If you’ve got a pulse I hope you went to go see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire this week. If not, bookmark this page, run to your nearest theatre, and read this in three hours.
Part of the reason that the Hunger Games series has resonated so well with teens and adults alike is because of the fantastic layered storytelling in the books and movies, so layered that it is easy to miss some of the fantastic themes that are woven into the main story. Here are 4 themes you might have missed when watching The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Warning, spoilers below!
1. Identity versus Anonymity
One thing you’ll notice while watching Catching Fire is the use of identity. All of the characters we are rooting for are developed, realized people. The faces of Katniss and Peeta occupy the majority of the running time of the movie. The enemies, however, are often faceless. The Storm-Trooper style Peace Keepers, instruments of the corrupt government, are masked and fully costumed.
The enemy Tributes within the arena are mostly spectres of fear, only showing their faces a few small times during training and in the ring. Most of the Tributes who die in the ring never actually appear for more than a second on screen, either in their rushed death or in their portrait in the sky at the end of the day.
The biggest villain of the series, President Snow, has a face, but he spends the majority of his time without directly interacting with the protagonists or even the people of Panem, having only one conversation with Katniss at the start of the film and spending most of his time in the movie monitoring the state of the nation far removed from the action on screens.
Even the media personalities, somewhat benevolent but employed by the government, toe the line by never actually saying anything of substance.
What the film is showing us here is the importance of identity and responsibility. The Peace Keepers and President Snow all have the luxury of not having their identities directly associated with the atrocities they are committing. You might recall that ‘just following orders’ was the excuse of many Nazis in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
Katniss and her friends are celebrities; on tours, interviews, and constantly on camera. As three dimensional people in the eyes of the people of Panem they are tasked with the responsibility of doing the right thing. We can see that through her personification of good Katniss inspires others throughout Panem who would otherwise be faceless members of the crowd to follow her in her individuality, identity, and rebellion.
2. Haymitch and the others behind the rebellion aren’t necessarily good guys
Like most teen-lit, the source material for this movie wasn’t just meant to tell a good sci-fi story (and it does) but to also allegorize the teenage experience. If we can forget for a moment that Katniss was thrown into the ring to fight for her life (a great, albeit hyperbolic, allegory for the shift into adulthood) some of the other things going on in her life include her interactions with damaged people who seek to use her for their own gain.
All of the adults in the film are deeply flawed. Katniss’ mother is emotionally weak, Plutarch has worked for the corrupt government, Effie is materialistic, and Haymitch is an alcoholic, and the latter three are instrumental in securing Katniss’ survival throughout the games in order to use her as the symbol of a rebellion against the government.
Throughout the first film, and more so in the second film, there is a sense that all the characters know something is wrong with the way they are living. While scooping snow to cover Gale’s wounds she tells her sister that “no one should have to live like this.” Unfortunately for Katniss she is spotted by those a generation or two older than her as the perfect utensil to spark a rebellion against the state, denying her the simplicity she craves.
While their intentions are good for everyone, they are in essence doing to Katniss the same thing President Snow did with her inclusion in the games and subsequent media tours. His goal is to use her and the other tributes to command fear, respect, and to distract people from the problems of Panem. Those planning the rebellion (for much of the film completely without her knowledge) have the goal of using her as an image of hope and to alert the people of Panem of the coming clash against the government.
The takeaway is that in both cases she is being used, and even though it is for the greater good, it doesn’t necessarily make them good people.
3. The importance of media and image (and how they are
We already covered the importance of identity, but another aspect of self that is explored throughout the film is image. Katniss herself is a symbol of rebellion for the people of Panem after she defied the government and saved both herself and Peeta from imminent death. She uses symbols, like her mockingjay pin or the three finger salute, to spread the message of hope.
Meanwhile the people of the Capitol seem to be obsessed with their image, men and women both covered in makeup, wigs, extravagant costumes, all projecting their materialism to anyone who sees them.
The state controlled media in Panem which broadcasts the Hunger Games is a tool used by President Snow to project the images and ideas he wants to best control the citizens of the districts. By focusing on things like the silly love story between Katniss and Peeta, their wedding, and other trivial things Snow is trying to use the omnipresence of media to discredit any meaning in their images.
In fact, the one person we see who manages to get past the leash on the media to convey an important message through image is Cinna who hides a giant mockingjay under Katniss’ dress to inspire people watching, and he is taken out by Peace Keepers for what he did.
The reality is that the media spews a lot at us every day that can influence or even change our decisions. We live in a world not totally unlike Panem when it comes to TV, internet, radio, and every other medium through which we are constantly getting updates — and sometimes the image we project can contain a message, whether we are aware of it or not.
4. The difference between childish and adult decisions.
Katniss is involved with two major conflicts throughout the series. The first is her ongoing fight with the government of Panem and to rescue herself from the horrors of the Hunger Games. The second is her battle to reconcile her feelings towards both Gale and Peeta.
It is easy enough to explain away the love triangle as simply par for the course with young adult literature (Twilight, anyone?) but the juxtaposition of her feelings with the backdrop of imminent war is a clever way to show the difference between the difference in childish (or easy) decisions with adult (hard) decisions.
When watching the movie I kept thinking to myself that the Hunger Games was such a silly idea to keep peace. It seems almost inevitable that killing children live on television would result in a rebellion eventually. Katniss is faced with a decision, does she go along with the evil structure put in place, or does she rebel and do what is right? Interestingly enough the author and filmmakers have used the choice that involved murder, evil, corruption, and war to illustrate a simple child-like decision. The contrast between right and wrong is so stark that it would take a true sociopath not to ally with the rebellion.
On the other side we have Katniss, confronted with not one, but two handsome, kind, good men (remember that this is a work of fantasy since most of us have yet to encounter such a fantastic dilemma) to choose from. Both Peeta and Gale have had feelings for Katniss for some time. Gale at first represents reliability and the normal life she is forced out of. Peeta at first represents the strange adventurous life she is embarking on. As time goes on they both start to gain the traits of the other, with Gale joining the rebellion and Peeta making sacrifices and saving her many times, while also bonding of their shared experience. Choosing between these two is not nearly as easy, and her inability to makeup her mind through the course of the movie only hurts both of them.
The takeaway is that growing up isn’t easy, and unfortunately sometimes that means making decisions where someone is going to get hurt. Adult decisions rarely have one right or wrong answer, the choices are all just shades of grey, and by purposefully making Peeta and Gale likable the filmmakers have done a great job of illustrating just how hard these choices can be.