I think I bought my first mockingjay about three years ago. I know it was before the third book came out. Sometimes I wear it when I need a little bravery; sometimes when I feel like other people might. And I love voting, I love the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, so I wanted to look my best, the last time I voted, in case the Young Democrats were volunteering again. They are some well-dressed, bright-eyed young people; you want to tell them without telling them that you approve. That you are on their side, even if — by definition — you don’t really care as much as they do.
Point being, I was wearing the mockingjay for several reasons, a couple of years ago, when I went down the street to vote in my precinct office, which is in a portable barracks behind a church now. And when I leaned over the table to sign my name, smiling at the very old and very lovely woman — she checked my ID with her reading glasses, bringing it close to her face — she caught at the thing, dangling from my chest. First with her eyes and then, when I nodded, with her hands. I tensed up a little, because if she asked what the thing was about I had no interest in explaining it or holding up the line, but she just smiled up at me.
“It’s so beautiful! That’s the seventh one I’ve seen today.”
She might even have said ninth, I don’t remember. But — even in my East Austin neighborhood, where stuff like this is less surprising — I was pleasantly startled to learn that at least six, maybe eight, people had put the same thoughts into the same order as I had, that morning. They’d accessorized, they’d politicized, they’d nodded in the mirror and headed out the door: It made sense to them, I’m saying, to wear the mockingjay into the voting booth. That kind of Fawkes-mask, 99%, Yes We Can earnestness that seems like it inevitably blooms in the face of cynicism and stories about dystopia; a family of friends all around you, an invisible network of likeminded individuals you might never meet. It was a great moment.
It’s the kind of story I’d make up, in fact.
I didn’t, but it’s perfect enough that every time I think about it, every time I put on my mockingjay and wear it out into the world, I have to remember if that story really happened. I have to remember the smell of her dress and her elaborate beauty-parlor hairdo, and how they asked me to stop playing with my phone — and how that enraged the Maker Faire anarchist boy I met in line — and then I know that the story is real, once I have enough facts down. That somewhere in my voting district there were six or eight other people, all those years ago, who took their citizenship, their politics, seriously enough to bring even just the humdrum, school-smell experience of voting into a larger myth of power, and revolution.
THE MOVIE ITSELF
Is 2 hours and 22 minutes long, with that oddly cheap-looking FX fire they’re adding to everything now, that makes everything look like a video game. I mean, it’s better than setting the Girl On Fire literally on fire, but also distracting. Wobbling cameras in the first few scenes distract more than they do illustrate. Katniss is perfect, as are Effie and Haymitch; the boys less so, but still quite good. Cato manages, in his few speaking scenes, to create a character every bit as complex as the more tortured Katniss and Haymitch; Effie transcends even the gold in book (she’s my favorite character) to become something every bit as tragic and flawed and manic and scary as Capitol itself.
It’s paced oddly, but in line with the book — the focus, as it should be, is on the styling, the branding, the creation of a narrative which looms larger than reality, the necessity for the competitors to learn doublethink, and get a degree in media studies, and spy on each other, all while practicing the physical arts of war for hours each day. This structure works if you think about it, but for a standard-issue action movie it would be incredibly odd. Like watching Bruce Willis get dressed for an hour and a half, then fight terrorists for twenty minutes. If the movie were about the physical play of the Games, that is.
But of course the Games aren’t really about Seneca Crane’s creations, the tracker jackers and Cornucopia and the rest of it: The real Games start the second the Peacekeepers arrive in your District for the Reaping. There’s only one real Game, and it started 74 years ago and it’s never ended. The real Games are happening all around you and you don’t even know it — try explaining wet to a fish — and that’s where the genius of the film lies.
The books, of course, are Katniss’s story. The movie, of course, cannot solely be that. And while there are a few times the filmmakers avail themselves of this opportunity to reframe or explain moments — Seneca Crane becomes a full-fledged character in the film, through just a few scenes meant for setting up President Snow as the obsessive monster we know him to be — that ordinarily we’d know, being inside her head, there isn’t nearly enough of that in the finished movie. The very few times we leave the action to check in with people back at the Capitol, it seems more intended to remind us they exist than to move the story along.
