The recent film The Hunger Games shows that the imagery established by the history and literature of the Neronian principate maintains a strong presence in modern cinema. I will demonstrate that the cinematic adaptation of The Hunger Games draws on the spectacular imagery of Neronian Rome as interpreted by directors Cecil B. DeMille in The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Mervyn LeRoy in Quo Vadis (1951). In addition, the use of the name Seneca for the adviser to the President of the dystopian world in which The Hunger Games is set, as well as screenwriter Gary Ross’ decision to portray the two engaging in conversations on leadership throughout the film, displays an indebtedness to the argument on kingship between Seneca and Nero in the Octavia.
The Hunger Games is ostensibly a version of the Theseus myth set in a dystopian world called Panem. Every year, each district of Panem is required to send one teenage boy and one teenage girl to fight to the death in an elaborate arena, which all of the citizens of Panem are required to watch. The spectacle itself, called The Hunger Games, is intended to remind the citizens of the power of the government, the Capitol, and act as an deterrent against revolt. The concept of punishment as spectacle is distinctly Roman, and Nero has become a major dramaturge of Roman brutality. Edward Champlin discusses how Nero’s punishments of the Christians present the viewer with ironic versions of the victims' crimes, cloaked in mythological imagery (Champlin 2003). The Hunger Games, which the Capitol established as revenge for a bloody revolt of the districts, are representative of a history that has achieved mythical status in the context of Panem. The arena becomes a means of punishment in the guise of entertainment for the masses. The cinematic version of The Hunger Games exploits this connection between spectacle and punishment by using imagery of a futuristic Roman arena with clear nods to The Sign of the Cross and Quo Vadis. Rome at its most extravagant is implicit in architecture throughout the Capitol, as well as the outrageous dress and eating habits of the citizens.
As Maria Wyke has demonstrated, various versions of Quo Vadis in the early-to-mid 20th century have used the figure of Nero and the imagery that surrounds him to send a moral message, presenting Nero as representative of sources of anxiety during a particular age. As a result, he has come to to exemplify fears contemporary to the era of any version of Quo Vadis, such as the threat of foreign domination during World War II or the shadow of McCarthyism during the Cold War (Wyke 1997). Continuing this tradition, Nero becomes the overwhelming fear of government manipulation with advanced technology in The Hunger Games. This is explicit in the conversations between President Snow, the autocrat of Panem, and his adviser Seneca Crane, responsible for the production of The Hunger Games. In these conversations, President Snow explains his method of government, a combination of fear and manipulation, strikingly similar to the methods described by Nero in the Octavia. Seneca Crane’s position is reminiscent of the Seneca presented in the Octavia, a figure who can express misgivings but is ultimately powerless in the face of a leader who sees tyranny as the proper way to rule. The connection between Seneca Crane and his Roman namesake becomes telling at the end of the film, where Seneca Crane is forced by Snow to commit suicide.
The Hunger Games continues the tradition of Neronian spectacle in modern film by using imagery established in the early 20th century to portray a decadent and dystopian government. This imagery evokes our own contemporary suspicion of a government made more intrusive by technology, as well as the age-old fear of a tyrannical leader with absolute power over people he cares little about.