Neither raised fists nor a banner would do: when five students confronted the leader of the Thai military junta at a press conference this month, they wore shirts saying “We don’t want the coup” and raised the instantly recognizable three-fingered Mockingjay salute—leading to their immediate detention. That symbol of solidarity, three fingers raised in a bloc, the thumb and pinkie forming an arched bridge across the open palm, is at the center of the most moving scenes in the Young Adult Hunger Games trilogy and the blockbuster tetralogy of movie adaptations that followed (both are now banned in Thailand). In pivotal moments in each film released so far, haggard, weaponless people, dressed and lit like subjects of a Dorothea Lange photo, stand together and raise the salute against armed and vicious power.
The Mockingjay is the nom de guerre of Katniss Everdeen, a child of the coal camps in District 12 of the nation of Panem (as in: panem et circenses), where a decadent and voracious Capitol drains its districts dry and demands their children be served up in televised gladiatorial tribute, the eponymous Hunger Games. In the first book, Katniss volunteers as a tribute to save her little sister, who has been randomly chosen as fodder. She becomes a blood-soaked star by surviving the Games through skill, charisma, and a Romeo-and-Juliet twist in which she and her fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta Mellark, threaten to commit joint suicide rather than fight each other to the death. This act of solidarity shows the people of Panem that they need not be fearful and divided, that they can look out for one another. Trying to break the spirit of resistance she has inspired, the Capitol returns Katniss to a new Hunger Games, and this time she destroys the landscape-scale arena with a lightning-charged arrow. Near death, she is rescued by an austere army of rebels who immediately recruit her as their own Joan of Arc, symbol of a people in open revolt.
To put my cards on the table: when I read one of those Mockingjay scenes aloud (they are good for grownup bedtime, and for long drives), I start crying. I was crying again when I saw them on screen the other night. If I were a student in Thailand, I think to myself, of course that would be my salute. Or in Wenceslas Square in 1989, with Václav Havel. Earlier movements now feel to me inflected by the Mockingjay. Didn’t the Sandinistas use it? (Or was that the Girl Scouts?) Now when I hear “Rebel Waltz”—that Clash song from Sandinista!—I picture the waltzing rebels with three fingers aloft. At the #Ferguson rally last week at Carrboro town hall, I felt certain we’d use it, although we didn’t.
My menagerie of heroic associations is, I’m afraid, in the spirit of what now must be termed the franchise. The Hunger Games is a story about civil war over forms of government and control of the means of production. According to its own dialogue: a battle for democracy, justice, and the fruits of labor. But it also portrays a world in which a serious argument about politics is unimaginable, because politics, although worthy of a war, raises no hard or even interesting questions. It is just possible that this makes The Mockingjay: Part I the political movie for our time.
The solidarity implied by the Mockingjay salute is the emotional and aesthetic key to The Hunger Games, but the series is to solidarity what the first Obama campaign was to movement politics: the form and the feeling without substance or purpose. Solidarity with whom, for what? Against the horrible, horrible Capitol, and with everyone. The Workers. The prep team (the makeup and costume crew from the Hunger Games, who show their humanity after falling for Katniss). With both of Katniss’s maybe-boyfriends (Peeta and the tall, smoldering miner, Gale) and her sister’s cat, which she gruffly rescues from several tyrannical deaths.
Suzanne Collins’s story almost seems ideologically ambiguous by design. Coal-mining District 12, home to Katniss and her friends, is explicitly identified in the first book as a region that, before whatever disaster brought us to our dystopian setting, was called Appalachia. That is, the rebellion is kindled in the heartland of union militancy, where, in 1921 pro-union miners (like Gale) fought a days-long gun battle against sheriffs’ gangs, Baldwin-Felts detectives, and, briefly, federal troops. Mother Jones was their Mockingjay. Then again, the rebellion also comes from the vitals of the Tea Party: in the 2012 Democratic primary, an incarcerated felon and loon, Keith Judd, beat Barack Obama in ten West Virginia counties, including the coal-country heartland—Logan County, where the 1921 battle happened, and neighboring Mingo County, whose sheriff became a legend for standing with the miners. Keith Judd is white and does not like the Capitol. Neither, these days, do the miners.
