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March 2014

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman

director: Francis Lawrence

146 minutes (12) 2013
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Lions Gate blu-ray region B

RATING: 3/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

It would appear that we have reached a point in our cultural development where popular culture is incapable of addressing any issue other than that of parental authority.

Last summer's Star Trek Into Darkness continued the series' rolling reboot by steering the venerable franchise away from stories about competent people making difficult grown-up decisions and towards stories about overgrown teenagers trying to cope with layer after layer of impacted daddy issues. This theme was also evident in Zack Snyder's lamentable Man Of Steel, which burdened the DC Comics powerhouse with not just two separate fathers but a third quasi-adoptive father figure whose presence in the film allowed Superman to work through his tedious man-pain by devastating a city and killing tens of thousands of people. When did we become so terrified of our parents? Why do we require so many $100 million cinematic therapy sessions? Whatever the answers to these questions may be, chances are that they also explain the ever-increasing popularity of 'young adult' literature.

Despite drawing on images from a wide array of literary genres and historical periods, successful YA fiction seldom refrains from addressing issues of parental authority. For example, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books have an endearingly old-fashioned tendency to depict grown-ups as people deeply invested in passing their skills and values on to the next generation. Yes, some of these adult characters may be good and others evil, but both Voldemort and Dumbledore spend the bulk of their time recruiting kids and helping them to become as competent as they can possibly be.

While the Harry Potter books and films are primarily about the relationship between children and parental authority figures, they also contain characters that lack the authority of parents but possess more skill and knowledge than the protagonists by virtue of having spent more time on the margins of the grown-up world. These 'adolescent' older sibling characters dominate the landscape of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight novels, and Bella's desire to become a vampire can be read as a yearning to progress past childhood and assume an adolescent identity in much the same way as Harry Potter's ability to wield magic allows him to participate in the grown-up world.

Taking its cues from Romeo And Juliet by means of Westside Story, the Twilight series deals with squabbling gangs of teenaged vampires and werewolves until the grown-ups eventually turn up in the form of the Volturi, a group of powerful Italia vampires who enforce the rules of supernatural society in a decidedly parental fashion. Aside from their age and power, the Volturi also represent adulthood with their fondness for another of YA's recurring motifs: young people being frozen out of grown-up conversation. The anxiety that young people experience at the fact that their future is being decided by grown-ups having conversations out of earshot is absolutely central to the allure of Holly Black's Curse Workers series.

Concerned with the adventures of the youngest member of a crime family made up of people with magical powers, Black's series features a protagonist who has his memory and personality reshaped by his family to suit their own ends. Much like the Potter and Twilight series, the Curse Workers books follow the protagonist as he progresses from a state of childish impotence to one of adolescent competence before eventually coming into direct conflict with the wielders of parental authority. In fact, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is all about the moment in which its teenaged protagonist is dragged out of childhood and into grown-up conversation.

Based on a series of eye-wateringly successful novels by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games films take place in a post-apocalyptic North America where the leadership of a corrupt and decadent Capitol city supports itself by systematically brutalising the inhabitants of 12 outlying districts. One of the forms this brutalisation takes is that, every year, two children are taken from each district and forced to fight to the death for the amusement, distraction, and intimidation of everyone else. Gary Ross' The Hunger Games (2012) follows a resident of District 12 named Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) after she volunteers to take her younger sister's place in the Hunger Games.

Though often compared to the film and manga Battle Royale (2000), The Hunger Games has a structure far closer to that of a traditional school story in so far as it features a childish protagonist who is forced to learn the rules of a new environment in order to compete with a bunch of kids that are richer, tougher, cooler, and a lot more popular than she is. An outsider to the games and a reluctant participant in anything that does not involve frowning and looking after her younger sister, Katniss initially reacts to her new environment by refusing to play along until a group of 'adolescent' handlers manage to convince her that the only way to survive the Hunger Games is by following the rules and doing exactly what the government expects of her. By showing us the tangible rewards of compliance, the film does an excellent job of following Katniss' journey from a state of childish ignorance to a state of emerging adolescence where the protagonist understands the rules of her world despite lacking the grown-up ability to influence them herself. However, while the succession of pretty frocks, scrummy meals, and glowing report cards, may bring a smile to Katniss' grumpy face, they never entirely consume her doubts.

