In 2012, after the release of the first Hunger Games film, a disturbing trend emerged: official Hunger Games-themed tie-in merchandise that you could buy to feel more a part of the story, or something. That trend continues with the release of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Witness, for instance, the CoverGirl's "Capitol Collection" of mascaras, lip gloss, and other cosmetics. Or high-end chocolatier Vosges' character-themed chocolate bars (resulting in the unintentionally hilarious consequence of letting you "eat-a Peeta"). Or Subway's "Fiery Footlong" sandwiches, including a sweepstakes in which you can win your own "victory tour."
Or the (let it not be so) rumored theme park, at which children presumably will not be reaped and placed in the arena for a fight to the death to keep the people cowering in fear. Presumably.
I'm not just frustrated, I'm appalled: all this tie-in merchandise declaws the story of The Hunger Games, in much the same way that the actual affluent Capitol in the books declaws the seriousness of the "real" Hunger Games—a forced gladiatorial battle between teenagers—by staging flashy weeks-long television specials around it in order to distract from the horror of juvenile carnage by making it entertaining.
The movies (gratefully) violently counteract any attempt we might make to see them as fun escapism. To see The Hunger Games is not to be entertained. The films' greatest redemptive feature is their pervasive sadness, from the faces of every character to the musical score to the bleak sets. Even during the biggest, most lavish celebrations at the Capitol, we know the ones who are enjoying themselves are being played for vapid fools. Everyone with half a brain is miserable and, increasingly, furious.
Don't see this film without having seen the first Hunger Games film, because it dives right into the story. To recap: when we last left our teenage heroine Katniss Everdeen—she (Jennifer Lawrence, who at this point in her career can do no wrong) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) had managed to outsmart the Capitol and return as victors to District 12, only to discover that life can't, and won't, ever be the same. Even Katniss's relationship with her lifelong best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) has changed.
But at the same time, Katniss has become a symbol of revolt to revolutionaries around the country—the mockingjay, the "girl on fire." When the movie opens, it's a year later, and things are only getting more serious. Katniss and Peeta sense this when they embark on their "Victory Tour," in which they (once again) get dolled up, travel by high-speed train to each of Panem's Districts with coach Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and handler Effie (Elizabeth Banks), act like they're the madly-in-love victors everyone wants to see, and give pre-scripted speeches, all in service of drumming up support and excitement for the next games. (You see why the Subway sweepstakes is so disturbing.)
That's because this next Hunger Games is the 75th, the third "Quarter Quell," which is marked by an extra-special twist in the Games. And with an uprising on his hands, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) decides that the people need to stop feeling the hope Katniss's rebellion has given them. "Fear does not work as long as they have hope," decide Snow and his new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). This Quarter Quell will have a new, more evil twist, as the Capitol narrows their crosshairs on Katniss.
The movie follows in its predecessor's footsteps by taking itself seriously as a film. It shouldn't be surprising to see a YA novel turned into an well-made movie, but it is. So rest assured: everything that was good about Hunger Games remains good in Catching Fire, especially its cast, which continues expanding with some of the finest talent in Hollywood.
These movies and their books are important, and not just because they critique our entertainment-sodden culture. It's easy to see how they take on reality TV, the officially sanctioned Low Hanging Fruit of cultural criticism—but there's something more here. Maybe the most jarring aspect of the story is that, because we see everything through Katniss's eyes, we are only slowly made aware of how little she understands her world. What we want—what we've been trained to want, as an audience—is a young heroine who will save the world with her bravery, boldness, spirit, and purity of heart.
But Panem is not a world in which things like bravery, boldness, and pure hearts really matter all that much. What matters is how you look. Everyone is always watching you in Panem (postmodern theory nerds, note the overt connection between Panem and Foucault's panopticism). The government is watching. Other people are watching. And that's what keeps you in line.
That also means that the closer you get to the center of power, the more people become appearance-focused. Citizens of the Capitol look ridiculous. (In the books, this is even more clear—the outrageous cosmetic surgeries are a little nauseating, though it feels that every week in our world another news story emerges about a new, ridiculous plastic surgery fad.) To them, appearance is life. How they look determines everything about their social standing.
The dome in which the Games take place is really just a microcosm of day-to-day life in Panem, where the goal is survival itself. Competitors in the Games enter the arena—a place in which things like bravery and skill with a bow might matter. But what matters just as much is pleasing the "folks tuning in at home," who are observing all your actions and fears and kisses on their television screens. And if you please them, they might send you a gift of water or medicine or something else you actually need.