Which is a lost opportunity, and thus not a huge deal. What becomes a huge deal, though, is the fact that this would have been the only way, really, to explain the relationship between the two District 12 Tributes. What was in the books a three-act story about the ambiguity of love, society’s normalizing pressure to find a romantic partner — Pascal’s Wager, reinterpreted as a meditation on the terrible and terrifying fact that you can never truly know anybody, never 100% nail down whether it’s Real — is treated, in the movie, as a Team Peeta/Team Gale proposition: A shipper love, a love triangle, an unholy third-act mess that removes any sense of irony or performance from Katniss and Peeta’s unbelievably hackneyed and uncharacteristic dialogue, apparently substituting it for crowdpleasing Twu Wuv nonsense.
Of course, I say “apparently” because the movie knows where it’s going, and Haymitch’s involvement in their cynical (or not?) love affair is even more baldly stated than I could have wished, and there are various moments throughout the kids’ post-Games interviews that make it quite clear the relationship is a performance (or is it?), but at least at my showing, this was not at all as clear to the audience as it should have been. A simple scene in which Haymitch drunkenly yells at Effie would have done it. A simple wink or nod to the cameras would have done it. Snow (or Gale) privately accusing the pair of pandering would have done it.
Instead, that part of the story was buried underneath Hutcherson’s earnestly doughy face, which seems incapable of dissembling. When Peeta impresses their team of handlers with his wide-eyed, aw-shucks demeanor, what we seem to be getting is … Hutcherson doing wide-eyed and aw-shucks. When Haymitch and Peeta conspire to win sponsorship through their carefully constructed romantic narrative, subtly pushing Katniss into being an unwilling participant who reacts exactly as she should, what we get is… Hutcherson doing true and eternal love.
I won’t say that he’s bad, or not awesome — he’s awesome, and he’s not bad — but even if this is all conscious choice between the actor and director, leaving those mental doors and windows open for later… Of course that would be brilliant, Peeta’s emotional ambiguity is the only thing in the story quite as complex as Katniss’s own sociopathy, but it shouldn’t feel this possible that they screwed up. It shouldn’t be so easy to jump there, when so very much of the rest of the film is done perfectly.
I can’t think of a way that Jennifer Lawrence could be working harder — with her acting in each and every scene she could easily power the sun — which is why I think it would take away a lot of the pressure, and set up the other three movies easily, to have one character openly and explicitly explain that Katniss is consciously pretending; that she and Peeta are conspirators, performing love (while also possibly being in Real love). It’s not that it’s asking too much of the audience to do that, in fact that part of the story is a prime attractor for a lot of us in the first place, but I can tell you empirically that the way they chose to portray this icky ambiguity does not come across very well.
What does come across without a hitch, every bit as surprisingly, is the nasty artifice of Capitol. It’s one thing to read about — the stylists’ hair and body modifications, the sickening day-glo opulence, the muted slaves, the debased consumption, the androgyne and hermaphrodite of it all — but, to be honest, I was more worried about this part than the Muttations or the flame effects, going in. And yet not a single person in the theatre once laughed at them, at their ridiculous fashion and willful ignorance, the orange lipstick and half-shaven electric blue hair. I think this comes down to a few things: We have been desensitized by wannabes and tryhards (Lady Gaga) and mental patients (Klaus Nomi, Nicki Minaj) to accept bizarre costumery in our entertainment, and even bring it out into the real world.
But more than that, I think it’s Effie. The movie practically begins and turns on her lovely, haggard, terrified, schizoid face. Tight closeups, HD pore-defining closeups, put you so far her makeup and into her ruined heart that, by the time you see her full-body shot she’s neither a clown nor a villain, but something dreadfully strong and eminently pitiable. The cracks in her, seen from that close up, go all the way down — and once you’ve seen that, and dealt with it, and learned to love it and to laugh at it, the gross disposable neon plasticity of Capitol becomes a fact of your life, not a distraction at all.
When asked how one goes about playing somebody as specific, as delirious, as contradictory as Effie Trinket, Elizabeth Banks said the most obvious, the most true, the most brilliant thing: That you have to play her as though she knows everything, is in denial about nothing, and lives her life so terrified for these children that her manic mask is a performance less to calm herself than it is about calming them. That Effie’s intention, in portraying herself as this odd campy quisling of a woman, is to somehow will the children into being stronger, less afraid, less conscious of their fate. That in portraying herself as the shallowest, weakest woman in the world, Effie betrays herself as the most compassionate of all.
