I headed out in the snow on the night before Thanksgiving to catch up with “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1.” I enjoyed the film, although perhaps in a the-third-”Star-Wars”-movie-was-fun-but-not-as-good-as-the- second-and-I-don’t-believe-the-Ewoks-could-have-beaten-the- Imperial-stormtroopers sort of way.
What struck me was that the wintry weather hardly put a dent in the crowd. I’m not entirely surprised. Suzanne Collins’s mythical nation of Panem and her reluctant rebel Katniss Everdeen exert a cultural tug that transcends story. In particular, “The Hunger Games” has become canonical in the sense that it furnishes background even to political conversation.
Panem, with its great inequalities of wealth and power, is used as a model for everything: If we don’t raise the minimum wage, we’re Panem. If we don’t reduce the size and wealth of the federal government, we’re Panem. “The Hunger Games” is a warning about the consequences of inaction on climate change. No, it’s a warning about disasters that await if our response to climate change is more central planning.
Some protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, have adopted Katniss’s furious revolutionary slogan, “If we burn, you burn with us.” In Thailand, students flashing District 12’s three- fingered salute – a symbol of protest in the film – have recently been arrested. (The salute has apparently been outlawed since spring.) In a few short years, “The Hunger Games” and its symbology have become a part of the cultural common.
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Lots of popular culture tropes have ignited political controversies, but few have been adopted so enthusiastically, on nearly every issue, by both sides. Perhaps the best example is the 1939 film version of “The Wizard of Oz,” which, as the dystopian novelist Joshua David Bellin has observed, could be seen as simultaneously endorsing the pro- and anti-technology strands very much at war in American culture at the time of its release.
That battle is still prominent today and – sure enough! – we could easily run “The Hunger Games” through it. On the one hand, we can be awed by the technological prowess of Panem, particularly the ability to build and control the games themselves. But the anti-technology theme is deeper. Our heroine, after all, uses only a bow and arrow. In the arena, none of the Tributes ever wields a gun.
What accounts for the ability of Katniss to leap from the page and the screen into our political debates in a way that most characters never do? To find the answer, we might begin with Stanford professor Blakey Vermeule’s fine 2010 book”Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?” Vermeule answers her title question in part by noting that the people we meet in novels are often “portable.” By this she means that many characters “can jump between media – from print to stage to film – and between genres – from fiction to poetry – quite easily.” She adds, “Characters have lives that extend infinitely in serial form.”
But not all characters are of equal portability. The ones who become iconic, Vermeule says, “are the most penetrating, quick-sighted, far seeing, and all knowing.” They tend to possess what she terms a “Machiavellian intelligence,” the power to look beyond the surface and truly understand people’s motivations – an ability that may be used for good or for ill. And they tend to have, or provoke in others, crises of conscience.
Katniss is portable, in ways that most other iconic figures from popular culture are not. Fans might love the people they meet in the Star Trek or Harry Potter universes, but it isn’t easy to picture the characters outside their tightly designed worlds. Although both franchises have given us a vocabulary of evil – the Borg, Lord Voldemort – the characters themselves don’t translate into, say, political conversation without a great deal of prestidigitation.
But Katniss fits the theory beautifully. She suffers Vermeule’s crises of conscience – let’s say crises, because she suffers them over and over – and she emerges from her reflection with a dedication and deep understanding that we can admire.
Not every character in the franchise is as portable. Haymitch and Effie and President Snow are entirely familiar types – nicely etched, especially by the wonderful actors who portray them on the screen, but entirely familiar.
Portability is the reason that Panem seems to us to map so easily onto the political disputes of the day; and the reason activists fiercely debate whether Katniss should properly be considered a heroine of the left or of the right.
But we have to be cautious in adapting literary tropes to fit our political preferences. A character is in the end only a character, and a story is in the end only a story. Whether you consider “The Hunger Games” to be “a sweeping indictment of inequality” or believe there are “striking similarities between Peeta and Edward Snowden,” in the end it is not the quality of your analogy but the quality of your underlying argument that should do the work.
So let’s all enjoy “The Hunger Games,” both for the compelling story and for Suzanne Collins’s creation of a cultural hero who will probably be with us for decades to come. And by all means, let’s borrow characters and setting when they’re portable. But let’s not pretend that Katniss Everdeen can solve our problems for us.
OK, so maybe you want to argue that if Katniss is so insightful, she should have winkled out the secret plot that almost everyone else knew about in “Catching Fire.” I'll give you that one. The most painful aspect of watching the film was to see the obviously deteriorating Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose brilliantly realized Plutarch Heavensbee from “Catching Fire” became here an occasionally inspired but mostly tragic shadow of what it had been. Perhaps the answer matters less than activists think. Bold indeed, but also politically neurotic, would be the parent who refused a teen permission to watch “Mockingjay Part 1” on a ground like “No child of mine is going to pay to see that right- wing/left-wing claptrap.”
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a law professor at Yale.