Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Count me among the many fans of Suzanne Collins' dystopian teenage arena combat novel The Hunger Games. It's a tight, lean piece of writing, with subtle and deft foreshadowing, sly detail and above all, an engaging sense of purpose. It's not hard to see how YA audiences far an wide fell in love with the reluctant, bow-slinging heroine, Katniss Everdeen. The follow-up, Catching Fire, suffers in comparison. Here, sequel-itis is in full bloom, with Collins trying to give the audience more of what made the first book so popular, but simultaneously adding new elements and raising the stakes so that the narrative isn't just a re-hash of the first book. The foreshadowing is not quite so deft, the plot not so tight. The story meanders a bit, particularly through the first half of the book, as Collins devotes a lot more of her writing efforts to back story and world building. She also does a good bit of set-up for the final book in the series, Mockingjay, and that undercuts some of the effectiveness of Catching Fire, which is very much a "middle book." As for Mockingjay, Collins didn't stick the landing. I see what Collins is trying to do with the book, a big meta statement on the consequences and inhumanity of using child soldiers in warfare, turning the revolution into one, big, kill-or-be-killed Hunger Game, and the Capital itself into a chaotic arena. The reality of war crimes and unintended consequences are a major driving force here. But it doesn't hold together. Mockingjay reads, to me, like a first draft that Collins rushed to get finished in order to make contractual deadlines. Foreshadowing here amounts to telegraphing what's going to happen at the end of the chapter. There's a lot of narrative flailing going on, political intrigue that isn't all that intriguing, clumsy infodumps and a general uncertainty about how all these loose ends are going to be tied up. The arena battles and traps, so crisply defined and clear in the first two books, are vague and baffling and--more often than not--nonsensical. But worst of all, Katniss is very, very passive in the final book, not driving the narrative, but instead watching from the sidelines as most of the action takes place without her until the final quarter of the book. Even then, her actions aren't really of her own accord, as she's essentially set up by The Powers That Be. Given another six months to do tightening and rewrites, I expect Collins would produce a book worthy of the first in the series. As it is, many readers are disappointed with Mockingjay, and with good reason, I say.

Which brings us to Catching Fire, the second installment of the Hunger Games movie franchise, which will be four films once all is said and done, as Mockingjay is being split into two films (I'll wager Peter Jackson is kicking himself for not doing this with Return of the King). I did not like the original Hunger Games movie. The acting was fine, and the film dutifully ticked off most of the high points of the novel, but it felt cold and distant to me. One feature of the novels is that everything is so intimate, so closely tied to Katniss' point of view. That was missing from the movie. There was no intimacy. Rue's death is pretty much the only part of the film I liked better than the book. For everything else, there seemed a distinct lack of gravity, of danger, of pain, of suffering. I understand director Gary Ross was trying to tone down a violent, R-rated book narrative to a family-friendly PG-13 rating, but I felt he neutered the entire theme. Without suffering, without consequences, the entire reason for the Hunger Games books is lost.

Catching Fire is very, very different. I went in skeptical. If the strongest book in the series resulted in such an underwhelming film, then what hope was there for a lesser book? Quite a bit, actually. Director Francis Lawrence is a tremendous upgrade over Ross, and I'm as shocked to write that as anybody. This is the guy who gave us Constantine and I Am Legend, two movies guaranteed not to instill the viewer with confidence. Yet he does excellent work with Catching Fire, keeping the narrative moving without feeling infodump-y, conveying the bleak turmoil of the districts, and crucially, Katniss' emotional suffering and slow, psychological unraveling. The violence is more real here than in the previous film, despite most of the deaths and fighting taking place off-camera. There's fear, concern, pain, pathos here the other film lacked. And that doesn't mean there's simply more gore. There's not much actual blood shown at all, come to think of it. Instead, most is implied (except for Gale's whipping--hoo boy, is that painfully graphic!) and that shows a remarkable confidence and subtlety from director Lawrence. Look, we all know Jennifer Lawrence is one of her generation's great actresses, so I won't waste time praising her performance (although I will question the necessity of having her go the whole movie wearing that weird spray tan. Seriously, that was distracting). Josh Hutcherson as Peta doesn't have very much to do other than look earnest, although his "if it wasn't for the baby" moment brings down the house. Liam Helmsworth as Gale gets a bit more character development this time around, but it's Willow Shields' Prim that comes off as the most changed since the first film, a more confident and assertive character, inspired by her sister's sacrifice. Woody Harrelson's Haymitch was far and away the single worst element of the first film, and director Lawrence must agree with me, because Harrelson's mugging for the camera is scaled way back. If they can find some way of writing him out of the Mockingjay films all together, I'll be one happy camper.

Catching Fire does everything the first film attempted to do, but does it all much, much better. On top of that it raises the stakes, introduces more characters and makes them distinct and memorable. It is a more emotional and intimate film, and at the same time the spectacle surpasses what has gone before. This film has backbone and bite. Some have compared this to The Empire Strikes Back, but that's a superficial comparison because 1) they're both "bridge" films and 2) both end in cliffhangers with a beloved character in the hands of the enemy. These are two very different films, with very different goals and intentions. Such comparisons do a disservice to both. Catching Fire isn't a truly great film, at least by my standards. It shouldn't earn Best Picture nominations from the Academy Awards, although there may be some individual awards in store for the cast and crew. But that's not damning with faint praise. Catching Fire is a very good movie, and I recommend it for anyone who wants a little substance to go along with their popcorn entertainment this holiday season.

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