8 Areas In Which The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Matches And Surpasses Its Predecessor

The Hunger Games Catching Fire2 8 Areas In Which The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Matches And Surpasses Its Predecessor

In the midst of endless bickering over all the various things movie franchises are doing completely wrong, the Hunger Games franchise appears to be doing just about everything right. The popularity and staying power of the series has been confirmed by the overwhelming success of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which has been almost unanimously embraced by critics and is currently setting records at the box office.

It’s easy to get disoriented by the shameless merchandising and ubiquitous marketing of the movies and lose sight of the actual quality of the films themselves. Yes, it’s ridiculous (intentionally so?) that makeup companies are trying to appeal to people who dig the look of the gluttonous Capitol residents. Yes, there’s something weird about a popular movie purportedly geared towards young people in which teenagers kill each other for their ancestors’ punishment and for the detached amusement of the 1%. Even the push to make Josh Hutcherson a huge star feels a little forced—not necessarily undeserved, but maybe a tad bit soon.

Many folks will dismiss the entire series as pulpy nonsense, chalking up its cultural significance to marketing and research. Fortunately, most people are celebrating both Hunger Games movies for what they are: popular cinematic storytelling that is actually well-told; or perhaps, quality filmmaking that has been deservedly widely adored. Yes, both movies. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the first movie was actually a tremendously solid film in its own right, even though Catching Fire seems to be an even bigger hit.

So, on that note, here are 8 qualities that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire either continued or improved upon from the first movie. The spoiler-phobic may proceed at their own risk.

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1) The feel of the different districts, especially District 12

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One quality stood out above all others the second time I watched The Hunger Games back in 2012. The first time through, I was distracted by the relatively fresh version of Panem that I had envisioned based on my reading of the book, so I couldn’t appreciate many of the bold choices director Gary Ross had made with his adaptation. The second time, though, I was struck by the level of confidence shown in the introductory scenes, up to and including the Reaping.

The aesthetic employed in these District 12 moments in the first movie was surprising from an aspiring blockbuster. The scenes were stripped of virtually all color, both in terms of the images as well as the expressiveness of the characters. It almost feels as though Katniss and Gale are being defiant by briefly joking around. There’s next to no music underscoring the action. It feels precisely like a neglected region, stripped down, with no stylistic flourishes or liveliness to speak of. Some members of the audience were likely lost by doing this; others, like me, were shaken into actually paying attention and taking this action seriously.

Catching Fire maintains and expands on this template, with a slightly different look to District 12 reflecting the signs of life and lively dissonance in the country. This is one of the things that make the Victory Tour sequence so effective: the overwhelming sense is that these are profoundly downtrodden people looking for something to latch onto, and that ends up being Katniss.

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2) The absurdity of the Capitol

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My personal favorite portions of the Hunger Games franchise feast have to be the performances of Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks, both previously under-appreciated actors who seize every opportunity to draw out the magnificent weirdness of these Capitol-representative characters. Banks as Effie is perfectly over the top, and Tucci as Caesar Flickerman is probably the most fun any actor has ever had with any character in history. They stole the show in the first movie, but in Catching Fire we get to see their goofy facades break down slightly—Effie by her sympathy for Katniss’ and Peeta’s misfortunes, and Caesar by the stunning defiance of the victors.

There were glimpses of the Capitol in the previous film, primarily through Flickerman’s talk show. Like virtually every aspect of Panem, we were eased into it at first, seeing things as briefly as Katniss and Peeta are allowed to view them in the whirlwind of press leading up to the arena. And so again with our tributes in Catching Fire, we’re somewhat better acquainted with the city and are able to take a closer look on the second visit. The party scene encapsulates the setting’s purpose nicely. There are shades of Gatsby as they arrive at the presidential palace, but the excess of West Egg seems like child’s play compared to the habits of Capitolists. Despite Plutarch’s recommendation to suspend moral judgment, Katniss can’t, and neither can we.

