True to its dour, dismal self, The Hunger Games series offers a penultimate installment – Mockingjay Part I – that mostly mourns things: the loss of loved ones, the destruction of a community, the psychological fallout of combat. The movie also mourns its heroine, Katniss Everdeen, whose personhood is once again put in service of a symbol.
Previously, Katniss had been a tool of the totalitarian government that forced her into the deadly games for which the series is named. She became a symbol of the sacrifice the ruling class required of its working-class subjects. Having defied the government at the end of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Katniss finds herself recuperating in the underground headquarters of the growing civilian rebellion at the start of Mockingjay. Yet she soon discovers that the movement’s leaders want to use her in the same way the government did in the games: as another symbol - more hopeful, perhaps, but still useful in coercing the populace to do their bidding.
It is to the credit of Jennifer Lawrence, who plays Katniss, that Mockingjay Part I resonates as both a political and personal struggle. She brings a range and conviction to the part that’s rare for the dystopian genre, especially in a startling opening scene of Katniss trying to keep it together while suffering an episode of post-traumatic stress. For three films now, Lawrence has provided the sullen sort of integrity that has kept Katniss from fully succumbing to the designs others have for her.
There is also a meta layer at play here, in which the movie operates as a commentary on the circumstances of its own making. Ever since her breakout performance in the acclaimed indie Winter’s Bone, Lawrence has strived to retain her blunt personality while navigating a Hollywood system that would like to control her. (To say nothing of the voyeurism industry that tried to employ her as a sex symbol when her images were among other hacked celebrity photos.) Mockingjay – Part I, then, can be read as a declaration of independence for both its star and main character, a dual deconstruction of what it means to be a symbol.
What gets lost when we reduce someone to a symbol is, of course, their created personhood, the essential image of God with which they were imbued.
What gets lost when we reduce someone to a symbol is, of course, their created personhood, the essential image of God with which they were imbued. Human value should trump symbolic value. Perhaps this is why Christians are insistent on emphasizing the person of Christ, rather than merely pointing to him as a symbol of our faith. Christ’s personhood matters. “These are the reasons why we confess him to be true God and truly human,” states the Belgic Confession. “True God in order to conquer death by his power, and truly human that he might die for us in the weakness of his flesh.” Christ was not simply a symbol. He suffered as a person.
As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth – that moment of Incarnation – it’s worth confessing the ways we sometimes co-opt him as a symbol this time of year. We forget the refugee infant and prefer the cute little babies who sit at the center of our nativity scenes and anchor the action of our pageants. These things can be good ways of remembering and teaching, yes, but they can also prettify the Gospel by wrapping it up in seasonal packaging. Like Katniss’ rebel manipulators in Mockingjay Part I, we may have good aims, but they’re for naught if we lose sight of the Person behind the symbol.