Monday, November 25, 2013

The Politics Of: Catching Fire (The Hunger Games II)

The second installment of The Hunger Games trilogy Catching Fire is out in theaters. The first part of this is a non-spoiler movie review. The second part assumes you have seen it and discusses the politics!

Click here for our Hunger Games (part 1) review.

Catching Fire
Suzanne Collin's trilogy is set in a dystopian future where the world has collapsed and a single city, Panem, dominates the remaining civilization. Panem's empire is split into 12 districts and, as punishment for their rebellion 75 years ago, a 'reaping' is held each year where a boy and a girl from each district (aged 12-18) is chosen at random to fight to the death in a televised 'Reality TV show' called The Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games terrify and demoralize the colonies (who provide the necessary labor and raw materials for the pampered citizens of the Capital) and bring the ruling class much-adored drama as they believe each of these 'tributes' is actually thrilled to fight 'for the glory of their district.'

In Part II we return to last year's victors (the only time two winners have ever been allowed--due to a clever strategy on he survivor's part and a strategic mistake on the part of the person 'running' the game) Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). They are now celebrities and must go on a victory tour which is supposed to help further repress the districts.

The tour--and especially the two teenager's ad-libbed speech before District 11--has an opposite effect of increasing discontent and President Snow (Donald Sutherland channeling The Crypt Keeper) begins making plans to regain control. This, once again, plunges Katniss into mortal peril at the hands of ruling city.

The second book was a smash hit and, to a degree, is the ultimate sequel. It offered everything the first movie had--but more: A 'bigger' Hunger Games event, more love-triangle with Peeta and the boy left at home, Gale (Liam Hemsworth). It gives us a weirder arena, a cooler outfit to ride in on, a more stunning dress to wear on the Panem-version of the Tonight Show, and so on.

Turning a book, thoughtfully, into a movie is always a difficult endeavor that will never satisfy everyone but Catching Fire is a clever adaptation. Where it makes changes it often does so explicitly to humanize some of the bit characters such as Elizabeth Bank's ephemeral Effie Trinket and, surprisingly--if only to a small degree--President Snow, who is given a granddaughter to dote on. It takes us behind the scenes into new Games Maker Plutarch Heavensbee's game-room (played by a nearly show-stealing and perfectly cast Philip Seymor Hoffman). Lenny Kravits is back as Cinna, and while he gets fewer scenes than he had in the first outing, he shines just as brightly in each of them.

As with the decisions made in the first film (such as the origins of Katinss' iconic Mockingjay pin) the revisions here are those of a craftsman trying to switch mediums rather than a hack trying to shove a book into a film format.

The acting is great (I haven't mentioned Woody Harrelson's electric Haymitch Abernathy who commandeers every scene he's in) and the special effects are gorgeous. The story moves at a brisk pace and while the person I saw it with had some questions at the end (which the book answered) I think it'll work beautifully for those who are new to the material.

Catching Fire is a great follow-up and the next two movies--that's right, they're doing what everyone else is doing and splitting the final book into two films--can only hope to live up to the work to date.

You should go see it.

Let's do the politics.

The Politics of Catching Fire
Maybe Panem Looks Like This?
Or, Could Be, This ...
The politics of the first Hunger Games established the concept of the games themselves that illustrated how the gulf between the ruling class and the ruled created a space for atrocity to flourish. It used 'Reality TV' as the vehicle to give us the dynamic where only one member of the Capital (other than the evil President Snow himself) understood the enormity* of what was actually happening.

That person was Cinna, Katniss' costume designer--he was the only to offer condolences when everyone else from the city of Panem congratulated her. The politics of Catching Fire are the examination of the twin drives that have created the Hunger Games themselves: Terror (for the districts) and Circuses (for the Capital). The book explores how this has created a worst-of-both-worlds solution for President Snow.

Israel vs. Hamas: Twitter War
On November 14, 2012 the Israeli Defense Force tweeted the start of major operations against Hamas. They released a YouTube video of a drone-launched missile destroying the car he was in and a color filtered picture of him with the stamp ELIMINATED across it.
Big Question: Who'll Play Him In The Movie!?
Hamas responded in kind, retorting that Israel had "opened the Hell Gates on itself." This back and forth continued with additional infographics, videos, and 140 character salvos launched at each other in cyberspace. It was dubbed the first-ever Twitter War.