Even Katniss’s signature weapon, a bow and arrow, points everywhere and nowhere. Is she Robin Hood, an English longbow-man at Agincourt, a Native American princess, the Roman Diana, or Cupid, the embodiment of erotic love? All and none. She is sui generis—no one else in the movies uses a bow (except Gale, her hunting partner). I suspect the central referent here is an old myth about the American Revolution, that hunting weapons from the woods, plus virtue and style, can knock off an empire. That myth, of course, also got Che Guevara killed in Bolivia and memorialized on a million posters. Katniss doesn’t have to know any of this to put it to use.
So The Hunger Games expresses a kind of polymorphous perversity of solidarity and outrage. You can infuse the evil empire with any identity you want. It is the Capitol, not Capital. Panem’s wicked President Snow may be as white as his namesake, but if you think Barack Obama is an imperial president who despises honest working people and their communities, Katniss can be your Mockingjay.
The Capitol was something of a narrative prop from the start. The first book was published in 2008, late in the initial flood of reality television, and its attention-getting conceit was the Hunger Games themselves—reality TV taken to its gladiatorial, sentimental, bloodletting conclusion. A totalitarian state with a reality-TV-based governance strategy fell into familiar dystopian grooves. (A similar conceit made the Japanese film Battle Royale—about a government-mandated fight to the death among high school classmates—a domestic blockbuster in 2000.) But because Suzanne Collins couldn’t keep sending Katniss into the Arena, lest the The Hunger Games become Rocky with arrows, the struggle against the Capitol became the focus of the story. At the same time, reality TV receded from the national consciousness, and bitter political contests, as yet signifying not so much, came to the fore. Katniss’s surveillance society turned out to look a bit like our surveillance state, and the out-of-nowhere paladin Edward Snowden emerged as a new Katniss opposite a Capitol where Barack Obama had replaced George Bush but the commitment to total monitoring had not receded.
But the series is not built to carry the weight of these themes. The Capitol has nothing to say for itself. No morally plausible person could support the Capitol except out of greed and convenience; it is a congeries of the self-evidently abhorrent. Is Panem Stalin’s enslavement of disfavored subject peoples, Hitler’s enslavement of the Slavs, South Africa’s homeland system, Confederate dreamers’ pan-American slave hemisphere, the factories of southern China, or the West Virginia coalfields under Boston and Philadelphia capital? The question is pedantic. Panem is what was bad in all those bad things. In an emblematic cop-out, Collins also makes the Capitol as baroquely corrupt as a pornographic revolutionary screed against Marie Antoinette. In case continental enslavement and totalitarianism don’t reach you, you’ll soon learn that Hunger Games winners are prostituted for President Snow’s profit, and that Snow himself came to power through poison and deception. Decadence, exploitation, commodification: the enemy is guaranteed to be repugnant, whatever it is that repels you.
The series is seductive because it makes solidarity and grievance so harmonious, so complete in themselves.Tweet
One of the movie’s emotionally effective but intellectually debilitating conceits is that the Capitol is obsessed with Katniss, wants to destroy her family, her familiar woods, and, in the third movie, her relationship, reprogramming one of her maybe-boyfriends, Peeta, into a terminator with Katniss in his crosshairs. Because the Capitol is sadistic at every level, from system to personality, and because everyone is hurt by it, any sense of being wronged is potentially political, and everyone in Panem’s districts is profligately wronged. This ambient moral certainty is the tonal corollary to the movie’s ideological ambiguity, the maybe-socialist, maybe-Tea-Party rallying of Appalachian mining country. The movie joins the contemporary American culture of egalitarian grievance, in which conservatives can launch “ideological diversity” complaints against universities, white people can complain of racism in hiring and the media, and people who (like me) tend to say “Merry Christmas” can work themselves into a preposterous lather around the holidays. In a fantasy where all grievances are valid, and a heartfelt expression of grievance sets politics on fire, there is no room or need for further reflection on history, structure, or the priority of justice and need. There is no need to ask cui bono, since the answer is always the Capitol. This may better fit the reality of more transparently corrupt and autocratic political cultures, and Thailand might be one of those, but for Americans, the series is seductive because it makes solidarity and grievance so harmonious, so complete in themselves.
