Category Archives: dystopian

The Hunger Games and Subversion

25th March 2012

The moment in the film where Katniss acknowledges District 11's loss and incites revolt (Fair Use Doctrine)

Warning: If you haven’t read the books, you may not want to read on for fear of spoilers.

The reaping. People in threadbare, graying clothes shuffle in amid men in shiny uniforms. A woman in impossibly bright clothing and makeup reminds the citizens of District 12 why such hardship is upon them: they revolted against the Capitol of Panem. She then swirls her fingers above a glass fishbowl, drawing out the tension, as she selects the name of a young girl destined to fight to the death in The Hunger Games, the 74th Hunger Games. The name? Primrose Everdeen. Silence as she stands for a moment, shocked, and begins to make her way toward the platform and her death before her sister runs like a feral animal to volunteer in her sister’s place.

In that instance of self sacrifice and love, Katniss subverts the order the Capitol instills in its citizens. Is it within the rules? Certainly. Is it common? No. The reaping is, much like in other works like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” simply a way of life. To disrupt it, to show strength in its face is dangerous. For Katniss, though, used to providing for her family in the absence of her father and the depressed lack of care from her mother, cannot let Prim go. Her one worry? That while she is away in the Hunger Games, her family will starve.

Katniss is a girl used to small acts of revolution. Hunting in the woods, she defies the Capitol but not for ideological reasons. She defies the Capitol to stay alive as the poorest in a poor District. All she wants is a modicum of control over her own life. She has no special talent; she has skill. She and Gale do what they must and have found peace in the woods outside the Seam. In comments critical of Katniss, such as the Persephone Book Club, readers remark that Katniss doesn’t act, she is acted upon. They say this as though it makes her bravery less, as though reaction to control and power is always spontaneous. It isn’t. The impetus for her action is not revolution but familial love and need for survival. She isn’t unique in this. Gale, too, hunts, and at least in The Hunger Games, his desire to leave is strong, but neither is he jumping to defy the Capitol. He has mouths to feed, responsibility.

I saw the film last night, and while I had heard good things, I was wary. I needn’t have been. I sat, nauseated, not from the shaky camera but from the absolute baseness of the reaping. My stomach churned as I realized just how close this sort of society is. In fact, it does exist in other places around the world, in places with governments far more controlling than our own. I left impressed by Jennifer Lawrence and her ability to act with her entire body and the director’s ability to have his cast speak without saying one word. There were those who were laughing at inopportune moments and sniffs when Rue died, but the moments that really tore me apart, were the moments when Katniss’s nature, undid the audience.

While Rue’s death is, of course sad, in a tale full of death, I was moved but not torn. When Katniss lifts her hand in a symbol to District 11, however, I wanted to weep. Because no, Katniss is not a revolutionary by design. I think that is evident throughout the books, particularly in the second and third when her awareness of the mockingjay and its meaning slowly makes sense to her. Instead, she has a heart. Unlike the citizens of the Capitol, laughing and jeering and cheering the deaths and near misses of the children on screen, Katniss is simply human. Rue, a sweet, young child who helps her and cheers her, has died, partially because of her but totally because of the control of the Gamekeepers and by extension, the Capitol.

The Capitol “ahhs” – not for Rue’s sake – but because Katniss has become a character, one they have been fed to like, the girl on fire. They are aware that the Games are real, but like Katniss who wants to touch the image of the woods projected on her window by the remote, the idea of real versus unreal is muddled. The Capitol is a society based on unreality, so the Games don’t affect them in the way they do the Districts who are forced to watch, fully aware of the death toll and the horror the children are enduring.

The Hunger Games are manufactured entertainment, evident in the Gamekeeper’s manipulation of the game, moving the arena, changing day to night, adding obstacles. In fact, I’d lay bets that the Capitol could care less whether or not the Districts are tamped down, so much as they want the entertainment. They seek it. They delight in it. Tributes are paraded in front of them, fed well and dressed in clothes beyond imagining, all to entertain. Katniss, unused to attention and amiability, raised in a place where entertainment is a luxury none can afford, must recognize what the audience wants from her. Peeta does and works for it, angering her before she realizes he has, as Haymitch tells her, made her desireable.

Though I don’t want to veer far into the arena of reality TV, it is undeniable that though not as brutal, the same is happening here. The show Big Brother is, to me, a perfect example as when it airs, I see Twitter and Facebook feeds where people check in to chat rooms or websites where they can watch the contestants outside the show, 24 hours a day. The more drama, the better, with people tweeting and texting in support of particular individuals on the show.

This is all too similar to the sponsors and gifts given to the tributes. Katniss must “act” for them, a blatant message from Haymitch and one she resists but gives in to when her or Peeta’s survival is in danger. Just as in her interview with Caesar, she must work the audience in order to receive preferential treatment, slowly understanding what is expected of her and how it will help in her ultimate goal of survival. As she tells Peeta on the rooftop the night before the Games, when he says if he dies, he wants to die as himself, “I can’t afford to think like that.”

The Girl on Fire is now a symbol: to the Capitol, she is brave and entertaining, the young girl destined to lose her young love. To the Districts, she is hope, and as President Snow remarks to Seneca in the film, a little hope is a good thing. A lot of it can destroy the fragile control the Capitol maintains.

The Games have changed Katniss, which is evident in the closing scene at the Games when the Gamekeeper has again changed the rules, indicating that either Peeta or Katniss must kill the other. At this point, she is aware of their power and in that understanding, she knows what they must do in order to overthrow the Games and live. She offers the nightlock to Peeta, and in the instant before they eat the poisonous berries, the voice comes over the arena frantically asking them to stop.

In that moment, Katniss has become a true revolutionary, though her motives, I think, are still Prim and surviving. The effects of her actions are what President Snow is terrified of because whether or not her motives are change and subversion, Snow is completely attuned to the balance of power and knows he has now lost control.

It’s a fascinating story, and I know a lot of people have wondered why children? Historically, children are the weakest, the ones who are made prey. It follows, then, that in juxtaposing that order and instead giving a child (near adult) power, the world order and model of the Capitol is truly weakened and vulnerable to ruin.

Honestly, I think the film is one of the best book-to-movie adaptations I’ve seen in recent years, and if you get a chance, make sure you see it. The Hunger Games is designed to make you think, and the movie reinforced that in ways I wasn’t fully expecting.

What do you think? What about The Hunger Games -book or movie – made an impression on you?