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3) Balancing the violence with an avoidance of sado-voyeuristic pleasure

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There is one central paradox that adapting The Hunger Games into a movie franchise poses, and that is the problem that the novel criticizes the gross spectacle of elites sending young people into this bloodbath of a reality show, but the very act of watching the Games unfold in the film puts us in the position of an audience complacent to horrific violence. Reading gives us distance from the people tuning into this atrocity; watching makes us complacent.

Some have complained about the filmmakers’ aim to make the films “PG-13 friendly.” This is likely true, but I suspect the decision to turn the camera away from some of the more gruesome moments is an attempt to wrestle with this paradox. It could be said that it’s a cowardly move to let viewers off the hook regarding the real darkness of the material. I think it could also be said that the artful execution of these moments is to avoid turning us off completely, making us more effectively relate to the spectacle-hungry viewers of Panem.

So when we see Cato snap a young boy’s neck in the first movie, the sound is cleverly muted, from Katniss’ deafened aural perspective, making it less immediately real, but still shocking and disturbing. The genius of Catching Fire‘s arena sequence is that our reaction to it, the fact we’re rooting for the tributes to just get along and turn their efforts against President Snow and his regime, is precisely the feeling in a country with a revolution brewing.

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4) The strength of its supporting players

The Hunger Games Catching Fire 8 Areas In Which The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Matches And Surpasses Its Predecessor

Not even the snobbiest of cinephiles can scoff at the likes of Jena Malone, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright. These are established and respected veterans in their field, and get a chance to surprise and delight us in a more playful environment than we may have watched them in previously. Hoffman gets the least time to show off in Catching Fire, but the mystery surrounding his endgame—what his moves and countermoves are meant to be leading toward—is made all the more intriguing by his guarded demeanor. I have a soft spot for a muted Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Wright gets to be the weird nerd, and he’s always good playing eccentrics. Few other actors would have the authority to insist some dubious technology to work simply by stating “I invented it. It’ll work.” Most seem to agree that Malone steals the show, though. Her open defiance and crass expressiveness easily makes her an instant fan favorite. She gets to say what we’re thinking at several key points of the movie.

Adding to the aforementioned talents of Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks from the first installment, this new set of actors that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see in a blockbuster franchise only serves to build up the formidable strength of the Hunger Games ensemble even more.

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5) Showing restraint with Gale and Peeta

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I admired the first movie for how little it allowed us to latch onto its two male co-stars, Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson. My biggest worry was that it would play up the love triangle aspect of the story for a post-Twilight movie audience, which was my most loathed part of the books. Gary Ross and company seemed to share my thoughts on the matter, focusing the movie entirely on Katniss and how busy she is trying to not die which ultimately gives her little time to think about which boy is cuter (especially since it’s obviously Gale).

Similarly, Catching Fire keeps these two in the background and maintains Katniss’ role as hero, even though it’s becoming more of a collaborative effort in which she’s a kind of catalyst or symbol or whatever the Mockingjay stuff is meant to be about. The less time Hemsworth is allowed to talk, the better, and in his recuperative silence following his little scuffle with the Peacekeeper who is so badass that he doesn’t even need a helmet, we’re treated to some tender moments with him and Katniss.

Hutcherson, to his credit, makes Peeta one of the most subtly exciting sidekicks ever. He’s actually far bolder than Katniss in the sequel, in his mind at least, but he still falls down a lot more than she does. Still, his efforts become increasingly admirable, and Hutcherson finds a way of bringing out the simmering anger in his character that may not even be detectable at first. After all, it takes Katniss quite a bit of time to notice.

If only he were hotter!

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6) Jennifer Lawrence, obviously

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The fact that Jennifer Lawrence is as seemingly baffled by her own real life rise to stardom as Katniss is flummoxed by her own status as a revolutionary symbol in Panem shows just how perfectly suited she is for this role. Her suitability was immediately evident in the opening scenes of the previous film. She acts as though she’s carrying the weight of her entire district, or at the very least her entire family, on her shoulders. There is not a single moment where she signals any awareness of her importance to the public hungry for revolution, and her obliviousness to many things, from politics to personal relationships, is one of her endearing qualities.

