Teenage Riot

Francis Lawrence, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, 2013, 35 mm and 65 mm, color, sound, 146 minutes. Haymitch Abernathy, Peeta Mellark, and Katniss Everdeen (Woody Harrelson, Josh Hutcherson, and Jennifer Lawrence). Photo: Murray Close.

1. HIGH SCHOOL IS NOT LIKE WAR. College admissions and the job market are not like war. A reality show is not like war, and neither is love. When books and movies made for teens are recast, by critics, as allegories for teenage life, you know it’s the grown-ups who can’t hack the world as it is. What are The Hunger Games books, and now movies, really about? Exactly what it looks like: war.

2. As The Hunger Games (2012) opened in theaters across a post-Occupied, pre–Obama ’12 nation, we wanted to talk its politics. Those to the left saw the systematic impoverishment of the Districts by the Capitol as a punny economic critique. To the right, many saw the dead-same set-up as one of Heartland values and hard-working families vis-à-vis the effete decadence of “liberal elites” or “big government.” But to choose between these sides is to make no decision at all. Today’s government, no matter its size or orientation, is more tightly aligned with the wealthy and the corporate than with any other group in America. As for Panem, the nation-state at stake in The Hunger Games universe, its risible elites could be the fashionably late-capitalist 1 percent or the Kremlinites in Stalin’s Russia.

The achievement of power is to forget where it came from. This is a prerequisite of force.

3. People say The Hunger Games are “hard to read” or, later, “hard to watch.” I feel that’s not the case. Very little is required of you in your seat. You do not have to wonder, for instance, what kind of man would send seventeen-year-olds halfway across the world to kill other seventeen-year-olds for the sole purpose of upholding one nation’s right to be entertained by death on TV.

In cross-purposing entertainment, there can be revolutionary art. There can be art that intends revolution. But there is no art made in revolution that is greater than the art birthed by war. Picasso’s Guernica. Cy Twombly’s Fifty Days at Iliam. Chris Burden’s A Tale of Two Cities. These are the war paintings I love. For paintings of revolution I feel mostly… gratitude.

It seems less that war causes art, and more that art is a justification of war. Museums are fortresses we mourn very hard when they fall. Post–World War II, you may have heard, the CIA loved Abstract Expressionists too.

Francis Lawrence, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, 2013, 35 mm and 65 mm, color, sound, 146 minutes. Caesar Flickerman and Katniss Everdeen (Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Lawrence).

4. Twenty-two veterans commit suicide every day. Those are just the US veterans. In District 12, a few months after they beat the system to become the first joint winners of the seventy-fourth annual Hunger Games, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) find their victory Pyrrhic. They wake with scarifying nightmares. They wake alone.

They’re not the star-crossed lovers they pretended to be—“for the cameras”—in order to win, and in fact they are not even friends. All the same, they will pretend again, because if Katniss can’t convince that kind of man that these two seventeen-year-olds were really madly in love with each other, not just defying the Games, he will kill her to stop the insurrection. Or—worse—he’ll marry her off. Per the new head Gamesmaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in costume as Philip Seymour Hoffman), the Capitol will broadcast every profligate detail of her wedding, her dress, her cake, while in the Districts the black markets are shut down, the floggings are public, the executions are doubled without a cause.

(As if this worked for the State when the cipher was Marie Antoinette.) (Or Kate Middleton, whose wedding to Prince William took place four months before four days of riots tore the edges of London to shreds.)

When President Snow tells her this, Katniss goes: “Why don’t you just kill me now?” And you believe her.

Meanwhile, Peeta gets abreactive with a paintbrush, turning out garish, realist canvases that mercifully appear much less in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the movie (2013), than they do in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the book (2009). Actually seeing war is not so conducive to making art of it.

5. In order to fight, the soldier must be separated from that which he’s fighting for. His family, his country, and his culture become a flickering series of stock photos. This is one difference between war (brothers in arms) and revolution (brothers arm-in-arm). Revolution is impossible where the ethos is “winner take all,” which is another way of saying “winner leave all behind.” In a revolution you are here to make friends.

