The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014)

This review contains spoilers of a film currently in theaters

Director: Francis Lawrence

The third film of the Hunger Games series was recently released in theaters and has continued the conversation about the nature of political repression and resistance. Like the previous two films, this story deals with the oppression of the “districts” by the powerful Capitol, which had used a yearly violent “hunger games” event where each district had to pay a “tribute” of two citizens to fight to the death in a battle royale that was broadcast across the country. The previous film ended with a plot by some of the tributes in concert with a resistance movement to destroy the arena during the broadcast of the games. This destruction of the arena launched a revolution throughout the districts against the Capitol and is what sets the stage for this film.

The leader of the revolution gives a speech

The leader of the revolution gives a speech

Mockingjay Part 1 begins shortly after the previous film’s end. Instead of focusing on the larger society of this universe, most of the time we spend in this film is focused on the resistance movement that is leading a revolution against the Capitol, along with the ruins of the districts that the Capitol has violently destroyed. The main character, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) continues her role as the symbol of the resistance as she had in the previous films. The main difference in this film however is that the revolution was actively under way while in the previous film it was merely being anticipated. Katniss continues to be a unwilling hero and is constantly reluctant to help the resistance, often allowing her personal issues to get in the way of her dedication to the broader cause. For example, her partner from the games Peeta Mellark has been taken hostage by the Capitol and is being used to produce propaganda against the revolutionaries. She feels that he is being forced to denounce the revolution, but she becomes more concerned with saving him from his captors than trying to combat the propaganda that the Capitol has put out against the revolution. The revolutionary leaders are eager to have Katniss begin producing propaganda against the Capitol, as she is already a symbol for the revolution. While she does reluctantly agree, she adds the condition that Peeta (and other tributes) be freed and pardoned for their propaganda against the revolution. This decision upsets many of the revolutionaries but the compromise is made.

This personal motivation of hers is often portrayed as being more important to her than fighting the Capitol, until she is later shown first hand the destruction of her home district, which is when she begins to develop an even deeper opposition to the Capitol’s growing war against the districts. Once she begins to see the destructive nature of the Capitol, Katniss eventually comes around to helping the revolutionaries to a greater extent, but her motivation constantly remains highly personal and individualized. The other revolutionaries are sometimes frustrated by her selfishness and the film does a good job at portraying it as a major struggle between her and her comrades, a sort of critique of personal motivation in a time where great discipline is needed. While Katniss does eventually come around to supporting the revolution, her reluctance shows that she needed to learn to subvert her own interests to the interests of the broader movement. Although it is questionable how temporary her devotion is considering that her main goal remains rescuing Peeta.

Katniss speaks with the President of the Capitol

Katniss speaks with the President of the Capitol

The contrast between her personal motivation and the more collective mindset of the revolutionary movement is highlighted by the aesthetic portrayal of the resistance. The conditions that the revolutionaries live in resemble a sort of Ninteen Eighty Four type of society, where everyone wears the same jump suit, a military discipline is required from everyone, and goods and services are scarce. This way of portraying the resistance is an interesting choice that does not come off as a simple critique of their creeping authoritarian tendencies, but rather we are still meant to sympathize with the movement and see the necessity for that kind of discipline considering their conditions. Each film so far has had a different take on Panem (the fictional North American country in which the films take place). The first film focused on the  consumerist and joyous character of the Capitol, the second film had a different take on the Capitol that portrayed it as a Fascist society with military parades inspired by Triumph of the Will, and this film focused instead of the seemingly militaristic society that was attempting to overthrow the Capitol’s rule. While this film does not try to make obvious moralistic statements about how the resistance is structured, there seem to be no implied critiques of how they have conducted themselves up to this point, and their ability to fight the Capitol seems to be justification enough for why they exist in the form they do. The brutality of the Capitol is made clear in all three films, so there is not much room for critiquing the way the revolutionaries have waged their war so far.

The dystopian dining hall of the resistance

The dystopian dining hall of the resistance

The film spent a lot of time dealing with the production of propaganda by the revolutionaries instead of focusing on Hollywood style military battles between the good guys and the bad guys. Both the Capitol and the revolutionary movement focus much of their efforts on trying to win a media war against each other, with Peeta being used by the Capitol to discredit the revolutionaries, and Katniss being used to spread the revolutionary message. Unlike most major films however, propaganda is not seen as an inherently negative or dishonest endeavor but rather just another tool of conflict.

Like the previous films, Mockingjay continues to be a film about revolt and subversion of an oppressive system. It is to a large extent a vague struggle between the “good” heroes and the “evil” oppressors which leaves room for much interpretation. This vagueness will allow commentators from both the Left and the Right to claim it as promoting their message. The way in which the resistance is portrayed and the nature of political propaganda complicate the good/evil dichotomy to an extent and show that struggles against oppression can be complicated even in a world like the one depicted in the Hunger Games.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

This review contains spoilers for a film currently in theaters

Director:  Francis Lawrence

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Katniss travels for her tour of the districts

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the sequel to the film Hunger Games and is the next adaptation of the Suzanne Collins novels of the same name. Like the first film, Catching Fire is primarily about oppression and resistance and ultimately, revolution.

This film picks up where the last left off, the main character Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) is pressured to go on a tour of the entire country to placate the increasing revolutionary feeling of the people outside of the oppressive capital. During her tour it becomes clear to Kaniss that the entire event is an attempt to pacify the population and distract them from their real problems which is most evidenced by her first stop when the high level of security clearly represents the repressive nature of the capital. A sort of public relations struggle between her and the leader of the nation emerges as he puts increased pressure on her to do the will of the central government.

