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When Woody Harrelson signed on to play Steve Schmidt and Haymitch Abernathy in “Game Change” and “The Hunger Games” respectively, he likely wasn’t thinking that the roles are actually strange mirrors of one another (although, who’s to say what Harrelson is thinking really?). Aside from the obvious similarities - both films are adaptations of books and they each have the word “game” in the title - there are some equally clear distinctions.
Steve Schmidt is, of course, the campaign strategist who functioned as the senior adviser on the 2008 John McCain Presidential bid. Haymitch Abernathy is a fictional character who resides within the world of author Suzanne Collins's novel “The Hunger Games,” an imagined dystopic future where North America has been reduced to a conglomerate of 12 “districts” which are presided over by a dangerously self-indulgent “Capitol.”
Schmidt is a successful, high-functioning leader of the Republican Party. Haymitch Abernathy is a man who was psychically fractured in his youth (by his participation in the games) and is an intractable, erratic adult who spends the large majority of his time buried in the depths of a bottle.
“Game Change” focuses on Schmidt and Team McCain’s selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as the Senator’s running mate, the subsequent coaching that the team was required to do to prepare the grossly underprepared and unqualified candidate and the realization that they had, inadvertently, created a monster within their party. “The Hunger Games” is a political allegory that uses a fantasized version of our future and an exaggerated set of circumstances to highlight (among other things) the egregious discrepancy between the 1% and 99%.
In the latter, war and natural disasters have ravaged the earth, leaving a far smaller population and physical landscape in the wake of the chaos. North America, now the country of Panem, is comprised of (as mentioned) 12 distinct and impoverished districts that rarely interact. Each produces its own “specialty” (meaning resource that they provide to the Capitol), whether it be coal (district 12), fabrics (district 8) or luxury goods (district 1). The transfer of the resources from the have-nots to the have-too-much-time-on-their-handses is one of the ways in which Collins highlights some of the existing disparities in our world and points to an ever widening chasm between the rich and the poor.
As a remembrance of a long ago attempt at rebellion, a reminder of the scope and power of the Capitol’s authority and a warning to those who may hope to challenge it, the Capitol demands that all districts deliver one boy and one girl “tribute” to participate in a yearly televised fight to the death: the Hunger Games. Haymitch is the only living district 12 survivor of the games and as such is tasked with preparing Katniss and Peeta, the two children selected from 12, to play and win against nearly insurmountable odds.
The central character, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), is a grounded and unselfconscious girl, unselfconscious in the sense that she has no ability to discern her impact on those around her. She has no wish to charm a crowd, to adopt a persona, and has little regard for what others may or may not make of her - until it becomes a matter of life or death. Game playing is as unnatural to her as it is (seemingly) inherent for Palin. She acts from unbidden instinct, often the base instinct to survive both in body and in spirit and in so doing she becomes an unwitting revolutionary.
It is Haymitch’s job to find a persona for Katniss, one that will work to please the avaricious Capitol audience who want nothing more than “a good show,” for it is their donations of food, medicine and water during the games that will strengthen her bid to stay alive. The audience expects an entertaining player too cheer on. The realities of Katniss's character are of very little interest to them, however.
Are the mirroring qualities beginning to emerge a bit?
Katniss and Palin are two sides of a coin just as Haymitch and Schmidt are. Each man played Pygmalion in some sense to the women in their charge. Each was called upon to play the "game" of politics, one in an attempt to win an election and one to keep a teenage girl's heart beating. They are the designers of figureheads. Pailn became a reflection of the people for many members of the Republican party as Katniss becomes a symbol of a revolutionary spirit in "The Hunger Games." Haymitch's machinations and Katniss's role as a political unifier evolves as the series of books does.
Each woman was tasked with painting a portrait for an audience that had lost all sense of legitimate priorities and of reasonable expectations from their leadership: a thirsty crowd that wants little more than, as mentioned, “a good show.” Collins is, perhaps in part, imparting a warning with her trilogy. I do not believe that it supports a particular “party line,” quite the opposite in fact. It eventually illustrates the inherent error in aligning oneself too closely with any rigidly constructed ideological organization. She favors fundamental humanity, the individual and, well, sanity.
But the parallels between the Capitol - a small group so bloated with excess, distraction and diseased values that they fail to see (or take offense to) the struggle that the majority of their fellow human beings, or they themselves, are subjected to - and some of our cultural and geopolitical realities are hard to miss. Collins seems to be saying with her book: “This outcome is unlikely but possible in the coming years if we do not awaken to the fact that there are inequities that must be addressed and things that ought to be held sacred rather than reduced to the ephemeral mists of entertainment and celebrity.”
In the film, the population is controlled in three key ways: an enforced separation and nurtured hostility between the districts (which distracts them from all that could unite them and thus make them stronger), a large measure of fear tempered with a small measure of (mostly unrealistic) hope and (in the wealthiest sections) a limited understanding of the outside realities and a focus on the superficial and celebrity culture. They relish the razzle dazzle and dismiss the blood, bones and bread of human existence. In their perception, life, death, entertainment and politics all bleed into one.
Haymitch Abernathy and Steve Schmidt both endeavor to get the world at large to “buy into” their respective mentees. But, again, one is a power grab with potentially disastrous consequences and the other a bid for survival. The interesting part of these paradoxically perpendicular and parallel storylines is that the mistakes the McCain campaign made by choosing to focus on and nourish division, greed and shallow presentation rather than substance when they selected and groomed Palin is precisely what the Collins series (in part) warns could lead to our peril.
Now, we do not literally equate the 2008 Republican primary to a grotesque teenage bloodbath, but metaphorically, perhaps. As “Game Change” depicts it, the McCain campaign became so focused on winning that it lost track of its true value and what it is everyone involved were trying to accomplish. Unusual in politics? Clearly not.
But Harrelson’s Schmidt backs a woman he knows could mean the ruin of the nation he loves in order to do so. He attempts to craft her into a shiny package the citizenry will happily purchase despite its lack of true nourishment. She is a distraction, a glittering toy dangled before children who seemingly fail to see that their own good is being disregarded.
Harreslon's Haymitch Abernathy is forced to shape a young girl of unusual substance and little artifice into an image that a fat, self-centered, shallow populace that has become blind to even the basic tenants of moral integrity can "root for" in a sick approximation of "reality TV." He does so because he knows, whether she is aware of it or not, that Katniss can be a beacon to the many who suffer greatly at the hands of the few. Where Katniss is an unwilling symbol who would rather live an actual life, Palin was "the best actress in politics," a woman who (in this rendering) revered fame for fame's sake and had little interest in the true business at hand: serving the people.
Palin's toxic narcissism is dangerous to those who would allow her to govern them while Katniss’s unflinching honesty makes her a reluctant but worthy leader. But in each case, it is the populace’s poisoned value system and obsession with the shallow veil of contrived "personalities," sensation and flash that leads to their ultimate decline.
Perhaps Harrelson - quite the socio-politically-minded individual - consciously meant to point to a gaping cultural wound when he took on these respective roles. Perhaps not. But for some of us, that’s just what he did.
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