Monday, December 02, 2013

Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Over at Strange Horizons, I review Catching Fire, the second film in the Hunger Games series.  I was quite excited going into the movie, since while I'd read the first book before seeing the film based on it, and have picked up the major events of the third book, Mockingjay, by fannish osmosis, I went into Catching Fire "clean," knowing nothing about it.  In hindsight, I probably should have wondered about that, since Catching Fire turns out to have little reason to exist as a story in its own right, and in that absence ends up drawing attention to the Hunger Games series's core flaws.  A lot of the complaints I raise against the film are therefore probably problems with the book, but where The Hunger Games managed to address a lot of the weaknesses of its source material, Catching Fire hasn't done so--or perhaps the problem is that, not having read the book, I'm less aware of how the film alleviates its problems, and thus less inclined to excuse its flaws.

11 comments:

baeraad said...

Well, the book spends even more time finding a way twist the rules around so that it can drag Katniss back to the arena than the movie does? I personally felt that it was improved in that respect.

Honestly, I adore the book series, and I loved this movie, too, but there is no denying that it's a natural stand-alone story being artificially expanded into a trilogy and that it shows. I am willing to go along with that because the characters are cool, the action is cool, and it's got a strong liberal vibe to it that's a breath of fresh air, but no, neither of the two sequels has much reason to exist except to give us more of the stuff we liked in the first book.

Dragonchild said...

From your review:
"the fact that nothing that happened on screen actually mattered"

Interesting. I haven't seen the second movie, but my main reason for not being inclined to see it is because I saw this as a glaring flaw in the first film -- too fundamental to the premise for any sequel to fix. You said Katniss' situational myopia was a strength, and various staunch defenders portray it as a realistic quality -- good for getting her out of jams, but in the end she's not heroic. Fine, but if I didn't spend an entire movie watching the emergence of a heroine that completely underwhelms me with her inability to grasp the big picture, then I have a different complaint: Katniss doesn't matter.

However artificial, these games are established tradition. There's a winner for each one, likely equally traumatized. Not even Katniss' unprecedented dual-victory is any big exception of her doing; they'd already offered it once early on just for entertainment value, re-reversed their decision to prevent an embarrassing double-suicide and. . . it worked. Apparently that symbolic "F you" to the Games wasn't all that important. OK, we need the heroine to live if there are to be sequels, but either way this comes off less as a moment of courage than the Games getting outmaneuvered by a short-sighted teenager. Story-wise it's blatant emotional manipulation of the laziest, most compromising sort; they want us to weep for Katniss' hardships while she emerges not only unscathed but having been spared the agony of killing her partner, which is a Very Bad Day but certainly the best possible outcome of any victor -- let alone contestant -- in the history of the Games. She wasn't even the first winner from her district. I know because he's IN THE MOVIE. The drama's further diluted with the movie's cowardice in setting up other kids to be either unestablished or evil (with glaring exception of Token Black Girl) for the sake of non-meta spectacle. Katniss is Rambo with boobs when the movie wants her to be; at other times we're expected to wallow in the horror of it all. But contestant=enemy=victim=CHILD, so these are mutually exclusive emotions.

Her importance as a threat is also overstated to ludicrous extremes. Again, defenders point out that Katniss is not a conventional hero, but if that's the case what's the big deal? The Games control her quite smoothly, so the premise breaks down when this girl is made out to be a grave threat to a system she scarcely lifts a finger to oppose. A fireball barrage, more bark than bite and easily dodged on foot, was all it took to convince her to not only retreat but never test the perimeter again. We'll never know if freedom was even an unlikely option. I've been told she's more a hero by accident in how she endears others to her, but she was far more eager to use her resourcefulness against other kids. What initially held her back from manipulating others wasn't any sense of integrity, but inexperience. I find that understandably but unremarkably flawed at best, unsympathetic at worst. That said, IF Katniss is such an exception for showing basic empathy, what does that say about the people? Maybe these downtrodden people aren't worth fighting for in the first place? You lambasted "A Game of Thrones" for its black-and-black moral relativism and that's a very fair critcism, but if I take the world of "The Hunger Games" to its logical conclusion I fall into the same dark pit.

baeraad said...

Dragonchild:

I would say that you are right, and that is very much the point of the story: Katniss isn't that special, isn't that heroic, isn't that important - except as a symbol. It doesn't matter what she is and what she did, it only matters what she becomes perceived as.