The most interesting things about the original Hunger Games novel are that it is written entirely from the perspective of a neurotic and under-socialised teenage girl. Katniss' narration captures the joys of trying on pretty frocks as effectively as it does the waves of self-loathing and paranoia that accompany the realisation that someone in your class appears to fancy you. The classmate in question is Katniss' fellow District 12 tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), who is either head-over-heels in love with Katniss, or pretending to be in love in order to get the audience on their side and drum up the kind of sponsorship money that will allow them to receive care packages once inside the arena.

Katniss' increasingly evident scepticism regarding Peeta's plan to market them as a pair of star-crossed lovers not only foreshadows a wider set of doubts about the government's use of the games in quelling rebellion, it also hints at Katniss' refusal to allow her fate to be decided by grown-ups having conversations about her in another room. Rooted in her home world and capable of seeing past the fictions of her new one, Katniss takes charge of Peeta's narrative and uses it to manipulate the audience into demanding a change to the Hunger Games rules. This change saves Peeta's life but it also identifies Katniss as someone with the potential to function on a grown-up level and thereby pose a threat to the existing parental authorities.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire begins with Katniss and Peeta travelling from district to district delivering government speeches and helping to quell dissent. While Peeta takes both his job as victorious tribute and role as star-crossed lover incredibly seriously, Katniss' boredom and detachment are such that people are beginning to notice. Fearful that doubts about the narratives of previous Hunger Games might develop into doubts about the Hunger Games in general, the president of Panem (Donald Sutherland) visits Katniss and speaks to her as an adult: play your role and do as you're told or we'll murder your entire district. However, try as she might, Katniss simply cannot refrain from being herself and undermining the role dictated to her by the grown-ups.

This opening act really suffers for the decision to shoot The Hunger Games in a traditional Hollywood style with no voiceovers. Much of the drama in this first act comes from the fact that Katniss is under enormous pressure to perform the role that grown-ups have assigned her, despite the fact that she is still coming to terms with who she is and what she wants to be. Had the filmmakers followed the book's example and allowed us access to Katniss' thoughts, this section would undoubtedly have added real depth to the characters, but all we get is a flood of ill-conceived melodrama that drowns the strength and quiet dignity that Jennifer Lawrence displayed in both the first Hunger Games film, and the marvellous Winter's Bone (2010) that launched her career.

The real problem here is that the process of adaptation has casually discarded a vital element of the book and completely failed to replace it. A more perceptive director would have realised that this sequence is not about tragedy and melodrama, but about the conflict between the need for Katniss to keep up appearances and the need for Katniss to be herself. A bolder director would have taken inspiration from films like Patrice Leconte's Ridicule (1996), and novels like Wilkie Collins' The Woman In White (1859), and turned this entire section into a nail-biting social thriller: will Katniss resist the urge to be herself for the sake of her family? Unfortunately, as Francis Lawrence's previous films I Am Legend (2007), and Water For Elephants (2010) suggest, he is a director who is neither bold nor particularly astute.

As in the source material, the film's middle act is almost identical to that of the first: Forced to compete in a second Hunger Games that pits her against a load of fellow survivors, Katniss is forced to listen to her 'adolescent' handlers in an effort to compete with people who are smarter, stronger, and more popular than she is. Flabby, overly familiar, and utterly incapable of making us care about a fresh cast of largely disposable characters, the second act is only kept alive by the suggestion that the rule of Sutherland's President Snow might be coming to an end. A magnificent actor in his day, Sutherland brings little subtlety to the part of Snow but, in truth, all that is required of him is to sport a beard, make threats, and have conversations about younger people in comfortable-looking offices and drawing rooms. Much like Dumbledore, he is nothing but a symbolic representation of grown-up power and parental authority.

The author and critic Adam Roberts has published a fascinating essay about YA fantasy's obsession with the trappings of Victorian society on his blog Sibilant Fricative. While The Hunger Games is not particularly Victorian, it does draw on historical and generic imagery in a very similar way to those types of work. According to Roberts:

What these YA fantasies all share is a fascination with history not as history, but as a way of conceptualising the parental generation. Tolkien-Lewis' far distant medieval pageant has no relevance here: it is too far back. 'Victorian times' might seem a little remote too - but the key, I think, is that these fantasies operate by the symbolic rather than chronological logic. The Victorian-Edwardian period is a style (of dress, of machinery); a code (repressive and authoritarian, if elegantly so), and embodiment of 'past-ness' itself. The key conceptual perspective here is Jameson's Postmodernism (1990), and his argument that one of the features of post-modernity is the replacement of history as lived experience with history as a pastiche of empty visual styles (of dress, of architecture and so on) that are then shuffled about by culture.