On the whole it was seen as a bad idea. The events were playing out in the world stage and the publicity was not good for either side (Hamas removed a picture of a father weeping over his dead child and a joke account, Hamas Global PR, sprung up to mock Hamas).
Social-Network-War is a tricky business.

It's impossible to know what the IDF was really thinking--but I believe their general goal was very clear: they wanted to drum up support for the operation at home--to project strength (we totally got this guy) and to control the message (we will win). The result, however, was that they made their operation look like, well, a game.

When you are playing to the home-front that's Circuses (in The Hunger Games this is even more literal: Rome's bread and circuses--Panem itself derives from the word for 'Bread' and the reference to 'Hunger' isn't coincidental either). When you are trying to demoralize your enemy that's Terror.

Terror vs. Circuses
The worst-of-both-worlds duality that Catching Fire deals with is the intersection between trying to terrorize part of the populace and trying to entertain the other. Collin's set-up makes it plausible--but, as the IDF found, mixing messages is tricky. It plays out in a few specific ways:
  • The age-range of Tributes maximizes the inter-district tension and simultaneously damages the Capital's justification for the games, giving them the worst-of-both-worlds.
  • The Sporting-Event nature the ruling-class requires undermines the Reality-TV requirement to control the narrative. It's the worst elements of the two media brought together.
  • Panem's position is really weak--so they are required to "show strength." When these two needs conflict (and they do) the result is is damage.
  • The need to make Katniss a celebrity is directly at odds with her position as the icon of the resistance: truly the worst case scenario.
Ages of the Tributes
Putting 12 year old boys and girls in the arena to die horrifies and terrorizes the populace but it won't play to the Capital citizens who need to believe the lie that the tributes are fighting for the glory of their districts. The 18-year-old 'Careers' from the richer sectors actually are fighting for the glory--but this leads to terrible miss-matches which will inevitably damage the process by creating inter-district rivalries which Panem really does not need on one side and puncturing the lie that this is some kind of actual "sporting event" for the ruling class.

This is the worst-of-both worlds.

Real-Time vs. Constructed Narrative
Sporting events have to be broadcast in real-time to maintain the excitement of the event. Reality TV, on the other hand, is carefully edited and manipulated after the fact to create a comprehensible narrative for the viewers. The Hunger Games must have elements of both. The 'Circus' element requires live (or almost-live) viewing but the Terror / propaganda requirement needs a guided narrative. We see this break down catastrophically in the first movie where a real-time decision on the part of the Games Maker lets the 'star-crossed lovers' survive rather than executing them.

I'll note that something that's absent from both the book and the movie is any element of betting. While the Capital might not be too involved in wagering (they seem to watch the games as a soap-opera) you can just about bet people in the districts would be. The "danger factor" they assign each Tribute seems to encourage this (it's appears to facilitate a 'spread' to allow wagers on a less-likely-to-win tribute).

The Capital As Slave Owners
Panem faces the same dilemma that slave-owners have always faced: they are hugely reliant on their subjects while also needing to viciously oppress them. This is, at its base, a weak position--so they are required to appear strong and scary. We see this in the "whipping scene" (which was profitably enhanced from the book. In the book Gale was caught and whipped for illegal hunting. In the movie he is to be beaten for interfering with security forces. In the book he was saved by another Peace Keeper. In the movie, more dramatically, he is saved by the main characters).

The duality of the slave-owner situation is exacerbated when it's put on camera (we, and the rest of the districts, see a few seconds of Katniss intervening) they must choose between executing her for defiance or letting her live as as a super-star. She's the darling of the Capital--they must let her live. She's the symbol of the rebellion: they have to kill her. It's the worst of both worlds.

Martyr vs. Celebrity
This brings us to the real problem: Katniss is simultaneously both martyr and celebrity. Usually martyrs have to die and celebrities need to be alive to continue to inspire. Katniss is sort of Schrödinger's revolutionary as she is condemned to (likely) die while at the same time very much alive and being paraded around on TV giving inspirational speeches.