Even after we’ve all had a bit more exposure to Lawrence’s work, most notably Silver Linings Playbook, it’s still almost immediately a forgone conclusion that she is wholly and completely Katniss. It’s not so much that Jennifer Lawrence disappears as it is a kind of morphing her traits into this similar yet entirely different character. I think of (as many will, surely) the scene where Johanna confronts them in the elevator, taking off her parade costume with Peeta’s assistance and Haymitch’s elated eyes. Katniss’ eyes have a different reaction, and it takes the abundant expressiveness of Lawrence and channels it in a subdued Katniss way. She’s very good.

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7) The power of the arena

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The Quarter Quell is meant to promise spectacle unlike anything the Hunger Games have presented thus far, and the movie, appropriately, replicates that, showcasing the entire arena portion of the movie in stunning IMAX format (if you have the opportunity to see Catching Fire in an IMAX-equipped theater, it’s a must).

People who have read the books were expecting big things from this arena and the people who made the movie had big ambitions with this arena. It retroactively makes the arena from the previous movie seem suitable, since if it was too dazzling, it would be harder to top. There can be no disagreement on this: the arena sequence of Catching Fire is far grander than that of The Hunger Games.

Much of this is due to the imaginative design by Suzanne Collins in the original novel. The IMAX format not only emphasizes the scale of the setting, though; it also magnifies each and every detail. Every bead of sweat becomes noticeable, and in a tropical arena, this really gives you a sense of the heat and dehydration the tributes are experiencing. It has the added bonus of making those blisters from the poisonous fog really pop. Those things are wonderfully hideous.

Expanding the ratio of the film for this sequence also aids in the sense of disorientation, both physical and emotional, that Katniss experiences in this moment. This movie is a much more visceral experience than the first, with the arena serving as viscera central.

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8) A promise of what’s to come

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Both movies end with a sense of foreboding and a clear nod to the fact that audiences will have time to anticipate the next instalment of this story. The Hunger Games very nearly feels like a completely story unto itself. Its ending could hint to further exploration of the universe, but doesn’t demand it. We see President Snow walk away, but the games are over and Katniss and Peeta are alive and together and seem to be prepared to go home.

Catching Fire demands more. It’s not just that it ends in an Empire Strikes Back vein with our fellowship separated and our heroine fleeing the villain to meet up with the rebel alliance. It’s that the entire film builds up such rage in us as an audience that never really gets satisfied. It gets interrupted. The anger we feel towards Snow and the Capitol is unquenched. The closing shot of Katniss’ face is therefore a perfect one, with fear and confusion quickly transitioning to a simmering fury that assures us there will be retribution in Part One and/or Two of Mockingjay.

I prefer to avoid comparisons of movies and their sequels, but the first movie in this franchise deserves enormous credit if for no other reason than its degree of difficulty. People had fairly specific ideas of what a visual representation of The Hunger Games ought to be, right down to the skin color of some characters that didn’t even align with what was in the actual text. It didn’t matter though, because the emotional attachment was so profound that there is an intrinsic sense of deflated imagination when you see your personal impressions trumped by something as definitive as a movie.

The brains behind this franchise (producer Nina Jacobson et al) seem to be in control of a smooth operation. I was so pleased with the first movie—eventually, like after watching it a few times—that a sequel that rivaled it in quality would have been satisfying. Most seem to think that The Hunger Games: Catching Fire does that and then some, and I have to agree. The odds seem to favor the continued success of its upcoming episodes.

What are your thoughts on the Hunger Games franchise? Share them in the comments section below.

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  • BacchusPlateau

    What is the name of the actor throwing the spear in the photo?

  • Ana

    What you said about the elevator scene, about Lawrence channeling her expressiveness in a subdued way to suit Katniss’ character is so spot on.