In Mockingjay Part One, everyone’s working for the media
by Gordon Campbell
From the outset, the Hunger Games series has dwelt obsessively on the ways that media images infiltrate our public and personal lives. For starters, the lethal contest that occupies much of the first two books/films is not simply a set piece of thrill bait, a la Battle Royale. In this context, it functions as (a) a historical pageant and (b) as a modern tool of intimidation and oppression. The contest serves as a cautionary reminder of the folly of resisting the Capitol in the past, and as a warning about the impotence of resistance. See? We can harvest your children on a regular basis and there’s nothing you can do about it except hope – in this winner-take-all market – that your child will end up as a winner. Good luck.
Learning how to manipulate the media becomes an essential strategy for survival. For Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark ( the unwilling ‘stars’ of the saga) their lives come to depend on being able to act out a convincing celebrity romance for the cameras, even if this fiction then starts to intrude, confusingly, upon their own ‘ real’ emotions. In this story, the medium is the message and it pervades the messengers.
From that grim starting point, Mockingjay Part One takes the process a few stages further. There is very little of the film that does not involve the characters (a) being on screens (b) making propaganda footage to be screened and (c) reacting to what other characters have been doing on screens. The meta-ness of all this can be dizzying. Out there in the audience, we’re watching a movie screen depicting Katniss either watching a screen herself – in one scene, she is watching a split screen of two separate broadcasts – or prepping for and appearing in a rebel propaganda film that in turn, is a rebuttal of the propaganda films being made by the dictatorship. Amusingly, the Mockingjay logo used in the rebel “propo” films is the same one used in real life, to promote Mockingjay Part One.
This media-fractured narrative is entirely appropriate for this stage of the story. For once in Hollywood, the splitting of the final Mockingjay book into two separate films is entirely justified on artistic grounds, rather than something that’s being done simply to make more money, a la The Hobbit. Part One deals with the ‘phony war’ period of preparation for the civil war against President Snow. Part Two is the civil war. We need this opportunity to see how the rebel forces and the Capitol go about jockeying for position, and how they use the media to lay the psychological groundwork for war. And we also need time to see how the two major propaganda agents – Katniss on one side and Peeta temporarily, on the other – come to grips with the equally unwanted media roles that they’ve now been lumped with. To try and jam all this and the civil war into one film would have short-changed the story. ( Or made it at least four hours long.)
There is another pretty obvious meta-mediated aspect to Mockingjay Part One. To any ordinary consumer of the network news, the scenes of devastation after the civilian population of District 12 have been bombed by the Capitol’s forces will look almost identical to news footage from Gaza or Syria. (This sense of news bulletin déjà vu will be heightened once the civil war begins in earnest in Part Two.) Similarly, the rescue raid on the Capitol tower block compound where Peeta and the other tributes have been imprisoned looks very much like the nightlight raid on the Bin Laden compound, already familiar to us from Zero Dark Thirty.
All this media filtering makes the Hunger Games enterprise seem at times like the collective wet dream of a Media Studies department. One can readily imagine the academic theses are already under way….about the ricocheting interactions between popular culture and news bulletins, and the ways these end up shaping the political and personal responses of the audience.
If the Hunger Games series goes far further down this road than any other popcorn franchise – and full marks to it for doing so – it also has to be said that its depiction of how we consume media imagery is pretty simplistic.
By and large, the storyline assumes that the masses out there in the Districts consume political propaganda in the same way that kids eat candy. If Peeta puts out a propo film on behalf of the Capitol, then everything seems lost for the rebellion. Yet when Katniss does a propo film in rebuttal, then everyone buys it wholesale and the rebellion is back on the rails. If only it were that easy. Still, it has to be said that The Newsroom – which is a TV series allegedly made for adults – also makes a complete hash of how the news is made and consumed. It must be hard avoid stereotyping a business in which stereotypes are its stock in trade.
Finally… and talking of stereotypes, the latest film is refreshingly confident that Katniss Everdeen is a credible female action hero. So much so that it can afford to spend almost the entire running time of the latest film with her cast in a purely re-active role – whether that be in responding to rebel leadership’s attempts to recruit her, in acting out at the promptings of the rebel video unit filming her every heroic gesture and finally, in being reactive to the apparent treachery of Peeta. Give or take a couple of Capitol aircraft taken out with an exploding arrow, Katniss is almost entirely passive in this instalment, without ever seeming weak. It is a tribute to what a compelling presence Jennifer Lawrence has become, onscreen. By contrast, the Peeta character has spent the first two films acting out the traditional “ female “ role – he’s endlessly devoted, he’s a good listener, socially adept and a good cook to boot. This time around, he’s been captured, is in peril, has become the biddable tool of his captors, and is in dire need of rescue. Has there ever been this kind of male lead in a popular franchise before ?
While it is good to see a reversal of the usual gender roles, it does make the romance between Katniss and Peeta seem somewhat unfathomable. The only apparent motivations for Katniss’ love for Peeta are pity, and an appreciation of his underlying goodness. Unfortunately, it is going to take the horrors due to arrive in Part Two – and the toll that these will take on Katniss – for such qualities to seem like a credible basis for an enduring relationship.
To her credit though, Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins had always made it perfectly clear that she wasn’t writing about teenage hormonal turmoil. “I don’t write about adolescence,” she told the New York Times in an interview in 2008. “I write about war. For adolescents.” Katniss and Peeta are collateral damage, as much as they are a happy ending.