Worse, she is created with the iconography of a revolutionary. She wears (by accident) the Mockingjay, a symbol of Panem's failure. Her survival after the first games is, itself, an image of martyrdom and defiance--but they didn't get to actually kill her. The term 'martyr' means witness and as she simultaneously fulfills the historical role of dying at the hands of her oppressors, she also literally makes the entire population martyrs as they get to view her execution live on TV.

As a celebrity she is even worse. She must wear a wedding dress--and the Capital loves her for it. She must give moving speeches--but she moves the districts to war as often as the Capital populace to feel. When she appears on their 'Tonight Show' she is forced to be engaging and attractive--in order to survive--but this just does more and more damage.

In my review of the first movie I said that the real revolutionary is her costume designer, Cinna who creates the 'girl-on-fire' image--and that's true in the second as well. His master-stroke comes when she is forced to wear a wedding dress required by President Snow. This is supposed to call attention to her dramatically doomed relationship (she will have to fight her lover, Peeta, to the death in the Quarter-Quell games). Cinna makes modifications to it and, when she turns for the cameras, it burns away into a dark, winged, Mockingjay uniform in front of everyone.

Cinna must have known he would be executed for this (and unless the next movies change things, he was). He must have deemed it was worth it: the iconic image of her in the dress is the ultimate expression of Katniss as a revolutionary celebrity. It is the ultimate 'Circus' play.

President Snow, for his part, has Cinna beaten to death (or nearly so) in the private ante-chamber with Katniss just before she is sent out to die in the games. He's going for maximal terror and he nails it--it's just his bad luck (and Katniss' inner strength) she doesn't collapse on spot.

In the Cinna-Snow showdown each of them excelled in their own domain: Circus vs. Terror. In the media-saturated world of Panem, though, Circus and Cinna win.

I'll close with a note about 'the baby.' When Peeta, lying, says Katniss is pregnant (on the eve of the games) I'm left agog that they would send her to die in the arena. Even in medieval times a condemned woman could "plead her belly" (show she was pregnant) and avoid execution. For the populace to accept her death means they exist nowhere on a historical scale with respect to Western values (she is, rather, seen as a Roman slave wherein killing a child would be deemed acceptable).

Still, they clearly empathize with her. When the characters in the movie say "There's no way they'll go through with this--" and, of course, they do (what choice does Snow have? Apparently they cannot pregnancy test her) it drives the situation to the breaking point.

The world of the Hunger Games is certainly contrived and to an extent you have to squint to imagine it would have survived as long as it did--but it's not without its levels of insight. The scenario is science fiction but the needs of Celebrity for first-world populations and Terror (for repressive regimes) are very, very real. Although they do not exactly mix the way the Hunger Games do today, the movie is a look at how they could.

The politics of revolution have often revolved around martyrs who are used to commemorate (remind the people of the past events and put a face on a larger more sprawling narrative) as well as to motivate them to war. Katniss does both in Catching Fire and does it well. The worst-of-both-worlds construction of the Hunger Games was eventually going to produce someone like Katniss and that's the lesson people bent on using either celebrity or terror should take to heart: even without the specific volatile mixture of the science fiction story, eventually these things get out of your control.

A Note About District 13: The movie leaves out some characters and a scene where people are "running away to District 13." This leaves people who haven't read the book wondering if the end (where the characters are going to D13) is a total disaster for our heroes. It isn't--as it turns out that the 13th "destroyed" district is actually full of revolutionary fighters.

This calls into focus another key element of revolution. Against repressive regimes with heavily armed troops (Syria, as opposed to, say Tunisia) you usually need outside help. In the books this comes from District 13 who has some weapons on par with the Capital and trained troops to use them.

* 'Enormity:' noun. Really, really big.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting comparisons. Seems now, though, that the West as well as the Arab world, or heck, for that matter, the whole world in so far as those with the ability to do anything about it, has decided to keep Assad rather than have a viciously sectarian failed /terrorist state emerge from his fall.
    Tough call really. Humanitarianism screamed for action against Assad early on. Could have worked then. But how could one have balance that against the inevitable hate-accusation of war-mongering, Moslem hating, hegemonic-imperialism?