Saturday, November 30, 2013

Movie Review - Catching Fire (The Hunger Games, part two)

I read the Hunger Games novels back in 2010 and really enjoyed the series. As always, I was a bit apprehensive about a movie adaptation so I was pleasantly surprised with the good movie treatment for the first book. This fall we return to Panem for Catching Fire.

In the same way that book two ratchetted up the anxiety and distress, the second film really draws you in and keeps you off balance and emotionally destabalized throughout the film. Wide sweeping camera shots showcase the huge disparity between the poverty and slave-like conditions of the "citizens" in the District and the aristocratic excess and ignorance of the people within the Capitol.

We get more close up interaction with President Snow. We see his slimy interactions with the new Gamemaker as they come up with "moves and countermoves" to try and stiffle any sense of rebellion or defiance within the Districts by stripping them of any sense of Hope. We also see his interaction with his young niece who seems so pure and innocent when set alongside President Snow. Strangely I felt like the movie, more than the book, tried to frame a little bit of the idea that Snow was just caught in a bad place and truly was acting to try and save the stability and sanctity of Panem rather than just trying to save his own neck and maintain his power and position. I saw glimpses of this but they were really fleeting and were always quickly replaced by a sense of utter repulsion for President Snow and all that he stands for.

Back in District 12 we find Katniss reunited with Gale and trying to figure out life. She very realistically lets him know that she is just too traumatized at the moment to think of any kind of true relationship with him or with anyone, even Peeta. We see evidence of a sort of post-traumatic-stress-disorder as she has halucinations and nightmares related to her horrific experience within the games.

Katniss's interactions with Peeta and Haymitch are required due to her new status as Victor but she is just as cold and distant with them as ever. As they begin their "Victory Tour", she warms up a little to Peeta, Haymitch, Effie and others as she sees evidence that the world is unraveling and becoming more and more dangerous for everyone.

President Snow personally threatens Katniss to behave herself and to act as an inspiration to the world or her family and loved ones will be at risk. Snow increases the intensity of the "Peacekeepers" within the Districts which results in more beatings and executions of anybody disobeying even menial rules or showing any kind of disrespect for the authority of the Capitol. The scenes of violence against humanity is just heart wrenching.

Finally the news comes that the next Hunger Games will be made up of victors from the previous games which means Katniss and Peeta are going back to the games and will be fighting against previous victors. Katniss continues to break down emotionally. She knows that she can't save everyone and vows to at least keep Peeta alive even if she knows she will have to die. Once we finally make it to the new games there is an overwhelming sense of despair.

The movie did a great job of sticking with the plot and the tone of the second book. In the first film I liked the casting but wasn't quite as attached to Katniss and Peeta as I would have liked. In this second film I found myself more attached to both of them and quickly attaching to some of the other characters. I felt like the actors stepped it up and did an even better job getting into the roles and portraying the emotion and behaviors in a way that really drew me in.

I think the difference goes to the nature of the story change between film one and film two. In the first Hunger Games story we see some of the atrocities of the Capitol and shake our head in disgust. However most of the violence and horrific nature of the scenes has to do with the fact that these are a bunch of young kids fighting each other to the death. While that aspect is still here in Catching Fire, the horror that draws us in is much more personal, much more emotional.

In movie one we only briefly get to know most of the characters except for Katniss, Peeta and Haymitch so the sense of violence and disgust is held more at arms length. It's still awful that they are involved in the killing but they become the heroic figures just trying to survive and so the atrocities are distanced from them. In movie two we still don't get to know too many other characters closely but the difference is that our heroic characters, especially Katniss, have become utterly broken. The world is crumbling. They are psychologically scarred and as we progress through the film we are exposed to more hideous events that cause even more scarring. They staunchly 'grit their teeth' and do all they can to survive but the pain and the horror gets more internalized. The true enemy is more developed and becomes a vile shadow lurking everywhere, not just in the games but in the heads of everyone in Panem.

When seeing the first Hunger Games film, my wife and I decided it was too violent, too traumatic to let our pre-teen son watch. We still haven't backed down on that and fortunately he hasn't hit too much peer pressure around the films since then. There are some elements of violence in this film that are similar to the first film...still some killing during the main Games....but there is the added violence of the torturous public beatings and executions of District citizens young and old. These brief scenes are brutally realistic and emotionally troubling. As a viewer it becomes very easy to relate to the psychological trauma that Katniss is trying so hard to overcome. This is definitely not a film for young audiences and I'm sure, once again, that they really pushed the allowed limits of the PG-13 rating.

For those who haven't read the books, this second episode acts as a significant bridge to book three. While the first book could potentially have been a stand alone novel (though it left us in a less than ideal state), the second book ends with a very strong cliffhanger and with the world in absolute upheaval. It starts moderately slow and then builds almost exponentially to a breakneck pace of anxiety ridden scenes that completely through the characters (and potentially the viewers) out of balance emotionally and physically. When the end of the film comes there are so many problems created and left unresolved. Even though you may walk out partially satisfied with the ending, you definitely won't want the story to stop there. My wife (who hadn't yet taken the time to read books 2 & 3) immediately went home and read book 3 because she needed to get some closure.

The title of this film, Catching Fire, really applies in so many ways. It's used as a metaphor for the increase of Katniss's resolve, the powder keg of Panem's District citizens igniting into rebellion and the increased flame of Hope. The story and the movie are organized in such a way that the metaphor of fire can definitely be applied to the pacing and arc of the story. We start by prepping the fire pit, getting the kindling and fuel ready. Then a few sparks are added. Maybe a few strongly combustible materials. More and more wood and other materials are added. Finally at the end of the second film we have a raging bonfire. However it appears that this bonfire is escaping the safety of the fire ring and is threatening everything around it. We have caught fire and then we are left to wait and see what becomes of the flames.

In the same way that I liked book two better than book one, I found myself enjoying the second movie more than the first. Even though it was emotionally troubling, I found myself more drawn in and more attached to Katniss and Peeta. I felt my own emotions catching fire and writhing within me as I witnessed the events on screen. I felt like this was an excellent movie adaptation and I am eagerly awaiting the conclusion (hopefully only as a single film, though I've heard they are looking at splitting it into two).

4.5 out of 5 stars


Brian Miller said...

nice...i will go see this...i enjoyed the first...sadly i hear they have broken the third book into two movies to feed the money machine...

Phoenix said...

Great review! I read the books and really enjoyed them, and I thought the film adaptation of the first book was excellent. I'm looking forward to seeing the second film!