Collins' use of first-person narration in The Hunger Games books forces the reader to be aware of the fact that what they are reading are descriptions of people, places, and events that have been filtered through the mind of a scared and overwhelmed teenage girl. The strength of Katniss' voice is a constant reminder of her status as an unreliable narrator, and her imperfect understanding of people and events lends the books a psychological element so pronounced that it frequently blurs the line between psychological realism and outright metaphorical fantasy.

The highly emotive nature of Katniss' narration encourages the reader to take everything she says with a pinch of salt. Collins makes frequent use of this effect as a form of misdirection that encourages us to view characters in a certain light only for their true nature to be dramatically revealed at some later date. In fact, Collins' use of misdirection and flawed narration is so systematic that it is easy to fall into the habit of accounting for the flaws in Collins' world-building by pointing out that all we ever have to go on is Katniss' impressions of the world.

Thus, the fact that the Hunger Games and their role in Panem's political system makes not a jot of sense is not seen as a sign of Collins' incompetence but as a sign of Katniss' incomplete understanding of the world around her. Once we accept the possibility that what we are seeing is not Panem itself, but an emotional landscape inspired by Katniss' reaction to Panem, then it is possible to read almost every aspect of the book as a metaphorical representation of how Katniss feels about her world. This not only accounts for the inconsistencies in Collins' world-building but also the fact that the world of the Hunger Games feels like a postmodern collage comprising images lifted directly from an assortment of books and real world historical events. Thus, the world of The Hunger Games feels a little bit 1984, a little bit reality-TV, a little bit Nazi Germany, and a little bit American dustbowl as those images evoke a set of emotional responses that are intended to help convey not what Katniss literally sees but rather how she feels about her world.

This is why President Snow is little more than a vaguely threatening beard: Collins is drawing on a particular set of cultural images to create an image of patriarchal authority that will be comprehensible to her intended audience. Though not a particularly common approach to writing, this transition from psychological realism to metaphorical fantasy is fairly common in psychological thrillers as well as T.H. White's children's novel The Sword And The Stone (1938), where Arthurian knights sit around drinking port and discussing Eton because even though neither of those things actually exist in the world of the novel, the words 'port' and 'Eton' serve as placeholders for a drink, and a training establishment, with a comparable set of emotional and cultural resonances.

The problem with this psychological reading of the novels is that it simply does not apply to the films. Nothing in either The Hunger Games or The Hunger Games: Catching Fire suggests that we are seeing anything other than the complete unvarnished truth about what it is that happened to Katniss. This means that rather than being a film about the experience of moving from childhood to adolescence in a world dominated by malign and absolutist parental authority, The Hunger Games films are about a young woman coming of age in a poorly imagined world filled with thin and derivative imagery wrenched from dozens of better books and films. Indeed, one of the most striking things about The Hunger Games films is the decidedly uneven quality of their art direction and cinematography.

Gary Ross' The Hunger Games benefits from a relatively uncomplicated aesthetic line: the film begins in a drab and poverty-stricken coal-mining town only to progress to the Capitol and finally to the Hunger Games arena itself. To his credit, Ross made the most of that simple aesthetic line by having the film become louder and more colourful as it progressed. Undoubtedly the standout section of the first Hunger Games film is the section where a drab and mousy Katniss meets the absurdly dressed and hyper-primped people working on the Hunger Games, including Elizabeth Banks' human poodle Effie Trinket, and Stanley Tucci's human grin Caesar Flickerman.

While this sequel takes its cues from the first film, the narrative's tendency to move Peeta and Katniss back and forth between luxurious apartments and impoverished districts fails to set up the same set of resonances, and Francis Lawrence would rather rush his audience through the talky-bits than use the first film's visual language to stress the moral differences between life in the Capitol and life in the districts. The same lack of attention to detail is evident in the way that Lawrence wastes no time introducing the rival tributes or Philip Seymour Hoffman's Plutarch Heavensbee.