The series is all about the glitz and glamour of artificial celebrity contrasted with the real humanity of the people who have it forced upon them. The rebellion turning Katniss into a heroine is no different, in that respect, than the Capitol turning Katniss into a gladiator. It's all propaganda. The reason why Katniss is important isn't that she's a dashing rebel crusader, it's that she - due to a combination of her actions, her particular brand of charisma, and of the circumstances she got thrown into - is very easy to spin as one.

This is not to say that Katniss isn't very brave and very compassionate. We have every reason to like her. But the story isn't about her rising up and overthrowing the Capitol, it's about how a bunch of very clever and ruthless people use her as a tool to overthrow the Capitol, and how she deals with being used.

(whether a charismatic frontal figure is ever as powerful and important as the series makes it out to be is a bit dubious, of course. That is one of the iffy parts of the series. But part of the premise is that PR and celebrity worship really is a powerful force in Panem, and that the winners will be the ones who succeed in harnessing it)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

baeraad:

neither of the two sequels has much reason to exist except to give us more of the stuff we liked in the first book

I think what most frustrates me is that, though I enjoyed the first book, there's clearly so much stuff in it that could have been built up into a much more interesting story without going back to the games well. There's a scene in The Hunger Games where Katniss realizes that even if she wins the game, all she has to look forward to is turning into Haymitch as she watches her future proteges struggle in the arena and, in all likelihood, die. I think having Catching Fire be about Katniss in this situation could have been brilliant - it would have taken her out of her comfort zone and given us a better look at the Capitol - but you may be right that Collins didn't have enough of a sense of her world and story to take the series in this - or any other non-repetitive - direction.

Dragonchild:

As baeraad says, the fact that Katniss's heroism is accidental and contrived, and that her positive qualities are insufficient and maybe even counterproductive to fighting the system she's trapped is, is the point of the books, even if I don't think that it's a very well handled point. Like you, I think that both the first book and the first two movies have found themselves torn between making this point and just wanting the audience to root for Katniss (though in fairness to Catching Fire, it's certainly more willing to highlight Katniss's pawn status than The Hunger Games, and my main problem with it is that it does so while still allowing her, instead of the characters who are actually doing something, to dominate the movie). That strikes me as a problem that will prove all but insurmountable in the third chapter, and may be the reason that the third book garnered such angry responses from fans.

Dragonchild said...

AN -
I'd go so far as to say it's insurmountable right out of the gate. When I realized Katniss' only growth was learning to preen for the cameras and was not developing into some genuine revolutionary, how I felt about Katniss as a heroine was a subjective gripe dwarfed by the gaping flaw that *the core premise can't resolve*. With Katniss being myopic, the Empire being what it is and the rebels being just as eager to resort to propaganda, we're looking at a world where A) no one is well-equipped to bring about any real change and B) no one has the moral standing to deserve the power anyway. Well, that's the "Game of Thrones" problem right there. It's called Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy, and it spells death for a story.

baeraad's point is taken that the story is how Katniss is used for propaganda, but I have some issues with it. First, with no epic tale in the making, the weight of the film rests on Katniss' likeability and problems. But having only seen the movie, Katniss isn't a sympathetic character in my eyes. The main source of genuine sympathy is the situation she's put in, but I need more than that when she's surrounded by other kids in the EXACT SAME SITUATION. As your brother pointed out her morality was never seriously tested, and beyond that her only reservation to manipulating others was not ethics but inexperience. Maybe the book does a better job fleshing out her relationship with Pita Bread but the few occasions she's given the opportunity to distinguish herself as a character the best she can do is survive a bad situation. Well, there are plenty of those within the canon itself. As for immediate problems, the movie is underwhelming as a spectacle of action because it spends so much time trying to get us to like Katniss. Getting back on track, yeah, I'd expect the rebellion to use her as a symbol because who else would they use? What makes no sense is why the rebellion would get around to doing their rebel-ish things after Katniss' turn. The story trips over itself trying to elevate Katniss because it never seems to realize that, in trying to get us to root for her, it gives her all kinds of breaks that other characters in the same situation, in Katniss' line of sight no less, don't get. And Katniss' unwillingness/failure to realize that completely destroys the case that she's brave or compassionate. She never proactively reaches out to any other District tribute except Token Black Girl while I'm sitting here thinking every kid is a victim on some level. I'm a bit uncomfortable with elevating Katniss' compassion to Inspiring Symbol status when I'd easily out-empathized her. I don't want a medal; if anything I'm worried this the new moral standard of pop culture. I'd compare to "Nausicaa of the Wind Valley" where the heroine has got some serious "special snowflake" problems but to her credit is constantly trying to understand and reason even with her enemies. Nausicaa makes Katniss look like a goddamned psychopath. I get the point; there's just nothing holding it up. Katniss fails as a hero, as a symbol and as a tragic figure. What's left but the situation she's put in, the same one every other Tribute has to endure?