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Riots against the security forces

Eventually, the government announces that there will be a special “hunger games” (the event where each of the “districts” of the government has to contribute one “tribute” in a free for all battle to the death as punishment for a failed rebellion by the districts against the capital some time in the past) that will be comprised of past winners. This move is made to quell the popularity of Katniss and reduce the chances of her popularity as a symbol of resistance.

From this point in the film on, plot twists and developments reveal that a new rebellion by the districts is brewing and that the tributes in the new hunger games are conspiring to foment the uprising. Katniss throughout both films is a sort of reluctant hero of rebellion and remains so until the end of this film where she eventually destroys the very arena where the hunger games are being played in a defiant act which helps to spark a much broader uprising. The film ends with her learning that her home district has been destroyed by the capital and implies that she will seek revenge.

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The dictator gives a speech

One major contrast of this sequel to the first is the use of a more explicitly fascist aesthetic. This comes through most clearly during a scene in the capitol that is reminiscent of the first shots of Rome in the film Gladiator. The first Hunger Games relied on a much more subtle way of showing the repressive nature of the regime of the capitol. Besides the existence of the hunger games themselves which are the most obvious form of oppression, the first film showed the capital’s culture as similar to contemporary capitalism: joyous masses being distracted by superficial pastimes like obsessing over game shows with a very bright fashion sense. This is in contrast to more traditional depictions of authoritarian dystopian futures like in Nineteen Eighty Four where everything is dark and bleak. But in this sequel, we are shown more traditional dystopian aspects of a future society that come through as an anti-fascist commentary.

On top of painting a relatively detailed dystopian world, Catching Fire is also to a limited extent a call to revolution. Besides being a major plot point that is revealed towards the end, in both films the air of discontent by the masses of people is an important part of how the world the films operate. Donald Sutherland even recently went as far as to say the he wanted the film to “stir up a revolution” which goes to show that this interpretation of the film as a call to revolt is not incredibly far fetched.

The Hunger Games (2012)

Spoilers may follow (as this is a current release)

Director: Gary Ross

The "Reaping"

The Hunger Games is a film adaptation of a novel of the same name that takes place in a post-apocalyptic dystopian universe. The premise revolves around a violent competition between various “districts” that had risen up against the Capitol and failed over 70 years prior to the film. Two contestants (one boy and one girl) are chosen from the 12 districts each year to compete to the death in what is called the Hunger Games. The games are a media spectacle that both represent the spectacle of war and TV game shows. This is no coincidence as the author of the books (who also co-wrote the screenplay) even cited the influence of the book as what she saw as the similarities of reality TV and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

The two main characters (Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark) come from what is implied to be Appalachia, and the coal mining roots of their district are made quite evident. Images of the district show that not much has changed for this Appalachian district, poverty is still quite evident and the Capitol’s extracting of two contestants for the games demonstrates their power over the district. Before she knows she will be a competitor in the games, Katniss has a conversation with a friend of hers about the games where he argues that if people “just stopped watching them” that the games would just stop; and Katniss responds by essentially writing off the idea off as naive. This sort of acknowledgement of the naivety of such a statement demonstrates how obvious it should be to us as viewers of the film and to the oppressed districts what the Hunger Games represent: the domination of the districts by the Capitol. Later on and throughout the film, a love interest is developed between Katniss and Peeta. This interest is portrayed as a complex mix of genuine interest and manipulation by the state as a method of controlling the population by giving them a media love interest that they can have hope in. This is a parallel to the “celebrity culture” that is quite prevalent in the United States, whereas in the film, the culture is being intentionally promoted as a means of making the masses passive.

Unfortunately the games themselves, which make up a big part of the film, do not contain as much social commentary as they could have. This is perhaps why Roger Ebert commented that the film “avoids the opportunities sci-fi provides for social criticism.” I think his observation that the film avoids such social commentary may be a bit strong, considering the entire world itself is set up as a critique of imperialism and oppression as well as portraying rebellion and revolt in positive ways (which is hardly a standard plot device for a Hollywood blockbuster these days).

The universe of Hunger Games is a mix of an Orwellian style authoritarian rule over oppressed districts and a depiction of a “decedent” society of wealth and fascination with game show/reality television. The contrast between the bleakness of District 12 and the need for its very existence to be at the service of the wealthy Capitol is perhaps a more honest commentary on a world where mass wealth exist and depend on abject poverty. Thus the very setup of the film is a commentary, although it is certainly lacking in terms of some depth. For example, when a rebellion is depicted in one of the districts during the games: the nature of that district and who are the protagonists of the rebellion are not elaborated.

Katniss Everdeen played by Jennifer Lawrence

Resistance of the oppressed takes various forms in the film. The most obvious being the rebellion that occurs during the games. But perhaps more subtle is the very end where it is announced that one of the “tributes” from District 12 must kill the other. Katniss decides that they ought to both take their lives instead, which would itself be a “final act of resistance” that ends up saving both of their lives. The complex play between their relationship, their resistance to the Capitol, and their origins in what is perhaps one of the more oppressed districts is a nice overview of how complex systems of exploitation and oppression really are.

There remains the question of “is The Hunger Games a left wing film?” Unlike the Cyberpunk Review, this website does not list the “degree” that a film is left wing. Instead films should be viewed for what they “bring to the table” overall. For example, Avatar was an interesting case of what could be considered an anti-imperialist film becoming one of the best selling of all time, yet it had significant problems of how race was depicted. Hunger Games certainly deals with various issues that ought to be of interest to leftists and progressive folks in general. While more obscure films have more room for being more faithful to revolutionary theory and history (and certainly have an important place in film), perhaps there is something more subversive about a blockbuster that deals with the nature of rebellion and control that is quite important as well.