Much like Woody Harrelson's trainer Haymitch Abernathy, and Lenny Kravitz's designer Cinna, Heavensbee is one of those adolescent characters who understands the nature of the world he inhabits despite having little ability to change it. Having raised the possibility that President Snow might be about to die, the film introduces Heavensbee as a man on the rise; a hugely ambitious pale-haired man whose position as head game-maker allows him to gain access to those grown-up conversations in which the parental authority figure discusses the fate of the younger generation. Given the point at which Heavensbee ends in the film, it seems reasonable to assume that Collins intended him to be something of an ambiguous figure that stands on the brink of adulthood and whose growing power and apparent sympathy for Katniss suggest the possibility of change. Sadly, Francis Lawrence misses the opportunity to make Heavensbee appear ambiguous, and the film's limp script gives Hoffman so little to work with that it seems as though he might well have wandered in off the street, and read his lines from cue-cards without bothering to get into costume; such is the character's lack of visual, dramatic or thematic impact. However, as bungled as the introduction of Heavensbee may be, it is as nothing when compared to the train wreck that is this film's arena sequence.

Gary Ross' Hunger Games was let down by the fact that while the story builds and builds towards a savage battle to the death, the source material as well as the studio's desire for a family-friendly rating conspired against the inclusion of anything even remotely savage. While Lawrence's failure to present his arena battle as anything more than yet another chore dumped on Katniss by an unreasonable parent means that this film's battle feels like less of an anti-climax, it is still striking how little spectacle and excitement $130 million will buy you in today's Hollywood.
Hollywood likes spectacle, or at least the idea of spectacle. Every summer, the PR machines spring to life and begin to disgorge empty promises. Hollywood talks about the average summer blockbuster in terms of wall-to-wall action so intense that it's a wonder they don't leave audiences twitching and drooling in the aisles. However, despite the protestations of the Hollywood PR machine and callow film critics the world over, your average summer blockbusters are not so much action movies as they are modern-day equivalents of traditional Hollywood epics like Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1956), or Joseph L. Mankiewicz's Cleopatra (1963).

While these films did frequently include action sequences, their primary concern was a luxuriant pursuit of authenticity that aimed to recreate historical settings in a way that highlighted the economic and creative might of the studio system. Indeed, Mankiewicz's Cleopatra is at heart a love story that explores the tension between the demands of the human heart and the demands of national interest, but Hollywood chose to tell this story in a form that cost the equivalent of $240 million in today's money. This erroneous belief that expensive films are necessarily spectacular is why so many of today's blockbusters are dull portentous nonsense. Films like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire are not interested in action sequences than they are in the expensive recreation of things that feature in books and comics. Ross' Hunger Games suffered for the fact that Collins is unable to write decent action, and the same is true of Lawrence who appears to have spent a lot of money recreating a forest filled with angry baboons and poison clouds only to completely fail to make that environment feel exciting or spectacular.

The unravelling of the arena battle in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire begins in the film's bungled second act. By choosing to rush the introduction of the opposing tributes, Lawrence not only undermines the drama of the battle but also makes the battles much harder to follow as most of the tributes lack the kind of distinguishing marks that might allow us to follow their progress through an action scene. This situation is made worse by Lawrence's attempts to inject urgency into the battles by rapidly cutting from one shot to another. This certainly creates an impression of speed but it also makes fights impossible to follow, meaning that every single fight in this film comes across as little more than frantic and incoherent flailing that occasionally leaves someone dead. As in the source material, the battle suffers from Collins' decision to follow up every confrontation with a more slowly-paced sequence in which the characters sit around discussing their feelings, mooning over dead friends, and getting paranoid about their alliances with other characters.

As with the opening act, a savvy director might have played up the paranoia underpinning these scenes and turned them into simmering pots of tension that occasionally explode into violence, but Lawrence follows Ross in choosing to focus on the melodrama thereby depriving the film of any sense of lingering danger or tension so that, when the angry baboons and poisonous clouds do turn up, they appear more comical than harrowing. There is one particularly wonderful scene where Katniss' group meets up with some other tributes and decides to make peace. Noting that they appear to be covered in sticky brown liquid, Katniss asks what happened and one of the female tribute rolls her eyes and talks about blood falling from the sky in the same tone of voice that one might talk about a ruined wedding reception or barbecue; a damp squib indeed.

