Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games and its sequels are brilliant novels, that became tamed and defanged film adaptations. The Capitol was a truly threatening entity, dulled in order to attain a PG-13 Rating. This isn’t about the muted physical violence, either. It’s because the films do not understand what the Capitol is, what made it such a threat, and why made the novels matter.
You can see the problem when people who only saw the film ask: “Why would The Capitol wrest its denizen’s children and force them to fight to the death before their very eyes? Wouldn’t that spark an uprising? Or at least disseminate dissent? Isn’t it really stupid to arm people who hate you?”
It makes no sense! But here’s the thing: It’s a stupid idea because it was never supposed to be a smart one; it’s a sadistic one. The Capitol isn’t doing this to stamp out dissent, it can do that already. The hunger games exist to send a message and enforce a narrative, just like everything else it does. The message is not to be afraid, is not a reminder of a rebellion long-past, the message is:
“Everything that you produce, and everything you are, belongs to us.”
>>> The Power of Narrative
The Capitol’s extraction of resources from its Districts is as symbolic as it is practical. The Districts exist to serve the Capitol, which owns and feeds off them and takes what it will. When the Districts rose against the Capitol they challenged that system, and the Capitol will never let them forget their place. While the Capitol has the power to shut down small-scale rebellion, Mockingjay makes it clear that a full-scale uprising has the potential to destroy it. That is how it is in our world, and its the basis of Marxist thought. The proles outnumber the bourgeoisie, and once they realize that fact and that they ‘control the means of production’ then revolution is inevitable. The poor and dis-empowered outnumber the wealthy and powerful, that’s a fact regardless of whether you believe in a Marxist’s vision of an ideal society or not.
When you’re outnumbered, the key to power is convincing those below you that revolution is either impossible, laughable, and/ or idiotic (whether Marxist or any other ideological revolution, I simply used Marxism as an example). Panem’s revolution was named “The Dark Days”, and the propaganda film shown before the reaping paints a picture of how Panem is stronger united, and that the Districts must be punished for believing otherwise. Panem works, because the Districts work. Anyone who challenges that risks throwing Panem into another “Dark” time, and darkness is bad (the phoenix-loving woman who would kill for firebending said, in her unbiased sun-worshiping opinion).
That is what’s on the surface, and so the games make little sense. Why not just keep stamping down on the Districts forever? Why not just take 23 children and shoot them once a year? In the film, Snow rationalizes this by saying that people need just a little hope so that they won’t rebel. But… oddly enough the films show how the games make people angry more than hopeful. How the Districts derive hope (is it because they might see a kid get an easy life if they win?) from the games is never clear.
There is a reason why these scenes are not in the novel: It’s not about hope, the Capitol in the novels destroys all hope. It is about maintaining their narrative, and stamping out anyone who challenges or (worse-yet) tries to subvert it. That is the Capitol of the novels, and that is why it is terrifying. The lengths the Capitol goes to in order to control its narrative dictates every action it takes.
>>> The Capitol’s Tools
The narrative at the core of the novel only appears to be in the film. Katniss’ (well, Peeta’s…) survival in the games revolves around convincing the Capitiol’s denizens that they’re in love, and that it’s a terrible thing to force them to fight. The Capitol’s public loves the games like we love games: for the drama. Why else does Caesar and company spend so long talking to and about each individual tribute? Why did Caesar ask those questions about Peeta having a girlfriend? As much as the Capitol loves to watch tributes die, they love seeing one with a story become a victor.
That’s fine, until Katniss and Peeta bank on the star-crossed lovers angle. That’s a problem for the Capitol. Katniss takes their narrative about one tribute rising from poverty to become a victor, and makes it a story of two kids who love each other but must fight to the death, and isn’t that just terrible can’t we do something about that?
While the film portrays an uprising in District 11 that’s somewhat effective, the novels make no mention of it at the time (it’s a first-person POV) and it’s later revealed the uprising was far less effective. Snow’s rule change in the film happens because the Gamemaker and Snow have that talk about giving the Districts a little hope. This is a problem, because it means that the Capitol is genuinely concerned about some pussy (and Katniss) from District 12. The Capitol of the novels, or specifically Snow (who really is in charge of it all), doesn’t fear Katniss and decides to punish her even trying to subvert them.
Katniss attempts to use the games to weave her own narrative, and the Capitol not only shuts it down, but twists it against her. Snow changes the rules knowing that Katniss and Peeta will likely be the two left standing (Katniss even believes this in the novel). Once they are, the change is reverted and Snow has control of the narrative once more. Cato and Clove had a chance, after all. Snow took Katniss’ star-crossed lovers angle and made it about the drama of watching her and Peeta decide (through violence or sacrifice) who lives and who dies. Katniss tried to convince the Capitol that they were forcing star-crossed lovers to fight? Well, now they are: except it’s far more dramatic when it’s the final two, and leaves a different impression because it’ll be Katniss sinking her arrow into Peeta, not some random tribute taking him away from her.
