I think most of us would agree there is no place on this planet that is utopian in the sense of being a perfect society (utopia literally means “no place”). Dystopia, on the other hand, exists to some extent every place. The Hunger Games trilogy is very apt in this sense of the word.
The post-apocalyptic nation of Panem’s bleak, poverty-stricken Districts echo so many other places on Earth today—West Virginia, inner-city Chicago, war-torn Afghanistan, to name just a few. Its beleaguered, starving, overworked, underpaid (or unpaid) citizens are akin to real-world fast-food employees, migrant workers and sweatshop laborers. The privileged citizens of Panem’s Capitol, in contrast, represent the figurative 1 percent—the haves who have so much that little is left for everyone else. They’re so comfortable in their having that they are not cognizant of dystopic Districts outside their utopian bubble—other than in the ways that citizens of those bad places can be exploited for their labor or their entertainment value.
The Hunger Games, saturated as it is with political meaning, (the author admits her inspiration for the trilogy came from flipping channels between reality TV and war footage ) is a welcome change from another recent popular YA series, Twilight. As a further bonus, it has disproven the claim that series with female protagonists can’t have massive cross-gender appeal. With the unstoppable Katniss Everdeen at the helm (played in the films by the jaw-droppingly talented Jennifer Lawrence), perhaps the series will be the start of a new trend: politically themed narratives with rebellious female protagonists who have their sights set on revolution more than love, on cultural change more than the latest sparkling hottie.
The second book in the trilogy, Catching Fire, builds upon the themes initiated in the first book but pushes the themes of performance, corruption, excess and defiance even further. The same is true of the film adaptation. Circulating around notions of the performance of the self—not only the gendered self but also the self as lover, as friend, as enemy—the film also functions as a critique of gender norms, consumer capitalism, staged warfare and patriarchal power.
Gender inversion is plentiful in the film, with Katniss carrying on in her heroic, savior role (typically a spot occupied by males) while Peeta and Gale are more akin to damsels in distress. Peeta (the baker, played by Josh Hutcherson) is saved repeatedly by Katniss (the hunter). Gale (with his “feminine” name, played by Liam Hemsworth) pleadingly asks Katniss, “Do you love me?”—a question usually posed by female characters. Katniss refuses to answer, indicating that the revolutionary times they live in deserve her attention more than romance.
Prim (Willow Shields), Katniss’s younger sister, also comes into her own in this film, telling Katniss, “You don’t have to protect me” and by stepping in to doctor Gale. Various other characters defy gender expectations, from Johanna’s (Jena Malone) wise and witty confidence to Cinna’s (Lenny Kravitz) nurturing and motherly care of Katniss. These non-stereotypically gendered characters highlight gender as performance, nodding to an overarching concern of the series—the ways in which performance can kowtow to social norms—as with the brightly colored hairdos and over-the top outfits of those in the Capitol who happily perform excess. Or, in contrast, how performance can be used strategically as a form of resistance, as when Peeta and Katniss perform the role of young lovers in order to game the system.
Though Katniss is visibly suffering from PTSD from her first round in the Games, she, against her truthful nature, learns she must “play the part” so as to protect those she loves. Near the start of the film, when she emphatically answers “no” when President Snow (Donald Sutherland) asks her if she would prefer a real war to the Games, we, as audience members watching from the safety of our movie theater seats, sympathize with this answer. We, too, would rather watch war from afar, glimpsing it via our flatscreens or play at it via video games that allow us to be virtual soldiers, rather than actually face war’s real pain, loss, destruction and dehumanization.
Alas, by the close of the film, we have changed our perspective along with Katniss, recognizing that revolutionary war may be the only way to bring down the Capitol—that the tributes – people from the Districts forced to play in the life or death Games (or metaphorical soldiers) are mere set pieces in the Capitol’s plan, not the saviors that we and the citizens of Panem need and want them to be.
Will this revolutionary spark take hold, firing up audiences to question the ways in which the film is not so much set in a fictional future as an allegorical present? The excessive performance of consumer capitalism on display in the Capital of Katniss’s world is, sadly, not so far removed from the glut of glitter that adorns our own malls in the run-up to the winter holidays. The purging tonic which allows Capitol citizens to keep eating is not all that different from the reality in which some have far too much food at their disposal and others not even a cupboard in which to store food. The media of Panem is closer still to our reality, brimming as it is with surveillance, over-zealous pundits such as Ceasar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and mediated war that broadcasts just enough fear mixed with the right amount of hope to keep people transfixed and immobilized.
Leave it to Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the deceptively drunken mentor to Katniss and Peeta—functioning much as a Shakespearean fool—to lay bare this performance, telling Katniss “Your job is to be a distraction so people forget the real problems.” This film is itself a distraction, with Hunger Games: Catching Fire paraphernalia already flooding stores and fueling our consumerist desires.
So is this trilogy so different from Twilight and its sparkling vampires? I say it is, not only because it gives us a complex, brave, indefatigable heroine (Katniss is not Bella!) but also because it reminds us that “every revolution begins with a spark.” Perhaps the revolutions it ignites will only be in the ways in which viewers envision acts of heroism, love or forgiveness, but such sparks are important. If we can imagine a world in which men do the baking and women the saving, in which young black girls are mourned by a community rather than shamed and blamed, in which the corruption and privilege embodied in the likes of President Snow are resisted rather than aided and abetted, then we are, if nothing else, adding fuel to the feminist fire.
Natalie Wilson teaches women’s studies and literature at California State University, San Marcos. She is the author of Seduced by Twilight and blogs for Ms., Girl with Pen and Bitch Flicks.