The Fascinatingly Flexible Political Subtext of ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’

Catching Fire, the second film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy (a trilogy which, true to their current style, Hollywood is adapting into four films), arrives on screen with the confidence of a film that knows it’s going to gross a bajillion dollars. It is a brisk, exciting, well-acted entertainment, and those elements, in addition to the built-in audience of Collins’ voracious readers, are the most logical explanation for the franchise’s massive popularity. But in viewing the two films back-to-back this week, another theory seems worth mentioning as well: the series’ political subtext, which is present and potent, yet flexible enough to latch on to the ideology of your choice. The Hunger Games is “political” without actually having to stand for anything.

Here’s what I mean: fringe far-right Republicans can look at the world of Panem and see a dramatization of their most paranoid fantasy of Obama’s America, a dystopian police state where jack-booted thugs do the bidding of a corrupt president whose platform seems based on the carefully parsing of the word (and notion) of Hope. “It is the only thing stronger than fear,” he explains in the first film. “A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. Hope is fine, as long as it’s contained.” By Catching Fire, he’s modified his stance: “Fear does not work when there is hope.” So such hope must be crushed, which is the main purpose of returning previous Victors to the arena for the “third quarter quell.”

The trilogy’s backstory of a quashed national uprising is clearly meant to echo the Civil War (the phrase “brother turned on brother” is even trotted out); the subsequent control of “the districts” by “the Capitol” would, by extension, mirror the post-Reconstruction South, which would make our protagonists, um, conquered Confederates. That’s an unsettling reading, but — if you’re looking for them — the films are full of little references to the kind of “states’ rights” arguments that are all too common in today’s political discourse (Snow: “Even the strongest cannot overcome the Capitol”). And, of course, the tributes are injected with the kind of tracking devices that crazy tinfoil hatters will assure you Nobama has already started injecting into our citizens!!1!

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But wait. The Hunger Games can also be read as a searing indictment of income inequality, the ornately coiffed, conspicuously consuming, “let them eat cake” citizens of the Capitol as the very picture of the one percent. Hunger, as the title indicates, is rampant in the districts, but when Katniss and Peeta are taken to the Victor’s Ball, the partygoers gorge themselves, then consume a drink that makes them sick so they can eat more. A scene of peaceful protestors being roughed up with sticks (and bullets) by the stormtrooper police echoes police clashes with Occupiers. And the ultimate message (particularly in the outcome of the Games in the first film and book) is that it’s not every man (or woman) for himself; it’s that we must rely on others, that we’re all in this together, a collectivist mindset that plays like a sharp rebuke to today’s Randian GOP. If you want it to, that is.

Of course, the two films thus far shouldn’t be considered in a vacuum, and it’s worth mentioning that the books ultimately take a stance that is less about a particular dogma than about a general distrust of authority in general and government in particular. But then again, both the right and the left would like to believe that they’ve got the monopoly on that stance as well; like 1984, the message is adaptable, based on who is in power and how well their actions are spun.

Part of the fun of the Hunger Games universe is how open it is to contextualization — back in 2010, for example, Laura Miller made a compelling case in The New Yorker that the trilogy isn’t a political allegory, but an adolescent one, reframing the battles of high school in their basest terms. Talking to the New York Times, Collins shrugged off that notion, insisting, “I don’t write about adolescence. I write about war. For adolescents.” But war is as much about politics as it is about gunfire and archery, and in her works, as well as the films that they spawn, Collins is all too willing to call up imagery pulled from nonfiction.

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But being savvy show business types, the author and the filmmakers adapting her are careful to only utilize the keywords and broad ideas, without subscribing to any particular point of view — and thus alienating a portion of their audience. It’s similar to what Christopher Nolan did in his Dark Knight series: presenting an allegory for wireless wiretapping in The Dark Knight and having Lucius Fox mouth the right-to-privacy argument while still letting Batman use the technology (and get something done with it), trotting out Patriot Act criticism and twisted Occupy rhetoric in The Dark Knight Rises and letting us fight it out.

It’s a way to make our art seem current and plugged-in and provocative without taking any risks. Make no mistake, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is vivid, visceral filmmaking, twisty and entertaining, with startlingly good turns by Jennifer Lawrence and Philip Seymour Hoffman. But it’s also a Rorschach test of a movie, in which any viewer can find (consciously or not) a connection to to their own political frame.