Radical Faking in Catching Fire

The premise of the Hunger Games franchise is that, in a post-apocalyptic future, the revolutionary energies of various third world ‘districts’ are kept down by an officially imposed carnival death match, in which two young people from each “district” are filmed in combat with each other, until only one of the cohort survives. At the close of battle in the first film, the last two survivors, Katniss and Peeta, successfully resist the necessity of playing along with this performance by attempting to commit suicide, apparently out of love for each other. So compelling is this narrative of love born out of such violent surroundings, that the authorities allow the pair to be spared to live as a celebrity couple. So the familiar Hollywood message appears to be “true love is so powerful that it can triumph over death, and force even the most repressive of regimes to change their ways”… except it’s not, because in a metafictional sleight of hand, the pair seem to know that this is the conclusion both the games and the film would find acceptable, and so merely faked their love in order to be spared.

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The dilemma of the second film, then, is that the classical Hollywood couple at its centre is more or less entirely fake. The intellectual advantage this gives the Hunger Games series over its main competitor in adolescent entertainment, Twilight, is that whereas Twilight solicits its audience to take pleasure in witnessing the creation of a heterosexual couple, Hunger Games holds that pleasure at arm’s length in order to interrogate it. Our usual lazy satisfaction in the creation of a couple in this kind of film is disturbingly undercut, because here, to take that pleasure is to be on the side of the authorities who keep the inhabitants of the districts down by deploying such side shows. Even if Hunger Games capitulates by making Katniss and Peeter’s relationship “real” later in the series, it doesn’t matter, because this remarkable gesture has already been made.

In the second film we find another variation on the motif. If one survived the first hunger games by parodying the true love that the ideology would have you imagine would circumvent it, then one survives the second by going yet further. At the close of the film Katniss realises that her ostensible allies and enemies in this second battle are almost all secret resistance members, determined to break Katniss out of the arena in order to become a figurehead for a revolutionary uprising among the districts. The revolutionary actions Katniss carries out over the course of the film are performed almost entirely unknowingly. Far from the usual individualist hero of Hollywood, who fights against collectivist evil with all the self-interested verve of a hedge-fund manager, Katniss’s heroism has virtually nothing to do with her own intentions or identity. Having undermined its audience’s own conservative investment in Hollywood love in the first installment, the articulation of the second Hunger Games seems to be this: to participate in a revolution one’s own identity must be the first thing to go.

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