Paying Tribute to Serious Themes in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

"… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses."
-- Juvenal, Satire 10.77–81

Let me get this out of the way. I’m terrible at writing movie and book reviews. A good review isn’t a play by play of what happened, but rather a critique of the story, discussion of its themes, style, and execution. As much as I love films and books, you’d think I’d write a ton of reviews. Part of me wishes I would – or could. But the plain truth is I’m awful at them. I don’t want to mentally or physically take notes when I watch a movie or read a book. I want to enjoy the story. I think about its themes, usually heavily, but they swish around in my mind like clouds high up in the atmosphere, constantly changing and reforming, blending together to form new ideas over time. I see something different every time I look. Usually my thoughts about the stories are less than coherent or eloquent enough for someone to want to read. There’s no way I could write a timely review immediately after I finish a story or watch a film. Doing so would ruin the experience itself. Besides, I’d be sure to miss something important, and then the review is set in stone as if those were my only takeaways or thoughts for eternity. That would be annoying.

With that in mind, I wanted to share a few thoughts on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which I watched for the second time in a week last weekend (and will probably watch again), and The Hunger Games series in general. I loved the books, loved the first film, and think the latest film takes them all up another level. In short, I loved so much about Catching Fire. If you want to know my thoughts on some of the film’s details (like how amazing Jennifer Lawrence is as Katniss, or the improved quality of the direction and action over the first film, or how well the film adapts the book, or its attention to detail, or the delightful absurdity of Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, or, or, or…), ask me in the comments section, and I can go on and on. But for my time with you right now, I’d rather stick to some of the bigger themes of the entire series, focusing on the Catching Fire pieces most, and how my view of them might be different than what is generally discussed with these stories. For my more fangirl review of the first film, go here. But basically this “review” will be about what inspires me about The Hunger Games’ world and characters, and what draws me to re-watch, reread, and obsess over them.

Suzanne Collins (the writer of the novels) has said her inspiration for the story came from late night channel surfing, flicking between television reruns of reality show

s and war coverage. It’s so simple in conception that this would be writer is insanely jealous. From that simple merger of ideas, she created a deeply rich and layered world. This is the essence of creating believability, especially in what is truly a science fiction story, set in a future dystopia, a culture created from the wreckage of the vaguely explained collapse of society which included at some point in its history a nuclear holocaust and world-wide flooding (I suspect they came in reverse order), changing the landscape, shrinking the United States in area and in population size, and leading to the complete reformation of how society works, but with subtle reminders that this was once our current country. The world was remade over time spans unidentified (but would seem to be far in the future if the technology like hover crafts and giant game arenas with diabolical computer generated manipulations are any indication) eventually resulting in the current structure of the country called Panem contained within the former United States. Panem is divided into 12 (er… 13) districts, each ostensibly serving a specific resource niche for the shared resources of the entire country, but in reality mostly serving its Capitol and the totalitarian dictatorship, currently led by “President” Snow, that controls everything. The Capitol (probably located somewhere near present day Denver), along with one or two nearest districts, are rich and spoiled. Its people seem to want for nothing. They are consumed with outlandishly self-absorbed lifestyles, living in a bubble that is an enhanced distortion of present day Hollywood. They love their entertainment, fashion, and over the top parties. But most of all, they seem to love The Hunger Games, the annual Survivor-esque battle to the death between 24 children from each of the districts (one male and one female) aged between 12 and 18. The districts themselves, at least 3 through

12 keep the Capitol rich in resources and labor, but suffer the most in the Games. They are too poor to train “career” tributes who volunteer for the games in place of those who  are randomly “reaped” in a lottery, and who win almost every year. For the people of the districts, especially the outlying ones like District 11 and 12, the annual event is a reminder that they are powerless over the Capitol, and that two of their children are likely about to die in a brutal nationwide broadcast that is mandatory viewing. During the Games, as the people in the Districts starve, work intolerable hours, have little time for education, and suffer the carnage on live TV, those in the Capitol (seemingly not required to offer up their own children) wager on the outcomes, and cheer for their favorites. The sole survivors each year are lifted up as the ultimate celebrities for the rest of their lives, which are spent being paraded around year after year, reliving their victory, which came at the expense of 23 other young lives. They are forced to face the families of those they’ve slain in a Victory Tour, pretending to extol the Capitol, which makes them appear somewhat sociopathic to each District’s citizens, and likely eats away at the Victors themselves. We learn in Catching Fire that many of those Victors, don’t handle their success very well. In The Hunger Games novel, Katniss constantly talks about how she finds Haymitch, her mentor and previous District 12 Victor, as disgusting drunk. By Catching Fire, she’s joining him in a drink (which I was thrilled to see was included in the film as its one of my favorite scenes). Celebrity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

It’s easy to see how most discussions about the meaning of the Hunger Games series is an indictment on our shallow celebrity culture, crass materialist excess, and how the impoverished and lowly masses are squashed while the Capitalist ruling class is propped up on their backs. Collins makes a point to use references to ancient Rome throughout her narrative. Many of the names of characters and places are taken directly from Rome.

