“Girl on Fire” or Mass-Produced Mediocrity?

Katniss Everdeen, the Hunger Games heroine, has invited comparisons to Joan of Arc. Despite superficial similarities, the comparison is inapt.

With the opening of Mockingjay Part 2 on November 19, the cinematic telling of the story of Katniss Everdeen comes to a close. The Hunger Games series has been wildly popular, and many consider Katniss a heroine for our times, for our young women. Called “The Girl on Fire,” hers is a riveting story, both in the page-turning books and on screen. Suzanne Moore, writer for the Guardian and mother of a teenage daughter, praised Katniss: “Seeing our young heroine survive whatever the system throws at her, shooting a flaming arrow across a cultural landscape barren of images of young, self-contained female strength, is brilliant.” When asked why Katniss is so popular, Jennifer Lawrence—the actress portraying her in the films—answered: “She doesn’t have a lot, but she’s happy, and she faces death out of love for her family. She doesn’t want to be a hero, but she becomes the symbol for a revolution, a kind of futuristic Joan of Arc.” Similarities do exist between Katniss and Joan: both inspire their nations to rise and fight oppressors, both are young women. But there the similarities abruptly end. For when compared to Joan, who is indeed a heroine and timeless role model, Katniss looks more an instrument of mass-produced mediocrity than a girl on fire.

Consider first the ways in which both young women lead their people. Although Katniss snatches the title “heroine,” her ability to handle leadership falls short. In the first two parts of the Hunger Games trilogy the public nature of her defiance toward President Snow and the Capitol gradually shapes her into the symbol of rebellion against the unjust government. Yet when she finally finds the organized resistance hidden in District 13, rather than using her unique ability to rally her country toward freedom, she instead hides in closets and bathtubs, wanders halls in order to escape reality. When she ultimately does agree to be the icon of rebellion—The Mockingjay—her decision is emotionally reactionary, motivated by revenge. The trigger is seeing her friend Peeta interviewed in the Capitol, obviously manipulated by Snow. Though a suffering nation could not move her to act on their behalf,  her feelings for Peeta and her hatred for Snow do move her to action. And so, making “I kill Snow” one of her demands, Katniss accepts her position. Another huge flaw in her leadership is that she fails to see beyond herself to the big picture. When others die fighting for their freedom, she attributes their death to her own failing rather than recognizing that others believe enough in a cause to die for it. She sees herself as the cause of suffering for a nation, rather than humbly acknowledging that she is merely the figurehead of the rebellion, albeit one with singular gifts to offer to the cause.  

Now examine Joan, and the manner in which she exercised leadership. Though she was uneducated and illiterate, Joan mastered the most difficult situations. At the age of 16, without the help a lawyer, she stood before her local court and extricated herself from an arranged marriage to which she had never consented. Confident in the knowledge that God had chosen her to save France from the clutches of the English, she then began an incredible series of events. At the age of 17 she represented herself before the artistocrat Robert de Baudricourt, before the Dauphin of France, and before an ecclesiastical court at Poitiers, eventually winning support from all parties and gaining command of the armies of France.  Louis Kossuth draws attention to the magnitude of her accomplishments: “Consider this unique and imposing distinction. Since the writing of human history, Joan of Arc is the only person, of either sex, who has ever held supreme command of the military forces of a nation at the age of seventeen.” Though the Hundred Years’ War had been raging for 92 years, and the best military minds in France had been unsuccessful for more than 40 years, this inexperienced girl turned the war completely around in the space of seven weeks.   

Although both Katniss and Joan face persecution of some kind and rise up against it, Katniss remains a figurehead, basically shirking leadership—while Joan actually united her country, led her own army, planned and then enacted the devastation of her enemies. 

As far as personal character goes, again Katniss fails to impress, offering a very weak example for anyone facing difficulties. While outwardly Katniss avoids defeat, her spirit is utterly broken by her bitter response to suffering. She loves her sister, Prim, but confirms that Prim is “the only person in the world I feel certain I love.” At the beginning of the trilogy, Katniss volunteers as a tribute in the Hunger Games to save Prim’s life—a heroic action indeed. To lay down one’s life for another could transform a person into a hero, but considering Katniss’ entire story, the action fails to transform her. Toward others she is sullen, rude, manipulative, and even filled with hatred in some cases. Jennifer Lawrence’s excellent portrayal of Katniss manages to endear her to the audience, partly due to Lawrence’s own charm, partly because there is no one else to rally behind in that dystopian world, and partly because viewing the movie spares one knowing Katniss’ miserable thoughts. When Mockingjay, the book, begins, Katniss dwells on torments already suffered in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. She ruminates: “I hate almost everybody now. Myself more than anyone.”

Surely, a hero ought to evidence hope that evil can be overcome. Yet even before experiencing the trauma of the Hunger Games and the psychological torture of President Snow, Katniss exhibits bitterness and despair to the point that she desires to avoid bearing children. After all of those torments, Katniss desires death, even suicide.

In contrast to Katniss’s despair, Joan has both hope and joy in the face of suffering. Her reliance on God’s grace—sometimes specially granted to her through visions of Saints Catherine, Margaret, and Michael—allow her to maintain her legendary boldness despite inestimable trials. While her military and political conquests are unparalleled, her final year, spent in captivity and finally as the subject of a rigged trial, disclose her great character and heroic virtue. She spent the last five months of her life imprisoned in a cage-like cell, never left alone, but always guarded by men—inside the cell and without. Day after day she endured psychological torture as 60 lofty and educated men hammered her with intricate, repetitive, and abusive questions. Even though she was threatened, permitted no lawyer, no advisor, and no comfort, Joan not only outwitted that wicked court, she did so with grace and charity. Even as she faced death by fire, she maintained that everything she had done had been done at God’s command. Her last words were the Holy Name of Jesus, repeated over and over until the fire consumed her. Never did she despair, turn against God, or give way to hatred or revenge; rather, her fortitude transmits courage to others to this very day. 

Humanity need heroes, longs for them, and treasures their examples. Suffering faces everybody in this life, thanks to Original Sin, and we learn from others how to rise above it. No one needs help wallowing in misery, or pitying himself. The danger with Katniss is that she makes one feel comfortable with wallowing, with being mediocre. We need examples of heroic virtue in the face of the worst trials. This Joan can inspire and Katniss cannot.

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About Elizabeth Anderson 13 Articles
Elizabeth Anderson is a stay at home mother of six, and an independent writer. A graduate of Christendom College, she worked for several years at Population Research Institute. She and her husband, Matthew, helped to found the Chesterton Academy of St. George in their hometown of Jackson Michigan.