There isn’t an internet, as such, in Panem, but Panem’s reality TV befalls Katniss in the style of social media. Whatever she does is instantly public, and the question is whether it will resonate or ring false and flat. Much of the plot of the Hunger Games series is driven by the Panem audience’s response to her image, and by the struggle to control it. When Katniss escapes the Arena, the reality TV charnel-house, she moves straight into the arena of rebel propaganda films. The battle scenes in the third movie—and the Mockingjay salute—are in fact intended to be scenes-within-scenes, instigated by the rebels’ agit-prop squads.
Katniss’s indispensable place in an image-making, feelings-grabbing revolution is a little inexplicable. Jennifer Lawrence plays her as sulky, a little skittish, unsmiling, and usually at a loss for words. But of course that is exactly how it feels to be adolescent, especially when everyone is telling you to smile and agree with them about what’s important—winning the Hunger Games, winning the civil war, whatever. You’re caught with your feelings, which not even you understand; they aren’t even the sorts of things one could understand while having them. The wondrous thing that happens to Katniss is that suddenly everyone cares what she feels; they imagine they are feeling it with her—just like the audience in the theater.
But it turns out that the people who say they love you don’t understand you. They just want you to be a certain way. The sadistic spectacle machine of the Capitol gives way to the rebellion, but the rebels don’t get her, either. They, too, need a star for their spectacle machine. Alma Coin, the rebel leader played by Julianne Moore, looks impatient in her negotiations with Katniss, as if she can’t wait to jump into her Range Rover and go meet with the Mockingjay’s Mandarin tutor. Katniss realizes the problem is that she doesn’t get herself yet, and won’t figure herself out as long as she’s loaded down with all these demands. For her, politics is the parent that makes you very, very important but stifles you because it doesn’t understand the most important thing: that you need to be yourself—whatever that turns out to mean.
Adolescents are the utopian blade flashing in dystopian night. Old enough to act in their ruined worlds, too young to be of those worlds, they carry the chance to do things differently. But, identifying with Katniss, I also felt trapped with her. In Panem there is no outside to the manipulation of image, the constant marketing of sentiment. The closest thing we see to a war-room session among the rebels is a focus group with a teched-up whiteboard, in which a few core characters brainstorm about when and how Katniss has moved them, trying to figure out how to reproduce that effect to move the restive country. The answer turns out to be a carefully prepared moment of desperate spontaneity that will release pent-up emotions into violent political action. After a few of those go out to all of Panem, the country rises. The camera catches Katniss singing the bleak lovers’ death-song that her father once taught her, longing and gloomy like the existential gospel of a slowed-down, atheist Stanley Brother, and it becomes every rebel’s Winter Jam. In the next scene, more Dorothea Lange–looking peasants fill the air with Katniss’s song as they march toward a Soviet-looking hydroelectric dam, which they, although otherwise unarmed, destroy with explosives packed into what seem to be wooden coffins. Dozens, maybe hundreds, are gunned down by Capitol Peacekeepers (who resemble slim, insect-like Imperial Storm Troopers from another righteous battle), but they keep coming, singing. Their decisive attack on the Capitol’s infrastructure appears to be spontaneous, an answer to Katniss’s viral recitation.
