The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

November 23, 2013
Jennifer Lawrence in 'The Hunger Games: Catching fire' 2013
Jennifer Lawrence in 'The Hunger Games: Catching fire' 2013

Panem et Circenses was the Roman formula for keeping the population happy. In Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games novels, Panem (bread) is the name of the dystopian society in which the story is set. The circuses are the Games themselves, in which a boy and a girl from each district are chosen by lottery to partake in a tournament that allows for only one survivor. This spectacle, which echoes the gladatorial contests of ancient Rome, finds its main audience in The Capitol, seat of power in this totalitarian state. For the rest of Panem, struggling to avoid starvation, the Games are a symbol of their own oppression.

Catching Fire is the second part of a trilogy, incorporating four rather than three films. The final installment, Mockingjay, which is currently in production, will be a double-header.

Unless you’ve spent the past few years living in a cave, you will know The Hunger Games is the latest ‘young adult’ cult sensation. We’ve had J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Stephanie Meyer’s teenage vampires, and now this dark vision of the United States devolved into a nation of haves and have-nots, where entertainment has become a bloodsport.

If that sounds suspiciously like present-day America this may be one of the keys to the series’s mass appeal. It takes only a little extrapolation to see a social system designed by the Tea Party as a world in which a small, decadent minority protect their power and privileges with brute force. Adults are capable of convincing themselves that inequality is the natural order of things, but teenagers feel it as an injustice.

The Hunger Games is an allegory of the generation gap, showing the adult world as cruel and tyrannical, while the story’s young protagonists are romantic idealists, devoted to creating a better society. The story is corny; the dialogue unexceptional; the movie’s themes decodable by any high school English class, but for most of the audience this will not detract from the power of this production.

A crucial component in the appeal of The Hunger Games is Jennifer Lawrence as the heroine, Katniss Everdeen. Lawrence, who is swiftly becoing the hottest property in Hollywood, has the kind of face that adapts easily to the most diverse roles. Her charisma arises from an unbeatable mixture of vulnerability and stength, making her equally plausible as a romantic lead or an action hero. In Catching Fire the camera focuses tightly on her face for such long periods that one could count every freckle.

Alongside Lawrence all the male leads seem rather bland, notable for their chiselled looks rather than acting ability. It’s not a huge problem, as the script only serves to support the broad lines of the story, but Lawrence dominates the screen.

The film begins with Katniss back home in District 12, acting out a charade of undying love with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), her co-victor from last year’s Games. This is not enough, however, for the evil President Snow, played by Donald Sutherland, looking like God the Father from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. He knows Katniss is indifferent to Peeta, and in love with another local boy, Gale (Liam Hemsworth). To keep up appearances he insists that Katniss and Peeta go on a whistle-stop tour of the districts, making a great display of their affections.

The honeymoon doesn’t last long as it becomes obvious Katniss is being viewed as a symbol of rebellion by the masses. To eliminate the problem President Snow agrees to a plan from the new Head Gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), that for the 75th anniversary of this event contestants will be drawn exclusively from the ranks of the previous winners. This means that Katniss and Peeta find themselves plunged back into bloody combat against opponents who are more skilful and ruthless than last year’s crop. Events take their course, setting us up for the inevitable sequel.

What is slightly surprising is that it takes two-thirds of the film for the action to begin. The rest is devoted to an examination of Katniss’s life, and of Panem’s ghastly political system. This doesn’t render the story boring – as action devotees might expect; it creates a deeper, more vivid atmosphere. I found the events of the movie stayed in my mind much longer than I would have imagined. By the standards of recent Hollywood blockbusters, Catching Fire is a superior product.

Director, Francis Lawrence, who began his career making pop music videos, has managed to overcome the formulaic elements of the story, allowing us to feel what it is like to live in a world where everything is circumscribed by an all-powerful ruler. He is also good with the grotesque ‘reality TV’ presentation of the Games, with Stanley Tucci, adorned with a towering wig and gleaming teeth, playing the part of the grinning, babbling host. The irony is that nothing could be more of a pop cultural phenomenon than a Hunger Games movie. Simultaneously symptom and critique, the film has it both ways, like those contemporary artists who set out to subvert society from within the walls of the most prestigious museums.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
USA, rated M
146 mins
Directed by Francis Lawrence; written by Simon Beaufoy & Michael Arndt, from a novel by Suzanne Collins; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Liam Hemsworth, Sam Claflin, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Stanley Tucci

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 23 November, 2013.

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