“Mockingjay” shows us a path to reform for America. A great movie, but bad advice.

Summary:  This is the first in a series looking at Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games stories, both the books and films. It provides a richly detailed mirror image in which we can see many aspects of America, things we pretend not to know (or worse, don’t see). Today we’ll begin with the third book (and film) “Mockingjay”. As usual here, we’ll get there by asking a big questions. And spoilers!

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay

“The most heroic word in all languages is REVOLUTION.”
— Eugene V. Debs, “Revolution”, New York Worker, 27 April 1907

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
— Thomas Jefferson in a letter to William Stephens Smith, 13 November 1787

“We must realize that today’s Establishment is the new George III. Whether it will continue to adhere to his tactics, we do not know. If it does, the redress, honored in tradition, is also revolution.”
— William O. Douglas (Assoc Justice of the Supreme Court), Points of Rebellion (1970)

Since I started writing these posts in 2003, a thousand times people have explained that America’s political regime has decayed, become corrupt and oppressive — dying or dead. Each time I ask in reply “what’s the solution”? 99% of the time I receive one of two answers.

(1)  Some form of surrender.  We cannot reform the system. Grow flowers, do small scale local reform, become vegetarians or evangelicals. Dream of the glorious future when the oppressed rise up and build a better world. I’ve heard hundreds of excuses for passivity.

(2)  Revolution. For some this is a version of #1, as they’re not actively working to make a revolution; this diagnosis provides an excuse for inactivity. For others, very rare, it is a statement of allegiance (or treason, if you prefer to see it so; a matter of dates). They’ve not crossed the line in deed, but I can easily imagine them doing so. The difference between this group and those in #1 lies in the people saying it.

People of the first kind are inconsequential. When the time comes they’ll climb on to the reform bandwagon or be ignored. The second kind are more interesting. If serious, they don’t understand the fire they seek to unleash.  The Hunger Games books and films remind us why such people are useful, but problematic if poorly led. {Some are dangerous, as they want to see the world burn}

Revolution, as we see it

We’ve not had a violent revolution in America for 150 years, and only two since Europeans landed on this land. Our political lineage goes back to England, who has had only 3 in over a thousand years. Unlike other peoples, the words means little to us in anything but an academic sense. Hence the reaction to “Mockingjay”, which provides a vivid first-person account of the whirlwind unleashed by civil wars. For people who see wars as victorious crusades against evil, especially the “young adult” target audience of the HG books, it provided a shock greater than the vampire & werewolf battles in the “Twilight” movies.

The books give one shock after another, to Katniss (heroine of The Hunger Games) and to the reader.

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Katniss, played by Jennifer Lawrence
Katniss, played by Jennifer Lawrence

 

Revolution as it is, war among a people

People are the instruments of war, to be used beyond their limits, broken, and replaced. In The Hunger Games series Katniss provides a first-person account — fictional, and so not fashioned to fit on our moral rails — of how one of these tools feels. In Mockingjay she testifies about the selfish desire for survival, the anguish of killing, the horror of treason, and the whirlwind of basic emotions (heightened beyond imagining). It’s a useful substitute for talking with the broken among the veterans returning from our wars.

Her experiences show how the brutality of war erodes away rules, as they did in WW2 (e.g., in 1939 Americans saw bombing cities as a war crime). Seldom do either side have clean hands, from the individual soldier to the rulers at the top. Those cursed with clear vision — or who see the veils ripped to reveal the truth — fight with this painful knowledge. Katniss experiences this on the battlefield — one of the many shocks to her battered spirit.

As the remaining curlicues of steam intertwine with the snow, visibility extends just to the end of my barrel. Peacekeeper, rebel, citizen, who knows? Everything that moves is a target. People shoot reflexively, and I’m no exception. Heart pounding, adrenaline burning through me, everyone is my enemy. … There’s nothing to do but move forward, killing whoever comes into our path. Screaming people, bleeding people, dead people everywhere.

Many critics complain of Katniss’ passivity because, like real soldiers — even heroes — she’s tossed from scene to scene, largely unable to control her fate. She’s a hero not because she survives (a cheapening of the label), but she boldly seizes a few opportunities to change her destiny — and that of her people. These few moments of grandeur make her exceptional. She’s “everyperson”, but few of us get such opportunities; fewer seize the {Personal note: I had one such moment, with people dying outside my door. I have some first aid training, but obeyed orders and let them die).

Mockingjay (the third book and the last two films) also reminds us about the cost of war. Many characters of the series die. Katniss and the other victors are broken, with severe cases of PTSD that only time can cure. Societies pay dearly for war, no matter what they gain from it. Revolutions are guns fired at ourselves, the most severe form of treatment.

Catching Fire
Catching Fire

The larger issues of revolution

In revolution, as in so many aspects of life, we act as parts of large organizations driven by unseen spirits to unknown goals.  They’re often not what we hope to get.

SPOILER:  In a brief and understated scene at the end of Mockingjay, Katniss learns that she didn’t fight for freedom against tyranny, but rather to change Panem’s tyrants. So she strikes a blow for justice by killing President Coin (instead of President Snow), a symbolic but futile gesture. Since only a few understand the reason (and they remain silent), people believe the propaganda that explains this was an act of madness.

