The Hunger Games: Revolutions Are Hard to Write
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There’s a scene in the last Hunger Games Movie that dates back in 2015. Here’s the setup. It’s the final stages of a civil war between the authoritarian Capitol and the 13 rebellious districts. The main character, Katniss Everdeen, abandons her original mission of filming propaganda clips to instead lead a small group of soldiers behind enemy lines to assassinate the leader of the capitol, President Snow. An enormous amount of time is dedicated to this plot-line. It takes up nearly a third of the book and most of the final movie. To get to the presidential palace they fight through booby traps, genetically modified monsters, and dozens of soldiers.
Major characters die on this mission! And the only reason we think the sacrifice is worthwhile is because every sacrifice is getting the group one step closer to ending the war. In the climactic scene, Katniss is nearly at the palace when the rest of the rebels show up and Katniss gets knocked unconscious and the rebels win the war offscreen. So, this whole plot-line was a waste of time? We didn’t have to do any of that? This would have happened anyway? Not as some kind of oversight or mistake, but as a deliberate and meaningful choice, a statement that entirely fits into the worldview of this story and is sorely needed on a broader scale. It’s a statement that rejects the aura of the Chosen One trope we see in so much genre fiction in favor of collective action.
One of the most common tropes in fiction is the Chosen One trope. You’ve seen it a million times. The main character is special in some way. They’ve been chosen by prophecy to do something important, or are supernaturally powerful. Something external has made them this way and now they are the only person capable of doing the plot. But even in stories where the character isn’t explicitly singled out as The One, the conventions of storytelling make the protagonist feel as if they might as well be a Chosen One. Most stories have a singular protagonist. The story is about them because they are going to do something notable. If that weren’t the case the story would be about a different character.
The audience expects them to have some skill or talent that will make them uniquely capable of doing the plot even if they aren’t from an ancient royal bloodline or the subject of prophecy. There is an element of pandering to the audience’s desire to feel important that is inseparable from the trope. The audience identifies with the protagonist and every time someone tells them they’re the smartest handsomest good little boy, the audience gets a warm little feeling in their tummies because they feel it’s being said about them. This is why the trope is so useful for writers and so common in media.
But there is a negative side to the trope. This isn’t to say that the trope is entirely bad or that stories that use it are bad. It’s the fact that the trope is so common that its underlying ideology — that we need one extraordinary person to come save us — is so deeply rooted in the ways we think about social change. This is why it’s really weird that this trope is so central in stories about rebellion. The plots of Mr. Robot, the Matrix, and the most recent season of Westworld are basically Mad-Libs versions of one another. In Mr. Robot, the protagonist believes the ultra-wealthy are oppressing the rest of humanity. In the Matrix, machines are oppressing humanity. In Westworld, the ultra-wealthy and a machine are oppressing the rest of the machines AND the rest of humanity.
But for all the talk the stories do about the need to rise up against their oppressors, achieve a more equal society, and exert their own autonomy, the rebels accomplish very little through collective action. In the Matrix, the rebel’s job is to just not die long enough for Neo to save them. In Westworld season three, an AI has a predictive algorithm that determines what people can and cannot do. It’s Dolores’ mission to expose this reality. When she does this, it immediately causes spontaneous rioting. But the rioting merely provides background noise to the main plot, which is that Dolores has chosen one man, Caleb, to make the decision about the future of humanity.
In Mr. Robot, Eliot is the most brilliant computer hacker in the world. In the first season, with the help of like four people, he destroys the financial records of the world’s most powerful corporation. This causes all sorts of riots, but that rebellious energy is, again, always off to the side. The closet the show gets to depicting actual organizing in in season two when Darlene is leading a group of rebels, but they are quickly splintered and annihilated. For the rest of the show, it’s almost entirely the story of one or two man versus the world pulling off all sorts of daring heists. Collective action is not only not necessary for their final victory against the ultra-wealthy, but is constantly depicted as only a destructive obstacle.
So, we’ve got three extremely popular fictional revolutions where almost everything of importance is handled by a singular hero. They all conform to the idea that we need a Great Man or Woman to come along and liberate us. And then there’s the Hunger Games. Like the previous examples, the Hunger Games depicts a class war. The people in the Capitol are rich and authoritarian. The people in the districts are poor and subjugated. The centerpiece of the injustice is the Hunger Games, which is a kind of ritualized slaughter of the poor that is entrenched into the political structure of the country. While the films really only depict the class divisions between the Capitol and the Districts, the books spend a lot more time explaining how poor people are disadvantaged by capitalism, the Hunger Games.
In both, we’re told that Capitol citizens are exempt from being entered into the Hunger Games. But the book also tells us repeatedly how contestants from poor districts are unlikely to ever win, because the contestants from the rich districts are able to prepare for the Games their entire lives. The only reason Katniss has any chance is because she was illegally hunting before being chosen. And even within the poor districts, the wealthier citizens are less likely to get picked for the games. If you’re poor, you can get food if you enter your name extra times into the reaping where tributes are chosen.
