Hunger Games Is the Anti-Star Wars
The two biggest franchises of this holiday season, The Hunger Games and Star Wars, make for twisted reflections.
This article contains major The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 spoilers.
Katniss Everdeen fired her last arrow into cinemas this weekend. And considering the $247 million global box office haul that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 has already earned, chances are you saw the Girl on Fire burn through the money yourself. To Lionsgate, this is an acceptable (if diminished) final bow for the Jennifer Lawrence vehicle, and for audiences it was a bittersweet farewell.
Yet given the serendipitous timing of the film’s release, it also has taken on an unlikely role in pop culture. Indeed, while all holiday moviegoers are still waiting with bated breath for Star Wars: The Force Awakens—despite simultaneously throwing hundreds of millions at the people of Panem—author Suzanne Collins and director Francis Lawrence have offered a sly, unintentional inversion of that generational touchstone. In many ways, The Hunger Games is the Anti-Star Wars.
Now, just to be clear, I am not saying that The Hunger Games is better than Star Wars—well at least not the original films. Only one franchise’s legacy can be credited with heralding our modern blockbuster culture into being. And that franchise in itself can be directly held responsible for a marketplace that makes movies like The Hunger Games possible.
But that kind of mythic cinematic history also makes it worthy of such precise comparison. Both franchises feature rebels and tyrants, heroes and villains, and each have a protagonist at the center of the film that ultimately must defeat the figurehead of an evil empire—which is why their radically different tones and ideas are all the more jarring.
Indeed, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 is exceedingly brutal in its presentation of inch-by-inch urban warfare and ends with a heroine who has lost her sister, her best friend, and in many ways the reason she ever raised a finger to fight in the first place. Another way to say this is that one saga ends with dancing Ewoks and the other ends with a political assassination. Yet, both are meant to be life-affirming stories about good and evil. And their twisted reflections are fascinating to compare.
It Turns Out That Boy Is Not Our Last Hope
The cleverest thing about the entire Hunger Games saga is its prescient and thorough deconstruction of Campbellian archetypes—particularly in regards to the pop culture crutch often referred to as “the Chosen One.”
Most of our mainstream fiction these days, be it Marvel’s endless superhero stable or general YA conceits like Divergent, relies on the familiar trope of a rugged individual who can overcome all odds. They might at first glance reject greatness when it is thrust upon them—Joseph Campbell even insists they must—but eventually they rise up to meet their destiny, be it Bilbo Baggins, Peter Parker, Tris Prior, or Luke Skywalker.
This trope is also now being increasingly heightened with the suggestion that this greatness is singular to a specific Chosen One, as seen in The Matrix Trilogy‘s destiny obsessions. There, Keanu Reeves’ Neo is literally called “the Chosen One,” is given the ability to fly, and scuttles all pretense of subtlety for Christian symbolism when he dies in The Matrix Revolutions in a Christ-like pose to save all of humanity’s souls.
Star Wars is likewise guilty of mining the New Testament for copy and paste allegories. Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker is retroactively predestined to “bring balance to the Force” after tacked on prophecies are revealed in the prequel film The Phantom Menace; he is also second generation divine since that prophetic Chosen One was believed to be his father Anakin Skywalker, who is introduced as a little boy birthed by immaculate conception.
Dear Sweet Baby Jesus, all of this is clumsier than a super-cut of the Jar Jar Binks scenes strung together. In essence, the six thus far released Star Wars films became about a son atoning for the sins of his father, as foretold thousands of years before their births, by getting him to kill an old man in a bathrobe.
The Hunger Games, meanwhile, also has a “Chosen One” in Katniss Everdeen, but this is actually an illusion; Katniss is not “chosen” by God, prophetic fate, or microscopic Force-parasites clinging to her mother’s body. She is simply a girl who, in a desperate moment, saves her sister’s life by volunteering for televised blood sport, which was instituted by her authoritarian government. And she only becomes a leader of rebellion, and later the resistance, because people see in her what they wish; she is a blank slate for both her eventual allies and enemies to project their hopes or animosities onto.
Her nickname throughout the series is “the Mockingjay,” and indeed the last two films are titled that since she becomes the symbol of a successful revolution against tyranny. However, the franchise always makes it abundantly clear that these are optics and straightforward propaganda. Much like the need for feel good human interest stories in our world—be it in reality television (the first two Hunger Games films) or in war (the latter two)—the idea that she is the only person who can unite the districts of dystopian Panem’s residents against the Capitol is a complex case-study in media relations.
She is not Panem’s Death Star-destroying last hope; she is primarily a TV ratings juggernaut with a talent for publicity stunts until the fourth film.
