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Those young protesters in Thailand marching to achieve political change with their hands held aloft in a three-finger salute may not realise it, but they are notching up a literary first – for this is the first time that a physical gesture from a work of fiction has entered the real world.
As many commentators have pointed out, the gesture comes from Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books. The heroine Katniss Everdeen explains: “It is an old and rarely used gesture of our district, occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means goodbye to someone you love.”
But in the stories and successful movie franchise the gesture changes to become a general symbol of protest, the People’s way of expressing their anger at totalitarian rule, a bit like the yellow umbrellas held by the protestors in Hong Kong.
There is no doubt that physical gestures can be powerful – from the Black Power salute at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968 to the ‘taking a knee’ of the Black Lives Matter movement. But The Hunger Games salute is the only gesture to come from a work of fiction. What makes it even more interesting is that, successful though it was, The Hunger Games franchise was not as big as Harry Potter – and yet Harry Potter has not, as yet, given birth to a gesture in the real world.
Of course, when it comes to fiction giving phrases to the language, there are dozens of examples, from ‘a catch-22 situation’ (from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22) to ‘he’s a Walter Mitty figure’ (from James Thurber’s celebrated short story ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’).
But the simple gesture from The Hunger Games now seen on the streets of Bangkok is the first time a physical movement has leapt from the page to the world stage. Some commentators have been dismissive. Jonathan Jones in the Guardian said the gesture revealed ‘something about the bankruptcy of political beliefs in the 21st century’. He argues: ‘When the best political imagery available comes from a corny series of paranoid science fiction films that are retro-1970s science fiction at best, and vacuous adolescent fantasy at worst, there is something missing.’
And yet who has the last laugh here? Surely it is the protestors. Their raised arms have travelled around the world and have become a potent and moving symbol. Thanks to this gesture their grievances and demands have received global coverage. Those hands seem to say: ‘May the odds be ever in our favour’.