Film, Films, Media, Reviews

Totalitarianism in Film

Since the term Ideology can be very broad, I’m going to narrow my discussion down to the societal aspect of ideology in film. Specifically the portrayal of totalitarianism in some of the most successful film franchises, how they have demonstrated ideology in the form of beliefs that control society. I will discuss the common themes in these films and the consistency of the hero’s role therein.


The two franchises I’ve chosen are very similar to each other and have been releasing their installments at around the same time, as there seems to be a very big market for this genre now. These are the Hunger Games and Divergent. The Divergent series takes place in a futuristic world in which society is divided into five factions. As each person enters adulthood, he or she must choose a faction and commit to it for life. The system is governed by a ruling council whose purpose is to ensure that the factions each fulfill their roles in sustaining the economy while co-existing peacefully. In the dystopian, post-apocalyptic Hunger Games series, the Capitol is the ruling power which has divided society into 12 districts and controls them by restricting their access to food, water and other resources, forcing them to live in poverty whilst they live in abundance.


The common theme here is totalitarianism by way of psychological manipulation as well as physical control of society. In his political analysis, On the Concept of Ideology in Political Science, Willard A. Mullins defines ideology by pointing out its four distinguishing features. He states that it:

  1. Has power over cognition
  2. Is capable of guiding one’s evaluations
  3. Provides guidance towards action
  4. Is legally coherent

The films demonstrate ways in which their citizens are being controlled in various scenes where we see the selective rationing of food, water and other essentials. We see military forcefully restraining and confining the citizens and we see frequent announcements from the “big brother” figure which are constantly broadcast to the citizens in public and at times in their private homes.


In Performance Analysis: An Introductory Coursebook, Louis Althusser suggests that although these representations “do not correspond to reality, […] they do make allusion to reality, and they need only be ‘interpreted’ to discover the reality of the world behind their imaginary representation of that world.” That is to say that although these methods are extreme and fantasized, upon reflection we will see that they are just a stylized, exaggerated version of methods that we see in our everyday life. It is an idea which we embrace because it is one which we can relate to our own condition.

Louis Althusser states that not only is ideology reproduced in familiar institutions that are part of everyday and social life but that it aims to form individuals into social subjects by imposing onto individuals a concept of themselves. He says that this brings about a psychic event in which the individual then accepts the identity which he/she is given and may even assume that identity.

In futuristic films like Divergent, where citizens are systematically divided by identifiers such as personality traits and talents, we are compelled to reflect upon that system as a representation of our own government and thereby place ourselves in that system. We may contemplate which faction we would be placed in or whether we would be divergent/factionless.


In both instances we have a hero who is reluctant to submit to the ruling structure and becomes increasingly rebellious as their journey progresses. We are compelled to stand behind this rebellion and reject totalitarian rule. In both film franchises, the system is the real antagonist of the story. The characters who play the role of the “ruling power” merely serve as a symbol. They provide a face to which the protagonist (and the audience) can focus their disdain. The real goal in both instances is mainly to disassemble the ruling structure and allow for a different structure to take its place. Ideally one that functions with higher moral values.

However entertaining these films may be, they originate from a contemplation of our own conditions and reckoning of our future. Aside from the teen-drama and action sequences, the ideology that is played out in these films is one that, with some interpretation, speaks to our reality.


Referenced readings:

Althusser, L. (2001) ‘Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses’ (extract). In Counsell, C. and Wolf, L. (eds.) Performance Analysis: An Introductory Coursebook. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 33 & 37

Mullins, Willard A. (1972) ‘On the Concept of Ideology in Political Science.’ The American Political Science Review. American Political Science Association, pp.507

Referenced films:

Ross, G. (2012) ‘The Hunger Games’. Color Force, USA

Burger, N. (2014) ‘Divergent’. Red Wagon Entertainment, USA

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