Film / Reviews

Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

By: Rebekah Fitzsimmons

Catching Fire, the second installment in The Hunger Games film series debuted number one at the box office its opening weekend and as of December 16, 2013 had grossed $739.9 million, outdistancing its predecessor and remaining in the top 5 films at the box office, up against blockbusters like The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and Disney’s Frozen.  The film has been praised by critics, some of whom manage to stifle their surprise when talking about the complexities of a film based on a YA novel.  Reviewers have commented on the complicated gender dynamics of the film, the revolutionary politics, and the violence and repression as themes.  It seems the film is popular with both audiences and critics.

The trick in adapting a well-loved book series into a film series is walking the fine line between telling a broad enough story to entertain new audiences and paying careful attention to details from the books that fans of the written material would recognize and understand.  For example,  Prim’s cat Buttercup appears briefly in both films, but is not referred to by name nor is his presence explained.  For new viewers, the cat is merely a part of the scenery, but for fans of the books, it is a reference point for some of the depth of the books that necessarily had to be edited out in the filmmaking process.   For me, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire walked that line much better than the first installment of the film series.  Overall, I found the second film adaptation to be superior to the first in many ways.

First, the special effects, especially when it came to the fire-elements in the District 12 Tribute costumes, were far superior in Catching Fire to those in the first film. Also, the transformation of Katniss’s wedding dress into the mockingjay gown was visually stunning, whereas the “girl on fire” dress from the first film felt a little bit cheesy and underwhelming compared to the descriptions from the book.

Second, since the first film had done most of the heavy lifting in terms of defining the location, the power structure and the rules of the Hunger Games, the second film had time to linger on the details and to explore some of the implications of those dynamics in a way the first film could not.  Catching Fire took a lot of the concepts presented in The Hunger Games as black and white and muddled them into shades of gray: the reactions of the Capitol citizens, as filtered through Effie, Cinna and Plutarch, for example, demonstrated that in Panem, the relationship between the Capitol and the Districts is not as clear as “us” versus “them.”  The privilege, wealth and ignorance of the Capitol citizens continues to shine through, but the malice and hatred that Katniss and Gale assume of Capitol citizens in the first film is complicated.  However, the film also briefly touched on the idea that the excesses of food and parties function as a distraction for the Capitol citizens, which allows President Snow to rule the nation in his fashion without complaint from the privileged class.  Panem’s approach to governing the Capitol resembles the Roman “bread and circuses” model, which a revolution will disrupt just as much as it will the oppressive regime in the districts.

Third, this film did a much better job balancing the introductions of new, soon to be killed off characters than the first film did.  Perhaps this ease came from the fact that the tributes in the 75th annual Hunger Games are all second-timers and presented as far more adult than the tributes in the first film.  Perhaps the first film was attempting to preserve some of the suspense about which characters would ultimately survive, while the second film seemed not at all coy about the fact that just about everyone introduced as tributes would die and so characters seemed somewhat disposable.  Again, this may come from the fact that the first film established the rules and dynamics of the Games. From experience, a filmgoer knows tributes can be broken down into three categories: Katniss/Peeta, the Careers/bad guys and tentative allies.  However, I think it also indicates a willingness on the part of the director and producers to walk a little closer to the fan/book reader side of the line.  I think it also speaks to the richness of the characters that Collins wrote in the original book, especially the women.  The film felt the need to give an appropriate amount of screen time to Johanna Mason, Wiress, Mags and the Careers because they were such popular characters with the book audience.  This attention to the characters also led to a rich depiction of a wide range of female characters, interacting with one another, having conversations about strategy, survival, teamwork, resistance and power.  Even Effie was given the opportunity to demonstrate rich layers of emotion: she obviously believes in the Games and the ruling order, yet obviously feels Katniss and Peeta have been betrayed by the system when they are called to go into the arena again.  Her instance on seeing herself, Katniss, Peeta and Haymitch as “a team” violates the us versus them dynamic that President Snow and the ruling elite of Panem has worked so hard to establish through the Hunger Games.

For me, the key moment where the balance between fan appreciation and new viewer service showed the most heavily for me was when Peeta walked into the electric force field in the arena and was electrocuted.  In the full theater where I watched the film, I could hear gasps and muffled screams from those new to the story, while others like me almost visibly relaxed, since we had known the violent explosion was coming.  Then, came the intense moment when Finnick, possible ally, worked to save Peeta’s life with CPR while Katniss screamed, panicked and cried.  Those new to the story were certainly caught up with the life and death struggle, and the director played the scene raw, scary and full of emotion.  But the key for me was the moment when Peeta finally breathes and Katniss desperately embraces him, visibly shaken by this near miss.  The look that crosses Finnick’s face as the camera lingers on his reaction to Katniss’s emotional outburst speaks volumes: he is suddenly convinced that at least some of the relationship between Katniss and Peeta is real and not just an act, as he previously believed.  Those of us who have read the books can recognize all the subtext in that look, which Finnick says straight out in the books, while those who are new to the story may read only a nod of relief or interest in Finnick’s face here.

A number of fans of the book have catalogued and critiqued the inclusion of these kinds of small details in the film: (my favorite list so far is here at mockingjay.net).  The number of details that are included in the film’s production elements but not directly commented on by the characters allows for fans to play “spot the reference” and feel rewarded for their attention to detail when reading and watching.  Meanwhile, new viewers simply experience a rich, textured film.

While as a fan, I am quite excited at the success of the film, both in terms of its adaptation and box office numbers, I have continued to feel anxious about the next installment of the film series.  In keeping with the precedent set by the Harry Potter series and followed by other book/film series adaptations like Twilight and The Hobbit, Lionsgate has decided to split the final book in The Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay, into two pieces, elongating the financially successful series from three films into four.  From a financial point of view, this makes a lot of sense for the production company with a successful franchise on its hands.  However, as a book reader I know that the events of the first half of Mockingjay do not in any way resemble what film viewers have come to expect from the first two films.  My concern is that the films, which have done a fantastic job of building an audience thus far, are likely to lose the viewers who don’t get what they have come to expect from film 3.

On a final, personal note, my absolute favorite part of the film was the elevator scene in which Johanna Mason strips off her Tribute costume in front of Katniss, Peeta and Haymitch.  While the scene was immensely entertaining, expertly captured the essence of Johanna, and showcased Jennifer Lawrence’s amazing facial expressions, the reason it struck such a chord with me was because it was filmed in the visually distinct Marriott Marquis hotel in downtown Atlanta, Georgia.  As someone who has spent time in that particular hotel every year while attending the annual fan convention, DragonCon, I think I can safely assure the audience that Johanna’s costume removal is in no way the strangest thing those particular elevators have seen. 

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