Catching Fire (PG-13)

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On the one hand you have Athanasius contra mundum, and on the other hand, Fifty million Elvis fans can’t be wrong. I’ll confess equal sympathies for both dictums. The Truth is a Man, a single Man, and He does not depend on massive crowds to give Him cultural validity. His cult is the genesis of validity. At the same time, while neither Michael Jackson nor Paul McCartney nor JK Rowling ever saw a dove alight over their head whilst the Jordan dripped from their freshly illumined locks, let us also admit that the test of time is a not-too-distant cousin to the test of numbers. There is wisdom in a multitude of counselors and, of late, the council says Suzanne Collins has tapped into something mythic, something true, something veiled and unveiled which we all yearn to hear and marvel over. Millions might be duped, but they are never duped by nothing. Even Dagon worshipped the Ark of the Covenant. At the end of the day, the old demon was on to something.

A billion dollars into the thing, what’s one more deep read to throw on the pile? The thoughtful critic hardly knows whether to address the movies, which excite the same way the first few moments of a power outage do, or the more speculative question of why the movies are so popular. The films, thus far, don’t strike me as standard blockbuster fare; these are stories meant to evoke (in young people) that particular feeling of seeing and reading something timely, perhaps the way Three Days of the Condor struck moviegoers thirty years ago.

The premise of The Hunger Games aspires to political relevance; the plot tries to marry the anxieties of an Orwellian future, where nobody gets what they want, with the anxieties of Huxley’s future, where everybody gets what they want— both of which are conditions conducive to enslavement. In the Orwellian dystopia, the people are desperate to survive and so they do not have time to stage a revolt, and in Huxley’s prophesy, the people are too distracted and benumbed by sensuality to care enough to revolt.

Collins divides the world of haves and have-nots along Orwellian/Huxleyan lines; the have-nots live in the Districts, which look like well-kept Soviet-era villages, and the rich live in the Capital, an opulent, if tasteless, pastiche of Las Vegas and ancient Rome. I have not read the books, but the films never make as though the Capitalists are in on the scam, though at times they seem to perpetrate it. As Capitalist Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Adams) tours the poor districts choosing tributes, she seems genuinely ignorant of the people’s boredom with her gaudy haute couture and ersatz manners. If there’s going to be a Huxleyan show which keeps the imagination of the hoi polloi blown over and beholden, it ain’t working, and it’s curious that the Hunger Games system for distributing wealth has been in place for 75 years. You can’t just show people bread and circus, then demand they sacrifice their children to Moloch to get a better look. The people have to taste that bread and circus, as well, or they’re going to stage a good old-fashioned LA riot to get it.

On the other hand, it is hard to believe that the Orwellian iron fist has been gripping the Districts too tightly; if you’ve driven through Alabama, you’ve seen a dozen tiny busted towns which would trade their one Coke machine and dysfunctional stoplight for the high quality of living enjoyed in District 12. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss doesn’t look like she’s skipped a meal in years; had the producers reduced her to a gaunt Black Swan-era Natalie Portman, the Hunger part of the Games might be more… palatable? Either way, a tyranny either gives the people all they want or nothing; the people cannot be endlessly tempted and survive on hope forever deferred. This side of hell, it’s not going to take Tantalus 75 minutes before he shanks someone and snags that fruit.

Of course, these are all a lot of dull, perfunctory remarks I toss off to get to the real meat of the story. Despite its ambitions, The Hunger Games is not much a political movie, and anyone who takes the film series to task for its economic or political infeasibility has missed the boat. The whole world of the film is scarcely larger than an American high school.

The Capital is stocked with the rich, the beautiful, those who endlessly refine their avant-garde status, those who “received their good things in this life,” as per Christ. The Districts are home to the common, the struggling, the hopeful, the beggars. Though the political aspects of the story are implausible gibberish, even within the world of science-fiction, the audience begins to quickly sense the entirely arbitrary nature of the authority structures which govern the world of the film.

The old pagan sacral system has returned; life and death are of equal value, as one invariably leads to the other and back again. “Fighters killing, fighters killed,” as Homer once glumly described it all. Each District surrenders their young to Baal in sacrifice, and after a lot of pomp and circumstance, Baal randomly transforms one sacrifice into a demi-god and returns it crowned in splendor; winning the Games (an accomplishment which seems no less arbitrary than the system upon which winning is predicated) is to garner lifelong prosperity, celebrity and sundry other aggravating prizes.

