on media and government, and yes, even something of a romance. It is and has to be many things to many people, just like its heroine, and one of those things is a well-marketed blockbuster.
So, in a strange way, I’m glad for the “creepy” “hyper-commercialism” that Smith-Ready and others have identified, whether in the slow-trickle release of stills, the recreation of “The Hob” outside the venue for the premiere, or the unofficial source for learning how you died. The Hunger Games isn’t a great book because it deals with the horror of kids killing each other in the name of entertainment. It’s a great book because it forces us to gain our own entertainment from the horror of kids killing each other. The narrative trick Suzanne Collins pulls off in her trilogy – making us as complicit in the games as the fictional citizens of The Capitol – is as brilliant as it is unsettling.
We should be creeped out by promotional gimmicks for the film. We should be disturbed by our excitement about seeing what’s going to happen in the arena.
That’s kind of the whole point.
Casey is a PhD student.