A Period of Civil War
It’s the freedom fighters of District 13 that probably account for the most compelling contrast of these two franchises: both films deal with rebels and empires, and The Hunger Games films are not shy on homaging (or borrowing) from that iconography.
Consider the pristine Empire’s army of Stormtroopers in pearly white armor. While the name of the Capitol’s minions in the Hunger Games films do not feature overt connections to Nazism, these “Peacekeepers” still wear all-white armor and black visors hiding their faces. And like the Stormtroopers, they are beholden to an ironclad dictator of a certain age, be it an intergalactic emperor or a North American president.
Yet, the titular civil war in the original Star Wars trilogy is between good and evil. That distinction is not so clear in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay films. While director Francis Lawrence piles on the visual similarities with the underground District 13 bunker filled with men and women in gray jumpsuits looking suspiciously like the Rebel Alliance’s starship base in Return of the Jedi, particularly with their airfield hangar choices, the rebels in the Hunger Games are not fighting with the Light Side of the Force.
Rather, much like Katniss is no chosen one, District 13 is not a utopia for virtuous partisans. From the beginning, President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) leads District 13 with a veiled sense of paternal menace. She is their military leader, but she views most people around her as tools rather than compatriots in a war of civilizations. Katniss is a useful prop, and Katniss’ family is a means to make sure she stays on script. In fact, the only invaluable peer to Coin is a man named Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who views Coin with a mutually shared weariness—and considering he got to be at her and the heroes’ side by planning the murder of children for the Capitol, such caution is understandable.
They are clearly the underdogs when this war begins, but their actions remain morally ambiguous in a way George Lucas never dreamed of touching. After the Capitol shows a disregard for human life by fire bombing all of District 12—slaughtering thousands of men, women, and children indiscriminately—the District 13 rebels, including supposed heroes like Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), show no compunction about burying a Capitol weapons factory alive under a mountain avalanche. There are probably women and children in that factory, and certainly employees who are essentially slaves of the system, but there is a lack of concern about such fine print details in times of war and fear.
A cynic might suggest this conflict is picking between the lesser of two evils. Yet, the Capitol is clearly a tyrannical nightmare that would line children up for slaughter at the annual Hunger Games events. Sometimes, the “morally” right side can be a little lenient on their morals. Consider in real life after recent and horrifically tragic terrorist attacks in Paris, a U.S. candidate for president suggested that American foreign policy should respond with indiscriminate hellfire attacks, civilians be damned.
For some, violence must be answered with violence, and an eye for an eye.
The Casualties of War
Generally speaking, Star Wars was the kick in the pants that American culture needed in 1977. After a decade of loss and waste in the tragic misadventures of the Vietnam War, not to mention Watergate, the mood was cynical and desperate. It produced one of the best eras ever in American filmmaking, but it was also the darkest and most downbeat. That is until Star Wars changed the paradigm with a rousing “good war” between heroes and villains that was fought with the same sentiments of glory and righteousness not seen since John Wayne traded in a horse for an Iwo Jima helmet (onscreen, anyway).
In the wake of over a decade of Middle East war—which looks unlikely to end any generation soon—the Hunger Games films decidedly avoid that sense of escapism and reassurance. When Katniss finally reaches the frontline in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, it is ugly, it is dirty, and it is ultimately pointless…. at least for her.
The civil war is a constant presence throughout all three of the original Star Wars films, and by the wonderfully complex third act of Return of the Jedi, it is fought in space, on the ground with speeder bikes and an army of teddy bears, and in the righteous face of the evil emperor himself as Luke confronts his malevolence and then defeats it with the power of love.
By comparison, we only see the battlefield from Katniss’ perspective in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, and much like 21st century combat, it is going from one neighborhood to the next with the fear that there is a “Game Maker” trap (or IED) waiting to spring maximum carnage on them. Their enemies are invisible, and their deaths are ignominious. No rebel of consequence died in three Star Wars films, yet fan favorite Finnick dies screaming in agony in a sewer while zombie creatures feast upon his flesh.
And for what? Katniss goes off script and becomes her own genuine leader as the Mockingjay by lying to her squad, and leading an assault on President Snow’s mansion. It would appear the whole film (and third novel) is built on the concept that this will all end when Katniss puts an arrow into Donald Sutherland’s beautifully black heart. And after much suffering, she does indeed reach the gates of his mansion… only to see the war end not with a magnificently exploding Death Star, but in a whimper as President Snow’s Air Force unfathomably turns on his own citizens with bombs disguised to look like aide.
