The Hunger Games: Forgetting Katniss

Mockingjay - Part 2 Movie PosterMost people I know don’t think about cultural legacy when they visit the movie theater. I do, and I have a question: will anyone remember The Hunger Games in five years?

Mockingjay – Part 2 has taken in over $500 million and held the top rank at the box office four consecutive weekends since opening. It would be foolish to call the movie a failure by that standard, and many of my friends on social media said the movie was “so good.” The buzz will return in March with the Blu-ray release, but I question whether this movie will still have the same impact further down the road, or if this is just momentary hype waiting for a new franchises to take over.

Great works of literature (and movies by extension) illustrate the joy and struggles of being human that transcend time or culture. Readers can identify with the passions seen in Shakespeare’s plays, the trials of Odysseus, or the relationship drama of Jane Austen’s characters as much today as when these works were first written. Great books don’t merely describe the world as it is, but help portray what should be. With its young-adult angst, adrenaline pumping action sequences, and political intrigue, The Hunger Games franchise may capture an audience’s attention for a few hours, but it fails to offer a compelling vision of the world like the works we deem “classic.”

The fault for that lies mainly with Katniss. As I noted after Catching Fire released, “we may sympathize with her and admire her resilience, [but] we never get a true sense of her identity or see positive leadership qualities in her that are truly praiseworthy.“ That vacuum of character persists throughout the rest of the films. In Mockingjay – Part 1, the rebels struggle to brand Katniss as an inspirational hero. Their brainstorming session reverts back to events from the first film, the heartfelt moments when she volunteered for her sister or sang a lullaby for the dying Rue. You don’t see touching moments like that in the later movies. Within the story, Katniss still makes a good “symbol for the revolution,” but for the theater audience who sees her moody and indecisive behavior behind the scenes, her admirable qualities diminish.

Suzanne Collins’ political landscape doesn’t help to create a noble struggle either. In Panem’s crisis, there isn’t a clear “good guy” to root for since the rebel leaders display the same flaws as the corrupt Capitol. Jeffrey Tucker at FEE summarizes this well:

The simple lesson of The Hunger Games is that powerful people can do terrible things. We must resist in order to stop them. The more complicated lesson is that powerful institutions themselves corrupt, and that there will always be those lacking in moral scruples who are willing to assume the mantle of power.

War is hell, power corrupts, and evil men will always seek to do us harm. These things we know. But if you’re going to draw attention to these realities in such extremity as a “maker of tales”, you bear an obligation to encourage the character it takes to confront them. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker.” That is where Collins and the filmmakers betray their audience.

Tucker observes that the closing scene with Katniss sitting in a meadow with her family may offer the best lesson of the film, but here’s the catch: it is impossible to see that vision of goodness throughout the film. Rebecca Cusey points out at The Federalist that closing scene helps to soften Collins’ nihilistic end to the story, but it’s not enough of a change. Seeing Katniss live to raise a family in peace offers too little, too late.

In stories like Lord of the Rings or Saving Private Ryan, the hero has something in their heart worth defending. For Frodo and Sam, it’s the thought that their journey will protect the innocence and goodness of the Shire. For Captain Miller, it’s his wife, a small town, and an English composition class to which he strives to return. “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for,” as Sam puts it.

Katniss is not like these other heroes. Instead of thinking about peaceful times, she fixates on Snow and makes her sole purpose to take his life: “We all have one enemy, and that’s President Snow. He corrupts everyone and everything. He turns the best of us against each other…. Tonight, turn your weapons to the Capitol,” she says in the trailer. Mockingjay: Part 2 is as much a revenge flick as it is about a political revolution. That’s where it lost my respect entirely.

Without goodness, violence is meaningless. Revenge is a powerful motivator and certainly one that heroes may wrestle with, but it can never serve as the ultimate goal. Revenge puts a character only one step away from those who “just want to watch the world burn.” Without real virtue or ambition on the line, battling monsters or evading sci-fi booby traps becomes cartoonish or gruesome. It feels empty either way. If viewers want stylized violence for the sake of stylized violence, there are other films that do it much better.

The original premise of The Hunger Games series was dark, but the characters felt real and compelling in the first story. I honestly don’t know why audiences loved this last film so much. Perhaps it was the action scenes, or maybe it was the popular dystopian genre. It couldn’t have been the angsty love triangle, because that recedes deep into the background compared with the books. I have a feeling it was the appeal to political disillusionment that generated such enthusiasm. While it may pander to our dissatisfaction now, the film doesn’t offer a sound answer to the problems introduced. Because of that, I don’t think it’s influence will last. I certainly hope it doesn’t, because that sets us up for a darker future indeed.

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