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?

  • Anonymous

    I’ve only read the first book and am purposely waiting to see the movie until I’m done with all 3. Most of the reviews I’ve seen so far (including yours) discuss the true to the book nature of the film and I am soooo relieved! The Hunger Games reminds me of the short story The Lottery by Shirley Jackson…have you read it? A yearly stoning that no one ever questions? It makes sense to me that the younger generation is the one that questions what the adults accept as “just the way things are.” Great review 🙂

    • Yes, in fact, I mention it somewhere in there and am teaching it in my class next week. It’s a fantastically creepy story, just as this is.

      Get on it and read the rest of those books! Though honestly you could watch the movie with no fear of spoiling anything in the other two.

  • Jenn, this is a GREAT review! I agree that the movie-as-adaptation was extremely well done, and I was surprised by the things that moved me. The aftermath in District 11 was the perfect set-up for the next two movies, and was so powerful in and of itself. I found myself a bit disappointed by the final scenes at the Cornucopia (mostly because I think it really sets up the ending and then further tension in the next two books), but overall it was great.

    • Thanks, Jo! I agree. I was slightly disappointed that they cut District 11 sending the bread, but as my cousin said when I mentioned that, the revolt took its place and really did set things up nicely for the future films.

  • In my opinion, the very best dystopias (like The Hunger Games) are the ones where the world we live in now is clearly visible but twisted. They should be scary but recognizable in a way that makes you look at the real world we live in and question the things we see and object to those things that mirror the dystopian horrors too closely. I read the books over the holidays and am looking forward to seeing the movie today, but I gave up on trying to review them on my own blog because I doubted my ability to convey the essence of what the series recognizes about power, humanity, politics, and entertainment and how they can be so frighteningly interwoven. You’ve done a fantastic job of it here – great post!

    • Oh, completely (re: best dystopias). My class next week is beginning Fahrenheit 451 and reading Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and the former is totally here in terms of much of the theme. People choosing television and obsession of the reality television over books. Thankfully, we’re not part of that.

      As you say, really difficult to review the trilogy and in my case, easier to focus on one particular aspect. Thanks so much, Megan!

  • I very much enjoyed your review and hope that calmer minds will cut through all the hype about “violence” and realize that the story is how a salt grain’s worth of control of ones life requires the act of becoming a revolutionary in totality (cf. Camus «L’homme Revolté»). Given that we live in a world where “patriot” and “freedom” are bandied about all too easily without recognition of their implicit power bargains, these books expose the dynamics and the heinous lengths one must go to to preserve stasis in them (both of The Capital as well as for any insurgency).

    I too thought of “The Lottery” when I read the books and I’m glad that you’ve brought it out here.

    • Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting, Steven. I think that those who focus on the violence will continue to do so, and in my mind, with the amount of violence out there, both real and imagined, it’s ludicrous to think that this (which is mild, at least in the film) will do some harm to the nation’s youth.

      As you say, it’s quite simple to use the terms “patriot” and “revolutionary” without having a full understanding of what those who take them on must sacrifice in order to do what they do.

  • Anonymous

    I really loved how the movie portrayed the seriousness of the situation. In reading the book so quickly, I think I missed a little bit of the weight of the subject matter. The movie did a great job of making me feel the desperation and hopelessness of their lives and the games. The movie, as you pointed out, made me feel nauseated. It’s the future, but it’s scary because it’s a recognizable future.

    The one thing I thought was oversimplified in the movie was the relationship between Peeta and Katniss. In the book, you see another connection to reality TV as Katniss begins to perform for the crowd in her interaction with Peeta. It also sets up some tension in their relationship in terms of what she really feels and what is an act. I agree with you that the acting for the cameras aspect was included to an extent, but I think it fell a little short of the book in that area. I’ll be interested to see how the next movie incorporates that since this movie didn’t really dive into it!

    But I still I loved the movie & actually saw it twice in one day 🙂 You said it best when you said that the movie made you think in ways you weren’t expecting. I thought this was a FABULOUS review! It’s almost exactly what I would have said if I’d tried to put it into words.

    • You’re so right. The opening scenes to me were much more effective at really indicating how similar the world is to ours but how different.

      Yes, I do think had they given us a bit more with Peeta and Katniss, it would set the next one up nicely. They would hit part of the convo from the book but not all.

      Twice in one day?! I was exhausted after just one viewing. And I really could not get it out of my system until I went over to some friends’ house today.

      Thanks so much for your insightful comment. I love talking about stuff like this.

  • You said it perfectly! Love your post! I enjoyed this movie a lot too, and I loved how some of the messages came clearer through the movie. I can’t wait to see it again!

