The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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“Still not as good as the book.”

catchingfire2It took a little way into 2014 for it to get there, but Catching Fire overtook Iron Man 3 to become the biggest-grossing film in the US, released in 2013. What’s particularly stunning about that is, it’s the first #1 film for a year, with an woman as the unequivocal lead, in four decades. And depending on how you view Linda Blair in The Exorcist, you might have to go back even further, to Babs Streisand in 1968’s Funny Girl. It indicates just how far this series has redrawn the playing field: there can no longer be any credible claim, as heard after the failures of CatwomanAeon Flux, Cutthroat Island, etc. that action heroines are, per se, box-office poison.

I was really looking forward to this, too, having enjoyed the second book more than the first, and with the reviews for the cinematic part two also an uptick better. And… S’alright, I suppose. Though that’s a bit unfair: it’s mostly disappointing only in relation to my increased expectations. On any other level, this is very solid cinema, with Lawrence continuing to provide a steely, resourceful heroine who breaks the mould. But I’m still finding myself on the outside, looking in – observing Katniss, rather than feeling for her. If there’s an emotional heart here, it hasn’t been beating in synch with my own; when this ended, I turned it off, went to bed and forgot all about it.

There were a couple of ways in which it felt deficient to the book, even though it’s still an extremely faithful adaptation, with virtually every incident being reproduced, in a way not far off how my mind’s eye saw them. “Virtually” might be important there. Even at 146 minutes, I got the feeling some key elements were watered down. For instance, the film doesn’t do a good job of explaining why Katniss decides that Peeta must survive at all costs. In the book, it’s clear that it’s because she believes only he can lead a rebellion, with her role being to make sure he lives to do so. Of course, the Peeta in these films doesn’t exactly come over as a teenage Martin Luther King or Gandhi: he seems there more as a cuddle-buddy for Katniss, when Gale isn’t around [thankfully, that love triangle seems pushed further into the background this time around].

HGCF_KATNISS_75J_PLAK_D_CMYK_300_A4.inddThe same sense of dilution goes for both the attacks and their results in the film version, with neither packing much wallop. A number of Katniss’s friends and allies are killed in this one, but none have as much punch as their most obvious counterpart in the first part [name omitted, just in case anyone reading this hasn’t seen or read it!]. Finally, and to some extent contradicting what I said in the opening paragraph, our heroine isn’t less the focus here, as she was in the first film, where she all but flew solo in the Games. Again, it plays differently from the book, whose first-person narration ensures that Katniss is put squarely front and centre: this entry feels more like The Expendables, with a team-based approach to the process. To some extent, this does make sense, however: one of the themes here, is the ripple effect of Katniss’s victory and how things are not longer just about her survival. The gradual realization that this is now much larger, plays a major part in the lead-up to the Quarter Quell.

Which brings me to the things the film does well, because the set-up, as Katniss and Peeta go on their “victory tour” of all the districts, is quite exquisite. Right from the first stop, where a supposedly celebratory rally ends up diverting far from what the authorities want, after the couple abandon their bland, pre-prepared speeches, you get a real sense of rising revolt. What also comes across well, is the sense of large-scale discontent, even among the power elite in the capital: witness the reaction to Peeta’s (fake) announcement of Katniss’s pregnancy, or the costume designed for her, which contains a none too subtle reference to the rebellion (and for which its designer pays the price). As a work of political subversion, this is far superior to the likes of V for Vendetta, and the dystopia depicted, in all its brutal coercion, is undeniably chilling.

It does suffer somewhat from “second film syndrome,” though stands alone much better than, say, The Desolation of Smaug. Proceedings end on the same cliffhanger as the book: while Katniss was fighting for survival, the powers that be were taking care of business elsewhere. I haven’t read the third volume yet, and am torn between doing so before I see the next film or after it. Complicating matters, the last book, Mockingjay, will be pulling a Harry Potter or Twilight, and becoming two films, to be released in November 2014 and 2015. I’m a bit dubious: the book is barely half the length of either of those volumes, and we’ve seen with The Hobbit, what can happen when material is stretched too thinly. Against that, due to its first-person narrative, the book is likely much more limited in its ability to depict the obviously impending global revolution, and one imagines this will be expanded upon in the two parts of Mockingjay.

One thing seems little in doubt. By the time the series in finished, Lawrence will have the number one, two, three and four box-office hits in action heroine history, and may even have the first billion-dollar global entry. That can only be applauded.

Dir: Francis Lawrence
Star: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Sam Claflin, Woody Harrelson

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