On November 21, the third film in the Hunger Games series was released. Mockingjay, Part 1 continues the films’ habits of improving upon their earnest, and gratuitously violent Young Adult novel origins. This is thanks to the brilliance of Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, and a general habit of the filmmakers of taking author Suzanne Collins’ story seriously.
The books may be intended for teenagers, but their core contains myriad essential ideas that adults fail to get a handle on. Questions about morality, the state, propaganda, violence, and war are at the heart of this series in a way that feel sophisticated, even when the prose isn’t quite. (And again, the movies are better.)
Dystopias are popular these days in YA fic, in great part because of the series However, The Hunger Games is more than than just a familiar dystopia. Our heroine is Katniss Everdeen, 16 years old. In the first movie, she sacrifices herself for her little sister, and must fight in the eponymous games which are intended as a warning against rebelling. All the tragedies she faces stem from that first act of familial self-sacrifice.
This is a violent, half-starved version of America in which young people are sent as "tribute" every year to the decadent Capitol to fight to the death. Right there in its basic premise you have a condemnation of both war, and reality TV. Violence sensationalized as entertainment. The Games are essential entertainment, yet ignorable by the rich – like all of America’s wars.
The youth being sacrificed for the stability of the older people’s society is a great subject for searing literature such as Wilfred Owen’s poem, "The Parable of the Old Man and the Young" More darkly, it’s a pretty damned literal interpretation of nearly every war in human history. States, or approximations, start wars, and the young fight and die in them.
(And yet, in the second film, Catching Fire, two of the most moving scenes explicitly show the rich, idle, and foolish citizens of the Capitol beginning to realize that their savage entertainment is warped and wrong. They are not let off the hook for reveling in the deaths of teenagers as a TV show, but they’re not all monsters either.)
Fundamentally, Katniss’s conflict through the series is choosing between the two versions of Henry David Thoreau. Between the guy who went to jail (albeit for a day) because he declined to pay a poll tax designed to fund the Mexican-American war being fought by a slaveholding state. And between the Thoreau who got out of jail, went berry picking with some local boys, and looked over the fields and thought "the state was nowhere to be seen." In short, a conflict between a desire to do something about injustice, and the deeper need to be left alone in peace.
Unfortunately, neither of those needs can be met without complication and loss.
The staggering success of Twilight made a love triangle mandatory for all YA fiction. But Katniss’ choice of man is more than choosing between a hunky vampire, or a sexy werewolf as in that series. Katniss has a choice of ideologies in each mate. Gale is the good partisan propelled by fury at the Capitol that starved him and his family, oppressed them, and finally firebombed his District into dust. Not tactic is wrong, if you’re fighting such a vile enemy. On the other hand, Peeta, more prominent in the earlier movies, is there to voice the fear of what fighting a war will do to anyone – even the "good guys."
The rebellion is the good guys in most ways. At least it starts off seeming that way. Certainly, their overthrow of the government is legitimate on many levels. In the second film, Katniss looks around in despair at her home before it is destroyed. It is now overrun with more and more Peacekeeper soldier-cops – it is an occupation. Gale has just been flogged for fighting back, and Katniss asks her sister "how can we live like this – how can anyone live like this?"
Katniss is more or less a pawn even in the fight of the good guys. By Mockingjay, Part 1, she commits to becoming "The Mockingjay" – the symbol of the rebellion – but with great reluctance. She is horrified when she goes back to stand in the ruins of her home which was firebombed by the Capitol, and she delivers a furious speech directed at the President, saying "if we burn, you burn with us." Intended to be inspiring – delivered after a war crime, though one committed by the US in every major war since World War I – it also says the subtext of war. Everybody is going to suffer if we do this.
Mockingjay, Part 1 reminds us – and part two will really make that hurt – of the cost of pursuing that reason to fight, and turning it into a real conflict.
This is not a happy war movie. We see a hospital bombed. We get hints that life as a rebel is also rigid and rule-driven. We see that Katniss is already stricken with PTSD over the murder she has been forced to commit in the Games, and her mental state only gets worse as the war goes on.
This is not even a grim, serious, but eventually triumphant type of movie about the cost of conflict being worth it after struggle. The lingering lesson of this entire series truly seems to be that no matter how noble your cause, war will destroy you beyond repair.
The second movie will pound that in permanently. And the very end of the book series – which seemed to upset many people because of its darkness – offers one other note of caution. After the rebellion is done, handing over that same type of power will only make your new leaders just as vile as the ones you threw out.
Even a just war is immoral, and will kill your soul. Power will not hold itself accountable, and behind its different faces and causes lies a dead-eyed, dreadful sameness. In the world of Mockingjay, revolution may be called for, but at the end of it all, "war is a racket" just the same.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.