If You’re Looking For Great Social Commentary, Look At The Hunger Games

Catching Fire
Catching Fire

Note: potential spoilers. 

I made it ten minutes through Hunger Games: Catching Fire — the sequel to the first Hunger Games film — before I started silently sobbing in the movie theater.

All the 13-year-olds sitting around me turned to watch me sniffle at appropriately sad moments but also during perfectly chipper scenes — such as when the heroine Katniss tripped and kissed her comrade-in-arms Peeta on the lips after falling on top of him. Whatever. If Wiz Khalifa claims that the first film was too traumatic for him, I feel okay about my emotional response to the second installment in the trilogy.

Only a handful of things can batter my lump-of-coal heart and make me bawl: ASPCA commercials with cute puppies, pictures of Russell Wilson with a shit-eating grin, and gut-wrenching social commentary. The entire Hunger Games franchise, film or book, is replete with the latter.

When my friend asked me to watch the first Hunger Games film with her last year, I told her that she had a greater chance of convincing me to streak through campus on a given Tuesday morning before class. I’m not usually one for films or novels that fall into the Young Adult genre, so I had never bothered before to explore the series. However, I’d heard about the Katniss-Peeta-Gail love triangle and consequently thought that the series was just a dystopian version of Twilight with less repressed sexuality and more little-kid fighting.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Rife with socially conscious allegories, the series is one of the most important of our generation. Though classified as YA, it is not merely for those who are skating through baby-faced adolescence or, worse, puberty. And it is certainly not for the faint of heart. Wiz Khalifa is hardly dainty, but even he couldn’t take the senseless violence that occurs during the games.

Perhaps in the novels, Suzanne Collins’ writing can’t outrank that of C.S. Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia or even that of J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter. However, the atrocities that the Hunger Games demonstrate — either in screen or text format — can and do teach its young audience (and older audiences) to question the sociocultural issues in their own lives.

That’s what any great literary or cinematic work should seek to accomplish, right?

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First, the series addresses the wealth disparity that exists among citizens in a way that simultaneously parodies this country’s one percent income gap and makes it seem even bleaker. In the Hunger Games universe, there are 12 districts or regions that are formally recognized by the Capitol, which functions as an overarching government. Some areas, such as District 12 (Katniss’ place of origin), are incredibly impoverished. Residents live in clusters of shacks that are reminiscent of the shantytowns that emerged during the Great Depression.

On the other hand, the Capitol is the picture of excess. There, residents walk around in garish gowns and suits. Life seems to revolve around reality television (a means of distraction from dealing with actual social problems) and grand, Gatsby-esque balls. At one such ball, a man introduces Katniss and Peeta to a drink that would induce them to vomit. Katniss and Peeta are so full after a lavish meal that they can’t eat another bite, but this man suggests they’d be able to stuff themselves further if they just employed the ole boot-and-rally technique! The idea of people who have so much food and resource that they just eat recreationally — while residents a few districts over have barely enough to keep themselves nourished — is ludicrous.

Yet, this sadly reflects the current state of affairs in our world. When we realize how ridiculous this imagined discrepancy is in the Hunger Games series, we might stop to wonder if it is similarly ridiculous in the real world. While some dine on round after round of caviar and champagne, others go to sleep hungry — the distance between haves and have-nots is just as great in the real world as it is in the Hunger Games world. Like in the series, this indicates that there is a problem.

The Hunger Games encourage the idea of revolution as a vehicle for change, and the residents of marginalized districts hail Katniss as their martyr after she wins the first round of Hunger Games as a tribute (or fighter) from one of the poorest regions. Given the potential danger for her loved ones and the trauma she suffered after the first games, Katniss does not initially want to take this role. However, her sense of self pales in comparison to her sense of duty; she realizes the power that she has to incite the people to overcome the government’s corrupt policies.

Like Lewis’ Aslan and Rowling’s Harry Potter, Katniss is somewhat of a savior figure — someone who is willing to suffer and potentially die so that she might serve as a symbol of hope for the people and a catalyst for revolution, change, and their betterment. She is the Jean d’Arc of the dystopia in which she lives, the “Mockingjay,” and an antithesis to the fat cats who rule. Katniss accepts this fate (though reluctantly at first), indicating the importance of social responsibility to the folk who read and watch her adventures.

“You matter for something greater than yourself,” her actions in the series tell us. “Do not remain passive when oppression stands around you.”

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What’s more, Collins chooses a heroine, not a hero, for the Hunger Games series — a female protagonist who is perfectly capable of protecting herself and never once serves as a foil for male character development, which is a rarity within the YA film and book genres.

Katniss is no Bella Swan, another popular female character whose life seems to revolve around fawning over her boyfriend. Bella constantly needs saving and the only aspect of her relationship with Edward Cullen where she seems to have any semblance of control is their sex life. How many sexual acts can she perform with him before he flies into a rage, driven mad by the sight of her bare flesh?

As much as I personally love Hermione Granger, Katniss also outshines her. Though Hermione is brilliant, her brilliance and her character functions to help Harry Potter’s character develop. There are moments throughout the Harry Potter series where Hermione shines on her own, but she is ultimately secondary to the man of the hour.

Katniss doesn’t even have a counterpart in the Chronicles of Narnia universe where Lewis eventually excludes the two female protagonists. Lucy Pevensie no longer returns to Narnia because she’s become interested in make-up and dating, as should any girl who ages beyond a certain point apparently. Susie Pevensie falls out of favors with that the powers that are, and because she is “no longer a friend of Narnia,” she also ceases to return.

As a character, Katniss is a strong, powerful woman. She doesn’t falter in the face of death or destruction. She doesn’t play the damsel-in-distress role that so many female protagonists embrace. Though she does rely on others to guide her occasionally, she manages to save herself, her friends, and her loved ones from trouble with only her cunningness and her archery skills as aids.

Katniss kicks ass.

And I, for one, am ready for the next film installment in the Hunger Series. TC mark

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