I make no secret of my admiration for the Hunger Games books, and the first film. While hardly in the primary demographic for either (I doubt anyone was really thinking about targeting 42 year old British women during the creative process), that has not stopped me singing their praises at every opportunity.
So what makes the books, and now the films (I’ll come to the specifics of Catching Fire in a moment) so interesting?
- Firstly, it’s a clever satire on a lot of things, not least our very current loathing of all things youth and teenager-related. If they are not being derided as idiots who follow every social media superficial trend, they are facing the wrath of middle-England and the press as harbingers of the downfall of civilization. Who has not, in their least charitable moments, wished that today’s Western teenagers could be forced to experience some of the horrors visited on previous generations, or indeed their contemporaries in less indulged societies around the world?
- Unlike others in a similar vein which came before, brilliant and biting though they may be (Battle Royale, Cabin in the Woods, I’m looking at you), these books and films can actually be experienced by teenagers. The screening of Catching Fire I went to had children so young they needed booster seats for goodness sake.
- The books run with some deeply unsettling, but entirely logical scenarios. Uprisings are messy, political things, and people find themselves playing parts for which they have little stomach. Wonderful people who we care about die in confused and little-marked circumstances. People betray each other, for all kinds of reasons. The books do not shy away from this, and I hope the final two films are able to keep some of this. Don’t forget that these are books for teenagers, a demographic usually poorly served with things which are thought-provoking and political.
- The casting of the films has been so utterly perfect, with both male and female, primary and secondary, ‘evil’ and ‘good’ characters judged to perfection. Jennifer Lawrence needs no additional praise here, just watch her utter terror as she rises into the arena in the first film. I am developing such an admiration for Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks as well. As Elizabeth Banks also produced and appeared in another of my films of the year (see the previous post on Pitch Perfect), I am hereby declaring her my new girl crush.
Unlike others, I tend to find the middle films of franchises pretty good. Empire Strikes Back? The Two Towers? Entirely acceptable in my eyes. You skip all the boring set-up, and usually end on a cliffhanger.
Catching Fire actually subverts the first of these, with a good hour of preamble before we get into the arena. This is because Catching Fire is less interested in the spectacle of watching people kill each other, and more about the political machinations that would lead a country to rise up against tyranny. The growing popularity of Katniss, and her transformation (entirely against her will) into a symbol of revolution speaks volumes about how people become martyrs. It also takes its time developing important aspects of the story, such as Katniss’ relationships with Gale and Peeta.
Once into the Games themselves, the special effects really kick in, giving our protagonists plenty to deal with. I found the sf in the first film to be the weakest aspect, but this time there’s more money, and it shows. They never overwhelm the characters though, and the constant ‘move and counter-move’ being played by the political leaders appears to be replicated in the arena. Who can Katniss trust, who should she form alliances with, and who should she stay awake to watch? The agony of not knowing who will betray her, or (more importantly, at least to her) Peeta is devastating. Sam Claflin‘s Finnick and Jena Malone‘s Johanna are as hard to read on screen as in the book. All we know is that everyone in the arena with Katniss and Peeta has won the Games in the past, probably by killing others in combat. A few Victors have survived simply by being the last ones alive (in the books, Finnick’s lover Annie won her Games by being the best swimmer – everyone else drowned when the arena was flooded) but they are unlikely to make it out of a second Games against experienced killers, one of whom defeated her final opponent when she was a teenager by ripping out their throat with her teeth.
As you can tell, I thought Catching Fire was a triumph, as a stand alone film, as a middle section of a story, as a stunning interpretation of a great book, and as a thought-provoking challenge to its audience. It really is that good.