In truth, much of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire seems like padding. While the first film does a tolerable job of introducing Katniss and placing her in a position where her combination of celebrity and individuality risks upsetting the political narratives that grown-ups have fashioned around her, the second film simply re-iterates this position in a dramatically uninteresting manner that allows them to pave the way for the inevitable rebellion against parental authority. Indeed, the only really moving scene in the film is the final one in which Katniss wakes up in an unfamiliar place only to hear voices discussing her in the other room. Dazed and upset, Katniss stumbles towards the door only to find herself being let into the room in which a group of adolescents are having a grown-up discussion about getting rid of dad.

Even though the Hunger Games films are dull, overlong, and generally a monument to Hollywood's growing inability to produce substantial and enduring works of art, they are a phenomenal success and it is easy to see why. The Hunger Games books and films are aimed primarily at children and so make use of remarkably undemanding conceptual and symbolic languages. Accessible to a fault, these works deal in broad themes and images that are instantly comprehensible to anyone who has either seen a film or read a book at some point in their lives. Most people don't know much about politics but they know that there's something faintly sinister about armoured troops beating unarmed protestors, while children are forced to fight to the death as part of some ill-conceived plan to keep the general population under control. The series' themes of parental authority and individual autonomy speak to a wide audience as every single human on the face of the planet is either in the process of dealing with parental authority, or has done so at some point in the past. However, while this decision to deal in only the broadest possible themes may say quite a lot about the commercial and artistic ambitions of Suzanne Collins and contemporary Hollywood, its also reveals quite a lot about how we have come to perceive ourselves.

The 20th century left deep scars on the political imagination of this species. Fascism and communism displayed what humanity could achieve when it put its differences aside and worked towards a single goal, particularly when that goal required the industrialised slaughter of innocents. Horrified by this vision of collectivisation, the west lost faith in big ideologies and came to embrace a vision of human civilisation that emphasised our unique individuality, at the expense of our shared concerns and feelings. While this individualistic approach to the ordering of human society is most evident in the rise of neo-liberalism and globalised capital, it can also be seen in the way that people appear to have lost complete faith in the democratic process itself. In his book Politics Of Fear (2005), the sociologist Frank Furedi describes how the political system has shifted from treating voters as being part of the democratic decision-making process to treating them as the passive recipients of policy decisions made by politicians and 'experts':

The assumption of numerous policy documents is that people are not trustworthy and cannot be expected to live their lives responsibly. The tendency to treat adults as children informs the action of the entire political class. Individuals are no longer presented as the 'political man' or even as 'citizens'. Today's political vocabulary emphasizes the passivity and powerlessness of the public. We have the excluded, the vulnerable (potential victim), the victim, the bullied, the client, the end user, the consumer or the stakeholder, but not the people as political animals.

This infantilisation of the electorate is also evident in the way the last two generations of politicians have fallen over themselves to remove public goods from public hands. Institutions built to serve the public interest are sold off and, when they cannot be sold off, they are placed in the hands of professionals and experts who are left to make important decisions with minimal political oversight and zero public accountability. Issues of economic, foreign, and domestic policy are regularly presented as being too complex to explain to the general public and so the grown-ups retire to another room where they can talk about our future out of earshot. Half convinced that they too lack an adequate understanding to do their jobs, politicians appear to have abandoned real politics in favour of holding opinions about the minutiae of the electorate's lives: are they raising their children properly? Are they exercising enough? Are they drinking too much? Are they reading enough? Are they too fat?

These are the types of questions that parents ask themselves about their children and a political culture that allows politicians to think of the electorate in these terms infantilises us all. The reason that people respond to works like The Hunger Games is the same reason they cower in the shadow of their parents and feel empowered by mass-market therapy sessions written for a teen demographic: we are subject to a culture that encourages us to view ourselves as creatures that are as passive and as powerless as children. Works like The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Twilight benefit from this cultural mood as much as they contribute to it.

What is the point of art if not to challenge the way we think about ourselves? A better film than The Hunger Games: Catching Fire might have passed muster as entertainment, but the only the only thing it does is pump you full of ideology and shrink the horizons of your mind to the point where intelligent, resourceful women are indistinguishable from grumpy teenagers. At least Ender's Game respects its audience enough to consider them capable of genocide.

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