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.

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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.