Catching the Hint of Liberty in “Catching Fire” and “The Hunger Games”

Catching Fire, the second installment in the trilogy of films based on The Hunger Games books by Suzanne Collins, is burning through the box office, raking in revenues of more than $360 million since its November release. This makes the movie the third highest grossing movie of the year. And this bodes well for individualism and liberty.

I’ve written earlier about how The Hunger Games books have a strong liberty theme. Indeed, these books could be considered this generation’s version of George Orwell’s 1984 or even Animal Farm. The story is about young heroine, Katniss Everdeen, fighting the tyranny of an oppressive government (The Capital District) that sends teenagers into a ring to fight to the death. Collins has explicitly drawn on the Greek Myth of the Theseus and the Minotaur, the Roman penchant for gladiatorial games, and reality shows such as Survivor. The individualism is palpable in the books, but the quest for liberty is more muted. Collins is first and foremost focused on exploring how violence (and war) effect children. While she is clearly opposed to tyranny, she’s not stumping for either individualism or liberty and has carefully avoided engaging in public discussions about the political implications of her books.

The first movie was a disappointment if we were looking for a strong liberty theme, defaulting toward action and adventure and away from ideas. (See my discussion at the Beacon here and on youtube here.) At the time, I felt the constraints of film made it difficult to really develop the pro-liberty theme even though it was implicit, although the anti-tyranny theme and plot were strong and compelling. In part, I felt this was a constraint of the way Collins chose to tell her stories, using the setting of the gladiator-type ring and survival game to propel the plot.

Thus, I was pleasantly surprised by Catching Fire, both in terms of the greater emphasis on the importance of liberty as well as the way the medium of film may have contributed to strengthening its message. As the second film in the series, the movie explores more of the individual characters’ personal qualities and their motivations. The storytelling, unlike the first movie (and much of the book), relies more on the actors to propel the emotion of the story. Left in the hands an able actress like Jennifer Lawrence, the injustice of the Capital District’s terrorization of the of the post-apocalyptic nation of Panem and her sympathy for protestors and a budding revolution comes alive in her on-screen emotions and reactions if not her words. Indeed, as she tours the districts of Panem in the wake of her win from the Hunger Games, we almost feel like she is ready to jump in with the protestors. Her emotional reactions to the individualized terror (the execution of protester), her acts of heroism (saving her friend Gale Hawthorne), and her anger at the brutal beating of one of her mentors by the District’s guards are individualized and powerful.

Catching Fire remains remarkably true to the plot of the books, so Everdeen retreats into her surivival mode when the games begin. But this is still progress. The books have an explicit message supporting individual freedom and an implicit message supportive of personal liberty. The movies, I believe, are evolving into stories that are more explicit about personal liberty.

All this bodes well for the third movie in the series, Mockingjay. If we continue to see Everdeen’s character evolve in a way consistent with the books, the third movie may well complete her evolution from reactionary individualist to a practical libertarian revolutionary.

Samuel R. Staley is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Managing Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University. He is a contributing author to the Independent books, Property Rights: Eminent Domain and Regulatory Takings Re-Examined and Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis.
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