The way I see things, the success of the Hunger Games movie franchise has almost nothing to do with the concept of the Hunger Games themselves and the world Suzanne Collins constructed in her novels and that Gary Ross and now Francis Lawrence have restaged in their respective film adaptations, and almost everything to do with the actors it has cast. Those who know me will now hear for the fifty bajillionth time of my love for Jennifer Lawrence, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Woody Harrelson, who together are three of my four favorite actors (the other being Bill Murray). In addition, I can’t say I’ve ever been upset to see Stanley Tucci or Elizabeth Banks show up on any screen, and Donald Sutherland and whatever facial hair he chooses to sport are welcome additions. So while I’m thrilled to see this list of performers in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, I don’t know if I was all that thrilled to see The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, or at least if I’d want to see any version of the film without them. J-Law et al take what I think, if I can be blunt, is rather stupidly handled material and make it entertaining enough.
I talked with my dad—who has read all three source novels—after seeing the movie, and he impressed upon me that the books devote more energy to world building than a retread of the playing of the Hunger Games themselves, and having not read the books I wish that Catching Fire had not glossed over the political intrigue that could have deepened the storyline. I don’t know if the underdeveloped motifs and story construction are the fault of the books or the films, but suffice it to say that resorting to beaming Katniss and Peeta up to the competition again struck me as lazy and detrimental to other lines of thematic inquiry worth pursuing. (Catching Fire, in a natural progression from the first installment, announces itself in its opening scene as a commentary on PTSD, but fails to expand on this by returning to the games’ arena, even though all of the competitors this time around are former victors.) Because I could also watch Lawrence and Hoffman discuss how to properly floss and find it captivating, Catching Fire butts two of my biases against each other—my predisposition towards the actors, and my scorn for Young Adult fiction (and the concept that the publishing world would pigeonhole adolescent readers into the YA genre) in general. Let’s face it, this is a work that asks the reigning Academy Award-winning Best Actress to speak the word “jabberjay” and the name “Peeta” with a straight face. Unusually—for this type of story, not for her—Lawrence can.
I do admire the two primary critiques of Catching Fire, of celebrity culture, and of how society treats veterans. To me, they are fascinating and well-intentioned, and that second critique is, I believe, understudied. Unfortunately the film does not delve into its (and I presume Collins’) editorial position on wounded warriors as much as it could, or should. As intimated above, Catching Fire strives to reflect on how the experience of battle, and of killing another person, can traumatize an individual. Katniss hasn’t fought in Afghanistan, but the series draws a clear analogy between Hunger Games competitors and soldiers. The Hunger Games required the participation of children as young as twelve in Panem’s annual gladiatorial slaughter-cum-reality show competition, serving the purpose of confronting the audience. Not only did The Hunger Games acquaint its younger readers and viewers with death, because its victims were around their same age, but it hoped to communicate to all viewers a certain protest regarding the potential moral bankruptcy in sending kids off to die in our name. Our civilian society is so divorced from our foreign policy and our wars that, though Americans may not bloodthirstily relish the death of combatants the way those of Panem’s Capitol do, there exists a bizarre and discomforting nonchalance with regards to the isolation of the military class, the men and women actually doing our world-policing dirty work often limited financially and professionally.
Catching Fire seeks to build upon the potential hypocrisy beneath dispatching this small class of (on the average) poorer, undereducated individuals overseas to kill. Too often we profess our support for the troops on Facebook, tie yellow ribbons around oak trees, and sing “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch to reassure ourselves that we can practice sound ethics, often neglecting soldiers upon their return and disregarding that these subconscious ways of patting ourselves on the back might not always reassure those we aim to support. Millions of Facebook posts, standing ovations, and car magnets don’t inhibit the VA from becoming the bloated fuck-up it has, nor do they cure the depression and PTSD that dog veterans after their service. Maybe, Catching Fire subliminally suggests, we should focus less on creating a cult of celebrity and shallow worship around the idea of the military and the soldier that too often provides only a vehicle for self-gratification, and focus more on doing right by the individual soldiers by giving them the care they need.
Because I applaud the series for examining the mental maladies afflicting fighters, I wish Catching Fire had more artfully conveyed that some emotional scars of war often heal more slowly than physical ones. This is not to say that the film neglects this point entirely, more that the film dulls the potential forcefulness of its argument, especially when it repeats the stagecraft of the games themselves without giving enough voice to some of the characters. The film opens with Katniss hunting in the woods with Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth, the point on a prototype of a love triangle opposite Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta), slinging her arrow at a turkey they’ve trapped. The camera switches to Katniss’ point of view after the arrow hits its mark, only from her prospective, she has not struck a turkey but, hauntingly, another person. This lingering aftershock of her fighting in the games evinces a vulnerability under her quietly powerful exterior. Stylistically, it’s a bold and fruitful choice for the film—with Katniss as our heroine, it would be useful to employ these direct POV shots—but one not utilized again.
