The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (M)

Fortunately, to see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is not to be entertained. Which is a good thing, because the marketing behemoth that has grown up around the films, rivals the Capitols gross excessiveness.

The films’ greatest redemptive feature is their pervasive sadness, from the faces of every character to the musical score to the bleak sets. Even during the biggest, most lavish celebrations at the Capitol, we know the ones who are enjoying themselves are being played for vapid fools. Everyone with half a brain is miserable and, increasingly, furious.

Don’t see this film without having seen the first Hunger Games film, because it dives right into the story. Katniss has become a symbol of revolt to revolutionaries around the country—the mockingjay, the “girl on fire.”

When the movie opens, it’s a year later, and things are getting more serious. Katniss and Peeta sense this when they embark on their “Victory Tour,” in which they (once again) get dolled up, travel by high-speed train to each of Panem’s Districts with coach Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and handler Effie (Elizabeth Banks), act like they’re the madly-in-love victors everyone wants to see, and give pre-scripted speeches, all in service of drumming up support and excitement for the next games.

That’s because this next Hunger Games is the 75th, the third “Quarter Quell,” which is marked by an extra-special twist in the Games. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) decides that the people need to stop feeling the hope Katniss’s rebellion has given them. This Quarter Quell will have a new, more evil twist, as the Capitol narrows their crosshairs on Katniss.

These movies and their books are important, and not just because they critique our entertainment-sodden culture. It’s easy to see how they take on reality TV, the officially sanctioned Low Hanging Fruit of cultural criticism—but there’s something more here. Maybe the most jarring aspect of the story is that, because we see everything through Katniss’s eyes, we are only slowly made aware of how little she understands her world. What we want—what we’ve been trained to want, as an audience—is a young heroine who will save the world with her bravery, boldness, spirit, and purity of heart.

But Panem is not a world in which things like bravery, boldness, and pure hearts really matter all that much. What matters is how you look. Everyone is always watching you in Panem.

That also means that the closer you get to the centre of power, the more people become appearance-focused. Citizens of the Capitol look ridiculous. To them, appearance is life. How they look determines everything about their social standing.

Therefore the goal in the Games is not just to survive: it’s to perform, and to perform better than anyone else so that you survive. The story’s real sadness comes as Katniss slowly, slowly realizes that even her defiant actions have played directly into the hands of those who value her mostly for her symbolic value—for what she appears to stand for. Her bravery and love and skill with the bow is valuable only insofar as it serves their cause.

And if she stops performing how they want her to, they’ll just find someone else who will.

Perhaps the reason the books resonated so much with teenagers is that they know, all too keenly, the importance of performing—high school often resembling the arena more than we might like. But let’s not miss the larger critique: “performing well” is what society demands at every level.

This too often means we devalue actual virtues like bravery and boldness in favour of perceived bravery or boldness, machismo over masculinity and sexiness over femininity, likeability over character. The philosopher Jean Baudrillard critiqued late modernism in 1981, arguing that we’d replaced meaning and reality with signs and symbols, to the extent that symbols have become reality.

The Hunger Games stories are a biting critique and giant flashing warning sign that says that this kind of substitution of appearances for reality puts us on the fast track to tyranny. They draw multiple parallels to the bread-and-circuses culture of Rome at its decadent height; keep the people fed and entertained, and they’ll do whatever you want.

Can you see the real-world parallels?