This week, millions of Americans will gather in theaters to see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. While for many the film is little more than big-budget Hollywood pop fare, for others the story will dramatically shape the way they see the world’s economic situation.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the second of a three-part series adapted from Suzanne Collins’ popular young adult science fiction books. Set in a dystopic future defined by the rigid classism of “Panem,” citizens of the ruling Capitol live lavish lives of leisure, while citizens of the outlying districts struggle with poverty, abuse, and exploitation in support of the wealthy.
Andrew Slack, founder of the fan activism organization The Harry Potter Alliance, calls The Hunger Games stories “arguably the most anti-classist blockbuster[s] in history.”
Slack Founded the Harry Potter Alliance, or HPA, after he was moved deeply by another epic series, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga about a teenager who takes on the darkest wizard of all time—along with some of our own society’s most extreme and endemic problems.
“They literally changed my life,” Slack says of the books.
He saw an opportunity in the avid fan communities the series had spawned to confront the social justice issues the books address. He posed a larger question to Harry Potter fans: What if we take the message of those stories seriously? What if we approached fantasy “not as escape from our world but as invitation to go deeper into it”?
Stories have always acted as connective tissue between people, sewing those with like interests into intimate communities. Add to this interconnection the organizing capacity of the Internet, and suddenly millions of people, all passionate about the same stories, can find each other.
The stories that most move us are often those that make us more aware of our world. By taking the messages of beloved pop culture myths like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games off the page or screen and into the world, fan communities are primed to change the world—because they were changed first by the stories.
“My question to the fan community was, if Harry Potter was in our world, wouldn’t he do more than simply talk about Harry Potter?” Slack said. “Wouldn’t he fight for justice in our world as he fights for justice in his?”
Harry Potter in the Real World
There’s a reason Harry Potter is the most successful book series in history.
On the surface, J.K. Rowling’s books tell the story of a boy who attends a school for witches and wizards, and his fight against Lord Voldemort, the powerful, evil wizard who threatens the wizard and non-wizard worlds alike.
But the deeper subject of Harry Potter is the difficulty and awkwardness of youth; how we handle puberty and romance; how we confront racism and classism and modern-day slavery; the unjust realities of prejudice, poverty, torture of prisoners, and government overreach; and, most importantly, the importance of standing for what is right, even when it means going against the norms of our society, our families, and even our friends.
The expansive and detailed story of Harry Potter, Slack told me, provides an allegorical overlay for the entire human experience—of personal development, confrontation, and social justice issues that humans are suffering and seeking to solve every day.
The Harry Potter Alliance models itself on Dumbledore’s Army, a student group Harry and his friends create to train others in the fight for good. That group is in turn modeled on the Order of the Phoenix, an underground resistance comprised of wizards and witches from all walks of life, joined by a commitment to defeat Lord Voldemort. In fiction, as in our world, youth are capable of leading the effort for justice when sparked by the right inspiration.
With organizational inspiration straight from Rowling’s pages, the Harry Potter Alliance recruited volunteers, started chapters around the country, and managed campaigns tied directly to real-world issues Harry Potter had fostered a passion for—like genocide awareness, marriage equality, immigration, hunger, and media reform.
With their capacity for action, these fan-activists have impressed even J.K. Rowling, who called the HPA the “purest expression of ‘the spirit of Albus Dumbledore’ yet to emerge from the Harry Potter fandom.”
The HPA’s interests reach well beyond Harry Potter. Recent campaigns have engaged Star Trek and genetically modified foods (the villain Khan is himself a genetically modified organism); Superman and immigration (see the Superman is an Immigrant campaign); and, most recently, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
Like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games series is about much more than what it is about on the surface. The plot focuses on Katniss Everdeen, a young woman from District 12, the last and poorest district of Panem, and her journey through the Capitol’s “Hunger Games,” which pit kids against kids in a battle to the death.
But The Hunger Games really centers on economic inequality, poverty, the abuse of wealth and power, and the exploitation of the poor.
In Catching Fire, Katniss has become a symbol of opposition, and her movement, as the title indicates, is spreading across the exploited districts.
Solidarity in Fiction, Solidarity in Life
“May the odds be ever in your favor.”
It’s the phrase offered by the Capitol to those who must enter the Hunger Games—a cynical slogan meant to comfort the masses.
It demonstrates how inequality and injustice are marketed in Panem: The poor must rely on the luck of lottery to avoid the grisly battle of the Hunger Games, while the wealthy offer supportive slogans, peppy spokespersons, and luxury accommodations for those unfortunate youths awaiting their deaths. It’s all about controlling the narrative.
The slogan is also the focal point of a campaign by The Harry Potter Alliance around The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
The “Odds In Our Favor” movement targets the advertising campaign Lionsgate, CoverGirl, and other companies are using to advertise around the film’s release.
If economic inequality is at the core of The Hunger Games, the “release of the Catching Fire film represents a perfect opportunity to establish a dialogue about our own problems and set the wheels in motion for positive change,” the campaign explains on its website. “Instead, Catching Fire is being used as an opportunity to sell makeup and fast-food sandwiches.”
For example, Capitol Couture, a highly creative and deeply cynical fashion and make-up campaign, promotes the high-fashion styles of the 1 percent, who literally force the poor to fight to the death for their entertainment.
Lionsgate’s marketing strategy has woven the Capitol Couture fashion line and CoverGirl’s Capitol Collection seamlessly into its own advertising for the film, creating what looks like an unsavory alignment between the studio and the values one might find within the Capitol of Panem itself.
Capitol Couture, according to Slack, is an example of how a powerful story with an important message is “being sold to viewers in a way that is tone-deaf at best and deeply cynical at worst, shining a damning spotlight on the greatest problem our country faces.”
The intent of the Odds In Our Favor campaign, then, is to take back the narrative lost in a sea of marketing, to remind the world what Katniss Everdeen is really fighting for.
Odds In Our Favor asks fans to take a picture of themselves making the three-fingered salute, Katniss Everdeen’s subversive symbol of solidarity in The Hunger Games, and post it in response whenever an ad with a tie-in for Hunger Games: Catching Fire appears online.
The campaign also directs people to the We Are The Districts tumblr, which profiles real individuals and the actions they’re taking in their own communities to fight against the economic and social injustices that are plaguing citizens across the world.
The hope for the campaign, according to organizers, is that anywhere Lionsgate and its advertising partners release an ad for Catching Fire online, you’ll find the symbol of resistance, accompanied by information on economic inequality and links to organizations working on the issues.
Countless fans have already offered their images to the cause. Even the president of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, has joined.
— Richard L. Trumka (@RichardTrumka) November 19, 2013
And Slack has said he won’t stop until he sees President Obama making the three-fingered salute in solidarity.
“The parallels between Suzanne Collins’ vision of Panem and the United States today are obvious,” he said.
“Twenty-five million Americans who want full-time jobs cannot find them. Pre-school is more expensive than Community College. For every dollar a white man makes, a black woman makes 68 cents. And 20 percent of children live in poverty.”
The odds, it would seem, are not in our favor—yet.