Editor’s note: The fourth film in the Hunger Games franchise—based on the second half of the trilogy’s final volume—will be released this Friday, starring Jennifer Lawrence in the role of Katniss, whose experiences in the previous films have marked her for life. Now a symbol of the Revolution, she has to navigate tricky relationships with power and her future.
To discuss the series’ themes before the final film is released, we’ve called in three fans: Morgan Lee, an assistant editor at Christianity Today, and D.L. Mayfield and Matthew Loftus, both regular contributors to CT. In the chat transcript that follows (lightly edited for clarity), the three discuss the book’s themes of power and violence and wonder if anyone is really redeemed.
Important Disclaimer: No one in this chat has seen the latest movie but everyone has read Mockingjay, the book on which it’s based—and spoilers abound.
Who Holds the Power?
Morgan: When the third movie concludes, who would you say—among the Capitol, Coin, Katniss, Plutarch, and the other victors in District 13—holds the power? How do they conceive of each other's power? And which of those actors has the most effective "theory of change" in your opinion?
Matthew: The Capitol clearly still has a lot of power, mostly in terms of military strength and control of information—at the end of the movie, for example, they let the rebel hovercraft escape so they can send Peeta, their weapon, into District 13. But District 13 and Coin have some unique forms of power that they can use unconventionally and asymmetrically—Beetee's technical wizardry and Katniss's stardom mixed with sympathetic anger—to move the needle against the Capitol. Katniss has power that they use, but she doesn't exercise very much agency over it in this movie, or in any of the other movies so far.
Navigating District 13
Morgan: From the perspective of the Capitol, one important thing that makes District 13 powerful is how opaque its "moral" code is. District 13 already assumes that the Capitol comes from a corrupt and depraved worldview. But it’s unclear if the Capitol knows the limits of District 13’s morality. When District 13 bombs civilians at the end of Mockingjay, it catches the Capitol off guard and arguably wins them the war.
Matthew, what did you think of Katniss's insistence on saving Peeta? To what extent did that really undermine D13's power?
Matthew: It felt like Katniss wanted to save Peeta out of guilt (or at least she wanted District 13 to feel guilty for not rescuing him.) Reckoning with guilt—which is half of Katniss' intolerable inner monologue throughout the book—is not really a good way to run a war. So that certainly undermined their power.
D.L.: I am a big fan of the way the earlier books/movies had such a great way of subverting power—Rue being the one to spark so much of the revolt by her death, for instance—and these later plot points focus so much on military power that it loses a lot of steam for me. It's boring. Also, I think we are supposed to feel powerless with Katniss, even as she is the desired symbol of the revolution. Is that how we who are even vaguely aware of the inequalities of our world supposed to feel? Like there’s nothing we can do to bring about change?
Matthew: I think that powerlessness is part of what Suzanne Collins wants us to feel. That and the fact that as District 13 gets more power, they get less morally stringent because they are close enough to "winning" that they don't need to advertise their moral superiority to the Capitol.
D.L.: But was District 13 ever that morally superior? It seems like in the end they both make it clear that they are okay with violence (and also using the games to further their agendas).
Matthew: That's a question I think the book answers very poorly, if at all, since we don't actually ever find out how they ran their society compared to the Capitol. They did pretend to be morally superior, and Katniss's choice to side with them and share her power with them by acting as their mouthpiece allowed them to win the war.
Morgan: The fact that Hunger Games is told in the first person is another reason it’s difficult to gauge District 13’s morality.
Matthew: Sure, and the fact that Katniss only ever acts to ensure the safety of the people she loves and never even thinks in terms of categories of greater good or moral agency shows what a lackluster heroine she is.
Morgan: We do know that District 13 is obsessed with control. They micromanage the people that live there—and it’s unclear to what end that is.
Matthew: Agreed, and I think we’re supposed to see that their micromanagement is a response to trauma and scarcity. Katniss and her friends/family are also driven by trauma and scarcity—but she obviously responds differently.
Can Violence Do Anything?
Morgan: Let's discuss the violence of the series. At the end of Mockingjay, what does Collins suggest about the efficacy of violence?
D.L.: I always read the books to be about the myth of redemptive violence (which is why Peeta, who refuses to do violence, is the real hero). Katniss becomes the symbol of how violence impacts us for ill, even when we are trying to do it for good reasons (like how she votes to continue the Hunger Games under District 13!).
Matthew: I’ve heard it suggested that Katniss has a hidden meaning in her vote that only Haymitch understands. And I don't understand that.
D.L.: I took it to mean that violence had changed her so that she was basically just like Snow/Coin, good intentions be darned.
D.L: But I know you will probably disagree with me :)
Morgan: I always believed her vote was false signaling to Coin. Katniss makes it clear throughout the book how dehumanizing she believed the games were. But she’d already challenged Coin so many times, she didn’t want to continue raising a red flag by breaking with her. In regards to Haymitch understanding—it seemed like it was just continuing the theme that she and Haymitch are almost always aligned when it comes to strategy. (Remember when he starts sending her stuff during the first Hunger Games?) I also saw it as a sign that they have rehabilitated their relationship of sorts; she felt he betrayed her after Peeta got captured by the Capitol.
D.L.: Interesting. But don't we see other negatives in regards to the all-around use of violence? Katniss's emotional state at the end of the books, for instance.
Morgan: Agreed. Also, if Liam Hemsworth could actually act, I think we would feel sadness about watching Gale become consumed by violence and watching how socially estranged his character becomes. My only rebuttal to the redemptive violence claims is that the Capitol is overthrown by violent means (although the spark—Katniss's Hunger Games strategy—was not.)
D.L.: Haha, great point about Hemsworth.
Matthew: Maybe Collins meant to make it ambiguous, but it feels like she dodges the question of redemptive violence when Katniss and Peeta get to be happy together at the end and we don't find out what happened to everyone else.
D.L.: Like a good millennial, I inherently distrust District 13 and Coin, and interpret the ending of the books to show the flaws inherent in even the "virtuous" side. But sadly, there is little prophetic imagination to be shown (beyond Peeta's determination to preserve the inherent dignity of life and his commitment to art and beauty even when literally facing death!). So it is hard to think of how these books fit into a Christian worldview, except to put a glaring spotlight on the sins of inequality and the limits of violence as a solution.
Matthew: I agree wholeheartedly. Collins doesn't argue for anything and doesn't answer any of the questions she raises. Katniss never changes or grows as a person. We also don't really get to see Peeta's growth except for the real/not real game.
Showing Prophetic Imagination
Morgan: One question I'm wrestling with: How do you argue against the myth of redemptive violence and also show prophetic imagination in the lives of your characters which have been upended by this myth?
Matthew: Well, The Hunger Games doesn’t do this at all, but there’s a great alternative! The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson is hands-down the best treatment of this I've seen in the last ten years.
The characters in Wingfeather go through traumatic experiences and see how insufficient violence is for really establish justice, but they also recognize that you have to build a way to reconcile between the oppressor and oppressed. And that reconciliation comes with even greater sacrifices.
D.L.: I love that! I actually found Katniss's emotional turmoil and distress at the end of the last book enlightening because it showed what a temporal, hollow thing victory is without reconciliation. Maybe that was the point?
Morgan: To be honest, the concept of reconciliation seems odd here. Besides her father, Katniss seems estranged and at odds with institutions throughout the entire book. Further, the universe she inhabits at the end is completely devoid of those structures (at least how she experiences it.)
Matthew: Right, she was a pawn of these other powers throughout and then she just took all her marbles home. The End. Boooorrrring if you care about character development or love or justice.
Fighting For Greater Good
Morgan: What should we make of series’ cynical nature towards authority?
Matthew: I think what D.L. mentioned about lack of prophetic imagination earlier was really important. The series doesn't seem to want to answer the question of how to fight for what you believe in or how to use power for the greater good—or even if you can use power for a greater good. Katniss's way is to do whatever it takes to save yourself and your family. I'm sure the Capitol burned all copies of Andy Crouch's Playing God when they took over, but District 13 should have read it.
Morgan: Matthew, your comments just reminded me of something. One of the tensions in my favorite YA dystopian series, Chaos Walking, is whether it's appropriate to make large-scale decisions based on a narrow group of people (that you love) or if you should make them based on behalf of the greater good. Hunger Games seems to suggest the futility of the latter type of thinking through Prim’s death: even if we do things on behalf of people we love, we may be unable to save them and our actions done on behalf of them may have terrible unintended consequences.
This type of thinking also stifles Katniss. She is on the defensive throughout the series and does see herself as capable of ushering in something new, different, larger than herself.
Matthew: Yes, like a lot of people who have suffered trauma, Katniss freezes up or lashes out when things get tough. That theme—how trauma shapes us—is probably the theme that the series best expresses. Prim's death really does seem to cement a sense of fatalism, but then somehow she manages to have some sort of happy ending. I wish we had gotten to see how she healed and learned to make a new life for herself after all she and Peeta have been through.
