Can blockbuster Hollywood movies translate into civic action? If so, how does the power of narrative mobilize moviegoers into citizens?
The approach is simple. “The Hunger Games” book and movie have been wildly successful in capturing the public imagination. The campaign, “Hunger is Not a Game,” taps into this popularity to bring attention towards what organizers see as the real-world problem: global hunger.
Power of Interpretation: The power of this approach lies in the interpretive flexibility of the narrative. Francesca Polleta, a sociologist of storytelling and movements, tells us that a story’s openness to interpretation is a major strength in enabling diverse groups to see their interests as alike enough to act collectively.
How does the “Hunger is Not A Game” campaign interpret the story of “The Hunger Games”? Here is the interpretation as mentioned on the campaign site:
“In the world of the Hunger Games series, everything is controlled by the Capitol, which uses power and money to punish the districts. The citizens of the Capitol live in luxury at the expense of the districts, forcing others to live in poverty so that they can enjoy their own wealth…
Sound familiar? It should. Our world rests on an imbalanced system. In every country there are people who are starving because of corrupt politicians, injust laws and violent conflict. The most basic needs of millions of people are going unmet. And we can do something about it.”
By interpreting the plot of the movie as an analogy for real-world politics on global hunger, the campaign enables groups like the Harry Potter Alliance and Oxfam to join forces and tell a revised story that they hope will inspire people to action.
The Hero’s Journey and Identity: This campaign also derives its power by fostering an empowered collective identity among supporters. As mentioned, it was started by a group called the Harry Potter Alliance, a non-profit organization that “takes an outside-of-the-box approach to civic engagement by using parallels from the Harry Potter books to educate and mobilize young people.” Their mission is to “empower our members to act like the heroes that they love by acting for a better world.”
I met Andrew Slack, founder of the Harry Potter Alliance, a few months ago. He is a vivacious character who speaks with passion about the need for young people to see themselves as “heroes” for social action. This is a potent identity that taps into a mythological archetype made popular by Joseph Campbell in his work, Hero with a Thousand Faces. By promoting a narrative that enables moviegoers to identify with heroes in movies AND play a hero in real-life with noble real-world challenges, the HP Alliance mobilizes a significant amount of young people for social action.
Will Hollywood Join In?
The HP Alliance encourages fans of “The Hunger Games” movie to download a petition to support OxFam’s Grow Campaign and get other moviegoers to support OxFam endeavors. However, LionsGate (the movie’s distributors), initially interpreted this action as “bad press” for their marketing.
Supporters of the campaign fought back with an online petition to encourage LionsGate to support the emerging movement.
As a result, Lionsgate not only backed off, but is now interested in partnerships with non-profit groups for future films in the Hunger Games series.
Could this be the beginning of a new direction in movie-making and movement-building? The movie industry can be a powerful ally for us to have in the non-profit world. For those of us who recognize the ability of communications to shape action, we would do well to note this emerging trend and more thoughtfully consider the potency of storytelling to form broader coalitions for our work.