Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Being A Hero vs. Doing Heroic Things: Katniss, Bond, and James B. Donovan

Several blockbuster movies this fall have presented very different views of heroism. James Bond (Spectre, 11/6), Katniss Everdeen (Mockingjay Part 2, 11/20), and James Donovan (Bridge of Spies, 10/16) all embody a version of what it means to be a hero. Are they all worth emulating? Should we make a distinction between being a hero vs. doing heroic things?


At one point in Spectre, one of the expendable Bond girls says, “You’re a good man.” He’s not. He’s good at what he does, and that is a very different thing indeed. Quantum of Solace and Skyfall showed Bond with the glamorous fa├žade rightly removed. He was a haunted, hardened man, fixated on fighting for a mother country that was as ready to betray him as embrace. In the process, he left a trail of used (and often dead) women in his wake.

Those movies actually brought me back to the Bond franchise, because they rightly showed that nobody can do what Bond does without chipping away at one’s soul. Bond was no longer the man we admired because we wanted his life; he was the man we wincingly accepted because we recognize that sometimes it takes monsters to fight monsters.

Spectre wipes away the grimy image of the recent Bond and recreates the myth. He’s bigger than life, handsome, and suave; he’s always smarter, always better, and in the end he always gets the girl (even if he’s just killed her husband – which was, frankly, one of the more unsettling seductions in the Bond canon). Spectre is getting great reviews for resurrecting the ghost of Bond’s past. I wish they had let the old Bond rest in peace.


Suzanne Collin’s epic, thought-provoking Hunger Games series lost some of its heart in the translation to the big screen, thought the final movie (Mockingjay Part 2) may have done the best job in capturing the bleak nature of Collin’s story.

The propaganda machines are front and center, properly warning us of the manipulative power of the media. The Capital is more clearly America than ever; Snow gives rousing speeches that could have been pulled from any number of political figures in the last fifteen years. Coin lives up to her name; she’s the flip side of Snow. They are both political animals enamored with power and glory. Gale shows his true colors: the ends justify the means, even at the cost of people he loves, and even if he is just replacing the devil he hates with the devil he knows.

And Katniss – well, the movie cleaned her up. In the books, she snaps as they raid the Capital, killing civilians and longing for a vengeful Hunger Games. In the movie, she continues to be a reluctant hero. She keeps getting warped by the demands of war but she’s always good deep inside. She is the voice of peace, sometimes putting herself and others in danger because she believes there is good in people. When she agrees to the Games, the movie seems to make clear she already has a plan to take out Coin.  I understand why they changed her for the big screen. Her character is far more heroic. However, I thought the books drew their power from grappling with this anti-hero/hero tension.

When Katniss and Peeta finally make a life together in Panem, it’s an appropriately bittersweet ending. Yes, they find a measure of peace. No, they are not okay. However, the movie changed the books just enough that I once again felt like the original story was robbed of some of its power. In the books, Katniss doesn't just wrestle with what she was forced to do; she wrestles with what she chose to do.

I like the books a lot because I thought they were honest about how the events in the story would impact not just the world but the people.* I wish the movies had allowed that to play out fully.


As opposed to Spectre and Mockingjay, Bridge of Spies is based on a true story – which makes it that much more remarkable (and from what I have read, it stays fairly close to the actual events). James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks) is a man committed to justice at any cost. His determination to do the right thing in the face of intimidation and threats takes its toll on him and his family, but he refuses to bend or break.

Why would he defend a spy? Because, as a human being, he deserves a fair trial. Why would he insist a spy be treated well? Because we would want out soldiers treated well, and we need to set an example. Why can’t we do what we assume the enemy will do? Because we are not like them, and we need the world to see this. Why would he travel around the world to broker a deal that will save just a few Americans from torture and death? Because he can, and because it’s the right thing to do.
I’m reluctant to give the label “hero” to just about any protagonist portrayed in entertainment. They often do heroic things (Bond and Katniss), but that doesn’t necessarily qualify them for heroism. I’m pretty comfortable with that label for James Donovan, at least as he is portrayed by the movie. I like stories that make me want to be a better man. Bridge of Spies does precisely that.


*I posted a series on the Hunger Games based on the book The Hunger Games and Philosophy. The first post discussed the role of entertainment in the Capital; the second looked at the intersection of luck and choice when contemplating morality; the third highlighted Abigail Mann's “Competition and Kindness: The Darwinian World of the Hunger Games”; the fourth focused on the question of personal identity in "The Problem of Peeta"; the last examined "The Hunger Games and Just War Theory."

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