Writing for young adults, the author doesn’t show the new regime of Panem installed by the military government of District 13. We can only guess.  It’s a powerful ending, an important ending which I hope readers take to heart.

The Civil War and WW2 were extraordinary crusades against evil, and so distorted our understanding of war. This led to our shallow vision of the world as white hat vs. black hats, resulting in what looks like an endless series of defeats in the more complex wars typical of history. We fought nationalist anti-colonial forces in Vietnam, and involve ourselves in ancient ethnic and sectarian conflicts in the Middle East. We’re like people seeing only black and white navigating a world with all the signals in color. We stumble through, constructing one narrative after another to “explain” things that don’t fit on the rails of our minds. We’ve killed over a million since Korea with little to show for their deaths.

This delusion about the simplicity and efficacy of war might lead American’s to seek reform from violence. Whether anarchic violence on the streets of Ferguson or the more organized violence that so often stained our history.

Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson
Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson

The road described in Mockingjay, not taken in Panem

Peeta is to me one of the most interesting characters of the movie. In propos from the Capitol he says that revolution is not the way, and calls for a cease-fire. Of course, he’s right. There are other paths to reform, even in the comic-book-simple world of Panem — although not obvious to the military leaders of District 13 that run the rebellion. Mass labor action, for example. The Capital cannot destroy their industries and sources of raw materials (where do they get coal after destroying District 12?). That was the path America took during dark times of the Gilded Age, withstanding the State-sanctioned oppression of corporations to bring about the New Deal. The success of our political tradition, going back to Britain, has been to find ways to reform other than killing for it.

Judging from articles about the series, Americans see violence as the only solution for the society of The Hunger Games. (More SPOILERs) Just as they fail to see how often Peeta saves often saves Katniss: burning bread to give to her,  telling the crowd that they’re star-crossed lovers and about their baby. These are acts of the mind. Today we prefer to applaud acts of violence, as we see in our foreign policy and on the streets of our cities. America has become a nation of brawn not brains; not likely a winning strategy in the 21st century.

Next in this series : the Hunger Games shows the revolution in gender roles. It’s quite different than the faux one most people see.

For More Information

(a) See all posts of book and film reviews

(b)  Other reviews of the Hunger Games

  1. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” asks if you want a Revolution, 27 July 2014
  2. An insightful review of “Catching Fire” (if only our spirits were so ignitable), 2 November 2014
  3. How does The Hunger Games compare to other classic stories of children fighting children?, 19 November 2014

(c)  All posts about Reforming America: steps to political change

The trailer for “Mockingjay”

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One thought on ““Mockingjay” shows us a path to reform for America. A great movie, but bad advice.

  1. FM writes: “The Civil War and WW2 were extraordinary crusades against evil, and so distorted our understanding of war. This led to our shallow vision of the world as white hat vs. black hats, resulting in what looks like an endless series of defeats in the more complex wars typical of history. We fought nationalist anti-colonial forces in Vietnam, and involve ourselves in ancient ethnic and sectarian conflicts in the Middle East. We’re like people seeing only black and white navigating a world with all the signals in color. We stumble through, constructing one narrative after another to “explain” things that don’t fit on the rails of our minds. We’ve killed over a million since Korea with little to show for their deaths.”

    This is excellent. So true. Americans remain a privileged and coddled people. Unlike most other nations, we’ve never been surrounded by bloodthirsty neighbors, never been subject to periodic invasions, never watched helplessly as millions of our women and children were slaughtered or tortured by foreign invaders. As a result, Americans think we’re the kings of the universe, specially touched by some deity, simply because 3000 miles of ocean separates us from some of the most aggressive nations on earth.

    Americans have done some impressive things but so have most other nations. The Chinese invented oil drilling, calculus and gunpowder; the French invented algebraic geometry and have by far the most illustrious military record in Europe including saving Western civilization at the Battle of Tours: the Germans created almost all of modern science from quantum mechanics to relativity. And the list goes on. I don’t see any evidence that the American people are exceptional. We’ve done a few impressive things and many foolish or outright evil things, from slaughtering the native American Indians to engaging in pointless foreign wars, to incarcerating more of our own people per capita than the Soviet Union did at the height of its brutality to oppressing workers and shooting them down like dogs (as during the 1895 Pullman Strike) with a savagery unexampled even at the height of the “dark satanic mills” in England. These are not the signs of a great people.

    We can only hope Americans decide not to engage in civil war again, because with modern weaponry it will be horrific beyond imagination. Fuel-air munitions, JDAMs, VFX nerve gas, flechette anti-personnel rounds…we have the technological capability to turn this country into a charnel house even without nuclear weapons. Let’s hope we can work through the current mass insanity of Southern neo-Confederates and Republican lunatics without another revolution. I don’t see any Thomas Jeffersons or James Madisons waiting in the wings to draw up a new constitution after it’s over. Just a bunch of mirror-sunglassed colonels in the Pentagon’s E-Ring who enjoy burning babies with napalm from 30,000 feet.

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