The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Director: Francis Lawrence
Problems: Racial, mostly to do with casting white actors to play roles that were written as POC
Bechdel Test: Pass
So, firstly, this is good movie. It’s got great acting, great writing, works as a YA film without condescending to kids OR adults, and it’s a damn good adaptation of a really good book. Incidentally, this review will contain no major direct spoilers, but it will kind of assume you’ve seen the first movie, or read the first book. If you haven’t, you might want to get on that.
Just to get it out of the way, fuck the whitewashing of characters in this whole series. Jennifer Lawrence is terrific as Katniss, but the fact that the casting call was limited to white actors is egregious, and the fact that the cast in the movie is, overall, whiter than the cast in the book, just sucks.
Apart from that, though, this is a really solid movie, and is consistent with the book (by Suzanne Collins) in terms of putting forward a revolutionary storyline. It picks up a short time after the first one left off, with Katniss Everdeen tentatively safe after having won the Hunger Games. She learns of how she embarrassed the Capitol of Panem in the process, thus unintentionally becoming a symbol of resistance for the already discontented people of what is usually described in summaries and reviews as a “futuristic dystopia” but might better be referred to as a “fascist state,” since there’s nothing particularly unrealistic or speculative about the levels or means of oppression it employs. More on that in a moment. In an effort to destroy her and her fellow victor, Peeta, as revolutionary symbols, President Snow arranges a Hunger Games in which Peeta and Katniss will fight again, this time against an assortment of hardened killers and experts, and hopefully be killed.
Now, like I said, Panem is basically a fascist state, one whose culture is a mix of American and Ancient Roman, which makes more sense than you might think. The authorities of Panem are great at incorporating Ancient Roman culture into their fascist regime; better than the actual fascists, really. One of the things that really works about this movie is that the state of Panem is quite believable. A lot of speculative dystopian fiction, at least those works aimed at young adults (or what my roommate who works in publishing tells me are now referred to as “new adults.” I’m not sure what those are. Older than tweens, I think, but younger than me.) tends to have premises like “a world where feelings are outlawed, and the government tells you who to marry” or “a world where colors have been banned, and everyone wears dark glasses to filter them out” or something…stuff that is supposed to appeal to young people’s feelings of alienation and desire to rebel, but which isn’t particularly grounded in the way real governments work.
The oppression in the Hunger Games series is very, very real. Most of it is poverty, coupled with police violence and government surveillance. That’s not a fantasy dystopia, that’s just life. And this gets to why the movie is so good, and also so frustrating. The oppression on the screen is intensely recognizable, right down to a heavily implied racial component to police violence, and a dizzying gap between the obscenely rich and the utterly impoverished. The problem is that the resistance, and the moment of triumph against the state, is too easy, too simple, too effective, and ultimately, too beautiful to be real, and that leaves the viewer feeling intensely frustrated, angry, and sad, or at least, it did this viewer. Which is just one more way that the movie is pretty much like real life.
Alignment: Katniss Everdeen is basically my pick for the embodiment of Chaotic Neutral. She is fiercely committed to protecting her family, her friends, and herself, and essentially sparks a revolution out of her unwillingness to sacrifice those she loves. I guess you could say that would make her a Chaotic Good, but in my understanding, the fact that she focuses solely on those close to her, rather than abstract principles of right and wrong, make her Neutral.
Gender: Katniss is also a lot of people’s pick for the embodiment of a Strong Female Character, and there’s a lot to be said for her; she’s very human, with real flaws, and a prickly personality that it takes other characters time to learn to tolerate, or like. While she is mainly a fighter, her younger sister and mother are respected as healers, and side characters like Johanna, a previous victor who is vocally and recklessly rebellious against the Capitol, and fully confident in her body and abilities, give this movie a wide range of interesting female characters. Some of the queer elements from the book are left out, but there are several male characters who do not conform to a traditional view of masculinity, including my favorite character of the whole series, Cinna, (Lenny Kravitz), who as Katniss’s stylist is charged with making her beautiful for the Games, and uses his role both to support her and to use art as a catalyst for revolution. Um, half the reason I wanted to write this review was so I could talk about how much I love Cinna: Cinna is the freaking best. I won’t go on too much, but he’s great and I love him; his act of defiant revolutionary art is one of my favorite moments of the whole film.
Race: This one is probably the movie’s weak spot. The whitewashing is bad. And while the portrayal of people of color as more likely to be victims of police violence is definitely there, overall the cast is too damn white.
Authoritarianism: This is an anti-authoritarian film. Hooray. Rioters and people who fight back against police violence are portrayed positively.
Class: Poverty, and the way that class functions as a means of oppression is very much a thing in this movie. The rich are portrayed as out of touch and unable to understand that their luxury is possible only through the suffering of others.
Final thoughts: There’s a lot more to like about this movie, and series. Unusually for a YA work, addiction is shown with nuance and sympathy; Katniss’s frustration with her alcoholic mentor Haymitch is portrayed as justified, but he is nevertheless an heroic character whose addiction is treated with understanding, and the characters who are opiate-dependent are portrayed with non-judgmental sympathy (though this is truer in the books than in the movie). The workings of poverty and privilege are well portrayed, and police violence and other state violence is portrayed in a way that, though it exists in a speculative world, is very realistic and relatable to real life.
Donald Sutherland, who plays President Snow, has been quoted as saying that he hopes this series will start a revolution, and while I find that idea unlikely, I do think it will help young people who are still forming an early understanding of politics and the world come to more radical, anti-authoritarian conclusions. It’s hard to imagine a kid not walking out of Hunger Games able to see where the anarchists are coming from, if they’re able to make the connections between the movie and the real world.
For people who are already radicals, revolutionaries, and anarchists, I think this movie may be a frustrating experience, in the same way that watching a romance movie with a fairy tale ending might be rough for someone who has recently gone through a bad breakup; you recognize and identify the feelings of loneliness, yearning, and love, but the resolution is too perfect, and too unattainable to sit well. But I certainly wouldn’t recommend that anyone not see it for that reason. The frustration itself is thought-provoking, and if you see it (as I did) with a young person, it opens up an opportunity for great conversations about oppression and resistance.