6. Two things are certain in America: War and sequels.

7. “The progress of the war in the Iliad is simply a continual game of seesaw,” writes Simone Weil in her essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” “The victor of the moment feels himself invincible, even though, only a few hours before, he may have experienced defeat; he forgets to treat victory as a transitory thing.”

While Heavensbee makes the eugenics-y pronouncement that the whole “species” of Victors must be eliminated, Peeta is teaching Katniss to befriend. “You have to know the person,” he tells her. They are on a train speeding through collapse toward the Capitol. Soon they will be called back to the arena, along with eleven other pairs of previous “winners,” for the seventy-fifth annual Hunger Games. For now, still on their victory tour, they see only sparks of revolt: Crowds whistle the song Katniss sang to Prim. Signs burn, becoming symbols. Police redouble. Out the window, a scream of red: THE ODDS ARE NEVER IN OUR FAVOUR. “What’s your favorite color?” Peeta asks. This is how we know the third film will be one of revolution.

8. The signifying difference between The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is that when Katniss steps into the arena for the second time, the film expands to IMAX, filling the corners of the screen. The effect of this precession—from unreality to extra-reality—is swift and irreversible. The jungle gulps you whole. You forget there was ever an outside.

9. Or else you’ve become the outside. It’s so bloody hot. In seconds, each of the Tributes is enveloped in 70-Mpix sweat.

Fredric Jameson, writing on science fiction in his Archaeologies of the Future (2005), says:

Heat is here conveyed as a kind of dissolution of the body into the outside world, a loss of that clean separation from clothes and external objects that gives you your autonomy and allows you to move about freely, a sense of increasing contamination and stickiness in the contact between your physical organism and the surfaces around it, the wet air in which it bathes, the fronds that slap against it. So it is that the jungle itself, with its non- or anti-Wordsworthian nature, is felt to be some immense and alien organism into which our bodies run the risk of being absorbed.

In the jungle of the seventy-fifth annual Hunger Games there is no history. There is no determinism. There is only—as Haymitch tells his protégés—“staying alive.” You want to stay alive in the jungle because you are the most alive, in the sense of being animal, you have ever been. Katniss has been degenerating with trauma for the first 110 minutes of the film. Now she looks incredible. In nature, she is a force.

Francis Lawrence, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, 2013, 35 mm and 65 mm, color, sound, 146 minutes. President Snow and Plutarch Heavensbee (Donald Sutherland and Philip Seymour Hoffman).

10. Only in war and sometimes in fucking can an absence of politics be tolerated. There is no fucking in The Hunger Games.

11. Suzanne Collins does not give many interviews, and when she does, she has the smiling, chin-up demeanor of a media-trained Katniss on tour. Collins reads from the cards. Her inspirations loop: Greek myth; Roman gladiatorial games; “reality television”; her army dad’s stories of the Vietnam War. She is often asked how she can write scenes of such violence between children, and her answers are always humane, reasonable, and short, pacifying the asker.

We want to know that the author condemns her violence. But in The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire both, no blood is willingly shed. The Gamemakers do evil not by endowing children and teenagers with the ability to hurt and to kill, but by stealing from these humans the innate moral ability, and the right, to hurt and to kill for good reason.

Because violence can be angry, it can be righteous. It can be justifiable or not; when used against power, it can be revolutionary. Violence is force with intent. Force is. It just. It is.

“Force in the hands of another exercises over the soul the same tyranny that extreme hunger does; for it possesses, and in perpetuo, the power of life and death,” writes Weil. “Its rule, moreover, is as cold and hard as the rule of inert matter […] The truth is, nobody really possesses it.”

12. There is nothing as amoral as neutrality, except for nature. “Remember,” says Haymitch to Katniss, “who the real enemy is.” Minutes from the movie’s end, she does remember, although she never quite knew, and takes unquivering aim at a force field in the sky.

That the Games are controlled by computers far far away is supposed to make this a futuristic, or speculative, plot. On the ground, however, the combat is still flesh-to-flesh with handheld weapons. This is not much longer the reality of war. Instead, flocks of drones—not good, not bad, not violent—begin to carry out the unequal distribution of terror. The Hunger Games becomes a sweet Baudrillardian nostalgia trip. It succors me to watch it. To think—the stomping boot of history once had a human face.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is now playing in theaters everywhere.