In her “Girls on Film” on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire for The Week, Monika Martyzel writes that its filmic predecessor is “primarily about the dangers of media, and the toll that both war and celebrity have on the psyche.” But in Catching Fire, that danger starts to cut both ways. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), whose survival of the series’ titular battle to the death is meant to symbolize the despotic Capitol’s fitful benevolence, becomes an inadvertent symbol of defiance when she disrupts the plan to crown a single victor. In the moment when she and her fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta Melark (Josh Hutcherson) should be battling to the death, she has them both swallow poisonous berries, knowing that for propaganda purposes, having two survivors is better than having none.
In Catching Fire‘, Katniss’ importance is almost purely symbolic. In private, she’s controlled by Donald Sutherland’s icy President Snow, who threatens to kill her mother and sister if she deviates from the script of the post-Hunger Games victory tour. But in the public eye, she has a measure of agency. When the spotlight first shines on Katniss and her fellow victor, Peeta, the cameras are literally inhuman, sleek, snakelike robots taking commands from an unseen master. (“Time to feed the monster,” quips their chipper handler, Effie Trinket, played by Elizabeth Banks.) But Katniss learns she can take control, though not without cost. When she and Peeta visit District 11, whose residents are Panem’s equivalent of African-Americans, she steps away from Effie’s prepared text to memorialize Rue, the young District 11 tribute whose death Katniss stopped to honor in the midst of her first Hunger Games. The crowd, beginning with one elderly man, raise a three-fingered salute in Rue’s honor, disrupting the carefully planned victory pageant to memorialize the fallen, and for a moment, the Capitol’s hold on Panem’s frightened populace slips. But then Katniss is dragged offstage, the cameras cut out, and the crowd are left at the mercies of the state’s violent “Peacekeepers.”
As unrest grows in her native District 12, Katniss intervenes to stop the public flogging of her true love Gale (Liam Hemsworth), which like the Hunger Games itself is part discipline, part spectacle. (Although sponsored by the state, the Games themselves are essentially terrorist acts.) But she’s nearly shot dead by an enraged Peacekeeper before Snow, watching the affair on video in the Capitol, intervenes. Out of uniform, as it were, she’s less instantly recognizable, and subject to the same forms of oppression as any other unremarkable citizen.
In the Hunger Games series, what separates the Capitol’s obscenely privileged few from the other districts’ impoverished residents is, as much as anything, style. They’re wealthier, of course, able to indulge forms of decadence that would be unimaginable elsewhere: At his first Capitol party, Peeta’s offered a sickly pink emetic in a crystal glass, so that once he’s eaten his fill he can vomit it all up and start again. But there are hints that they’re little freer than their more obviously subjugated countrymen, able to sate their baser desires but not to question or influence the workings of their own government. The Capitol’s “careers” may regard participation in the Hunger Games as a prize rather than a punishment, but they’re still not free to abstain.
In the Capitol, style is all about excess: Effie’s piled curls and powdered face make her look like a member of Marie Antoinette’s court, while Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) sports a leathery fake tan and ponytailed pompadour. But for Katniss, style is life. It’s the flaming outfit designed by her indispensable stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), that transforms her from an unknown to the “girl on fire,” catching the attention of the sponsors she needs to survive the Games. And it’s through style that she defies President Snow, flouting his orders in such crowd-pleasing fashion that he has no way to counterattack.
During their victory tour, Katniss and Peeta decide they are to be married: Since the story that they are self-sacrificing lovers is the only thing masking their seditiousness, they reason they might as well take the narrative to its inevitable endpoint and perhaps buy themselves some breathing room. The announcement that they are to return to the Hunger Games, following Snow’s decree that this year’s competitors will be drawn from past champions, puts a damper on their nuptials, but Cinna finds another use for Katniss’ wedding gown, using it for her final TV interview with Caesar. She balks, naturally, but Cinna tells her to turn slowly once she reaches the stage, and when she does, her white dress erupts in harmless flame. Its long skirt and pearly frills burn away, and what’s left a black bodysuit with wings: the Mockingjay, which has become the symbol for the growing resistance movement and for Katniss herself.
Katniss’ here-comes-the-bride moment is an unusual one in Catching Fire: The vinelike spurs that extend from her dress bob as if they were made of pipecleaners and styrofoam, and her climactic pirouette is more like a series of ill-stitched half-turns. But in a strange, possibly accidental, way, it’s fitting: Though it appears to be Katniss’ triumph, she’s really just following orders, a runway model in Cinna’s subversive fashion show.
In her essay on Catching Fire, Alyssa Rosenberg says the series would have been better if it had expanded beyond Katniss’ point of view rather than “remaining narrowly confined to her experiences.” But in a subtle, conflicted way, I think that’s its strength. Her occasional rebellion notwithstanding, Katniss is not a revolutionary. She’s too frightened and isolated to lead a movement, but the people she inspires don’t know that; the revolution’s real leaders make sure of that. She may be more sympathetic to their cause, but she’s a pawn in their game as much as she was in the Capitol’s.
The movies, like the Hunger Games themselves, force us to identify with Katniss’ individual struggle, but they also present ample evidence that whether she ends up with Peeta or Gale is of little importance to anyone else. The tepid romantic subplots, the diminishing returns in Katniss’ return to the arena — these are flaws, but they’re also virtues, the series’ way of turning us away from representative concerns and towards real ones. In the final analysis, it isn’t Katniss that matters: It’s the Mockingjay, which can only speak by repeating what it’s been told.