Destroy All Monsters: Katniss Everdeen's Utopia
A girl like Katniss Everdeen has to travel a long way to become a hero - further than the Capital, or the Arena; she has to travel past the end of the world itself, into an unvarnished future iteration of society, where whatever the hell else is going on, nothing like this is going on. People will gravitate towards The Hunger Games: Catching Fire for its sophomore appearance of the best heroic character of the past decade (who also happens to be female), but the question I keep returning to is this: why does Katniss Everdeen have to wait till the end of the world?
Neither of the archetypal heroes I grew up with were able to exist in the same time and space as I do, either. Luke Skywalker - my Katniss Everdeen - came from a post-apocalyptic dystopia, too, even if it took place in the (very) long past and (very) far away. There was an Empire, and the galaxy was all used and busted, and Luke's role was to rise up against the overlords, foment rebellion, and fire that one great shot into the heart of the machine. (And so he did, and so did Katniss.)
Indiana Jones - my Bella Swan - was removed to a burnished past, just beyond the living experience of most of his audience. While there, he could journey in the crack between the natural world and the supernatural, eventually choosing (in each iteration) to embrace the supernatural to win the day. The modes of fantasy always deal with that travel, between this world and the next (via a rabbit hole, which may be a Well of the Souls or a sparkly vampire, it makes little difference). They aren't apocalypse stories, per se, except that they deal with the migration from one stable version of the world to a different, less-stable one. They are about the end of the world, or at least a departure from the one we know.
These were the Young Adult fiction of their time, whether we like it or not, and the tales of Harry Potter, Tris Prior, Saba, Yorick Brown, Buffy Summers, Clary Fray, and yes, Katniss Everdeen, can all be divided neatly into the same two groups. All of their stories are elaborate power fantasies of one kind or another, because that's the engine that YA fiction (in any medium) runs on, sparking the wire of every young adult's inherent (and hormonal!) sense of disenfranchisement, against the voltage of a fantasy avatar who rises above bondage to become Super, Special, or Chosen.
It's identity-validation in the most basic form: yes, you might be living in the cupboard under the stairs, in the worst district in Panem. But just you wait. (Patience, young Jedi.) It gets better.
"Better" is a strange notion to apply to the life of Katniss Everdeen, who (in the Hunger Games movies; I've skipped the books) is wonderfully morose about her status as a hero. Who can blame her: being chosen for the Games, by necessity, means death or becoming a murderer and most likely both. And in the meantime, life Panem is such shit, anyway.
This idea - of a moral hero, whose heroic deeds are by their nature so repellent to her that the weight of them presses further and further down on her till she can hardly bear it any more - is so alien to our modern pop cultural landscape that it almost escapes attention while watching The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. But in addition to whatever else she is (and yes, Katniss is great with a bow, and more importantly to every achievement in both movies, clever as fuck), she's a character actually grappling with the kind of on-the-ground reality of what a fantasy universe like hers might actually be like. She even directly questions the destructive intentions of her world's populist mass-media. To see that kind of context in what is, for 2013 anyway, the very definition of populist mass-media, is sort of brilliant.
In Catching Fire - a superlative sequel, read Eric's review here - she's also dealing with the post-traumatic repercussions of having survived the Hunger Games in movie 1; and to add insult to injury, the villains of her world have conjured up the Survivor All-Star of Hunger Games for movie 2, not just putting Katniss back in the ring for the second year running (this is sequel machination at its most bald, and therefore sublime), but pitting her against the living legends of the whole history of the sport.
There's a Campbellian stage called "the refusal of the call," and the best heroes in fiction don't just hit that beat once, they hammer against it all the way along - and Katniss (like Potter) is precisely marvelous in this vein. I suppose a character like Katniss Everdeen would be somewhat unbearable (or certifiably sociopathic) if she bought into her own press, even for a moment.
There's a rather arousing sequence right in the middle of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire where Katniss displays her bowcraft against an onslaught of video-game bad guys in the practice arena; this is the movie's only concession to the "fantasy cosplay babe" aspects of the character, and it's gone as quickly as it arrives. Otherwise, Katniss is dragging her heels all the way through, even negotiating for her own death (to spare the life of another), and resisting with all her strength the role of role model for the wrong side, as the dictatorial government would paint her.
This is ironic, of course, only in that the harder Katniss pushes against being the pin-up girl for Donald Sutherland's dystopia, the more she becomes the perfect icon for her own utopia outside the text. Not for nothing has so much been written and said about her, in the parched desert of female leads on mega-budget motion pictures.
Katniss never spends time fretting about which of the boys she should be with. She retains arch physical prowess without ever wanting to use it against others. She thinks through every choice, rather than acting carelessly or heartlessly. She's a role model, all right; just not for the world she's in.
In the film's most striking image, she is paraded in front of the media wearing a flawless, almost cage-like, white wedding dress... which then incinerates off her body, revealing a dark costume beneath it, whose wings spread the pledge of revolution. It's the sort of cinematic moment that doesn't need to be plumbed terribly deeply for its wildly effective meaning: it's visual storytelling as plot, character, and theme simultaneously, and sublimely done at that.
But The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a sad, movie-long acknowledgement that Katniss can only exist in a post-apocalyptic world, a world where whatever structures make up our day-to-day lives no longer exist or have been replaced by something simpler or different. This is the very core of mythmaking, of course, but the dystopia of The Hunger Games is part of the fantasy wish-fulfillment too. The Hunger Games must imagine a world broken down and remade, in order to create a place where Katniss Everdeen is possible.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture.