The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

 
Districtly brilliant.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

 

I was pleasantly surprised by the original Hunger Games. After a misguided advertising campaign sold it as “the next Twilight“, I wasn’t exactly pawing at the multiplex doors to be let in. However, I ended up really enjoying it and bought all three books soon after. It’s an intelligent sci-fi series that has a lot to say, but doesn’t beat you round the head with it. The main character, Katniss, is a strong female lead without being a ballbuster, is involved in a love triangle without being a soppy, boy-obsessed milkdrip and generally is a fantastic role model to anyone reading or watching her adventures, not just the target demographic of young girls. Also, whilst I do like the film, can we stop with the “Battle Royale with cheese” shit now? Hunger Games has so much more going on than BR ever did and, to my mind at least, even does better with the central conceit. For those of you sputtering with indignation right now, knocking over all your “kawaii” desk decorations to write me an essay on how wrong I am about the cultural significance of this scene or that bit of dialogue, please do not underestimate my apathy.

“Remember who the real enemy is.”

After basically giving the system a one-fingered salute (or more accurately, three) at the end of the last Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) return to District 12 rich and famous, living a life of wealth in Victor’s Village, a walled community built for Hunger Games winners. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) fears an uprising from the districts as Katniss has inspired hope and revolution with her very public defiance. He turns to new gamesmaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) for help and the pair conspire to tear down the symbol Katniss has become. They eventually settle on a “Quarter Quell”, a special games made up of past winners, to prove that no-one is safe from the Capitol’s wrath. Catching Fire is solid film, although in terms of basic story beats its pretty similar to the first. It wisely focuses on the social unrest and revolutionary aspects of Panem, rather than just being happy to trot out the death and violence of the games again. It does what all good sequels do and improves on practically every aspect of its predecessor. Jennifer Lawrence is still fantastic as Katniss, giving the sort of layered performance that’s incredibly rare in this type of film.The previous games have taken their toll on her and she has some real PTSD stuff going on. I warmed to Josh Hutcherson more in this film than I did in the last one. He’s still the weakest link in a great cast, but he’s serviceable, with the script affording him more depth. In fact, there’s a real effort to dimensionalise what were previously one-note characters. Elizabeth Banks’ Effie who irritated me in the original, actually comes across as a proper character this time round. Sutherland’s President Snow has a lot more genuine menace about him too, with some fascinating glimpses into his personal life. Of the new blood, Sam Clafin is fun as Finnick Odair, especially when he has the lovable mute grandmother Mags (Lynn Cohen) on his back, Yoda style. Felix Leiter himself Jeffrey Wright is incredibly likeable as technical whiz Beetee and makes a great double act with Amanda Plummer’s Wiress. Jena Malone simply steals scenes as the angry, axe-wielding Johanna Mason, right from her impromptu elevator strip onwards. Ol’ reliable PSH is predictably brilliant too.

The film takes a surprisingly long time to actually get to the titular games. A lot of time and effort is spent getting the audience up to speed with the current state of Panem and the shady government dealings going on behind closed gilded doors. None of the book’s nastiness has been skimped on here. Whilst the first Hunger Games felt toothless and compromised at times, this feels legit brutal, bruv. There’s public floggings, executions, grevious injuries- the lot. There may have been a few CGI blood shots edited out, but I doubt there’s a proper uncut version waiting in the wings for when it comes to shiny disc. I got the feeling Lawrence was pushing the rating to breaking point, rather than shying away from it like Ross.

Weirdly, the one film Catching Fire reminds me of is Back to the Future Part II. Whilst there are no hoverboards (much to my disappointment) it does share the same spirit of messing with the established framework of the first film and toying with audiences’ expectations. As I said previously, the story beats are the same as the original Hunger Games, but they all have neat little twists on them. For instance, instead of smiling and waving at the cameras when the tributes are brought in via carriage, Katniss and Peeta are instructed to remain stoic and defiantly ignore the crowd this time round. When the interview segment gets underway, instead of playing the game and speaking in cloying “just happy to be here” sentiments, all the tributes are working different angles to try and get the games cancelled by swaying public opinion, be it by admission of anger at the system, tearfully telling the insanely enameled Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) about a love back home or Peeta’s inspired whopper about him and Katniss. It’s clever stuff, make no mistake.

