ONE of the absolute best things about Catching Fire, the excellent sequel to The Hunger Games, is Subway. More specifically, it's the company's decision to spend money associating itself with a series centred on forced famine in a future dystopia. Subway's spectacularly ill-advised advertisement is almost as ubiquitous as the chain itself - and it is a beautiful thing.
Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series doesn't just target the opiate of entertainment and those responsible for it, it fires arrows at the twisted ancillary industries that grow in its shadow and at the viewers themselves. We cheer for those eking out some semblance of a living in the districts, and occasionally forget that most of us live in some semblance of the Capitol.
If the first book (and film) are subversive, the second installation of each discusses the tactics of subversion. If at first the machine cannot be broken, it tells us, be the rage within it. Turn its pervasive, intrusive access against itself. Use control against the controllers. Remembering who the enemy is becomes much easier after choosing to ignore media-approved and politically propagated social fault lines.
But is Catching Fire a blueprint for revolution, or just a pressure valve for the system that released it? After all, we're paying money to big media businesses for the pleasure of watching a rebellion against a government based on a big media business. It's an extension of the philosopher Slavoj Zizek's notion of interpassivity, his word for the flipside of interactivity. In this instance, it's investing financially and emotionally in media that shows the hard work of revolution instead of actually doing that work ourselves.
That's a moderately inadequate interpretation of a concept that is still being discussed, and it's worrisome that it is in the same forest as that tree Malcolm Gladwell was barking up a few years ago. But complimenting or criticising the studio machine that cranked the film out is unhelpful, because this is not subversion of or by the system. It is infinitely more likely that there are studio suits smart enough to know that allowing a bit of catharsis at their own expense is a swift road to bums in seats and cash in tills.
The knowledge that those the series attacks are those that stand to benefit most from its success may dilute its message for some. Those seeking to implement insurrection after watching Catching Fire may be fewer in number than the legions inspired by Gladiator, or Ferris Bueller's Day Off, or the collected ramblings of Russell Brand. But regardless of how the Hunger Games series preaches subversion, it is subversive in other, subtler ways.
Sure, you'll read a lot about the gender of their protagonist, but let's pretend we live in a world developed enough that this is unremarkable and instead laud their avoidance of Campbellian Chosen One claptrap. Film or novel, the series never flinches from depicting the tolls of courage or action or of simply living. Its victories are seldom triumphant. Its scars seldom fade.
Katniss Everdeen isn't handpicked to be the engine of rebellion, she is chosen to be its hood ornament. Her fighting instinct does not come from simply picking one side over the other - it comes from a deep-rooted unwillingness to do what she is told when she senses it is wrong, no matter who does the telling. The conviction to create a third path when only two exist isn't just what makes her a revolutionary character, it's what makes her a revolutionary.
Which brings us nicely back to Subway and its role as a litmus test for subversive content. Let us not lament the inevitability and intractability of merchandising. Let us celebrate a point wonderfully missed, for it is proof that there is indeed a point.
> The views expressed above are entirely the writer's own.