Following on the coattails of the last much worshipped, though little praised, The Hunger Games, this movie follows Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Melarch (Josh Hutcherson) in the aftermath of their first ever shared victory at the Hunger Games. In the post-apocalyptic world of Panem, the Hunger Games are the central tool of hegemonic control, a wilderness reality show in which the contestants are children set to killing each other, and the game doesn’t end until there is only one left standing. This episode starts with the victorious couple—Katniss and Peeta—back in their Appalachian home district, being lifted to some kind of cult status as accidental symbols of a resistance movement.
Director: Francis Lawrence
Writers: Simon Beaufoy, Michael Arndt, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins
Producers: Nina Jacobson, Jon Kilik
Cinematographer: Jo Willems
Editor: Alan Edward Bell
Music: James Newton Howard
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Jena Malone, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright, Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Runtime: 146 minutes
Genre: Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi, Teen, Dystopia
US Premiere: November 18, 2013 Los Angeles
US Theatrical Release: November 22, 2013
US Distributor: Lionsgate
With a talented cast and a seriously large special effects budget, this film promised to be a good action movie set in a computer generated dystopia, but despite its pedigree, Catching Fire falls into the same teen movie traps as films like Twilight. The biggest failing comes from it’s opening minutes with the focus falling on a teen love triangle rather than the impending revolution or struggles with a conniving totalitarian President. It becomes a “Who will she choose?” scenario in which Katniss must decide between caring and hardy Peeta, with whom she finds herself forcefully entwined, and the brooding hunk and woodsy hunter, Gale (Liam Hemsworth). While this tact certainly sells more “Team Gale” and “Team Peeta” t-shirts, it flattens the possibilities of what would otherwise be a promising scenario. It turns a dramatic conflict into a choice viewers must make, creating more intensive fan involvement in exchange for a weaker story. Perhaps the book, which I haven’t read, is more even-handed. But whether it lies in the original text or its filmic adaptation, the focus falls uncomfortably onto Katniss’s romantic trials and ignores the issues that should preoccupy her—her starving, tortured family and friends, the government’s directed persecution of her, and the direct and life-threatening attention paid her by the President of Panem (Donald Sutherland). Romance should be the last thing on her mind.
But beyond these choices that seem deliberately constructed to create manic fandom, the film’s plot structure leaves much to be desired. Maybe the most fatal flaw comes from the books themselves, not their filmic adaptation. At the heart of these books is the notion that the Hunger Games, the series’ principal display, could actually make for compelling television. It’s hard to imagine any world in which everyone could be a fan of such a dreary show. Sure, the violent death of children makes it a little more exciting (though really, so barbaric you’d think there would be some other peculiarities to this society) but how boring would it be to watch the endless days of hiding and starving in the woods? A perfect example would be Catching Fire’s “morphlings,” two previous victors of the Hunger Games who won through their artful use of camouflage. Really? In what world is watching several children starve or stab each other while another one hides in a tree compelling television? And, after that, in what world is the one who hid the best hailed as a hero and followed as a celebrity? The way The Games are built up, as the central pillar of the totalitarian government’s propaganda campaign just doesn’t make any sense. The Hunger Games themselves are like watching a more boring version of Survivor.
Despite a valiant attempt to adapt this story to the screen, the subject matter is so inherently un-cinematic that its movie adaptation can really do nothing but fall flat. While I agree that participating in The Hunger Games would certainly be extremely exciting, watching it would likely be on par with watching a record-length cricket match, only without the wickets, ball, or any of the cricketers being near each other most of the time. And because of the book series’ rabid fan-base, the director and screenwriters must adhere to the simplistic material so closely it leaves little room for creativity.
The film’s creative efforts, when taken, pay off pretty well. A lot of the cinematography is quite beautiful, with good composition and lighting, the production design is artful and deliberate, and the editing is sharp, clean, and—particularly in the action sequences—very exciting. The acting is generally quite good too, particularly from Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, and Jeffrey Wright. The only low point there is a lackluster attempt by Liam Hemsworth (Gale) to imitate David Boreanaz’s Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But working with a narrative that can’t be changed at all makes all of the film’s successes for naught. The plot feels written for 6th graders, as indeed it was, and so it telegraphs its few plot twists so far in advance—and drops hints again several times before they come around—so that by the time the “twist” arrives it is already an old friend. The structure is so tightly bound to the existing plot that it feels like more of a mad libs than a film. The director and screenwriters can make small changes, but overall the plot is so preordained that all of their craftwork in adaptation amounts to little more than putting lipstick on a pig.
What these novels and films lack is something inherent to great fantasy. In the classic fantasy novels—like J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, or many more—the strongest aspects of the works is their immersiveness. Before the title page there is usually an atlas, a map, or a codex, proof that the author has spent much more time poring over the particularities of the story’s world than they have over the story itself. It gives a sense of wonder to imagine that we are only seeing a sliver of the happenings in this huge other world. Watching these movies there isn’t the sense of majesty and mystery one finds in films like Blade Runner or The Fellowship of the Ring. You don’t walk out of the theater thinking about what your life would be like living in Panem, or what else could be out there, because there isn’t that sense of a wider world surrounding the sections of it that we see. The Hunger Games lacks that sensibility. Yes, it is a well acted, well shot action movie, and, yes, it is set in a dystopian future world different from our own. But the sense of expansiveness is missing. As our small crew travels through Panem, there are glimpses of scenery that amount to little more than local color. There’s no sense of how those places are connected, because the story is too caught up in the contrived romantic plotline. As we enter other districts early in the film, there is no sense of their connection to each other, to our characters, or to the totalitarian system at large. The narrative scope is just too small to make the world enticing, and the focus on the romantic plot makes it all feel so contrived and commercial.
It may be too optimistic in today’s world of late capitalism, but can’t we hope for teen-aimed fiction that doesn’t treat teens like small consumers? Can’t we have a real feminist dystopian hero, one who exists for a purpose other than the sale of books, merchandise, and movie tickets? Where is our modern day Tank Girl or our Lyra Belacqua? Though the premise is well framed for such a character, don’t expect it from The Hunger Games. Yes this film passes the Bechdel test (it has two female characters with names who talk to each other about something other than a man) but that doesn’t mean it’s good. The female characters in this film all operate in service of their requisite men—all but Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), who comes across as pretty ineffectual. Katniss, for all her bow and arrow prowess, is still primarily a character whose orbit is the men in her life.
All in all, the film is an enjoyable, well-cast show, but little more. Its premise has promise, and the talent, money and positioning are all here to make this into a great activist and feminist dystopian action film, but the gods it worships are those of capital. It is a spectacle without substance, a simulacrum without an original, and, damn, can it sell tickets.