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How Does “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2” Comment on the Nature of Spectacle?

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[SPOILERS]

It may seem strange that a Hollywood blockbuster franchise that has grossed over $1.2 billion for its first three films devotes great focus to condemning and critiquing spectacular society. Yet over the course of the four films, resolving in the recent final installment The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (2015), a nuanced, surprising commentary emerges on the nature of spectacle.

To begin, The Hunger Games (2012) and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) establish a horror of spectacular entertainment and its potential misuse by the powerful to exploit and degrade (even kill) the dispossessed. Author of the source novels Suzanne Collins came up with the idea of the titular Hunger Games, in which children are forced to hunt one another, while channel surfing between reality TV and Iraq war coverage: “On one channel, there’s a group of young people competing for I don’t even know; and on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting in an actual war. I was really tired, and the lines between these stories started to blur in a very unsettling way… I worry that we’re all getting a little desensitized to the images on our televisions… If there’s a real-life tragedy unfolding, you should not be thinking of yourself as an audience member. Because those are real people on the screen, and they’re not going away when the commercials start to roll.” Yet in Mockingjay - Part 2, as we watch Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) complete her rise from poor youth trapped by circumstances into mythic, beloved savior of her people, the sharp line between the fake and the real—between public show and private reality—becomes more blurred. The story illustrates that over time, without our even noticing, the things we pretend become real.

In Mockingjay - Part 2’s penultimate scene, as Katniss lies her head on her Hunger Games partner Peeta Mallark (Josh Hutcherson)’s chest, he asks her, “You love me. Real or not real?” Katniss answers, “Real.” It’s taken her four films (or three novels) of a drawn-out love triangle, but she has finally made up her mind that Peeta, not Gale (the original romantic frontrunner, played by Liam Hemsworth), is her true love. The first installments told us the opposite: Gale was Katniss’ “real” (private) love, and Peeta was her “fake” (public) romance acted for the cameras. Over the course of the story, this dynamic shifts, and the performance of her love with Peeta grows into a reality, just as the public role she plays to inspire the rebels cannot stay separate from the real, inner Katniss.

In Mockingjay - Part 2, Peeta, mentally disturbed and brainwashed against Katniss by villain President Snow (Donald Sutherland)’s torture, admits, “I can’t tell what’s real and what’s made up.” (Conflating the real and the falsified is an implied threat for all the Games’ “victors,” who have been so profoundly traumatized by that artificial nightmare with true dangers.) Peeta and Katniss develop this game of “Real or Not Real” so that Peeta can ask whether his memories are verified in their shared reality. As they play together, Peeta gradually recovers and returns to himself; thus the partners carve out a story for themselves in order to survive.

Meanwhile Gale is revealed to be not the person she thought (nor, perhaps, the person he previously was). The war has made him ruthless and cold in his pursuit of the cause, largely due to the leadership of rebel president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), who speaks all the right revolutionary rhetoric but will use the wrong means to justify her ends (and hides a treacherous ambition to replace Snow). When Coin uses Gale’s bombing strategy to murder children for a political win and accidentally kills Katniss’ sister, Prim, Gale has failed in his role as protector of Katniss’ family. Meanwhile, Katniss and Peeta, despite the dark period their relationship has entered, continue to affirm their roles as each other’s protectors and repeat their shared story: “We keep each other alive. That’s what we do.” While Katniss has long maintained (to herself) that she loves Gale, her actions over time reveal that she and Peeta are bound together, through destiny, compatibility and most of all shared experience. In The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (2014), Finnick tells Katniss as much: “After your first games, I thought the whole romance was an act…we all expected you to continue that strategy. It wasn’t until Peeta’s heart stopped…that I knew I misjudged you. You love him… maybe you don’t even know yourself. But anyone paying attention can see it.” Within the contrived format of the Games, Peeta proved Katniss’ most devoted partner. He also became the one person who understands what she has lived—who can collaborate her memories and their intricate blend of the real, contrived, and created. Somewhere along the way, their performance of love stopped being a strategy and became the living, breathing thing.

Throughout the course of the narrative, The Hunger Games continues to condemn spectacle for the wrong reasons (and especially doing the wrong thing for good spectacle, as when Coin murders children for a political win). Yet contrived, artificial set-ups can still breed real occurrences. When in Mockingjay - Part 1 the rebels script propaganda for Katniss, her performance is limp. “This is how a revolution dies,” Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) says, noting that the moments when Katness has moved people have all been unscripted: the song she sings to Rue; her three-fingered salute; the impulse to volunteer in Prim’s place for her first Games.

When Plutarch and Coin send Katniss to a war zone to film her in real situations, her eloquent angry words after the Capital bombs a hospital—“Fire is catching! And if we burn, you burn with us!”—become the movement’s successful promo, featuring Katniss’ symbol, the mockingjay. Katniss is a natural performer who, while she would rather shun the spotlight, follows brilliant instincts under pressure to intuit the decision that cuts through the usual pretense. When she is moved to perform, that performance is genuine—just as it becomes with Peeta. Perhaps finding oneself means discovering a role to play so that we can believe our own performance.

Seeing the mockingjay promo used as propaganda by the rebels within the film, we can’t help but think of the advertising campaign (in our world) for The Hunger Games films themselves. Likewise, it cannot escape us that this commentary on spectacle comes within the context of a Hollywood blockbuster film. Mockingjay - Part 2 reportedly cost over $150 million to make—a large portion of that money obviously going toward stunning visuals, cameras, effects, sets and costumes—and most audience members come expecting some degree of spectacular payoff, even if they also find the story powerful. But this does not invalidate the critique since the The Hunger Games does not condemn spectacle outright; rather, it evaluates the underlying agendas of spectacles (e.g, political propaganda, self-promotion, superficial entertainment, social cause). The films embrace crowd-pleasing performance for the purpose of spreading an important message, as in the case of Katniss’ inspiring the rebels through her authentic responses within inauthentic arenas. Accordingly, the film’s philosophy does appear to be in harmony with its form: surely, the filmmakers at least believe they, too, are sending an important message. For one, they are telling a story of personal growth and female power through the character of Katniss. It has been much noted (and is notable) that this wildly successful franchise is one of a minority of Hollywood vehicles with a female lead (who, better yet, thanks to the book’s character and Jennifer Lawrence, is also an interesting female lead). It is even more remarkable that a contemporary American big-budget franchise focuses on the wrongs of gross wealth inequality. These messages, at least, give The Hunger Games ground to stand on as it critiques the nature of spectacle while being so obviously spectacular itself.

When Guy Debord introduced the “Society of the Spectacle” in 1967, he delivered bad news: “Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation” and “the unity of this life can no longer be reestablished. Reality considered partially unfolds, in its own general unity, as a pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation. The specialization of images of the world is completed in the world of the autonomous image, where the liar has lied to himself.” Debord’s spectacle was all-encompassing, inescapable, all-degrading.

The Hunger Games is predictably less radical or grim in its outlook. In Katniss’ world, we can still be real, even as our actions are recorded and turned into spectacle. In the final scene of Mockingjay - Part 2, Katniss tells her baby daughter about the game she plays to drive away her nightmares: remembering every good thing she’s seen people do. Staring into the face of youth, she explains that, although it’s tedious, “There are much worse games to play.” If we cannot escape the imposed games of the global spectacle, we counter them with the effort of our own games—our own “good” fictions dreamt in our secret minds; the stories we tell ourselves, on which to found the realest layer of our lives. Thus we preserve our inner, private natures through self-creation.