Selma vs. American Sniper is Peeta vs. Gale
by Nicole Plyler Fisk
blue reaping dress (check); braided updo (check); mockingjay pin (check);
Buttercup (wrong color and disinterested)
Currently, I’m piloting a two-semester freshman English course at a state university that examines Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games as a cultural phenomenon. Most recently, we talked in class about how to engage with issues in American Sniper without being polarizing or alienating the opposing side of the debate – because there has been a lot of that in recent weeks. Some argue that the film glorifies war and creates an unrealistic portrait of Chris Kyle, the Navy Seal upon whom the film is based, while others (including Director Clint Eastwood and actor Bradley Cooper) call the film antiwar and an attempt to raise awareness about PTSD among veterans. I am less concerned with the faithfulness of the film adaptation to Kyle’s autobiography, or Eastwood’s authorial intent, and most concerned with audience response. Regardless of the argument Eastwood meant to make with the film, audience response has been both polarized and vitriolic, with fans of the film calling for the death of critics, and with critics of the film suggesting that snipers are “cowards” or “hate-filled killers.”
I presented this debate to my students and asked how The Hunger Games could help us make sense of it. Our consensus: “Two of the contenders for Best Picture are Selma and American Sniper. One is about nonviolent resistance, and the other is about violent resistance. It’s Peeta vs. Gale.” Although often annoyed by the fact that love triangles seem to have become part of the required formula for successful YA series, I think this particular Team Peeta vs. Team Gale situation is worth fleshing out.
the husband as Gale, before I turned him into Peeta (below)
Team Gale: Gale Hawthorne, like Chris Kyle, feels injustice acutely and sees the world in an “us vs. them” way. When their “district” (whether 12 or New York City) is bombed, they become integral parts of the war effort, seek retribution, and are impatient with anyone who asks hard questions about their plan of action. Maybe we shouldn’t bomb a District 2 stronghold when our fight is with the Capitol, not District 2 citizens (even if they’re more sympathetic to the Capitol and less so to the rebellion). Maybe we shouldn’t invade Iraq when our fight is with a terrorist organization separate from that nation. Gale’s response – “We watched children burn to death, and there was nothing we could do!” – bespeaks the pain, helplessness, and subsequent rage echoed by those who witnessed similar losses during the 9/11 terrorist attack. David Wong, in his funny, irreverent piece for Cracked.com, would say that prototype-Gale’s response is the “most automatic, unthinking reflex,” the “hit back” reflex, and that “growing up means resisting it”; Wong writes, “It’s the thinking part – the human part – that says to stop, resist the initial urge, and actually think about what action will make the world better.” Enter:
Team Peeta: Peeta Mellark, like MLK Jr., understands that “returning violence for violence multiples violence.” While he acknowledges that he will likely kill to defend himself in the games (an overt metaphor for war), because he “can’t go down without a fight,” he also shows that he is engaging in the type of thinking Wong promotes: “I keep wishing I could think of a way to … show the Capitol that they don’t own me. That I’m more than a piece in their games.” At the end of the first novel, Peeta, rather than Katniss, inspires the berry scheme (i.e. they will both eat poisonous berries rather than kill each other). Peeta’s commitment to nonviolent resistance is so subtle that most readers, along with President Snow, miss his revolutionary role completely. Yet, when the dual winner rule is revoked, Katniss turns her bow on Peeta. He throws his knife into the lake. Only then, with Katniss’s “face burning in what can only be shame,” does she think of the berries. Remarkably Peeta is only directly credited with a body count of three in the entire games and subsequent revolution: the first is a mercy kill (ending a fatally wounded girl’s misery in Book 1); the second is in defense of another person (Haymitch’s friend, Chaff, in Book 2); and the third is when he’s mentally deranged after being tortured in Book 3. And, no, we’re not even counting Foxface, since that was indirect and completely accidental.
What becomes most interesting is the fact that the other tribute-soldiers notice Peeta’s difference and dedicate themselves to saving him, and rightly so: he, in the end, symbolizes hope for a better way. In Catching Fire, Katniss only decides to trust Finnick when she realizes that he “knows what Haymitch and I know. About Peeta. Being truly, deep-down better than the rest of us.” She explains further: “Finnick took out that tribute from 5 without blinking an eye. And how long did I take to turn deadly? I shot to kill when I targeted Enobaria and Gloss and Brutus. Peeta would have at least attempted negotiations first. Seen if some wider alliance was possible.” Peeta is the baker, the artist, and – like MLK Jr. – the rhetorician. He is the person whose words have the power of an exploding bomb during his second Capitol interview, because he is able (1) to expose “at least for a moment, how horrific the whole thing is” and (2) to convince “even the most Capitol-loving, Games-hungry, bloodthirsty person out there.”
So where does this leave Gale Hawthorne and Chris Kyle? We can identify with their rage, certainly. When Katniss imagines what Gale saw, she “wants everyone in that mountain dead.” But then she replaces the images of burning children with the images of burning citizens and knows that this is horrible too; she says, “You don’t know how those District 2 people ended up in the Nut … They may have been coerced. They may be held against their will. Some are our own spies. Would you kill them too?” When Gale says he would, that he would similarly die for the cause (something that Chris Kyle also articulates in his autobiography), Katniss “know[s] he’s telling the truth.” But she also knows that this choice, admirably made by those willing to self-sacrifice, is “a coldhearted decision to make for other people and those who love them.” And, by the end of the novel, she realizes that despite Gale’s good intentions, his way brings about her sister’s death, the very thing she’s been so desperate to prevent. The series teaches us that we can understand Gale’s motivations; we can recognize his dedication to his family and all that is brave and heroic about him; we can even love him deeply. But we cannot love his way.
This is why Katniss chooses Peeta. This is why we must choose Peeta as well. We have only to scan the titles of news articles (e.g. “It is now common knowledge that US drones bomb civilian rescuers”) to know that we’re currently Team Gale and running up against the same conclusion. Less than two months ago, the Taliban attacked an army-run school in Pakistan, killing over one hundred children, as retribution for US-led bombings that have killed their children. The cycle continues. In light of recent events, Katniss’s words in Mockingjay (Book 3) are haunting: “I no longer feel any allegiance to these monsters called human beings, despite being one myself … Because there is something significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences. You can spin in any way you like. Snow thought the Hunger Games were an efficient means of control. Coin thought the parachutes would expedite the war. But in the end, who does it benefit? No one. The truth is, it benefits no one to live in a world where these things happen.”
Only Peeta’s words in The Hunger Games (Book 1) are encouraging – “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not” – because he is able to articulate, from the very beginning, what will be the primary concern of the novels. The hope, the dandelion in the spring, is that there are people like Peeta and MLK Jr. (and Gene Sharp, if you’re looking for a contemporary) who see the world with moral clarity and push us to be better, stronger and braver. I don’t know which film will win Best Picture at the end of the month. Both Selma and American Sniper are contenders, and both are about creating a more safe, just society. The difference is that one of those two victories was achieved through nonviolent resistance, and (Oscar win or no) that will always be the better story.