Dragonchild said...

P.S. Sorry if I'm coming off as excessively negative; the movie isn't a complete disaster but as a heralded story the positive stuff has largely been covered elsewhere. It's a pleasantly flashy movie, to be sure, but for me it was an emotionally flat one for lack of anything to latch onto. Give me a dollop of icing and most people won't complain, but I'll ask where the rest of the cake is.

baeraad said...

Abigail:

I think having Catching Fire be about Katniss in this situation could have been brilliant

Hmm... I disagree, but I am having some trouble explaining why. The thing is, you're thinking in terms of Literature. You want the emotional journey and the in-depth exploration of the human condition to continue. Yes?

But this series isn't Literature, it's a genre piece - it's entertainment. Smarter entertainment than we usually get, yes, but entertainment all the same, and all that meaty social commentary and psychological character development is not the heart of the story. At its heart, it's an action thriller. It's about Katniss being put up against lousy odds and beating them, and looking damn cool doing it. If it had been more high-brow than that, it would not have turned into the phenomenon it has.

What I'm getting to in this roundabout way is that I think that putting Katniss in a position of political maneuvering wouldn't have worked, because that's not the story Collins wanted to write, it's not the story her readers wanted to read, and it's not the story that Katniss is suited for. That last part in particular is important, I think - so many of Katniss' skills are physical and outdoorsy, so having her deal with purely political challenges (with, at the moment, maybe an assassination attempt from time to time?) would have wasted a large chunk of what makes her cool in the first place.

So... I stand by my opinion that there was no way to write a sequel that fit seamlessly with the first book. The first book is just too self-contained, with Katniss perfectly tailored to function as the protagonist in that story and that story only. Your idea would have made sense as a naturalistic extension of the situation at the end of the first book, yes, but it would have been even more unsuitable from a story perspective than Collins pulling a rebellion out her sleeve was.

(though again, I'm actually glad she cheated and gave us two more books! I wouldn't have wanted to be without them. But she did cheat, and it does show)

Dragonchild said...

"that's not the story Collins wanted to write, it's not the story her readers wanted to read, and it's not the story that Katniss is suited for."

This is just a variation of the "appeal to authority" fallacy. The book came out a certain way, so of course that's how the author intended it, therefore it's perfect in its own way. Enjoying a work is not a sin, but the above argument could be said for any work, even "Fifty Shades of Grey".

baeraad said...

First of all - yes, it could, couldn't it? You can criticise an author for not writing a particular story well enough, but I very much feel that you can't criticise her for the story she set out to write. Craftsmanship is in the execution, not in the premise.

So I'm going to bite the bullet here and state it for the record: I do not blame E. L. James for writing a weird sadomasochist wank fantasy, because that was clearly what she wanted to write. I might feel that she could have written a better sadomasochist wank fantasy if she had applied herself a little more, but to be honest, I am not really the best person to judge that, not really being into that sort of thing.

Second, this is in regards to sequels. I'm saying that having written Hunger Games the way she did, Collins were working under some restrictions for how to write a sequel to it. I suppose you can wish that she had written Hunger Games differently - though I don't - but this is about Catching Fire, so the question is where she could reasonably have gone from there.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

baeraad:

While you're obviously right that there's an element of wanting Collins to have written a different, better and smarter series to my criticism of both the books and the movies, I don't think that your defense - if it can be called that since you're basically saying that The Hunger Games is fundamentally incapable of being good art (because of its genre? Because of its author? I'm not sure) - really holds water. You can't seriously argue that the first book is only an action story, much less that it is self-contained. Dragonchild and I may agree that neither the book nor the movies fully acknowledge how problematic Katniss's heroism is, but they do problematize it, and the action component of the story, to some extent, and of course The Hunger Games doesn't think of itself as a self-contained story - the scene I mention, in which Katniss wonders about her future as the mentor of the tributes to follow, disproves that, as does the book's open-ended, downer ending.