Real or not real? She’s the only character I can think of who deserves literally any fate. Anything that might happen to her, by the end of the third book, seems justified: If she were murdered, if she became the next President, if she were muted and forced to serve, tongueless, those whom she’d helped torture. Anything.
In fact much of the brilliance in the film adaptation is centered on Effie. Her chemistry with Haymitch, as the dysfunctional parents marching their children toward death, is not something that Katniss would have noticed or told us about, in the books. They play their scenes with a palpable attraction and exasperation that humanizes them both. I was never a Haymitch fan, due to his brokenness, but watching Effie watch him — the class-threatening fantasies that flit across her face — brings his strength to the fore. When he finally wakes, activates as mentor and begins to teach the Tributes about the ugly facts of the Games, it’s the emotional arc between them, the sparks, that make it believable.
And, of course, he presages things to come. So much of the first film will be ironic, dreadfully, in hindsight: The way war strips you from the inside, he shows us long before Katniss has reached her limit. His intensity about Katniss’s authenticity problem points the way toward her eventual struggle with becoming the Mockingjay. His willingness to play the Tributes off each other, creating the romance that will define their years in the Games, lies almost dormant beneath the surface of the film, but it does create in him a much more active, caring character than we glimpsed in the books. It’s a strong choice, and a good one.
But there is much more to see, on rewatch. It’s no accident that Gale is a stronger force in the Reaping than even Peeta — whom we don’t even know as anything other than a pouting, terrified boy — because in the end, once Katniss has volunteered as Tribute, only Gale is strong enough to do what must be done. He physically carries Primrose away from the disaster; he saves her from the horror that’s to come. When the movie cycle is complete, three films from now, that image will have become indelible.
KEEP RAGING ON
What has always struck me about the books, in particular as YA stories, is the particular way in which it is so unbearably real. Plenty of us have been exploited by adults, that’s no surprise, and certainly there’s a metaphor to be examined in which war, and the million other outrages perpetrated on children, is a focal point. But for me, the power of the story lies less in the Invisible Children, sweatshop, sexual victimization layer of meaning, and more in the way that real life can be pretty dreadful.
I’ve written elsewhere about bullying and the hothouse hell that high school and middle school can be — it’s a topic I tend to write about a lot, and I always try to mention the Hunger Games books in reference to it because they are such good illustrations of the way bullying really works. If you can see a dynamic as it really is, understand and accept it as reality, you can begin to do your part to change it. And this story tells you those truths about bullying, if you pay attention, and even gets into the real truths behind sexism and religious extremism.
The movie follows these threads incredibly closely, so I’d watch for this, but essentially the idea is that — just as Capitol presses down upon Panem, is an inhuman force that contributes just as much to the forced idiocy of Capitol citizens as it does the poverty of District 12, or the explosive rage of District 11 — bullying is less a person than it is a force, pushing down on everyone equally. The difference between a bully and a victim is the tools they’re given, the privileges, that help them negotiate with this monstrous force. A bully uses whatever he’s got at his disposal to offload that pressure onto weaker people. A misogynist does the same.
When Peeta joins with the Careers, it feels less like a wartime betrayal or self-serving turnabout than it feels like the first time your best friend sat with the popular kids at lunch. Their nastiness — which Cato eventually comprehends, in a radically beautiful last-minute epiphany — is a concentration of the downward gravity of the bullying force as much as it is anything else. In District 12, Peeta’s the richest kid in the poorest town — put him among the Tributes from 1 and 2, and he’s barely hanging on. The movie, by drawing such easy parallels between the physical deaths of the kids and the social deaths we suffer every day, brings a strong YA element to bear that (again) Katniss wouldn’t have noticed for us, because she doesn’t comprehend social dynamics the way everybody else does.
While the natural choice should always be Real over Not Real, it’s Katniss’s triumph and her tragedy that she is Too Real. She must, in some ways, learn to be less Real if she’s going to survive. On the middle school level, she’s going to have to learn to play along with the social games, even though she doesn’t understand or respect them, and that’s the number one way to attract bullies.