I don’t mean this as a polemic against YA.Tweet
I keep waiting for the movie to step outside the web of images, to stop asking me to applaud its heroes’ self-marketing, their plot-driving deployment of spectacle as persuasion. But that’s because I’m working off an old idea. I still think this is Brave New World or one of scores of dystopian knock-offs, in which the monitored, supervised, manipulated world has an outside, where the rebels are. Even The Matrix, for all its ontological mind-fucks, had an outside. But there’s no outside here. You are enjoying your manipulation, cheering for the good, but the victory you want is itself a victory of manipulation, the rebels’ finding a better image. It’s no wonder Katniss feels the world won’t let her be. There is no politics in Panem that has respect for the privacy, the inwardness, of anyone there. The ultimate grievance in Panem is that the same system of images that turns your grievances into politics won’t let you go long enough to get your own head and feelings together.
Being a confused kid is, ultimately, the freedom that interests The Hunger Games. Everything else is the squabbling of adults. What the adults turn out to care about, what moves them enough to fight and die, is the spontaneous outbursts of the confused kid at the center of the story. A kiss is more powerful than an empire, even if you don’t know yet whether you like him like him. Although it happens to involve a dystopian revolutionary struggle over control of the media, the state, and the means of production, those are incidental background: The Hunger Games struggles toward being a sentimental education, concerned with trying to feel human in more or less exactly the world where we live.
I don’t mean this as a polemic against YA. My reservations concern the parts of me that respond so wholeheartedly to its overdetermined ambiguities. Of course fantasy, and particularly YA fantasy, is not political theory or movement program; it can only be a sentimental or allegorical education. In this way, it may be preparatory to politics, religion, or some other large system of meaning, but it should not be confused with that system itself. Fantasy is a kind of prolegomena of sensibility and imagination. The landscaping of the mind may be highly intentional, as in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia chronicles, which labors to bury Christian stones in mythic soil, or in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books, which answer Lewis with a humanist mythos of fleeting life, the struggle for self-knowledge, sinless eros, and “only connect.” But successful fantasy is an emotional and allegorical order regardless of whether it aims at anything doctrinal. And so each fantasy diagnoses those who thrill to it.
Whenever The Hunger Games chances on complexity, it jumps back, unnerved. The books make almost no mention of race, thereby presenting Hollywood with interesting casting decisions.1 What has happened is that every black character who gets a name is a stoic, self-sacrificing saint. It’s better than putting them all in overalls as field hands—and many are, the agricultural district being vaguely Alabaman while the fishermen are a touch Irish and the lumberjacks redolent of an enslaved Portland. The people who made this movie aren’t stupid; they are just boring. Because of the very safe way the producers show their racial (and marketing) propriety, only white characters get to be complicated (Katniss), obnoxious (most of the main characters), manipulative (same, especially Philip Seymour Hoffman’s terrific Plutarch Heavensbee, a Capitol turncoat who brings his image-making genius to the rebel side), shallow (Katniss about half the time), or a brilliant and charismatic junkie (Haymitch Abernathy, a former contestant played gleefully by Woody Harrelson).
In the US of A, white privilege means that, for a black life to matter, Michael Brown has to have been a good kid, while luckier kids get to make mistakes, act stupid, risk their lives once or twice, and become doctors and judges. In Panem, white privilege means that characters like Katniss get to be confused kids, complete with the conceit that strongly felt confusion is revolutionary. It would have been more revolutionary, if too prescient to demand, to cast Katniss as a black kid—there are plenty from Appalachian coal country—who could make mistakes, be confused, and not get blown up by Peacekeepers.
The Hunger Games started as a story, like most YA stories, about the failure of the adult world to take young people seriously. It is ending as an oddly flat yet unsettling political fantasy that suggests how easy it is to take politics seriously in all the wrong ways, as a side effect of taking oneself very seriously and others not at all.
Correction: This sentence originally read “The books make no mention of race, thereby presenting Hollywood with interesting casting decisions.” ↩