Panem is the Latin word for bread, as in “panem et circenses” meaning “bread and circuses”, a critique of how the Roman political classes distracted the common people from engaging in serious politics by giving them bread and games, like gladiator fights to the death. For some, the Hunger Games represents the classic Marxist struggle of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat. The all-powerful Empire against the lowly citizen.

I don’t see the story this way at all, at least not in that exact framing. The truth, whether or not Collins realized this herself, is “bread and circuses” is a reference to the Fall of the Roman Republic into an autocracy. The elected politicians bought votes by diverting attention away from the concerns of politics and civic duty. The people were happy to have free grain and games and in return gave up their own power over the government by electing those who would take if from them. This eventually led to one man seizing power rather easily, and the Republic became an Empire. It would seem to me, that Panem has already had its transformation from Republic to Empire, but we’re beginning to see Rome’s Fall. The Visigoth’s are standing on top of the hill with their eye on Rome. They just need something – a spark of motivation, inspiration — to push them towards the gates.

For Panem, that spark is Katniss Everdeen, the heroine from District 12 and co-winner of the 74th Hunger Games, known to the people as the Mockingjay, a hybrid bird that was never supposed to exist, abandoned by the Capitol’s scientists to die when it didn’t serve their purposes, but which flourished on its own in freedom.

One reason I’m drawn to stories set in dystopian futures is that they are usually (intentionally or unintentionally) discussions of how collective societies destroy individual liberty, leading to the destruction of the society itself. Whether or not that was her intention, for me, that is exactly the world Collins created, and that is exactly the dominant theme in her stories as I see them. When we first meet her, Katniss is a coal miner’s daughter who loves to hunt. She regularly defies the rules to escape to the forest, ducking under the poorly monitored fences of her district so she can keep her family alive. She wants nothing more than to live a quiet, unassuming peaceful life volunteers for The Hunger Games when her 12 year old sister is reaped despite her name only being in the lottery one time (candidates can add their name to the bucket in exchange for food for their families). In that single act of uncalculated bravery she inspires a nation to stand up for themselves and be brave, too. This single individual act of selflessness, followed by a string of defiant acts within the arena itself, result in her being lifted up as a symbol of rebellion.

She is Panem’s Rosa Parks.

Like Parks who only wanted to rest her aching feet, not inspire a civil rights movement, Katniss had no intention of inspiring anyone to revolution. She only wanted to return home alive. Unlike her friend Gale, she would have been content to live out her life quietly, without causing too much attention, tolerating the tyranny of her government. That is just the way it is, in her point of view. When she breaks the law by hunting, or participating in the black markets, it’s purely for survival, not as a political act. When she “volunteers” (someone must go to the Games, they’re not voluntary), all she cares about is surviving so she can save her family both in the immediacy of saving her sister from the Games, and also to survive them herself to take care of them later. That’s all that matters to her. She is not a leader. She is not an idealist. She is rough and practical. She is a survivor.

In the first film, the night before they go into the Games, the other District 12 Tribute, Peeta says, “I just don’t want them change me… Turn me into something I’m not. I just don’t want to be another piece in their game… I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them, that they don’t own me. If I’m gonna die, I wanna still be me.” Pragmatic Katniss replies that she can’t think like that. She needs to win because as sole breadwinner, she needs to take care of her family. Despite that, she does exactly what Peeta hopes to do. She risks her own oblivion in the rigged Games time after time by defying the Capitol (consciously or unconsciously), and like Rosa Parks, she becomes the symbol of a struggle she doesn’t organize or lead. In the first film/book, she does this by first showing kindness and respect to her fallen friend Rue, and later by convincing the Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane that she would rather die and deny them a Victor than kill Peeta to win. She rebelled against the Capitol when all she wanted to do was rest her aching feet.

In the second film, the Capitol intends to make her pay for inspiring the people to do the same.

Panem is both a fascist totalitarian dictatorship and a collective society. There appears to be commerce, but if it is not outright owned by the state, it is certainly controlled and manipulated by the state. The Districts serve the ruling class of the Capitol. There does not appear to be any democratic system of government, at least not with any real power. The “President” can determine who lives and dies on a whim. He can even change the rules of the annual Hunger Games, as we learn in Catching Fire when he forces an all-star celebrity death match in lieu of the traditional 12 to 18 year olds being drafted, thus breaking the agreement that Victors would live life in peace and comfort. The President’s power is absolute. Even the citizens of the Capitol are pawns to him. They may lead mostly frivolous lives, but even Hollywood starlets often have their lives controlled by the forces of their celebrity, something Haymitch explains to Katniss and Peeta when he tells them they will never get off the Victory Tour train. Their lives, as rich as they are now, will never be their own. I suspect many more in the Capitol feel that way than we are initially led to believe. Even Effie Trinket, a symbol of all that is shallow and air-headed in the Capitol’s masses, proves to be less clueless in Catching Fire as we and Katniss initially assumed. She’s merely made the best of the situation she’s been given in life. Year after year she watches her Tributes from District 12 get slaughtered. Any non-psychopath with a job like that needs to find meaning in it, or go insane. She puts on a happy face, but we see in Catching Fire that she is heartbroken by the situation Katniss and Peeta have been put into yet again. Perhaps the rest of the Capitol’s citizens aren’t what they seem to be either. None of them are truly free to be individuals, and speak out against the President or his government. They are not as free and distracted by bread and circuses as we thought. When the Victor’s all hold hands at the end of Flickerman’s interview show before the Games they shout out and boo, demanding that the games get cancelled. Even the normally unflappable Flickerman is visible shaken. And we see what happens to those who make statements against the President when Katniss’ friend and popular designer Cinna is beaten in front of her just before she’s thrown back into the arena.

