The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
based on the novel by Suzanne Collins
Despite my lack of scientific prowess, I love to experiment, be it sartorially (all shall tremble before my Easter blazer) or culinarily (“Throw it all in!” is becoming a common phrase at the Floating Domicile). And, as a fan, I get excited when I can experiment with my media consumption, like when I decided to watch Prometheus before seeing Alien to see if it would function on its own. The Hunger Games is the focus of my latest pop culture experiment. I read the first novel and liked the film more, so I decided to not read the rest of the series and see how it all played out on-screen.
This has come with its advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantage, obviously, is that it allows me to evaluate the adaptation purely as a film and see if the filmmakers did their job in creating a coherent visual narrative. But it also means that I’m never exactly sure what to lay at the feet of the book instead of the film. While I have long been a proponent of pragmatic adaptations, the trend for the current wave of young adult novels turned film is slavish devotion. Suzanne Collins even asked that the cat in the first film be recast because it was the wrong color and fans were supposedly upset. There were more fans upset that the franchise didn’t take the opportunity to cast an actress of color in the current reigning young adult franchise given the ambiguity of her ethnicity in the novel, but hey, kitties!
Anyway, in trying to gather my thoughts on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, I find myself wondering if I can really blame the screenwriters for the faults of the novel. What were they going to do, radically change the second and third acts? After seeing the rebellion Katniss has incited in the oppressed Districts of Panem, President Snow decides, with the help of new gamemaster Plutarch Heavensbee, that the third Quarter Quell (the “wildcard” Hunger Games held every twenty-five years) will select its tributes from the existing pool of victors. Katniss and Peeta find themselves in the arena once more, as planned. No matter how much Katniss protests that she’s just trying to survive, not start a rebellion, President Snow will do everything he can to discredit her before he kills her. But this means that we spend much of Catching Fire back in the arena, and that’s no longer the most interesting part of the story.
The reason I enjoy the films more than the books is because I’m fascinated by the world of The Hunger Games and the small, horrifying details, like the little girl who dreamily tells Katniss that she wants to volunteer as tribute just like her. While I was reading the novel, I wasn’t as interested in her character. But because Catching Fire’s story retraces the steps of the first film while setting up the third and fourth film (yeesh), the plot ultimately ends up being about Katniss accepting her role in the rebellion. Jennifer Lawrence plays this to the hilt; there’s a reason the film ends on a silent close-up of her.
So, while the pacing of the Arena section of the film is exquisite and I could cry about Mags all day, I ultimately prefer the first third and the last moments, the parts that actually advance the overarching plot of the trilogy all while savagely deconstructing the blood-thirsty and celebrity mad Capitol. While we don’t have anything so precise as Caesar Flickerman framing a child being beaten to death as pure art, we do get plenty. President Snow’s granddaughter, who was briefly mentioned in Mockingjay, watches the Hunger Games with her grandfather and roots for Katniss; the conflict between his love for his granddaughter and the fact that Katniss makes his skin crawl is impeccably played by Donald Sutherland.
But my favorite scene comes fairly early, after Gale is beaten by the Enforcers. Katniss has spent her entire life taking on the burden for her family and protecting others. The youngest under her self-determined care—Peeta, Prim, and Rue—symbolize innocence to Katniss, making her even more ferocious in her attempts to protect them. (Witness Katniss and Haymitch planning to protect Peeta from the Quarter Quell without his knowledge.) She sees herself as the only line of defense between the people she cares about and the Capitol. But when the brutally beaten Gale is brought into her home, her community galvanizes, including sweet, innocent Prim, who calmly and efficiently injects Gale with a painkiller when her mother can’t. It’s that scene that shows us that Katniss is not alone as a survivor—everyone else is trying to survive, too, and it’s all they can do to keep their heads above water. And if Katniss is not alone, then the whole system can come tumbling down.
Bottom line: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire sinks under the weight of its retread of the first film structurally, but the first act and last moments are marvelous. If you’re interested.
I saw this film in theaters.