Most of the problems with the first film have been ironed out. The direction from Francis Lawrence is a lot more assured than Gary Ross’. Whilst Ross had an overreliance on shaky cam to obscure the nastier stuff, Lawrence uses it sparingly, which is a great relief for those of us who are fans of seeing what’s going on. The production budget has been upped considerably too, with some amazing futuristic vistas on display and a greater look at the decadent Capitol. The writing also got worked over, with Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt replacing Ross, Billy Ray and series author Suzanne Collins. The quality of the writing has been upgraded from “passable” to “actually pretty damn good”. Characters no longer awkwardly blurt out motivations or thoughts and . In fact, if I may compare it to Twilight for a moment, this is what the Twi-films should have been doing when it came to sequels, instead of aggressively sticking to the god-awful writing and terrible special effects, all the while upping the product placement and soundtrack shilling. The Twilight films showed nothing but open contempt for its audience. All the gains from the first Hunger Games feel like they’ve been plowed into this one to make it the best film it can be.

“Katniss Everdeen is a symbol. We don’t have to destroy her, just her image. Show them that she’s one of us now. Let them rally behind that. They’re gonna hate her so much they just might kill her for you.”

I think that’s the one thing that’s holding Catching Fire back from 5 star Valhalla. Everything else has been brought up to scratch, but the limitations of the source material are starting to show.  The first book is genuinely great, but the quality then acts on a sliding scale right through to the end.The film stops frustratingly short of the climax of the book, but I understand what they’re going for. My only concern now is that Mockingjay was my least favourite book and they’re making two damn films out of it. This could be the series highpoint. This is the series’ Empire Strikes Back. It’s darker and more confident in what it wants to do. It’s bloody brilliant. Highly recommended.

3 thoughts on “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

  1. With your Battle Royal comparison I am left with one question: “Did you actually read the book?”
    Most of the depth of the book was left out of the film in order to make a punchy pop culture hit. The politics, emotion and most of the characters were minimised in order to fit 666 pages into a relatively short film.
    On the other hand the Hunger Games Trilogy, is getting a film per 374 pages. And given Suzanne Collins style is rather less than succinct I imagine there will be little needing to be left out.

    Koushun Takami took a simple concept and used it to explore the backgrounds, motivations and inner working of a large group of characters and the political system which could allow such an event to occur.
    In comparison the Hunger Games gives us a brief glance at a soft sci-fi world then ploughs on with a contrived love triangle and a kid friendly martial game. Despite its conceit, and an ending which castrates any feeling of menace the villainous capitol ever had, the first book is quite enjoyable.

    The later books however dive rapidly into the worst depths of Young Person’s Fiction. The second featured games is more full of abstract gimmicks than the previous one, and throws all drama out the window when Deus Ex Machina saves the day and everyone escapes.
    The last few chapters of the second book, and the entire first half of the third, see the main character sitting around and moping about her love interests. The character devolves into a frustrated starlet and runs about putting the people around her in danger and having little hissy fits. And then there is the obvious “who is really the villain” conspiracy ending.
    It seems that with the end of the first book Collins ran out of new ways to arrange old ideas and for the later books decided to simply throw tired old ideas at the page and bind it together with a glue of angst.

    If you were comparing the films; both series are all pretty bad. At least Battle Royal didn’t take itself seriously.

    1. Haha, I suppose I did bait the whole “essay” thing.

      I haven’t read the book, but I think I might after this. Would you recommend the book, the manga adap or both? I’m just sick of people saying that The Hunger Games is just a massive rip-off of BR and dismissing it outright. It’s a snobby attitude that isn’t clever, isn’t original and pisses me off no end. I thought this article was a decent read on that front: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/10479050/Hunger-Games-part-of-a-proud-tradition.html

      I imagined there would be more to Battle Royale, I just thought that the film was, as you said, a punchy pop culture thing, rather than anything deeper. I’m purely going off what the films bring to the table. A film shouldn’t require background reading to make it better or more meaningful, but I concede that in terms of objective quality, BR probably has more going on within its pages that Collins’ trilogy does. Thing is, I accept the limitations of its target demographic. It’s like Harry Potter- at no point did I expect the films to be taut, mature thrillers, gravid with insights about the human condition. They are what they are. In this age of dumbing adaptations down and ignoring some of the more interesting aspects of the original books, The Hunger Games films, Catching Fire in particular, are goddamn miracles.

      I suppose The Hunger Games is soft sci-fi, and is more science fantasy than true blue science fiction. As I said, the books get progressively worse and Katniss does devolve, which is a massive shame as she’s one of the best pop culture role models for young girls in a long damn time. I thought Mockingjay was a big ol’ jar of weaksauce and Christ knows I really don’t want to sit through two films’ worth, but I’ll see what they do with it.

      Still, you’ve made me want to read up on the subject. I genuinely appreciate your comments, too. Thanks for reading Al. Great to hear from you!

  2. Undeniably darker than the first film, which says something considering the idea of kids killing each other for entertainment purposes is dark enough. Good review Ben.

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