Other winners we meet before their fateful return to the arena have their own issues: Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch, mentor to Katniss and Peeta and past victor himself, is an alcoholic; Jena Malone’s Joanna is a loud dissenter; some are mute; some are spastic; for a minority, violence is their drug of choice. The portrayal of mentally unstable characters is a treacherous task for any film, and Catching Fire erred on underinclusiveness as opposed to overkill. The fault is made plain in its second half, which it devotes to the restaging of the games. Personally, I would have preferred if the story avoided the games altogether, given the influence the collective group of victors have, and instead promoted a character study that focused on their frustrations and their difficulties in living a public but manufactured-for-the-TV life—that is, focused on the potential for meaningful dissent against an oppressive government. By throwing the past winners into the gauntlet, we are prevented from meeting some and only know others in the context of the situation they encounter at a given time during the game. Because of this strategy, Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer, two talented actors, are left to play type, with Wright the crafty savant and Plummer mumbling only slightly less than Honey Bunny. This is not to say that I needed to be told why Haymitch was prone to drink, or why Plummer’s character seemed to stammer incoherently—that much was obvious—but I could have spent more time learning how they lived with their troubles rather than simply knowing that they had troubled minds.
Catching Fire succeeds more in ridiculing celebrity culture. This critique was present in the first movie, and was wisely examined again here. As the film opens, Lawrence’s Katniss is considered a fashion icon in the Capitol, as her pyrrhic victory in the Seventy-Fourth Hunger Games garnered her instant celebrity both for her brashness in threatening to commit suicide with Peeta, forcing the games’ handlers to allow them to share in the bleak triumph, and for her otherworldliness in comparison to the Capitol’s decadence. Lenny Kravitz’ Cinna is her designer, wowing the Capitol with his new Katniss-inspired collection the way you’d imagine some aloof wackos in Milan might treat a real-life DERELICTE campaign as if it were an honest attempt at fashion-forwardness. When President Snow (Sutherland) reconstitutes the games for a special anniversary edition with participants picked solely from the pool of past winners due to the threat posed by Katniss’ popularity with repressed districts (that is, the districts whose dress and culture the Capitol’s fashion industry have crassly repurposed during Katniss’ rise to fame), each winner must again face the lights, cameras, and blabbering fools as one would on the Oscars red carpet. Most struggle to disguise their derision. That Lawrence’s star has risen in real life practically in parallel to Katniss’, and that her public persona is one of thumbing her nose at the junket circuit, is a happy, if coincidental, marriage of player and part.
Luckily, if the Hunger Games series undercuts its arguments somewhat, its cast is there to rescue the story from its missteps. I’ll provide in conclusion my general disclaimer that YA just isn’t my thing normally, precisely because I find the genre so frequently stops short of saying exactly what it wants to argue out of fear of causing controversy. YA is essentially the equivalent of the PG-13 rating—best not to ruffle too many feathers so that it can maximize popularity and revenue, even if the material is dumbed down the process. What bothers me isn’t that YA and PG-13 works are often stories about children, for children. What bothers me is that YA and PG-13 too frequently condescend to children. As I wrote on the blog earlier this year, the kids who are the target audience of the Hunger Games books and films are not afforded enough credit; they’re probably smarter than you think and plenty ready to handle earnest discussions of death, war, impairment, and celebrity, and the powers-that-be excessively and paternalistically get in the way before considering what they want and what’s best for them (not unlike the Hunger Games‘ depiction our relationship to the fusion of celebrity and military culture).
Without total commitment to its themes, some more trivial mistakes stand out, too: Why did the execution of a man at an early stop on Katniss’ and Peeta’s victory tour have so few immediate repercussions? Why did we bother with Katniss’ and Peeta’s potential marriage? (The love triangle has never come across as fully developed, because of the simple fact that it isn’t.) Why did the competitors act so surprised that every twenty-fifth Hunger Games is played under special rules? In keeping with a lot of YA books and films out there, I’m not sure that Catching Fire succeeds as an idea or a script, even if its heart and brains are in the right place, so it requires a certain connection between the audience and the actors to extract more from material and themes that are important but only embryonically established. Catching Fire, like its predecessor, is imperfect, but many of its stars are close to it, and perhaps ironically given the material our opinions of them keep us rapt to the screen.