If one accepts the truisms of internet memes, in the spring of 2012 as a culture we gathered in dark theaters to be entertained by teenagers killing each other. For those who had not read the books, The Hunger Games movie seemed to be simply a glorification of the worst sort of violence. In a time when school shootings plague our nation, the idea of being entertained by a film about teenagers killing each other seemed utterly inappropriate. Naturally, protests of the movie abounded and numerous calls were sent out to boycott the film and get the book banned from school libraries--all of which served as exercises in missing the point.
Granted, given the marketing and media circus surrounding the release of the film, missing the point of the story was an easily made mistake. Media discussions of the story focused on its perceived love triangle, the actors posed for high-fashion photo shoots much like the Tributes they portrayed did in the film, and cosmetic make-up lines were marketed so that viewers could look just as garishly over-the-top as the Capitol citizens. While the marketing might have been subtly ironic, the public response was to desire to be entertained by this circus surrounding a film about the horrific injustice of an oppressive government that sends poor children to slaughter each other for the sake of entertainment for the rich. In short, audiences were so distracted by the spectacle that the explicit point of the series as a critique of a population that is so distracted by "bread and circuses" that it allows injustice to flourish in its midst was lost in the media hype.
But far from being a distraction or celebration of violence, at its core Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series is ultimately a story about hope. It is a hope which holds that resisting injustice is not futile, that violence can come to an end, and that a better world is indeed possible. Interestingly, despite the marketing, glitz, and glamour surrounding the release of the Catching Fire film, that message of hope has been central to the promotion of the second film.
In the trailer for Catching Fire, amidst images of graffitied mockingjays (the symbol of resistance and revolution) and political critique, one sees the phrase "hope is stronger than fear" flash across the screen. This phrase comes from President Snow's line in the first film, "Hope... it is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine - as long as it's contained."
A little hope can keep people in line. Offer people rewards in heaven someday after they die as long as they are good submissive people now and you keep them subdued. Promise people a secure society as long as they write you a blank check to invade other countries and torture people and you can do whatever you want. Encourage people with, "may the odds be ever in your favor," and some will actually train for the chance to win the Games and live in luxury the rest of their lives.
Yet, Katniss' actions of defying the Capitol and winning the Hunger Games create a dangerous spark of hope that sweeps across Panem. Resistance groups start forming, people start speaking out against their oppression, and the Capitol realizes it must quickly snuff out those sparks of hope before real change takes place. Catching Fire first depicts President Snow trying to use threats and fear to control Katniss. To protect the ones she loves, she tries, for a time, to do the Capitol's bidding by discouraging rebellion in whatever ways she can, but soon realizes that to truly love her friends and family she must help end their oppression. Subsequently, to then stifle even the small bits of hope in Panem the Capitol decides to send past Hunger Games victors back to the arena for the Quarter Quell. Katniss recognizes this act of oppression for what it is and comments that the past victors "are the very embodiment of hope where there is no hope. And now twenty-three of us will be killed to show that even that hope was an illusion."
Nevertheless, that such hope cannot be contained becomes the driving theme of the books Catching Fire and Mockingjay. The girl on fire becomes the spark that sets the world aflame - plunging Panem into violent rebellion. It is a hope that a better world may indeed be possible despite the horrors and distractions that stand in its way. Yet ultimately, as Katniss discovers, it is not the fires of rage but the hope of love that is most needed. The violence, while continuing in the Capitols' Games and in the Districts' rebellion, is never glorified, but proves to be an empty solution.
Winning the games costs everything you are as Peeta later confesses to the people of Panem. It is not worth gaining the world and losing your soul. There is no hope in that. Where hope is ultimately found in The Hunger Games series (which must always be seen as a singular narrative) is in the image of the dandelion in the spring - the image of rebirth that sustains life. The dandelion is the symbol that one need not trust the Capitol for one's bread (or circuses), that love is better than revenge, and that goodness survives even destruction. This is dangerous hope that declares freedom from being a piece in the Games, from being victims of oppression, and being complicit through distraction in injustice.
Far from being just another distraction or way to be entertained by violence, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire delivers a message of hope into our culture which just like Panem desperately needs to find freedom from our own oppressions and injustices.