So why are the stories so popular? I suspect that around the teenage years, human beings become increasingly aware of the often capricious nature to earthly authority. At fifteen or sixteen, even children who were raised properly begin to identify ways in which their parents dramatically failed to pass on some crucial knowledge or virtue; it is disturbing to begin to edit your parents, to refine the work they have done, and to imagine parental power employed differently when your time comes to wield it. At about seventeen, we look back and find that not all of our teachers cared deeply for us, that some of them were only about a paycheck. How did these people get into these positions of power? Why was there no overseer to put them in their place? The Hunger Games is prime material for the young man who has caught the Ecclesiastes fever and become apt to point out the vapor upon which all earthly authority rests. There is a question the narrative ever wants to tease from the viewer and that is, “Who put you in charge? And who put that person in charge? And what exactly does it mean to be ‘in charge’?” We are given to suspect that few people in charge could really sustain even a brief inquisition into their own power. Such questions are hardly the work of raging hormones; in The Consolation of Philosophy, Lady Philosophy briefly boils all earthly power down to a kind of overwhelmingly dense web of apparently interrelated confidences which finally rest upon nothing more than individual consent and desire. Does an Imperial Wizard of the KKK or an OT VIII level Scientologist have real power, or is it fake and some people just don’t know it? Hard to say, given that most people in the world wouldn’t give up their seat on a bus for even the highest ranking Klansman. At the same time, other people might kill at his behest. In a world which has rejected the divine right of kings and wholly embraced the consent of the governed, power is little more than a social convenience.

Everyone in the Districts is told the yearly sacrifice of their young atones for a sin they committed long ago when they waged civil war against their rulers in the Capital; while no one alive during the narrative took part in that rebellion, they are all responsible for the sins of their fathers and must annually satisfy the gaping maw of their forgetless gods with unblemished victims. When those jaws close, fists unclench and a few fortunate mendicants eat better for the next twelve months. Were I to wager a guess, Suzanne Collins never found the doctrine of penal atonement sufficiently different from various arrangements made between Rome and Jupiter. Or perhaps the doctrine of substitutionary atonement always struck Collins as needlessly dramatic; the grandiose, multi-trillion dollar stage constructed on which the Games play out never seems really justifiable. A game of hot potato played with a live grenade seems a far cheaper and no less dramatic means of killing off the sacrifices, finding the lucky one, and pacifying the Capitalists. They could even play in those pageant dresses they wear when trying to win sponsors.

As Katniss and Peeta are pulled into the Games, there is both a feeling of exhilaration that the plot has insinuated a life and death struggle, but also a sadness that the heroes have capitulated to the inevitable. They will not protest in any daring way, but in some middling, lucky way which allows them to escape the horrific demands made of them. The possibility of willingly dying as opposed to killing an innocent person to save your own skin never so much as glosses a moral conversation in the film.

Far be it from me to argue the standards of “martyrdom” ought to be higher than they are, but before the Roland epic, way back in the Late Antique period, a “martyr” was a person who willingly gave up their life as testimony to a Truth which transcended all earthly reality. Polycarp’s followers might have arranged to spring the great saint from jail while he waited trial, but as he travelled to the site of his execution, he refused them and told them not to “steal the crown of martyrdom” he had earned. A “martyr” ought not be confused with a “patriot,” a person who willingly risks their life for something beyond, something transcendent. The martyr is obviously greater, for he renounces his life, while the patriot risks his life. The martyr does not care if he dies, for he knows he truly lives; the patriot does not want to die, but to live and fight another day. Contemporary Americans have lost any sense of martyrdom, though, because the martyr is irrational, mystical, beholden to the transcendent. The patriot is courageous and just, but these are virtues anyone, Christian or otherwise, might obtain. The martyr is not merely courageous, but hopeful that the injustice of a slow and painful death will be personally satisfied by the King of Glory; the patriot need not hope for any such thing in order to risk his life, though no patriot renounces his life. If a soldier leaps upon a grenade to save the lives of his friends, and that grenade does not go off, the soldier is not disappointed. On the other hand, while yet a boy, Origen’s mother had to hide her son’s clothes from him so he would not run out into the street (naked, immodest), preaching the Gospel and go to join His father to await execution in prison.

