The Hunger Games is that rare Young Adult fiction franchise that manages to be thought-provoking and entertaining in equal measure. While it may not carry the literary heft of dystopian classics like 1984 or Brave New World, the series manages to be an entry point into discussion of class, authority, slavery and the value of human life. The film adaptation of Catching Fire is no exception. While we have the adolescent love triangle front and center, there is enough attention paid to the dystopian setting to elevate this film above its contemporaries in the YA-novel-adapted-to-film category. Yes, this is a blockbuster action film and teen romance, but thanks to careful allegiance to the source material and a screenplay that carefully balances social commentary with more conventional storytelling, it manages to do more than simply pander to a target demographic.
The film picks up shortly after the events of the first. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is still struggling with the brutality and loss she witnessed in the arena, trying to reassert her pre-Games life and routine back in District 12. We are quickly re-introduced to Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), the oft-absent third party in the story’s love triangle, and the opening of the film goes to great lengths to make certain that we don’t forget him or the fact that Katniss has always imagined her future playing out with Gale by her side.
We are also reacquainted with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and immediately reminded of his utter ruthlessness. Establishing this is important, as it may have been easy to regard him as ineffectual following the events of the last film. Conspiring with the new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Snow bares his fascist fangs in an opening salvo that includes clamping down on the already limited freedoms of the people of District 12 and restructuring that year’s Hunger Games to suck previous victors back in to fight against one another. This is all direct retaliation toward Katniss and an attempt to quell her burgeoning status as a symbol of defiance amongst the people.
Ironically, this is a status that Katniss has never actively aspired to. One of the film’s quiet successes is how well this is managed, how we as an audience observe her struggle. When Katniss takes action seen as defiant, it comes not as a grandiose middle finger to the Capitol, but rather as an intensely personal decision to follow her heart. In this way, we see how revolution can be sparked by small acts and single decisions. We also see Katniss as someone we can relate to. Someone who is not a superheroic paragon of righteousness, but rather an ordinary person who is doing her best to make brave decisions.
It’s a credit to Jennifer Lawrence’s performance that this comes across so smoothly. Much of Katniss’s struggle both in terms of the political climate and within her own heart regarding her feelings for Gale and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is internal, yet Lawrence manages to evoke this conflict with a surprising amount of emotional depth. It’s the key to these elements working on screen, we don’t have access to an internal monologue or other easy forms of exposition. We’re often left to determine what Katniss is thinking and feeling by the look on her face, or her body language, and Lawrence pulls it off. Thanks to this, the film often even outdoes the novel in terms of emotional engagement.
And perhaps it’s seeing it play out on screen, but the impact of the social commentary seems heightened as well. The excesses of Capitol life are more clearly on display than in the previous film and contrast sharply with the slice-of-life we see amongst the Districts as Katniss and Peeta make their victory tour as well as the continued images of their poverty-stricken home District. We also see clearer criticisms of the cult of celebrity as the media circus surrounding Katniss and Peeta’s relationship veers into territory familiar to anyone who has ever watched a moment of reality TV or scanned a tabloid cover headline.
While Rome is the clear model for much of the over-the-top gluttony and hedonism of the Capitol, it’s difficult not to read in some criticism of American consumer culture as well. It was therefore strange to find myself in a theater full of ticket-holders there to gorge on snacks and sweets while the spectacle plays out before their eyes. At least in Katniss there is the semblance of a decent role model to be found, an improvement over the mostly vapid perpetual victims we encounter in other Young Adult fiction. As the story evolves and becomes more complex, we find Katniss experiencing character growth, another trait sorely lacking in this film’s contemporaries.
This is not to say that Catching Fire is perfect. The film’s ending seems astoundingly abrupt as the Games are interrupted before resolving, leaving all of the build-up and tension created by the brilliantly deadly new arena and the web of allegiances and animosities forged up to that point to rot on the vine. Where a single death in the first film was felt with surprising impact, here death comes wholesale and none are mourned for more than a moment. Many of the new characters are a blur, and some of the more interesting ones are gone before you are able to even blink.
The character of Gale and those of Katniss’s sister and mother are sidelined by the escalating action and though they are glimpsed briefly throughout it’s simply too difficult to juggle every subplot while keeping the pace from flagging. While the scope of this film outdoes the first, when seeing the other Districts we still have a very narrow view. Are there thousands of people in each or millions? District 12 often seems like it’s the size of a small town and I can’t help but feel that the consequences of what takes place could be heightened by a clearer picture of how much is at stake.
Much of this isn’t entirely the fault of the film, as these flaws are also often present in the novel, but given how much the visual presentation enhanced other aspects of the story, it feels like a missed opportunity that other concerns weren’t addressed. Still, it feels like an evolution from the last feature and the quality of the production and performances has improved throughout. Given how dramatically things intensify in the third chapter of the series, I am hoping that this trend continues. While I’m not certain we’ll ever see these films or novels joining the vaunted canon of dystopian media,
they have done a serviceable job of delivering a populist experience threaded with food for deeper thought.
At some point in the future he will likely appear on one of those shows that details how a person's addiction to purchasing and consuming media has ruined their life. Until then, his obsessions include sci-fi, horror and cartoons.
He can be found tweeting acerbically at @GentlemanSin.