I just watched all the Hunger Games movies in order, and I must spew words! I’m going to spoil them all freely, based on the theory that people interested in the HG series have already consumed them in prose and/or cinematic form.
The first movie Hunger Games, is a patchwork of imagery resembling the worst of Nazism and the Iron Curtain. Katniss hunts small game under bleak foggy skies with her homey Gale until she volunteers for the games, alongside the baker’s boy, Peeta, who has a crush on her. Together they win by killing everyone else and breaking the rules, thereby pissing off the president. Emeritus winner Haymitch is around to provide wise, yoda-like guidance during his brief sober moments.
The second movie, Catching Fire, has Katniss and all the other winners forced back into competition, basically because the president is a power-grubbing sadist. We are introduced to cuddly new characters like hotspur Joanna Mason, prettyboy Finnick Odair and nerdy Beetee, and then we get to see all of them fighting for their lives in the Quarter Quell, an even more vicious version of the games, with angry monkeys and skin blistering gas.
The third movie, Mockingjay, Part One, is the only installment without a game of some form, and in some ways it’s the most riveting. Katniss wrestles with her role as face of the revolution while Peeta struggles with his brainwashing. There’s a heartbreaking scene where Finnick, stalling for camera time while rebels carry out an undercover mission, relates some of the abuse the Capitol put him through even after winning the Hunger Games.
In the climactic fourth movie, Mockingjay, Part Two, the political situation gets resolved good and hard. Katniss fights her way to the Capitol, intending to assassinate President Snow. Both male members of her love triangle accompany her, and she finally makes up her mind as to which one she wants. Joanna Mason is completely wasted, only popping up a couple of times, which was a crushing disappointment since she swiftly became my favorite character. Some very bad things happen, as other peoples’ favorite characters meet sad deaths.
A Story That Left A Mark
First, the narcissistic section: the HG series is what finally drove me to start writing books. HG puts out such a relentlessly bleak future that I felt compelled to respond. I think quite a few other writers feel that way, given the array of series similar to HG such as Divergent, and Maze Runner. Battle Royale was certainly an inspiration to HG, at least the arena part. HG is sort of a conversational nexus for artists, something other people can bounce away from in creating their own future. It’s also eerie for the ways in which it hits close to home despite its future setting.
As a capitol resident, I know how easy it is to fall out of touch with what we derisively term the “flyover” areas of the country. HG takes that dynamic and turns it up as loud as it’ll go, with the flyover people living grimy oppressed lives, and the capitol citizens wallowing in Roman-style decadence.
Old people tend to become blasé about politics, after living a long life full of dire warnings about how we’re all gonna die horrific deaths right now if we don’t vote here or conserve there or mend our evil ways in some fashion. Young people find themselves thrust into a confusing forest of passionate rhetoric and worst case scenarios.
HG does several things that I admire very much. It ends on a positive note, after punishing us with relentless grimdark. It juggles the macro/micro issues with breathtaking skill, as matters like which dress Katniss wears, or which boy she kisses, become hugely important matters – the future of democracy is at stake! It gives us a cast with solid characters, each with a firmly laid personality.
And HG gives us a dystopia with social engineering turned up to frickin’ twelve, where people fight and win based on their innate personalities. That’s probably why I love this series so much. It’s not about education a la Harry Potter, it’s more about self-actualization. Katniss hones her rebellious streak sneaking outside the perimeter fence to hunt; she uses it to rules-lawyer herself and her buddy a victory; she ends up being the face of the revolution – and then she rebels from that! She’d be a rebel even if she didn’t have seriously good reasons to be one.
Jennifer Lawrence is a beautiful woman who can also bear a strong resemblance to a tough-as-nails working class girl, and I think she does an amazing job playing Katniss. She doesn’t seem all that hungry, but that’s the point: she knows how to hunt.
With her bow, Katniss gets around one of the major handicaps for action girl heroes: melee fragility. It takes a rare actress to pull off Xena or Wonder Woman style physical fighting. A girl with a range attack is much more plausible and believable. She does a breathtaking fight sequence in the sewer scene in the last movie, arrowing her foes swiftly and at close range.
She’s a Joan of Arc type figure, appearing from the underclass with a gift for rallying the troops. All the politicians want her and her massive + morale buff. She’s a regency heroine, carefully managing public appearance and romantic attraction. She’s Huck Finn, rough and hardscrabble in origin. She’s all kinds of different YA heroines rolled up in one.
