When most of us heard about Lionsgate’s plans to open a Hunger Games theme park, we were sure it was an April Fool’s joke. But no — they’ve just confirmed that they are planning to build at least two theme parks. They’ve purchased land for one of them in the Atlanta area, and another attraction is scheduled to open next year in Dubai’s new Motiongate park.
There’s a great difference between making a Hunger Games attraction and attractions for Twilight, Now You See Me, and Step Up (all of which have also been included in their plans). While all those films are targeted towards the same young demographic, none of them have had the social impact that The Hunger Games franchise has had.
We’re not talking about popularity here — we’re talking about the conversations that have been started because of The Hunger Games franchise, and the ways in which we have watched our own world reflect the struggles of the Districts. Last year, the release of Mockingjay, Part 1 came soon after a particularly powerful series of protests against the unlawful murder of young, unarmed African Americans at the hands of the police in the United States — and the parallels were made all the more obvious when the slogan ‘IF WE BURN, YOU BURN WITH US’ was found scrawled on the arch in St. Louis. Only some days later that November, Thai protesters were arrested for using The Hunger Games three-fingered salute. The authorities stated, “We feel our theaters are being used for political movements.”
I’m a resident of the Middle East. Living in a country where missile sirens had, until recently, been forcing me to run to a bomb shelter in the middle of the night, watching Mockingjay, Part 1 felt disturbingly familiar. As Katniss raced through District 13 in search of Prim with the ominous sound of sirens in the background, I looked around the movie theater and wondered what everyone else was thinking. For us, the sound of sirens and running footsteps is not a foreign, exciting noise we hear in science fiction movies — it’s a reality we’ve all experienced.
Movies like Twilight may have made a great impact on the Young Adult genre, but they didn’t have the same social and political impact that the Hunger Games has had. We have turned the last page of each book with a strange feeling of discomfort — because we recognize the things we read about: the manipulation of the media to oppress people, the struggles of starving families who don’t even have the means to protect their children, the fears of steadily rising corruption among the ranks of our governments. The reason for why The Hunger Games has become so popular is not because we can’t wait to find out if Katniss picks Peeta or Gale — in fact, the media’s obsession with making the love triangle the highlight of the story is disturbingly reminiscent of the Capitol’s use of Katniss’ love life to distract the public — it’s because we recognize the world we live in within Panem.
It’s because, when we walk out of the movie theater and are showered with merchandise, we become increasingly aware that most of us are living in the Capitol.
So the prospect of having a theme park of The Hunger Games is incredibly problematic.
According to The New York Times, “After passing through the gates, visitors will arrive in a re-creation of the fictional District 12, a mining region where Katniss grew up.”
What Lionsgate seemingly fails to notice is that places like this already exist. The concept of poverty as an attraction, of “costumed characters” — men and women in ragged clothes, pretending to be starving and afraid, no doubt — is one that becomes more and more disgusting the more you think about it. If you want to go see District 12, there are plenty of places to see. Places where people really starve, and really fear authorities who don’t look out for them — places where dangerous mining, tyrannical law enforcement and lack of food are a crushing reality.
Not to mention that this theme park will be built in Dubai, a city often called “the shopping capital of the Middle East” and “the City of Gold.” It’s known for its luxurious lifestyle and its futuristic landscape. And, on a darker note, it has been heavily criticized for human rights violations and accused of employing slave labor to build its overachieving structures.
Now, obviously Lionsgate wants to milk this franchise for all that it is worth. They are a company, after all, and they need to make money. But to display a place like District 12 as an attraction in a city widely known for its wealth, without acknowledging the real role The Hunger Games has played in worldwide social discourse, shows a complete lack of understanding of the point of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, and of the very movies Lionsgate produced (some of the best book-to-film adaptations ever made). It reduces a complex criticism of the negative forces that are shaping our society into something that frighteningly resembles Panem to a money-making scheme that turns real-life suffering into an ‘attraction,’ excluding the true victims of people like President Snow from the discourse and allowing people to forget the reality of the society around them — it promotes a fictionalized version of poverty and suffering, with no understanding of reality.
The Hunger Games has always been more than just a franchise. It has been a conversation. And it cannot be silenced under the roar of theme park rollercoasters.