Blog Post

Lukács and the Mockingjay

Archer by Theo van Doesburg (1919). Image courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest {{PD-1923}}.

How important is Katniss Everdeen, really, to the uprising in Panem? Would she count as a “world-historical figure,” according to Georg Lukács?

I don’t really know, because I haven’t read the third book in the “Hunger Games” series, Suzanne Collins’s teen-dystopia trilogy. Every hint and spoiler I’ve heard on the internet leads me to believe it will be “hard” and “violent.” Fans wonder if the violence will even be representable, though I have great faith in Hollywood’s capacity to depict fantasy violence.

Not a mere tactic

Not a mere tactic

But the second movie in the series, Catching Fire (which I will now be SPOILING MASSIVELY), plays some clever tricks with the concept of historical narrative, and with the hackneyed template of individualist Hollywood epic. Our heroine, Katniss, thinks she’s starring in one kind of story, but then finds herself starring in another. (Is genre-mashup the way we imagine revolution nowadays?) The plot of Catching Fire first seems like a tired retread of the first movie (The Hunger Games), except that this time the Games are set up specifically to neutralize Katniss, who became a symbol of forbidden hope after forcing the Gamemakers to change the rules. In the first movie, her televised mourning for fellow tribute Rue (a young African-American girl) set off a wave of public anger—though in the second movie she is mostly too cowed to rebel. Katniss is sent back into the arena as part of a “Quarter Quell,” in which the victors of previous Games are pitted against each other.

When the first movie came out in 2012, everyone found their own allegory in it. Conservatives saw a rebellion by the Real America against out-of-touch Big Government, like the Tea Party. Liberals took it as a fortuitous mirror of 2011′s Occupy Wall Street protests against the capture of democracy by Big Money. For me, the most powerful part of the story was the despair of the young people trapped by rules they didn’t make. Did this reflect the death of the American dream, since young people in “Generation Screwed” have to carry the twin burdens of debt and falling expectations? Or maybe teens just like dystopias because they dramatize the painful individuation of growing up.

Accidental symbol

This is just an accident

Catching Fire throws an interesting kink into the Katniss-as-rebel-heroine narrative. We know that Katniss only wants to survive, and her prime loyalty is to her family. In the first movie, the sacrificial moment in which Katniss volunteered as tribute to save her innocent sister Prim was heroic, but not motivated by any larger political purpose. Katniss brings the same individualist family-first ethos to this movie, but the game has changed: her whole society is now organizing around a more collective strategy. Katniss here is like Rick at the beginning of Casablanca, a lone wolf who tries to avoid getting swept up in the Resistance. She just happened to be wearing a pin with a mockingjay on it during the first Games, and so the mockingjay (a mutant bird with uncanny powers of mimicry) became the symbol for the Rebellion against Panem. Katniss is now a figure of popular identification: even President Snow’s granddaughter copies Katniss’s braids, saying that “everybody” wears their hair this way now. But she just wants to be left alone.

The weight of the past

Defeat with no honor

It’s easy to identify with a figure of vague rebellion, especially a reluctant and ambivalent one. But I felt that Catching Fire was a little more powerful than the usual celebration of “being yourself” you see in American movies. Maybe this time I felt the weight of American history a little more strongly. Didn’t we once have a revolution for real, with our 13 colonies? And didn’t we ruthlessly crush the uprising of the Confederacy, burning a track through a rebel state?  I got the chills from the hollow vision of the Victor’s Village, with its melancholy Federalist/Civil War/New-Deal era furniture. When President Snow corners Katniss in her library, it feels like he’s in a farmhouse in Appomattox.

Or maybe it’s that more than in the first movie, we’re reminded again and again how spectacle—like the one we’re watching—can be used to crush dissent. Bread and circuses! And romantic fantasy—the hope that one crazy couple can get away from it all, like at the end of Blade Runner—is just pulling the wool over your eyes. “Remember who the real enemy is!” Finnick reminds Katniss, just before they destroy the Quarter Quell arena. I gasped in the theater at that line: “the real enemy”?? You mean winning a rigged neoliberal Survivor-like game is not the best we can hope for? Blogger K-punk enthuses that because of this line, Catching Fire is a truly revolutionary work of art, coming at precisely the right moment.

You shouldn't want this to work out.

You shouldn’t want this to work out.

What’s clear is that the Hunger Games doesn’t fit simply into the Twilight template of one girl torn between the two boys she loves (though that plot is also there). Katniss exploited the popular hunger for romance to survive the first Games, and in this film it’s even clearer that the bond between Katniss and poor Peeta (who really does love her!) is the Capitol’s way of diverting attention from real political oppression. But this implies that insofar as we (the pampered spectators) root for Katniss to find love, we’re being lulled into passivity by the culture industry.

The other plot twist that feels politically powerful is the revelation at the end that Katniss (like us) has been in the dark about the whole Quarter Quell. The other victors had already banded together to concoct a plan to destroy the Games as a signal to the Rebellion, but left her out of it—ostensibly because she’s being watched by Snow, but really because she’s too much of a loner. Unlike Rick in Casablanca, Katniss has not yet figured out that there’s a war on, and that she is in it. She’s only an accidental heroine, just as the mockingjay is an accidental symbol. We completely misread her role: she is not in fact (or not yet) the heroine of an epic.

Jeanie Deans's quest to save her sister

Jeanie Deans’s quest to save her sister

Georg Lukács suggested in The Historical Novel* that the best kinds of historical novel—like the ones by Romantic novelist Walter Scott—don’t focus on the great historical actors. They focus on mediocre, marginal figures like the English squire Waverley in Waverley (1814) or the Scottish lass Jeanie Deans in The Heart of Midlothian (1818), who are caught up in larger events. They are forced to reveal their heroism—a heroism latent in all humans—because of the stress of their revolutionary times. But their heroism is intensely context-specific: “Having successfully carried through her aim, Jeanie Deans returns to everyday life, and never again does she experience a similar upsurge in her life to betray the presence of such strengths” (52). The epic, by contrast, focuses on the hero—the king or the warrior—who embodies and maybe transcends historical change. Only in epic is the famous person also the main character of the narrative: “The all-national character of the principal theme of epic … require[s] that the most important person should occupy the central position, while in the historical novel he is necessarily only a minor character” (45). For Lukács, the value of Scott’s novels is to show how history is moved forward unknowingly by large masses of people and not just one or two great men. They’re progressive and implicitly democratic stories, he argues—even if the hero isn’t the one celebrated by history.

So is Katniss the agent of change, or is she just a humble girl (with fantastic archery skills) swept up in a bigger story? Evidence—in this second movie at least—points to the latter. The movie’s last scene, though, depicts Katniss’s face moving from trauma and confusion to anger and resolve, hinting that she’ll take a more active role in events from now on. So probably the third movie will revert to Hollywood archetype and depict a protagonist in more control of her own destiny. If it does, I will feel satisfied—like a Capitol citizen rooting for her favorite—and that will be a little disappointing.

* Georg Lukács, The Historical Novel (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963)

Associate Professor of English, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Eleanor Courtemanche teaches Victorian literature and economic thought at the University of Illinois, with occasional digressions into pop culture and media theory. Her book about Adam Smith's "invisible hand" and the construction of moral outcomes in complex Victorian novels was published in 2011. Here's her faculty webpage: http://www.english.illinois.edu/people/ecourtem.