The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – Francis Lawrence brings us an even better round two. (film review)

There is an interesting and surprising theme in Catching Fire, the second of the phenomenally successful The Hunger Games trilogy ( inevitably to come out as four films) that sees love as the central motivator for young sixteen year old girls being posited against the falseness of love as an instrument of media manipulation. It is not new for us to question the way love might be used to manipulate audiences but it is new for us to see sixteen year old girls examining these questions. The Hunger Games are primarily political / thriller novels, written for young adults, anti-war, anti-totalitarianism and anti-class exploitation. Like the Twilight franchise, morality is determined by the religion of the writer, (only a Catholic can convince us self-sacrifice is the best form of attack in arm to arm combat)  but there are closer and deeper themes within these subsets that come through and become just as obvious.

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An examination of media influence, and motivation emerges as a primary theme in Catching Fire. The Hunger Games is a  TV show after all, effectively using reality television to keep people in their place by elevating a few out of their dismal normal lives to make them extremely uncomfortable while the world watches and passes judgement.  Sound familiar? In The Hunger Games, the purpose of the games is to offer children up as penance for a now distant uprising that will never be forgotten in a classic example of a winning government re-writing history. The minds of the people are corrupted by their love of the television show and their obsession with it.

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This is all taken to a new level in Catching Fire. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are to play the young couple in love. Katniss was having genuine feelings for Peeta at the end of the first film, but refuses to entertain them in light of their primary concern, that of survival of their dignity expressed in a mutual suicide pact. In an attempt to thwart any hope this may give to the oppressed masses in the outer districts, the story is re-written to suit the agenda of the media, so that Katniss and Peeta occur as star-crossed lovers. While they have genuine feelings for each other, this is sublimated and in fact obliterated by the obligation they have to act out their love in front of the audience. Katniss can’t do it of course, because she is dominated by concerns for her family’s safety and survival. It seems trivial and foolish to be talking about love when such pressing matters exist. The concurrent plot of her feelings for Peeta posited against her feelings for Gale are (again) sublimated in her mind.  It is the viewer who keeps that alive, mirroring the television manipulations of Panem.

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It is this refusal to allow love to become her front and centre concern that makes Katniess a perfect revolutionary. Katniss Everdeen becomes a hero, because she is a young teen girl and because she won’t fall in love because she is worried about the well being of those she loves. This is a highly subversive act that causes each person of substance to question the role they have been assigned in the society of Panem. Her refusal also speaks to the use of love in popular culture as a tool to satiate and convince us of good within bad.  It is this subtext that gives Catching Fire its depth and complexity, not to mention a valuable critique on contemporary culture.

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All of this is inner strength exists because Catching Fire is built on such a solid novel series by Suzanne Collins and Nina Jacobson’s vision to bring the zest and power of the books to the screen. The controversy surrounding director Gary Ross’ departure was ill-founded as Francis Lawrence (who has passed the writing task over to Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt) is also committed to the last book’s adaptation wich will come out in two parts as films. His Hunger Games contribution stands up successfully to the hype of the first film. Francis Lawrence plays up the juxtaposition of the natural versus the synthetic with the classic gaudy excesses of The Capital clashing against the verdant tropics of the arena under the dome, or the infertile hard grounds of the districts under snow. It helps that the scenes in the arena are filmed in IMAX format, giving the tropics of the arena an enormity and closeness that renders The Capital even more sterile, despite its vibrant colour.

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Like The Harry Potter series of films, The Hunger Games gathers strength from a fine cast including enthusiastic smaller but pivotal roles.  Jennifer Lawrence is, as usual, remarkably good as Katniss, constantly surmising and evaluating, her usually sunny disposition buried under the grim Katniss mistrust. New additions this time include Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a hauntingly creepy Plutarch Heavensbee and Amanda Plumber  playing a small but crucial role as Wiress, a female genius who enters the game as a contestant. Donald Sutherland is more preened this time as President Snow, while Woody Harrelson perfectly recreates his Haymitch Abernathy character. Much has already been made of the great casting and excellent performances, but the sub-themes are really what its worth seeing The Hunger Games: Catching Fire for, and elevate it above the other films of its genre.

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