But there’s another, scarier premise lurking here, which is that you can use this knowledge as a tool in your own life, as a person subject to that same bullying force. Lawrence does a great job of showing us Katniss’s disgust at the selling out her team wants her to do, and one thing that you learn in high school is that “selling out” is a fraught idea, full of self-sabotage and arrogance. If you worry about selling out, the first thing you have to do is ask yourself who you’re trying to impress, because we’re all making deals, all the time.
The trick Katniss must learn, over all three books, is to stay yourself while playing the game. It’s incredibly difficult for her, because that’s how her character is written, but it’s even more useful for us that she was created that way, because we’re allowed to feel her self-doubt and flip-flopping on this question right along with her. Early in the film it’s Peeta who says he wants to stay true to himself, and Katniss who says she can’t afford to care about things like that, but in the end Peeta plays willingly with the bully force, while Katniss tries and fails, again and again, to lie about who she is and what she wants. And in a story based almost entirely on selling her story for marketing purposes, it’s a constant theme.
In some ways I think it’s a more important, more useful, more present idea than anything about exploiting kids or the horror of war or the controlling secrets of the ways government can misuse media. These are all important, which is why we don’t meet Finnick until later, but as a tool for daily life I think the real strength of the story — and the movie plays with this brilliantly — is to think about it as a metaphor for social life. Not real kids murdering other kids for the entertainment/debasement of their fellow citizens, but metaphorical Mean Girls and Boys perpetrating metaphorical crimes on one another to appease that dark god of bullying. Because once you know what the real enemy is, it’s a lot easier to fight, and the truth is that other people are never your enemy. Other kids, even the crummiest meanest kids, are just trying to escape the awful gravity of that force. Stepping on you when they have to. Killing when necessary, because they don’t see the real enemy either.
Which is the good news, actually, because it means that the war outside our door doesn’t ever need to end, in order for us to find peace. Once you see high school as a puppet show, all of us acting on impulses, shoved together into the arena to fight out forces we don’t even understand, you can see the other puppets as just what they are, which is people. First and foremost, even the largest bastard is a person — but as long as you’re stuck in the idea that he’s your enemy, you’re not going to solve anything.
The truth is that outside our door is not just war, but also peace. What looks like a Cato could turn out to be a Rue. What seems like Peeta turning on you might just be Peeta saving you both. When you think like a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you think like Katniss, almost anything can look like selling out. But the world is a much more beautiful place than that. Even Panem is more beautiful than that. Crazy Katniss, inscrutable Peeta, war-damaged Gale, stupid Effie, drunken Haymitch: All of them are so much larger on the inside than the face we have to look at, because they’re all making deals too.
- The world of Panem is a terrible place, a fantasy of subjugation and terror and forced poverty and false famines, a world where shame and fear are so built into the way things work that even hope can be a weapon.
- The world of Panem is a wonderful place, a mythic trial of fairytale violence that leads to renewal and revolution and all of us, one by one, catching fire.
Both of these things are true. The world of Panem is the world outside your door: Real and Not Real, all at once.
But it’s nothing to be afraid of. The world outside your door contains a lot of jerks and monsters, but not one single enemy. The world was designed that way, to keep you getting smarter and faster and knowing yourself more and more; to give you opportunities for kindness and honor and compassion above all else. Catching Fire means burning off what doesn’t work, knowing your lies for what they are and discarding them — making deals to survive with eyes open, instead of cloaking them in more lies — until all that’s left is the strength and truth of everything you already were.
“It” doesn’t Get Better. You do. So keep raging.
Jacob Clifton writes weekly recaps for shows like ”American Idol,” “Battlestar Galactica,” ”Pretty Little Liars,” “Doctor Who“ and “Gossip Girl” for Bravo’s Television Without Pity. He contributed essays to A Friday Night Lights Companion: Love, Loss, and Football in Dillon, Texas; Fringe Science: Parallel Universes, White Tulips, and Mad Scientists and A Taste of True Blood: The Fangbanger’s Guide. He was recently The Stanford Daily’s weekly pick for the “Stuff We Love.” Follow Jacob on his blog and Twitter.