I’m often surprised that people see Fascism and Communism as two opposite ends of the political spectrum, when to me they’re more like the ends of a circle meeting up like an Ouroboros, the head of the snake eating its tail. Each philosophy uses different tactics leading to the same conclusions. Ultimately in each, the state controls the individual. Yet even within Panem which is under the complete control of the Capitol, the people’s desire to be free is evident, and the failure of the government to provide what the people need – despite the entire country devoted to sharing its resources — is striking. Even the state controlled security forces known as Peace Keepers often look the other way and allow the people to do what they need to do to survive. It is through her own efforts hunting, and selling the game on the black markets that allow Katniss to feed her family. She even sells to the Peace Keepers on occasion. The state cannot even control those it employs directly. Katniss hides her bow and arrows in the woods because they are illegal for citizens to own. The citizens in each district have little control over their future professions, as each district serves one or two primary functions dependent on the resources of their region. There is little mobility between the districts, and any that exists is state sanctioned. This is a world with few choices, yet individuals find a way to do the best they can despite the odds.

Propaganda is the glue that holds the country together. We first see it in the film the Districts are forced to watch prior to the reaping, that Effie has memorized. And after their victory in the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta become national celebrities. They are forced to shill for the Capitol by extolling its virtues, and thanking it for the glory the Hunger Games allows for them. Yet, along the way she unintentionally continues to inspire individuals to risk their own lives as she and Peeta make their way throughout the districts on their Victory Tour. By showing compassion and kindness to Rue’s family, and by standing up for Gale during the live broadcast of his flogging, she inspires them more still. The citizens of Panem know what happens to anyone who defies the Capitol, but they rise up anyway. Even in the face of escalating brutality by the Capitol, and isolation from each other, they form a rebellion. The Hunger Games does indeed knit them together, but not in the way the President and his propaganda machine intend. On the surface, the reasons for revolt may simply be that the poor districts are tired of seeing their sweat and blood go to feeding the Capitol while they starve, and live in squalor. But starvation is merely a symptom of the greater loss of freedom. The citizens in the districts are not empowered to pursue their own dreams, and make their own lives better. They are not even empowered to turn off the television, let alone prevent their children from fighting to the death each year. They are powerless in every sense of the word, yet the black markets, hunting in the forest, and one girl’s choice to volunteer to die shows them that the individual always wants what the state cannot, or will not, provide. That despite the President’s rhetoric, his sole purpose is to maintain his own power, not care for and feed his people. As individuals begin to realize this, and want more than they are allowed to have, they begin to band together and fight for individual manifest destiny, and for each other. All it took was one defiant girl sparking a fire. One person really can change the world, even if they don’t want to.

Ask Rosa Parks.

Yet the road to liberty is paved with pot holes and protruding stones. Humans are complex creatures, capable of great virtue, and great sin. Sometimes we destroy those that matter most to us. I’m looking forward to the next film Mockingjay where these themes take interesting, and all too frequently true, turns by showing that even among the previously repressed masses, the seeds of corrupting power are difficult to control. That without concern for individual rights, and individual dreams, the tendency is for ambitious individuals to throw bread and circuses at the politically indifferent or misguided in order to distract them from their own rise to absolute power. In Mockingjay [vague spoiler alert], we will learn about the corrupting nature of the pursuit of power, the seeds of which are sown in the events of Catching Fire. We’ll learn more about how those caught in the crossfire, too often the average citizen and the young, are manipulated, damaged and killed in the struggle for power. In Catching Fire, Katniss struggles with PTSD caused by her experience in the first Games. She transforms from a symbol for rebellion into the tool for a new would-be dictator. She goes from being a piece in the Capitol’s Games, to a piece in the new power struggle. She wanted neither. She wanted to be left alone. She wanted to live her life in peace. Perhaps in the end, at the end of the trilogy (or in the case of the films, the quad-ology), I hope Katniss will find herself in a world not controlled by tyrants who try to use her as a piece in their games of power, but controlled by individuals doing as they wish while living in peace. It only takes an accidental spark to light the entire corrupt, fragile system on fire. Eventually, even the absolute control of a despot cannot contain the dreams, or snuff out the natural rights, of individuals. When the powerless are inspired to take back what is rightfully theirs and recognize that their lives are their own to live, that’s when the human spirit rises up to its full potential. It is through individuality and self-determination that we become a better society as a whole. Forced shared values, forced shared resources isn’t virtuous. As Katniss repeatedly shows us in these stories, even when the game is rigged so that there can only be one survivor, human kindness finds a way to exist and thrive. That’s a lesson worth remembering.



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