I’m hardly the first to point out that the survivalist mentality excited by The Hunger Games is a crudely-stretched cloak for selfishness. If Katniss and Peeta refuse to fight in the Games, I suppose they would be imprisoned, or else killed. Obviously, that’s not a reasonable option, the narrative coaxes us to say. While Katniss does not behave like a rank opportunist once the Games begin, our perspective on the participants in the game is aggravatingly narrow. I felt that even a moment spent within the psyches and private conversations of the other players might have led me to feel reel ambivalence about Katniss winning or losing. If all these kids, both in the first film or the second, are being reduced to killers, it’s not as though I am rooting on anyone from some kind of moral high ground. Survey the participants. Quit gussying up the lead. Jennifer Lawrence is muscular and possesses too strong, impenetrable and inviolate a range of expressions to arouse life-or-death sympathy. She has never died on screen and I don’t suspect she will for a good twenty years, if ever. I would like to see her take a role like the shuddering Marge Sherwood (Gwyneth Paltrow) in The Talented Mr. Ripley, or a broken Eve Harrington, or Ginger McKenna in Casino. Has anyone pitched a more effective weeping fit than this girl did in Silver Linings Playbook? If a Jennifer Lawrence character is going to get anything less than what she wants in a movie, she must be stripped bare and covered in mutant blue paint first.

All the while, Katniss protests she has no idea why people should favor her, and so the story plays into a very common female fantasy of late, that of the normal girl who isn’t actually normal. Twilight created a similarly bland, vapid heroine onto which every reader could project herself. “You don’t know you’re beautiful, that’s what makes you beautiful” sing the One Direction striplings (although half of them went off to date lingerie models); were lately composed teengirl lit Holy Writ, that song would be a hymn. The allegedly normal hero is a spectacular double-cross insofar as marketing is concerned; normal girls come to identify their own normality with the “normality” of the heroine, although that “normality” is no true normality, but “specialty” in the eyes of the special, who see through the bland guise and common façade into the recherché and dazzling person beneath.

While the Capitalists want the Games played down to a single victor, Katniss finds a clever way in the closing moments of The Hunger Games of forcing the gods to choose between two victors or none and they go with the former, Katniss and Peeta Mellark, a local boy from Katniss’ district who has the hots for her, but not enough personality to make us really root for him to win her. The Capitalist media, who all look like Ruby Rod from The Fifth Element, fabricate a love story between them, and so Catching Fire occasionally tinkers away at Katniss wondering if she really can love a boy named “Peeta”, and Peeta wondering if Katniss is only showing him attention to win over Capital TV viewer’s sympathy and an advantage in the Games— in other words, the insecurities of a million daisy-petal plucking girls writ large. We are, after all, discussing a movie wherein one of the more meaningful relationships is shared between the heroine and her personal stylist. It’s a wonder Prince William didn’t ride a unicorn across the screen at some point. Woven throughout the second film are references to the Mockingjay, a quasi-prophesied dynamo who will inspire the districts to revolt again against the Capital. The novels likely divest more meaning into “the Mockingjay”, but the film wavers between making the Mockingjay into Martin Luther, Neo or just some kind of particularly popular Jedi knight. Catching Fire concludes with Katniss tearing back an iron curtain which separates man from god, dying at a tree, ascending cruciform through a broken sky, and being informed in hushed tones that she is the fabled bird with the queer portmanteau for a name; all these events take place in a rapid succession and the film concludes suddenly. Shades of The Truman Show pass as the tyrant commandeering the games sees his plans foiled, the hero escaping out a hole broken through a false reality.

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I imagine the creators of the film want the audience to grapple a bit more deeply with what they conceive to be the moral difficulties the characters are forced into, although classical Christian prejudices have always held that the will is free, and that no one can be forced to do anything they do not want to do. This freedom is simply human agency, human autonomy, whatever that quality is to being human which means being real, yet not being God Himself. Katniss was free to die from the first, as were all the rest, but they agreed to slaughter the innocent. The fact that they wear sad faces while doing so is supposed to be enough that we overlook the heinous nature of what they’re doing, but none of the moral quandaries the heroes faced after begrudgingly consenting to become murderers seemed particularly interesting to me, though.

Like I said, I am running a rather standard Christian complaint against the films on this point, although I wonder if the average churched viewer would know where to begin if this were The Hunger Wars, or if all real objections to murder would simply fall away. American Christians are profoundly unschooled on theories of just war, and scarcely understand what the word “war” even means, it seems we might be willing to accept a more standard, cyclical approach to “war” in order to reign it in. Ours is the nation which schedules revivals of the Holy Spirit months in advance. Why not legal blood baths, as well?

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books, collects records and jogs to work. He and his wife have two children, both of whom have seven names. He tweets at @joshgibbs and blogs for the CiRCE Institute.

2 Responses to Catching Fire

  1. Thanks. This review put two in the head of whatever desire I had to see how the series ends. Superb insights.

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