How Lord Acton Trumps George Orwell in The Hunger Games
Katniss Everdeen makes a choice in a pivotal scene in Mockingjay, the third book in The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, that had the potential to elevate her into the pantheon of pro-freedom heroines in contemporary fiction. Unfortunately, neither the book nor the movies leveraged this act to let Everdeen step onto that podium, much to the chagrin of libertarians (including myself) who had hoped for more. Indeed, in previous blog posts, I suggested that The Hunger Games might be the Millennial Generation’s version of George Orwell’s classic 1984 (see here, here, and here). After reading the trilogy and watching all four movies, I no longer think the series holds that promise.
In fact, the fourth installment of the movie series, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2, does even more to dispel any notion that Katniss Everdeen is anything more than a survivor (albeit a heroic one) trapped in a world controlled by the State. She eschews any leadership role or place in the revolution for freedom, making her quest a personal one rather than a blow for a higher principle or value. She is fighting against tyranny, but she doesn’t have much of an alternative to offer. This takes her out of the running as a true leader able to galvanize others around a common idea (and reduces her value as a strong female character as well).
Nevertheless, the pivotal scene in Mockingjay (and the movie Part 2) is worth discussing because it reflects a critical plot point in Katniss Everdeen’s character arc and the decision she makes would likely have pleased Lord John Acton (1834-1902). On the surface, Katniss accepts a Faustian bargain for the privilege of executing the secular tyrant President Snow. Indeed, this is her goal since she recognizes that as long as Snow is alive the Capitol and its ideas never will be truly dead. She accepts, it seems, a deal with rebel president Alma Coin to hold one last Hunger Games featuring the children of the Capitol District. It’s a cynical effort by Coin to channel the bloodlust of the rebellion as a way to pave a road to peace, or at least that’s what Katniss and her peers are led to believe.
In truth, we find that Katniss has understood Coin’s plot as a subterfuge. Her actions at Snow’s execution show Katniss has fully embraced the meaning behind Acton’s well-worn dictum: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This is certainly good news for those searching for a liberty theme, but it falls far short of a plot or decisions that would lead her to embrace personal liberty as a motivating driver of her actions. In fact, the fourth movie does more to erode these ideas than support them.
Given that Suzanne Collins is an executive producer of the movie, this result is likely intentional. She keeps her focus on the evils of tyranny and repression as practiced by dictators and totalitarians, not democracies. A telling sign is when Katniss’s initial love interest and emergent rebel leader, Gale Hawthorne, appears to tell her of the tragic loss of her sister styling a dark-grey, Maoist-type uniform most young readers and viewers would associate with North Korea. I also personally doubt the choice of “Coin” as the last name for the rebellion’s leader was unintentional. Much of the economic theory underlying the economic and political organization of Panem seems to draw conceptually from a deep academic literature arguing that colonial economies were exploitive, enhancing the wealth and power of the colonizing country (district) and effectively pillaging the host country. Colonial countries, like the Capitol District, are economic parasites, and this literature puts this exploitive backstory squarely on the shoulders of industrial capitalism, markets, and the goal of profit maximization.
The existential nature of the Collins’ story becomes fully evident in the fourth movie, although hints of it exist in the third book. Katniss is never in control of her life, nor do her choices serve to advance her personal liberty or the freedom of the oppressed except indirectly and under very narrow circumstances. Even when she successfully strikes blows against evil and tyranny, we learn that these actions are in service to other power players, not to her own emotional or intellectual emancipation. Ironically, it’s up to her emergent love interest, Peeta Mallark, a supporting player, to enlighten her about how her actions inspire the rebellion because they give the people in the outer districts their first real choice—to die for their own goals rather than Snow’s and the Capitol District. Death and survival in the Hunger Games serves to further Snow’s interests, not the children who compete, or the Districts who toil under its oppression.
Indeed, in a letter, Plutarch, the gamekeeper turned rebel, tells Katniss how pleased he is that she acted as he had hoped, so the real supporters of democracy and peace could take control of the government. Katniss is then sent back to the decimated home of District 12 to wait out the political turmoil and then be pardoned by the new government. In other words, despite all of Katniss’s efforts, her freedom still depends on the will of the State.
Suzanne Collins has said publicly that her books were intended to contemplate the effects of violence on children (and society more generally). In that respect, the books and the movie achieve her goal. Both are entertaining, action films and novels that carry strong anti-violence and anti-war themes. They also are an indictment of totalitarian political regimes. These are laudable themes but they hardly add up to a story embracing personal freedom, liberty or the value of individualism. The economics is outdated, and the treatment of democracy is naive. Most importantly, however, Katniss Everdeen’s character never really emerges as a heroine worthy of emulating or holding up as a model of a freedom fighter. Perhaps fan fiction will lead her in that direction, even if Suzanne Collins doesn’t.