So, the people in the Hunger Games themselves are usually not just the poor, but the poorest of the poor due to class differences between the districts and within each district. So, on the setup alone, we have a setting that is stuffed with class conflicts, just like all of the other stories mentioned previously. What makes the Hunger Games unique though is that this isn’t just a backdrop for a hero saves the day narrative. Because Katniss is a very unique version of the Chosen One trope. Unlike many Chosen One characters, there is nothing inherently special about Katniss. She is not destined for greatness nor does she have superpowers. Her importance in the grand scheme of the rebellion comes entirely out of the decisions she makes. In the first book, Katniss makes two important acts of resistance.
She shows empathy for a young girl named Rue in the arena, something which is uncharacteristic for the Hunger Games competition. It’s the first instance of solidarity between districts in the series, the first moment that indicates that the different sections of the working class can co-operate. At the end of the games, she defies the orders of the game-makers by refusing to kill Peeta, forcing the Capitol to change the rules of the game again at the last minute. The act shows that the power of the Capitol can be successfully resisted. Her actions inspire organized rebellion across the country and for the rest of the series her fame is leveraged by various political players for their own agendas: President Snow uses her to try and tamp down the uprising, and then President Snow uses her to unify the districts.
So, she isn’t quote-unquote “Chosen” in a traditional way these kinds of characters are, but she IS chosen democratically, collectively. She has power because everyone agrees that she has power. It’s for this reason that all of the characters in the story treat her as if she were a Chosen One. People are in constant awe of her. Still, she is just one person, and as such, she can’t just singlehandedly save the day. There’s even a part in the book where she wants to join the resistance military and says the thing that all protagonists say in this situation: “I’m your best shot.” And the military guys are like, no thanks. So, Katniss can only succeed by using her fame to bring other people into the rebellion. As a result, we get to see something we don’t often get to see in stories like this, which is the nitty gritty of actually building a resistance movement.
Now this is somewhat undermined in the films, compared to the books. The books are told in first person entirely from Katniss’ perspective, so the films try to emulate this by similarly focusing entirely on Katniss, even when that isn’t in their best interest. For instance, the third movie would be much better if we got to see Peeta’s perspective while he is captured in the Capitol, rather than stretching out the scenes with Katniss. Katniss is in almost every scene and the framing of the scenes she’s in are designed to put us into her headspace. Sometimes the camera even gives us a first-person view of what she’s looking at. In contrast, the scenes she’s not in are shot more objectively, the coverage is neutral, not tilted toward one character’s feelings over another.
This means that there are a bunch of events in the books that Katniss only hears about that the movies exclude or have to truncate. So, in the second book, there’s this scene where Katniss runs into a pair of rebels from District 8. She learns that the district is currently in an uprising and we get a detailed story about how it was organized, how they were able to coordinate because the noise of the factories in that district made it impossible for the Capitol to surveil them, and how the leaders focused on seizing strategic locations and then getting word out to the surrounding districts. In contrast, the first movie uses the same shorthand that every movie does. In the timeline of the story, the first uprising happens much earlier in the films. After the death of Rue, Katniss’ act of compassion for her sparks immediate and spontaneous riots in District 11, where Rue is from. In movies, riots are often all we see of a resistance movement.
Visually, riots communicate to an audience the general idea that people are not going to accept the status quo anymore. So, Joker can end on this moment of apparent triumph simply because people are in the street, without getting into what happens the day after the riots. The third season of Westworld ends with mass rioting and the declaration that now anything is possible, but again we don’t see — or at least haven’t yet seen — how that rebellious energy can be transformed into achievable political goals.
There is a persistent and organized protest movement in Mr. Robot that feels like it exists parallel to everything that Elliot is doing, and so we don’t see how the movements are built or organized either. But both the second and third books in the Hunger Games are almost entirely concerned with how to motivate people to organize. It starts with symbolic acts of unity. The three-finger salute after Rue’s funeral, or the Victors holding hands before being sent into the games. Then they use media and the narrative around Katniss to inspire more people to join the cause.
It’s in this context that the final climax that is perfectly fitting with the ethos of the series. It’d be a failure of the story to spend all this time building up a resistance movement, only to have Katniss be the one to do everything of note. Instead, the Hunger Games at least gives us a glimpse into a story where collective action is necessary within the logic of the story, and not just a sideshow to the heroics of one person. It is harder to tell stories this way because it is not crowd-pleasing. It’s easy to have the hero and villain have a fist-fight at the end. It’s hard to dramatize an entire social movement and there’s a significant gap in our fiction for stories like that. The Hunger Games isn’t perfect at this. If it had more point of view characters, maybe we could have seen more of the struggles of the people on the ground. But out of any major piece of genre fiction, it gets the closest at showing us what it takes to organize a movement.
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