Military Science Fiction for Girls
Lately a new adaptation of Handmaid’s Tale is popular. Another story of a young woman living in dystopia, far removed from the politics and fighting that brought such a thing into reality. She might easily be dwelling in some gated community in President Snow’s capitol, cloistered and isolated.
Yet Katniss has a bow. She fights mainly as a morale booster, accompanied by an impressive embedded media unit that includes Natalie Dormer from Game of Thrones, affecting a super cool hairstyle. She is, nevertheless, a soldier, who shoots enemies from time to time. The ladylike characters in Ms. Atwood’s novel are far too passive for modern girls with video game and social media skills.
Katniss has a soldier’s sensibilities, too. She’s not overly fond of luxury and when she gets to choose her own outfits, she tends to pick jeans. She’s a careful strategist, and she keeps her emotions strictly in check.
Graceful Political Balance
One of the genius things about HG that makes me want to stand up and applaud is the way both liberals and conservatives can look at it from their own spectrum. Maybe the villainous elites in the capitol are wicked Hollywood liberals, or maybe they’re socially conservative capitalists whose leader isn’t above creepy behavior toward young girls. Maybe they’re a fiendish coalition of both, enslaving the 90%. Katniss’ people manage to seem Bible Belt and Wobbly at the same time. Effie Trinket has echoes of both helmet-haired televangelists and wacky haute couture models.
HG is telling us that social values are a smokescreen for the underlying important issue of whose bodies are allowed to continue digesting food and breathing air. Everything else is subordinated. There may be racism in the HG world; Katniss’ District was all white (in the novels, there were blondes running the town businesses and olive-skinned brunettes working in the mines), and the black district is all black. Yet it’s never a plot point, and everyone goes shoulder-to-shoulder to fight the capitol.
There might be gay or trans or neuroatypical people in Katniss’ world, but they don’t discuss it. Literally in the form of the avoxes, the only disabled people we see. (Avoxes have been tortured by the government, their capacity for speech removed.)
Katniss’ world is devoid of culture, aside from mandatory reality TV, and a few folk songs and square dances. They don’t appear to have any religion whatsoever. Theirs is not a lofty philosophical fight of memes and theories; they are concerned with getting enough calories down their throat to keep them alive another day. And you know, all the political arguments aside, I am similarly inclined. Let’s get everyone fed, let’s get all the wounds treated, let’s get the kids cleaned up and educated, and then we can talk about whose deity/belief system/motivational plaque is the best.
HG stands firmly against tyrants. Doesn’t matter whether they’re liberal or conservative tyrants; all tyranny is the same in the end.
When Women Kill
Back in the last century, it was a huge deal whether action heroes such as Wonder Woman actually spilled enemy blood (that – and possibly bondage fantasies – is why she tended to carry around a lasso for hogtying villains). Xena Warrior Princess bounced between angsting over bloody hands and cheerfully slaughtering thugs and warlords. Aslan benched Lucy and Susan for the climactic fight. The American military has had parallel discussions during this time as to whether women should serve as combat troops.
And yet here comes Katniss, slaughtering enemies left and right. They’re always deserving enemies of course, and it’s always self-defense. She doesn’t sneak around assassinating people, aside from the president. She has major nightmares about it, however – and that’s one more thing this series does right, examining everyone’s grief and post-combat PTSD, as opposed to blithely shaking it off like some of those superheroes.
HG is basically saying nobody should serve as combat troops, but sometimes it’s unfortunately necessary, such as when you’re being oppressed. And even then, the ends do not justify the means.
Movies versus Books
Both the movies and the books are excellent for different reasons. I felt much more positive about this adaptation than the Harry Potter series, which seemed to go way off the rails in certain aspects.
Finnick and Joanna and Beetee came alive for me in their cinematic version. Especially Finnick, whom I had previously dismissed. His movie version was warm and truthful and genuine. Joanna was intense and wacky in both incarnations, but her movie persona had an undercurrent of pragmatism. She might be dressed funny and saying weird things, but she’s taking the swiftest and most efficient route to victory while she’s doing it.
I love fight scenes, I love games, and yet my favorite movie was the only one lacking these elements: Mockingjay part one. It was all about trying to decipher enemy strategy, which is one of my favorite things about military science fiction. There was the team effort with Peeta’s rescue that left me on the edge of my seat, and there was a lot of character building. Everyone was playing outside of their routine – Katniss was being more cerebral than physical; Haymitch was sober; Peeta was deranged; Gale was being a solider rather than a lone wolf. I also love the fact that everyone is finally rising up against their oppressors.