This is what makes the Capitol so effective. It won’t kill you, but twist you against yourself.
You don’t use the Capitol’s tools against them, whether they are metaphoric or literal. In the 50th Hunger Games, Haymitch was eviscerated and on the brink of death. One of the final two, his opponent threw his axe at Haymitch who ducked in time to have the axe ricochet off the forcefield and into the other tribute’s face. Haymitch won, but not in the way Snow wanted him to win. He won on a technicalit, he ‘used’ the forcefield. So Snow killed his family, and his girlfriend. Doing so while knowing Haymitch would likely be District 12’s only victor for some time, so he’ll have the pleasure of coaching children to die in the same games he ‘cheated’ in for decades to come.
Snow’s habit of “don’t fuck with me, or I’ll kill your family” is rather common, and almost kneejerk. Note how he doesn’t kill the victor, he kills their loved ones. Joanna Mason won her hunger games through legitimate (and awesome) means. She’s furious at Snow for putting her through that, but as her family is already gone, she’s somewhat free to rail against him (as she does in Catching Fire). However, she’s out of the spotlight for the most part and is one tribute, and is likely suffering so badly from the games that she just wants to put it all behind her (as many do). The victors are given good food and housing, they are made content, meaning that they’re less likely to fight back either because of that comfort, or crippling PTSD (see: Haymitch’s alcoholism/ coping mechanism. Played for laughs in the film).
Don’t use the Capitol’s narrative, don’t use its tools (or Snow will kill your family). That’s the message to the victors, but they are still only one aspect of Panem society. Because the Capitol’s tools also…
>>> … Include You
“Reaping”: The Capitol descends and takes two children from each District, forcing them to fight to the death for its own amusement. The Capitol owns not only their product, but their lives. If it wanted, the Capitol could take more children, or force the Districts to vote on who’s taken (the Quarter Quells). The Capitol’s denizens delight in this, gossip about it, see the tributes paraded through the streets designed for spectacle and grandeur (see Roman architecture, or Nazi soldiers rallying in massive squares and boulevards). The Districts are forced to watch their children die.
It runs deeper than the games: the Avox are political prisoners who are taken, have their tongues cut out, and their wills broken before being turned into slaves of the Capitol. The Avox are completely absent from the film, at least the concept of one as they’re relegated to set dressing. The novel goes into detail about the Avox, how they’re a slave caste, how you’re never supposed to acknowledge them unless giving a command, how their voice is literally taken away. If you’re watching the film, you could be mistaken for thinking they’re servants who go home at the end of the night.
When you complain about Katniss’ lack of development in the film, it’s because a large part of it was discarded. Lavinia (an Avox) is someone Katniss saw running away from the Capitol in the woods years prior. Both Katniss and Lavinia happened to be with a boy (Gale and an unnamed kid with Lavinia). While Katniss and Gale hide, the boy alongside Lavinia is killed and she’s taken. The next time Katniss sees her she’s an Avox, and Katniss wonders what Lavinia must think of her because she didn’t try to save them. Lavinia is a constant reminder of what Katniss could easily have (and could still) become. I don’t think it’s coincidence they were both with a boy, it only makes Lavinia more of a doppelganger. Lavinia was tortured, enslaved, mutilated, and set to work for the very people she tried to escape. Something she will wake up to every day of her life, until they decide to end it (which they do in Mockingjay, although they wanted it to be a whole lot more painful than it was). Whatever illusion of freedom or rebellion is gone, along with her will, leaving her body at the Capitol’s disposal.
In my mind, I always read “Reaping” as “Raping”, as that’s basically what the Capitol does. It forcibly takes one’s body and uses it for their own pleasure. To be raped is to be told your body no longer belongs to you. Even if you’re not with me on that, there’s a reason why rape is often viewed worse than murder. A murder victim is dead, a rape victim has to live with the aftermath of the act. There’s something deeply disturbing about an entity that won’t kill you (not unless it has to), but will instead take you and twist you and turn you into a device to serve it.
It can also be hot as hell if that’s your fetish. When Lavinia entered the book, I had to set it down for a moment and blow off some steam. There is something so… perversely intimate about having your body twisted and molded into someone else’s desire… Leave the tongue though, it’s useful for more than speech.
Hey speaking rape, let’s talk about forced prostitution! Otherwise known as “You’re never free.” Mockingjay reveals there’s another reason why the tributes are paraded around in front of the wealthy elite of the Capitol, and why those wealthy persons can buy items to help their favourite tribute succeed: Snow sells the victors into sexual servitude. Snow threatens to kill their family (the man has to get off on that, and I really think he does) unless they’re whored out to the wealthy. This is less about making Snow money (of which he has no need) and more about reminding each victor that they will never truly be free. Joanna escapes this (as she has no family to kill), but Finnick was basically bought outright. He was so handsome that he was gifted a weapon (the most expensive item) by the wealthy to ensure the ripped, blonde, chiseled featured teenager would return home so they could fuck him. Panem really is like Rome!
