There are several moving scenes in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1,” but the one that puts a lump in the throat and a tingle in the spine shows gritty, war-scarred freedom fighters kissing the first three fingers on their hand, then silently lifting them in the air. It’s become known as The Hunger Games salute: A gesture of solidarity, unity, and defiance.
The third of four movies based on the best-selling “Hunger Games” book trilogy comes whistling into theaters this week. In the first two films, a cruel and bloated Capitol forces youngsters from its blighted outer districts to battle in televised fights to the death.
These are the Hunger Games, designed both to exert complete dominion over the provinces and to entertain the foppish citizens of the Capitol. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and her partner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) win the first round, only to be forced to fight again in the second film. At the end of the second movie, though, revolutionaries rescue Katniss. Now reunited with her hometown love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but separated from her television lover Peeta, Katniss wavers between rage, confusion, sorrow, and post-traumatic stress.
The Mockingjay Broods
She is anything but chipper. She never smiles. The first two films were driven by death-match action, but this is a much more internal, psychological film. Katniss broods her way through, only occasionally rising to fight someone. She’s become more than a warrior. She is now a symbol: The Mockingjay incarnate. Downtrodden, disenfranchised masses whistle her three-note tune before they charge into machine-gun fire. They sing her song as they march to sabotage the enemy. They lift her salute in defiance to the faceless troopers who beat and murder them.
Katniss finds the mantle of public Mockingjay a heavy burden indeed. The film reflects her internal dismay by delivering an almost unbearably dark tone. As it opens, another surviving Hunger Games warrior, Finnick, tells Katniss he wishes he, she, and the other games participants were dead.
That’s as cheery as the movie gets.
Followed by an ubiquitous camera crew, Katniss is subjected to dreary photo ops and dismal camera backdrops. She tours what remains of her hometown: rubble littered with skeletal remains. She visits the frontlines, walking through makeshift morgues buzzing with flies. The film, supposed to be aimed at youth, is rated PG-13. There is no language or sexuality—Katniss is too stressed to think of romance. When she briefly does, love feels out of place in wartime. The violence and dark thematic materials are unrelenting. It is a distressing movie, and parents should be aware of their children’s limitations for viewing death, destruction, fear, and hopelessness.
From Freedom Fighter to Propaganda
When Suzanne Collins wrote the books in the mid-2000s, America was engaged in an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s an open question whether the imperialistic Capitol or the scrappy freedom fighters represent the United States. In the final book, “Mockingjay,” Collins focuses on the negative: how Katniss is used as propaganda to incite the masses to revolution despite her objections. The ending of the book, which will be in the fourth and final film next year, asks if any of it was worth the cost.
Perhaps we see things differently today. The Islamic State beheads people and brags about it on YouTube while courageous Kurds risk everything to hold them back. People take to the streets in protest in Hong Kong, Thailand, Budapest, Mexico, and the United States. Brutality and oppression are on the rise. The world seems darker. We can no longer attribute these problems to pro-war propaganda. Increasingly, we know evil exists and is not going away. Maybe we need symbols to inspire us. The world sure does. Life followed art this week when five students protesting the military coup in Thailand were arrested for lifting the Hunger Games salute. The movement is spreading.
America has been a beacon for those fighting oppression since the days of George Washington and Patrick Henry. We’ve given the world Superman and Mel Gibson’s William Wallace. Fighting for freedom is embedded in our DNA. Even if we’re conflicted internally, as the “Hunger Games” saga reflects, its message of liberation also resonates on a global scale.