You're right that leaving Katniss out of the arena would have short-circuited the action narrative, and that is presumably why she ended up back in, but it's not as if that choice resulted in a great story, or even one as engaging as The Hunger Games. Your argument seems to be that it would have been impossible to write a good sequel because The Hunger Games was so inherently flawed and limited. I agree about those flaws and limitations (though I get the sense that we don't agree on what they are) but I don't think you can let Collins off the hook by saying that she never planned to make her story into a trilogy - rather, I think the truth is that she never planned out how that trilogy was supposed to work (on the argument that a genre exercise in YA dystopia can't address serious questions of character, or deal with complex questions of politics and complicity, I'll answer by simply pointing at Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking books).

Dragonchild:

I don't actually have a problem with Katniss not being heroic or even the most sympathetic character in her story. Someone has to be the protagonist and they don't necessarily have to be the nicest, kindest, smartest, or bravest person around. The problem - and here is where I think Baeraad does have a point when he talks about how the series's genre works against it - is that Collins has written the books as if Katniss was the most heroic and sympathetic person in them, and then, as you say, manipulated readers into failing to notice that she isn't those things at all.

baeraad said...

you're basically saying that The Hunger Games is fundamentally incapable of being good art

Eh. Define "good." Define "art." I would call it both, actually. But I don't think it is capable of being as much purely high-brow social commentary as you want it to be without being an entirely different story right from the start.

the scene I mention, in which Katniss wonders about her future as the mentor of the tributes to follow, disproves that, as does the book's open-ended, downer ending.

I didn't see either of those scenes as sequel hooks. The first one just acknowledges the situation as it is, and as for the downer ending, it was still happier than I expected. In a world as dark as the one Collins paints in the first book, just surviving and managing to hold on to your soul is a victory and a miracle. As for it being open-ended, the big theme of the book is contrasting the way the media forces everything into a neat, orderly narrative with the messiness of real life - things ending on an uncertain note fits perfectly with that.

Collins may have meant them as sequel hooks, of course. I do think that she was planning a trilogy when she was finishing her last draft, if not when the idea for the story first occurred to her. But I don't think they need to be.

but it's not as if that choice resulted in a great story, or even one as engaging as The Hunger Games.

No, I agree. I just don't think that any other choice would have yielded a better result.

Your argument seems to be that it would have been impossible to write a good sequel because The Hunger Games was so inherently flawed and limited.

See, you see flaws and limitations, I see symmetry. I would say that The Hunger Games is exactly what it should be, no more and no less. You can't add to it, because the story is already done, the actors have played out their parts, the themes have all been revealed, and there is nothing more to say.

If I were to make my own backseat-writer suggestion for how to write a sequel, I'd have wanted it to take place years later, feature an entirely different set of characters (with maybe cameos from the cast of this one) and explore the setting from a different perspective.

I don't think you can let Collins off the hook by saying that she never planned to make her story into a trilogy - rather, I think the truth is that she never planned out how that trilogy was supposed to work

Oh, I agree. She's still on the hook, definitely. I'm disinclined to be too hard on her, because I enjoyed all three of the books, but she certainly failed in her task to extend the first book to a trilogy. I just can't think of any way she could have done it that that wouldn't have been a horrible letdown.

on the argument that a genre exercise in YA dystopia can't address serious questions of character, or deal with complex questions of politics and complicity, I'll answer by simply pointing at Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking books

I feel that you are being a little overly black and white in your thinking here. The Hunger Games does in fact address serious questions of character and deal with complex questions of politics and complicity. But it does them within the format of a dark action adventure. And it worked fine, I would say.

My point is, when you call for a full-out psychological/political sequel, you are ripping out the dark action adventure part. And that, I would claim, just can't work. That's part of what the book is all about, even if it's not a part that you, personally, seem to find very engaging.

Collins, instead, tried to continue the "dark action adventure dealing with serious issues" in the sequels. We agree that that did not work out so well. I am just at a loss for what else she could have done that could have worked better.

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