Mockingjay Part 2: the timeless truths of power and corruption
WARNING: This post contains spoilers for the film The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
One of the trends in contemporary society that give me hope for the future is that a noticeable percentage of Young Adult fiction features strongly anti-authoritarian themes. A young protagonist, with or without a group of friends, struggles against a despotic state or an abusive hierarchy and ends up vindicating freedom and individualism.
The dystopian science fiction story can be a highly effective way to dramatize these conflicts and illustrate the dangers stemming from unchecked power or neglected freedoms. When these stories become popular movie franchises, that’s even better, because then even more people are exposed to the ideas.
Recently, the final installment of the film version of The Hunger Games series was released, and besides being an argument against tyrannical government generally, it made an even more subversive point about the nature of politics and politicians. Spoilers will now ensue.
As the movie opens, the protagonist, Katniss, has found her personal struggle against the tyrannical leader, President Snow, allied with a large-scale rebellion. This means lots of soldiers, which is helpful when you’re trying to defeat an oppressive state, but it also means political leaders who may have an agenda beyond regime change. The rebels are led by President Coin, who, when we first met her in the previous film, seems determined to overthrow Snow, but isn’t above using people and manipulating images to get what she wants.
Here in the latest film, though, she’s revealed as a would-be tyrant herself. It turns out that what she wants isn’t the free society that Katniss has been fighting for, but power for herself. She is willing to murder hundreds of children (including Katniss’ beloved sister) to secure her own position, and then promptly cancels the elections she had been promising, citing chaos as a rationale—the go-to rationale of tyrants throughout history.
Katniss realizes that although her efforts have been successful in one sense, overthrowing a tyrannical leader who caused her great pain, they have also contributed to the rise to power of a new tyrannical leader who has caused her great pain. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. But as the old rock anthem suggests, Katniss won’t get fooled again, and promptly assassinates the new tyrant during the execution ceremony for the old one.
Not that I endorse political assassinations in the real world, but in the story, it’s perfectly clear that Katniss is doing the right thing. The old regime and its dictator were unjust oppressors, and the new regime turned out to be unjust from its very inception. There are applicable real-world lessons, though. For one thing, regard with extreme skepticism people who say that the ends justify the means. It’s not just President Coin who has this view, Katniss’ sort-of boyfriend Gale also endorses it, in terms of how they fight. Katniss observes that this premise will result in a dehumanizing attitude towards indiscriminate killing. In retrospect (because I don’t have as keen an eye for these things as some), this exchange was foreshadowing Gale’s complicity in Coin’s plans and hence his responsibility for killing Katniss’ sister.
Also, regard with extreme skepticism people who seek power. From Plato to Tolkien to Acton, we’ve been told that power corrupts, and that its appeal is especially strong to those already prone to corruption. As Orwell noted, the purpose of power is power. Katniss and many of the other rebels are fighting for freedom—the opposite of power—but Coin was never anti-power, she was merely fighting the existing power in order to become the new power.
In the real world, we see this every election cycle. Smith uses the rhetoric of freedom to undermine the power of Jones, then it’s Smith who wields the power. Don’t get fooled again.
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