Bread and Circuses
D.L.: You guys are so smart! I feel like I don't have anything to add except that Romantic Me loved that Katniss got to have a sort-of happy ending (or at least a semblance of acceptance of her new reality) with Peeta and Feminist Me was displeased with how it seemed at odds with her character.
Matthew: Romantic Me was disappointed that we didn't get to see their romance unfold at the end (there were some great scenes during their Capitol mission but nothing thereafter!) and Chauvinist Me is very disappointed that they never jumped into battle against the mutts, Katniss with her bow and Peeta with a battleaxe.
Morgan: Aw guys, were we all Team Peeta? The movie makes her choice such a foregone conclusion of Hemsworth’s inability to do more than stand around looking beautiful. I was actually much more divided in the books.
Matthew: Yeah, I was more torn in Catching Fire— book and film. I read the book a week ago and now I can't remember whether Gale lived or died. Is that terrible? Also, the movie and book needed way more Finnick. It's a shame he has more character development than Gale.
D.L.: Yeah I like Finnick because it is clear that he distrusts all authority, but he does use power and powerful people to his own advantage (with flair). Even though I might not agree with his methods.
Morgan: All right: last question. What is the legacy of the Hunger Games series? Are they a blip in the world of entertainment? Or did they leave any social impact behind?
Matthew: From my perspective, I don't think there's going to be much of a legacy. I'm sure there will probably be some ripoffs and it'll inspire some young writers, but the books just weren't well-written enough to really be the incisive critique of media culture they were intended to be and the movies don't seem to have aroused too much interest.
For example, one of the key turning points in Mockingjay is when the Capitol bombs a hospital. The U.S. literally just bombed a Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) hospital in Afghanistan and our allies just did the same in Yemen and that hasn’t slowed down anyone’s bread or circuses here.
Morgan: Crazy connection considering that twice, medical personnel are bombed (the first time by the Capitol and the second time by District 13) and these are supposed to be the most morally egregious actions of both sides. Wow at Collins’s parallels between the Capitol and the West.
D.L.: Oh my gosh, what a terrifying connection, Matthew! Honestly, I am in the camp that thinks the books did make a cultural impact—I think many young folks (and others) began to see some uneasy similarities between the Capitol and the U.S., and I think it at least made people more aware of the cycles of commodifying people to the point where the coliseum in Rome happened, and can easily happen again here. The movies just from a visceral standpoint do make it a bit more complicated, since at that point we are paying money to see representations of children hunting and killing each other for entertainment (which makes us Panem), but there is a lingering horror which is missing from most action/violent movies. I appreciate how horrible the Hunger Games movies makes me feel, and how I have to confront it. I hope it does the same for many others. I hope it shakes us out of a place of apathy.
As a Christian, both the books and the movies are just a starting point, and should never be viewed as having a perfect "message.” It is pretty secular in its lack of reconciliation.
Matthew: I'll believe that the Hunger Games series has made an impact on our culture when the leading candidate for President isn’t a warmongering statist who does cutesy interviews with Lena Dunham. Or a warmongering statist in general, really.
I’m kind of an idealist about art; I would like to believe that good art doesn’t have to send a message, but it does move people to think differently and act differently. The Hunger Games takes on some really important themes like you mention, but it doesn’t seem to be resonating among young people in a way that’s influencing how they would vote—all of the leading candidates in both primaries are committed to perpetuating war abroad and few people who voted for Barack Obama have shown an interest in holding him accountable for his wars. I don’t think voting is the be-all end-all of civic engagement, but at the very least we can maybe start talking about restraint. We Americans do have the power to not be like or become the Capitol, but we’re not using it.
D.L.: Oh, Matthew.
Morgan: I keep thinking of the quote, “Art is not a mirror to reflect reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” I’d like to think that my consumption of the series didn’t just stop with analyzing the series for hours upon end. But I guess that’s up to me. At any rate, there’s an amusement park now, so at least someone’s doing something!
D .L. Mayfield is a big fan of the first two books, and so far has been pleasantly surprised by the movies. She writes about poverty, inequality, and hospitality for various publications, including Christianity Today. Find her on Twitter here.
After Catching Fire’s release, Morgan Lee critiqued the film for more than 10 hours for her lucky friends. (Also, see this text message log.) She has a friend from high school flying out specifically to watch Mockingjay Part 2 with her. She is assistant editor at Christianity Today. Follow her on Twitter
Matthew Loftus thinks that each Hunger Games movie so far has been superior to its respective book. He is a Christianity Today columnist and family physician who is preparing to move with his family to practice and teach at a hospital in South Sudan which he hopes will not ever be bombed. Follow him on Twitter