November 11, 2015

The Hunger Games series and the Heroic Ending

Posted in Pop Culture at 11:42 pm by chavalah

An iconic image from "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2"

An iconic image from “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2”

Several months ago, I read Amanda Marcotte’s column on Slate, which defended the bleak amounts of death and other violence visited upon “Game of Thrones” main characters as indicative of “classical tragedy.” I was pretty much on board until I read this paragraph.

There’s not a lot of truly tragic storytelling in modern TV and movies. We are trained to expect, especially when it comes to action-packed fantasy and sci-fi stories, that just when things look bleakest for our heroes, they will perform some amazing feat and save the day at the last possible minute. That is the plot of “Lord of the Rings”, “Harry Potter”, “The Hunger Games”, “Mad Max: Fury Road”, every DC and Marvel superhero movie, and nearly every B-list thriller on the market.

Feeling irritated by misrepresentation of the messages in “The Hunger Games” is kind of my modus operandi. In my last blog post on the subject, I was griping about how while everyone was whining about North Korean threats/censorship of the sophomoric movie, “The Interview,” critics refused to give “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1” a fair shake because it didn’t contain enough of the “heroic violence” of your regular superhero flick. Granted, that may have been my “crabby grandma” blog entry of 2014, and I buried more intriguing nuggets about how the movie influenced real-life social justice action.

I have already responded to Marcotte’s “Hunger Games” assertion on my tumblr, but I focused primarily on events that happened at the end of the series, basically, what I hope to see in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2.” I thought, in preparing to see a “Mockingjay” double feature next Wednesday (!!!), I might take a closer look at the previous books and movies. Some critics like to believe that “The Hunger Games” merely amounts to a heroic fable where the good guys sweep in and change everything for the better in the end. But in a series that is about the duplicity of violence and warfare, the morals could never be that simple.

In the opening chapter, “The Hunger Games,” the issues are certainly at their most basic as Suzanne Collins introduces us to the world of Panem. The parameters of the plot are a purposeful construct—24 children forced into an arena to fight to the death by a totalitarian government. But is it so easy to differentiate “good guys” from “bad guys”? With the Districts looking at their own children facing off others who will kill them, it’s easy to dehumanize the others. I still distinctly remember members of my theatre cheering when Clove was brutally killed by Thresh. She may have been a bitch, but did she deserve to be turned into a killer-cum-victim by a society that deemed her disposable? The movie doesn’t seem to think so. One of my favorite additions to the film is Cato’s death speech, when he recognizes the limitations of his life. “I’m dead anyway! I always was, right? I didn’t know that until now.” Cato had bought into the Capitol propaganda which promised him that the Games would turn him into a hero; only now does he realize that all of his killing, and now his death, is merely fodder for the entertainment of others. (But speaking of movies vs books, I’ll always regret that the adaptation did so little to raise the issues of poverty, starvation and brutality in the police state Districts.)

“Catching Fire” immediately vanquishes the notion that the victors are in any way a “happy ending” to the Games, and it’s not just because President Snow decides to send them back to the arena. It’s because Collins deals honestly with post-traumatic trauma. Katniss has recurring, violent nightmares. Peeta paints what he saw and experienced. I lamented that that bit didn’t make it into the movie, but I loved the establishing shots of Katniss looking off into the distance, being freaked out by Gale, and then imagining her hunting spoils as the first boy she killed in the arena. As Haymitch says, “no one wins the Games, period. There are survivors. No winners.” Meanwhile, the scope of the world continues to grow. The victors are supposed to be shiny distractions, so that everyone focuses on their celebrity appeal rather than seeking self-determination in their own lives. But when Katniss saved Peeta in the arena, she cheated the system. The notion of a “hero” to lead the people into revolution spreads. But this is a narrative, and not necessarily reality. In the Quarter Quell, Katniss is primarily concerned with saving Peeta. She gets rescued by the secret rebellion in District 13 not because she devises some cunning plan, but because most of her allies deliberately lead her there. Although her anger against the Capitol’s injustice is real, “the Mockingjay,” much like “the Girl on Fire” and “the Star-Crossed Lovers,” is an image that is foisted on her.

Without an arena, and with a distinct focus on propaganda, the third film becomes more political. Will Katniss choose to play the role that’s been assigned to her? There’s some beauty in giving hope to fallen rebels at a hospital, but also the precariousness of Peeta’s situation as a supposed traitor/prisoner of war. The victories, hard won in this movie, come with questionable heroic fanfare. By couching Katniss’s Mockingjay propo in promotional music from the trailers, the producers ask us to look at our own complicity in buying into an image. Meanwhile, as Katniss stares at herself shouting fighting words in front of the burning hospital, Finnick leans in and asks “you don’t like hearing the fight song at a funeral, do you?” Gale, our most stereotypical heroic figure, who labored in the mines where his father was killed for six days a week, who was whipped bloody for standing up for those in need during an exercise of police brutality, who unquestioningly helped to save the small number of his District who survived the bombing, starts to lose his moral compass in District 13. In the movie, he berates Peeta for supposedly succumbing to torture and speaking against armed conflict, and in the book he’s even worse. He questions Katniss’s concern for two Capitol citizens who are chained up for taking extra bread from the cafeteria. The fact that they were Capitol employees precludes them for any consideration of humane treatment, in Gale’s eyes.

But, as “Game of Thrones” defenders sometimes point out, depiction does not equal endorsement. Gale hardens as the story progresses, as does President Coin, because so many people, righteously angered by injustice done to them and their comrades, buckle under power. The story will continue to grow more complicated, and Katniss will even interact with varying people from “the other side.” The movie trailers might focus on the driving narrative, where beleaguered Districts finally join together to fight the Capitol. But this won’t end with “some amazing feat and sav[ing] the day.” This will end with violence uncoiled, with brutality and victims on both sides. There is a tragic narrative to “The Hunger Games”—the truth that revolution can be corrupted, and that war, even justified war, brings destruction to all parties.

This series gets a lot of flack—for being aimed at young adults, for having characters struggling with their feelings, sometimes romantic, towards one another, and for its “dystopic” elements. (I don’t actually see “The Hunger Games” as a dystopia. I see it as the depiction of ill treatment under a totalitarian government, something we’ve had on and off for millennia, just with futuristic weaponry thrown in.) This is not a story about a girl who dresses up in a superhero costume and singlehandedly saves the world. And this is not a story where the good guys thoughtlessly and righteously beat the bad guys in a justified war, the end. Yes, Katniss ultimately finds a measure of hope in her life. But it is not without cost.


1 Comment »

  1. […] and war seems never-ending. The Star Wars prequels were like a stepping stone for my interest in the much better executed The Hunger Games, perhaps. This wonderful essay goes into the Star Wars vs Hunger Games scenario in […]

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