>>> The Mockingjay
No symbol better represents the theme of this trilogy than the one chosen to adorn all book covers and marketing material. The Mockingjay is a cross-breed between a Mockingbird and Jabberjay. The latter is a muttation, a genetically engineered creature that serves the Capitol’s interests. Its purpose was to spy on rebels during the ‘Dark Days’ and report back what they’ve heard, like a parrot. However, the rebels caught onto this and began feeding the Jabberjay’s false information. When the Capitol discovered that, they furiously released all jabberjays into the wild, believing they would die off. The rebels used their tool against them, therefore the jabberjays were released to die. This is because it’s difficult to kill a jabberjay’s family, and as kinky as the Capitol denizens are it’s hard to fuck a bird.
The jabberjays -being birds- already had a natural advantage in fucking one, and bred with mockingbirds to live on as mockingjays. They were a narrative that was used against the Capitol, and instead of dying off like intended, they survived. The mockingjay lived on as a symbol of defiance, they were the narrative that got away. They are an affront to everything the Capitol is.
This is why Katniss does not wear the Mockingjay pin during her crowning in the novel. In the film, Snow mentions (sarcastically perhaps, but quite calmly) “that’s a lovely pin” when he sees Katniss wearing it. It’s lucky the films never explained what a mockingjay is, because if they did Katniss may as well stood on stage and told Snow to go fuck himself. It is a symbol that isn’t treated lightly, and that’s why it matters.
Katniss is The Mockingjay because she is a narrative that defied the Capitol. First with the star-crossed lovers, and then escaping when Snow tried to shut that down, before becoming something new and untamed. A series of events that closely mirror the mockingjay’s origin.
That is why calling her “The Mockingjay” is a rallying cry. Katniss is anathema to Capitol, uncontrollable and a sign of freedom from its bonds.
It is deeply ironic that the films use the Mockingjay on all their promotional material, without caring for the original context. As the Capitol uses its resources for its own means, Lionsgate increasingly uses the Mockingjay to send a message that it never intended. Look at this article’s featured image, how the beak has become straight and pointed instead of weird and gourd-like as a mockingjay looked before. A mockingjay is not a phoenix (as the Mockingjay trailers seem to imply). It is not a symbol of rebirth, but one of defiance. Defiance of the controlled narrative the Capitol is so concerned with, in the novels.
>>> The Capitol Defanged
The Capitol of the novels is not present in the film. The plot points are there, but the narrative is lost. The brutality is there, but none of the violence. While the films still revolve around children killing children, it is for different reasons. The Capitol of the films fears its denizens just enough to give them a sliver of hope, the Capitol of the novels is pure sadism. Hope breeds rebellion, whereas a boot (or scalpel) brings obedience. I joke that Snow likely gets off to the violence he inflicts, but given how he’s the one in charge (and how many actively despise/ try to poison him), it’s pretty likely. The man’s a sociopath. The games don’t exist as a reminder of the Dark Days, so much as they exist to re-enforce the Capitol’s narrative that it owns everything and everyone.
This is why The Hunger Games matters. It’s more than how terrible it is watching kids kill kids, it’s about a regime which views people as tools. Which uses them in order to control them, that will hollow a person out and use the husk. It’s about watching Katniss struggle with the star-crossed lovers narrative, and becoming the Mockingjay: the ultimate symbol of defiance against a regime that won’t kill her, but destroy her. It’s about the people already destroyed, and how easily Katniss could become them.
The novels are about the power of myth, of narrative, of wielding it to become something greater than you are. The films are concerned with tempering the true violence (sexualized, politicized) of the novels in order to attain a PG-13 rating. While the films might be competently made (shaky-cam aside) and acted (I think Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss is quite good, despite her nature charisma which is anathema to the role), they don’t have enough substance to be remembered- to be important. There are glimpses of the true Capitol in those films; Catching Fire made it clear Snow changed the Quarter Quell’s rules/ narrative to force Katniss back into the arena, but it’s too fleeting and too tame- missing the Avox, the reason for Haymitch’s alcoholism … And given the next film is titled Mockingjay, at some point they’re going to have to explain what a mockingjay is. People do not name Katniss after one because it makes a cool whistling noise.
It’s more than that. In having to manage the narrative of her life, she has to realize who she is. What does she want in life? A family? A future past surviving another day? Does she want to fight Snow? Should she be fighting Snow? Oh whose behalf is she fighting? Her only goal at the start was to save her sister. She didn’t want to be the
Savior Mockingjay in the first place! These are questions which come up in a lot of young-adult literature because that struggle for identity, while so many forces try to warp/ twist/ dictate it, is at the heart of that stage in life. I think that’s why it resonates; it’s not only a wonderful story with a truly threatening evil, but one of fighting to find your place in the world.