    • Thanks so much, Aths. I really thought the message was extremely effective, and it took quite some time for me to get it off my mind.

  • I went and saw this on the weekend too, and thought they did an excellent job of bringing the book to life. I liked what they added, but did miss a few of the things that were left out, but I guess they had to bring the movie in at a reasonable excuse.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it. Yes, there were small things I missed, but overall I was really pleased with it.

  • Anonymous

    I agree. I think Katniss makes herself a threat to the Capitol when she threatens to eat the berries because she shows that she’s willing to become a martyr, and martyrs are hella dangerous.

    I also thought how the Hunger Games played with reality TV was interesting, but I think the statement Collins was making was broader than that–how our society is broadly based on the exploitation of people so we can have our little entertainments like TV, iPhones, cheap clothes, etc. We may think we care about the people who make our toys or who mine coal so we can have energy, but when it comes right down to it, there are always people in our society that are exploited and mistreated for others’ benefit.

    Great post!

    • Yes! You’re so right that it is about the broader exploitation. The Capitol is nothing if not representative of that. That’s why, again, the Capitol is enamored with the tributes while the Districts watch with dread.

  • What a wonderfully written review! I’m so glad that people are mostly happy with the way it was adapted. Looking forward to seeing it on Thursday.

    • Thanks so much! Yes, I think the ones that are unhappy with it (from what I can tell) are the ones who want more of a romance factor. But honestly, the first book wasn’t all that romantic. In that kind of world, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for romance.

      Hope you enjoy the film when you see it!

  • I can see the similarities to The Hunger Games and to Big Brother and am looking forward to seeing the movie later.

    • Melissa – Enjoy! I think there’s quite a bit there to talk about. I’m actually going to try to catch it again this weekend.

  • Leslie

    You are so very talented! You saw the movie when? It would take me a year to gather my thoughts let alone write a review not any where close to this. Have not seen the movie yet but hope to this week so we can talk about it on Sat.

    • Oooh, or we could go watch it! Meag hasn’t seen it yet and wants to.

      And honestly, the film inspired the thought. It was truly fantastic, and I couldn’t think about anything else. But thanks for the vote of confidence.

  • I went saw it this weekend too and I loved it. I mean I didnt love the children being killed, that was actually really hard to watch. I think the sadness and overall violence of the book really hit me with the visual of the movie. I cant stop seeing that little boy who was hiding under the canopy thing………I agree it was the best book to movie Ive seen done.

    • You’re so right. It isn’t a movie you’ll love. That’s for sure. It is so disturbing, and like I said, I remained nauseated almost the entire time. I was worried about the shaky camera, but it wasn’t that at all. It was the horror of it all.

  • Elyse/Pop Culture Nerd

    An incredibly insightful essay, Jenn. Your in-depth analysis makes it much more than a review.

    You touched upon something I was confused about because I haven’t read the books. Why was Katniss so angry when she found out Peeta had a crush on her? I can understand surprise or disbelief but she was MAD and said he made her seem weak. Huh? How are you weak if someone likes you?

    • Ok. Good question. She’s angry because she is extremely independent, so yes, in her mind it makes her look weak. You have to understand that Katniss is very much the loner/survivalist in the book. She doesn’t really have friends other than Gale, she doesn’t ooh and ahh over boys and very early on, she discusses with Gale that she never wants children because of the life she has. She thinks to appear strong she must be stolid and tough. She slowly has to soften and understand WHY she must soften in order to gain support.

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  • ERichter

    Thanks, Jenn, for your very insightful analysis. I agree with your view of Katniss as unwitting revolutionary. In a society that strips away all vestiges of humanity in their young–those who feel relief in not hearing their own names at the Reaping, the bloodthirsty Careers, the Capitol citizens–Katniss refuses to relinquish her humanity. It becomes her strength, her “other-ness,” indeed, the heart of her rebellion.
    It wasn’t until I saw the movie, particularly the scene between Peeta and her on the eve of the Games, that I realized that this action is contrary to her stated intent. Peeta’s concerns involve his selfhood and maintaining his identity; her response is purely practical, that she can’t afford to think at that level because of her sister’s needs. Ironically, that’s exactly what she does, yet she does so unconsciously. Love it.

    • YES! That is exactly it, and I think that’s why, in a sense, it has to be her to incite any sort of change… exactly because it isn’t intentional. By holding tight to her humanity (subconsciously) and acting out of selflessness, she does drive that rebellion.
      I love what you point out about stripping “away all vestiges of humanity” too – you’re right that even if they don’t like it, as Gale says, they are still contributing to it all by virtue of being there, by allowing it to happen. So glad you saw the movie. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.