Somebody Has to Save Our Skins: Radicalization in ‘The Hunger Games’ Franchise

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Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is volatile, wild, and completely uncontrollable; but as much as she is quick to anger, she holds her emotions close to her chest and is deeply meditative — preferring solitude. At the beginning of The Hunger Games the first of the franchise — she was fresh-faced and brimming with youthful strength. Despite the trauma she experienced (the death of her father and the emotional absence of her mother), she was a relatively clean slate. She was, more than anything else, completely ordinary — until she was forced to become extraordinary. To the Capitol, and to anyone, Katniss was simply a young, meaningless girl from the poorest district in the country, whose life was of no real consequence.

Katniss, for all her inexperience and balking at the idea of killing, is quickly changed. First by the Capitol, into a killer, and then into a symbol of revolution by the people. In the Capitol, they aim to make her extraordinary in a controlled way: they scrub her clean and pluck at her, painting over every trace of District Twelve. She becomes a stuffy, neatly packaged kind of exceptional. That is until she is marked by Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) as the “girl on fire” (something organic and rage-filled) which contradicts the constructed nature of the Capitol. 

Her relationships with the people around her are compelling: Primrose sits at the center of her heart with Rue close beside her, Cinna understands her reactive coldness, and Effie, with all of her bubbly brightness, offers refuge from the reality of her circumstances. As much as Cinna is important because of his quiet support, creation of Katniss’ symbolism, and aversion to forcing her to conform to expectations, her relationships with the other women are most significant.

Johanna (Jena Malone) offers a stark contrast to Katniss in almost every way. In Mockingjay – Part 1, Katniss tells her that she should have been the Mockingjay because no one has to tell her what to say, but Johanna insists nobody likes her and everyone finds her too fiery. In many ways, Johanna allows Katniss to better understand rage and vengeance because of how outwardly she expresses those emotions.

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As a foil to President Snow (Donald Sutherland), President Coin (Julianne Moore) is central to the completion of Katniss’ political radicalization; the moment that Katniss chooses to assassinate her instead of Snow is the moment she understands the depth and inevitability of corruption within politics. Coin is callous and infatuated with power, she has as little regard for human life as Snow does, and her government is just as militaristic, despite how left-leaning it might be. Performative and superficial, it’s a game to her in the same way it was to Snow. Violence is a necessary part of a revolution, but the violence that Katniss employs and the violence that Coin favors are starkly different. Confronting that violence, which exists outside of the fascist context of Panem, further clues Katniss into her moral alignment.

Rue and Prim serve the same purpose as characters: they are parallels of each other and motivators for Katniss. Most obviously as subjects of her protection, they represent innocence and mercy; though they are already gentle in characterization, their femininity makes them more delicate and affecting. They create pockets of softness for Katniss, allowing her the space to be sweet, loving, and maternal. This motherly instinct is especially felt when Katniss sings Rue a lullaby as she dies, and it serves to make her more palatable. Her mercy is a subversive act in a world consumed by individuality, competition, and personal survival. As a relatively reserved, somewhat harsh person, Katniss lacks stereotypically soft femininity and her protectiveness over those who are innocent balances that. Rue and Prim are a core piece of who she is as a revolutionary — from both her perspective and that of those who admire her. Where Prim is the spark for Katniss, Rue is the spark for the civilian revolution. That she must be tempered this way to be more digestible as a revolutionary figurehead is frustrating, but her individual relationships with both girls are compelling and offer beautiful complexity. 

In terms of its love story, the franchise seems to criticize forcing romance onto female leads, while effectively doing just that at the same time. That the love triangle was transformed into such an important piece of the story is succumbing to the trope that female leads need male love interests who should compete for her affection, however, within the narrative, Katniss is forced into a romance with Peeta by the Capitol to feed their hunger for extreme, tumultuous entertainment. She is cornered into selling their love story because it makes her more empathetic and attractive to potential sponsors, who see the games as trauma porn. This dramatization of love becomes even more relevant in Catching Fire, where Peeta and Katniss publicize a fake engagement and are forced to pose as a happy and stable couple. Katniss is further exploited when Peeta falsely confesses that she is pregnant as a powerplay — one that simultaneously makes them sympathetic to the citizens of the Capitol and offers some leverage over President Snow. This in itself is traumatizing — to be used, objectified, and scrutinized publicly.

Much of her radicalization is a result of her trauma, both generational and personal. The generational trauma is made clear throughout the first film and continues to be of importance throughout the franchise. When she is affected by Tracker Jacker venom, her past is rehashed: the brutal death of her father in the mines and subsequent emotional damage to her family unit. This death is reflective of the entirety of District Twelve — the district most violently exploited for labor and most deeply oppressed by the police force. Families being fractured and torn apart is a constant and usual consequence of that oppression.

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Ultimately, the Quarter Quell is what hardens her grief and panic into fury and determination. When it is first announced, she sprints out into the forest, overcome with an anxiety attack, but when she, Haymitch, and Peeta are led through the square to the reaping, all of that has transformed into something solid, a kind of rage that stews quietly beneath her tears. It only intensifies when they return to the Capitol. The lasting effects of the games are, while of course incredibly personal, universal among the victors, which makes the expression of it in Catching Fire all the more significant.

Finnick dissociates and uses his charm as a crutch, Wirus has completely devolved, the Morphlings are strung out and rely on pain medication to cope, Johanna is angry, bitter, and intentionally loveless. That collective anger and hurt are potent and contagious — the way it swells up in all of them influences their individual radicalizations, especially Katniss’. Then, Snow has Cinna killed just as she rises into the arena, and that rage is stoked further — you can see it in her eyes. 

Katniss snaps when Gale tells her that District Twelve is gone, and then again when the leaders of the rebellion decide to take her there to see the piles of skeletons amidst rubble and scrap metal to incentivize her. They create wounds by forcing her to viscerally witness the annihilation of her people in order to turn her into the figurehead they want. It works because that is how her trauma has functioned all along — it makes her impassioned and fervent.

Katniss’s physical skill and innate bravery are heightened and refined by her circumstances. She is objectified by the uprising as well as the Capitol, but for wildly different purposes; one is perhaps more righteous than the other, but they are equally as traumatizing. Katniss is molded into a symbol by the violence and the perpetual hurt of living in an oppressive state. In the end, she is someone who has collected far too much grief and responsibility for her age, but she carries it gracefully despite whatever miscalculations she might make. To track her radicalization is to track the core of the narrative, from which everything else splinters or converges. Ultimately, the strength of her character comes from the sharpness of her emotion, unpredictability, protectiveness, and her metamorphosis from an ordinary girl to someone responsible for the igniting and progression of a revolution.

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Jenna Kalishman

Jenna Kalishman is a writer and student at Colorado College pursuing English and film studies. She especially loves morally questionable female characters, Stevie Nicks, sapphic yearning, and Rachel Weisz's energy in The Favourite.

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