Despite calling all of the refugees displaced by the good guys’ war to come to his home for protection, Snow at first glance would seem to have murdered his own people. This is absurdly illogical since it leads to his own army turning on him and surrendering to the revolution. But in those moments before the bombs go off, Katniss sees the civilians and children displaced by her own righteousness of leading an attack on a major city, and she then sees their corpses pile up as just more casualties of war… including that of her sister.
The girl she tried to save by inadvertently starting a war died—Katniss’ entire motivation died for what amounts to a pyrrhic victory in the series’ central conflict.
Search Your Feelings, You Know it to Be True
In the end, both sagas revolve around the importance of a twist. These contours of narrative are not simply meant to shock, but to drive home the significance of their entire journeys. For Star Wars and Luke Skywalker, that moment came at the end of the second act when Darth Vader was revealed to be his father in The Empire Strikes Back. It meant horror but ultimately “a new hope” since Luke was able to prey on that connection to turn Anakin Skywalker back to the good—and to save the day like a tragic anti-hero.
The real twist of The Hunger Games, however, comes very late when it provides the true context of Katniss’ entire fight: her only victory can be to break the cycle of vengeance and war through the political assassination of her own leader.
At the end of the day, Katniss was little more than a figurehead. And her war stories amount to her getting a front row seat to the slaughter of her sister. Quite frankly, up until the last 20 minutes of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, she had not succeeded at anything other than surviving two death tournaments.
But the reason her sister had to die is the real brilliance of the saga. Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) was one of perhaps a thousand victims when bombs went off outside of President Snow’s mansion. However, they were not truly the Evil Empire’s bombs. Instead, they were actually dropped on the orders of District 13’s President Coin, and likely conceived by Gale Hawthorne, the first love of Katniss’ life. In Jennifer Lawrence’s most terrifying moment, she practically guts Gale to death and skins him alive with her irises as she silently condemns him as complicit in Coin’s plan. When she says, “Goodbye Gale,” one could sense his desire to vacate the room for his own safety.
But whether Gale shares any responsibility with the machinations of District 13’s most grim plans or not, the ambiguities of any war strategy that leaves children littered on the ground are suffocating. Especially when it becomes clear that President Snow is merely a symptom of a problem. There is an unending cycle of war, vengeance, attrition, and death that will not end.
Throughout The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, Katniss says that this will all stop when Snow dies; Peeta implores Katniss to kill Snow while they’re stranded on the frontlines, as it is the only way to make all their dead mean something. But the nuance of The Hunger Games films is it would mean absolutely nothing. You could throw Snow down a Death Star elevator shaft while he screams “No” with an electrical cloud spilling from his body; it still won’t defang the Empire apparatus he built or change the feelings of antagonism on both sides.
Katniss realizes this when President Coin appoints herself “interim president” without an election. And under the guise to end barbarity and the potential for a “Reign of Terror” styled retribution, she wants to have the Capitol’s children die in another Hunger Games. Around and around the wheel goes…
The only victory Katniss can achieve is through the morally murky means of political assassination. When the moment comes that she can finally avenge her sister, Finnick, and everyone else who has ever died in these films with an arrow to Snow’s heart, she instead fires it through President Coin’s. It is not the deed of a superhero, but it stops a burgeoning tyrant and prevents a perpetuated cycle of vengeance… maybe.
In his final breaths, President Snow becomes something nobody could ever expect: a Katniss Everdeen fan. Realizing that she saw through the pointlessness of these games—including the one involving his showy execution—Donald Sutherland lets out a deranged howl of delight; he finally loves the Girl on Fire! He is of course then violently ripped limb from limb by a mob of angry citizens.
So did Katniss really end the cycle of violence? Will this mob that is now leaderless in the immediacy go on a killing spree worthy of Robespierre or Marc Antony’s mourners—slaughtering any man, or any man’s wife and child, tangentially related to the throne and the despised? It is unclear. This is the one moment where Katniss physically changes the course of history herself (and not the propagandists who manipulate her image) with the flick of her bowstring. But like any violent action, even a justified and prudent one, the consequences will always remain elusive until after the fact.
This ending is the antithesis of Star Wars. There is no good and purely evil. There are shades of gray. President Snow’s authoritarian atrocities might be the darkest hue, but the good guys had to crawl through plenty of slush to end it. Whether it is ever fully over isn’t even absolute.
The Star Wars saga, at least until Dec. 18, ended with heroes triumphantly taking a bow in brotherhood and camaraderie. We won the good war. The Hunger Games ends with the few surviving allies licking their wounds, and Katniss implicitly exiled to her bombed out and abandoned home—where the sister she began all this for can never return. It is a measured life of diminished returns and an uncertain future.
It is the Anti-Star Wars.