The goal in the Games is not just to survive: it's to perform, and to perform better than anyone else so that you survive. That's what traps Katniss and Peeta in the arena, and what they're startled to discover they'll deal with for the rest of their lives, too. We realize at the same time Katniss and Peeta do: "You never get off this train."
But the story's real sadness comes as Katniss slowly, slowly realizes that even her defiant actions have played directly into the hands of those who value her mostly for her symbolic value—for what she appears to stand for. Her bravery and love and skill with the bow is valuable only insofar as it serves their cause. She might as well have been treacherous or clumsy or just plain stupid in real life, for all they care, as long as she can act the part when the cameras are on. The people who are doing the real work will stay off camera and out of sight.
And if she stops performing how they want her to, they'll just find someone else who will.
I think the reason the books resonated so much with teenagers is that they know, all too keenly, the importance of performing—high school often resembling the arena more than we might like. But let's not miss the larger critique: "performing well" is what we demand from our celebrities and political figures (and our celebrity pastors, too). The presidency was irrevocably changed after the first televised debates between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960; how you look is now just about as important to the average person, if not more, than what you actually think or do.
This too often means we devalue actual virtues like bravery and boldness in favor of perceived bravery or boldness, machismo over masculinity and sexiness over femininity, likeability over character. The philosopher Jean Baudrillard critiqued late modernism in 1981, arguing that we'd replaced meaning and reality with signs and symbols, to the extent that symbols have become reality. We slip toward seeing our online representation of ourselves as who we are. Our public figures' public faces become their only face to us. And so we lose our anchor to real, human things like truth and goodness and beauty and faith and love, instead replacing them with things that look good and make us feel good.
The Hunger Games stories are a biting critique and giant flashing warning sign that says that this kind of substitution of appearances for reality puts us on the fast track to tyranny. They draw multiple parallels to the bread-and-circuses culture of Rome at its decadent height; keep the people fed and entertained, and they'll do whatever you want.
Don't forget that Rome won the Punic Wars as a Republic and lost their empire to barbarians as an empire.
So that's what's most disturbing about all this Hunger Games merchandise, the sandwiches and the cosmetics and the theme park (not to mention the lavish premiere party). They're mere symbols of a story that criticizes those who would look to symbols and surfaces to cover over what's really going on beneath.
It's as if the Capitol itself got hold of a story that is designed to make it think twice about itself, and instead hollowed out the middle and stripped it for sellable parts. If you walk out of the theatre feeling uncomfortable, you're always free to reduce the story's meaning to a Subway sandwich. The critique is gone; it's just the stuff that remains.
Here's what's more terrifying. This is the second movie in the franchise, and the second time there's been tie-in merchandise like this, which has emerged to very little criticism. One can only presume it's being sold because it sold so well last time around. Even the forthcoming final film in the trilogy (like Twilight and Harry Potter) is being split into two parts to maximize profits.
They give us what we ask for. Bread and circuses. Chocolate and theme parks.
Remember who the real enemy is.
By nature, these are violent films that also critique violence; in what feels like a rebuke of the films of Quentin Tarantino, who claims to do the same thing, Catching Fire leans toward implying the actual gore as much as possible, instead of showing blood and wounds. But that doesn't lessen the impact. Teenagers and grownups die. People are hunted down and shot. A trusted mentor is beaten before Katniss's eyes. One beloved character is cruelly whipped in the town square and the lashes are visible. Poison causes ugly boils on characters' skin. The profanity is kept to a minimum (basically a few s***s) and in one case bleeped. Characters kiss several times, and Katniss and Peeta share a bed for comfort after the PTSD becomes too much to bear (they don't have sex). One female character strips naked in an elevator, a bit seductively, but all pertinent parts remain out of sight. Haymitch is still a raging alcoholic, and after one particularly bad day Katniss, who is 17, takes a swig, too.
In sum, the film would be good for many parents and teens to watch together, but particularly sensitive people may need to steer clear. That said, this is more or less the Movie Event Of The Year, and Christians especially ought to acquaint themselves with what everyone's talking about, even if they don't see the film themselves.
Alissa Wilkinson is assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City and Christianity Today's chief film critic. She tweets at @alissamarie.