Improving Without Changing: Adapting The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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My biggest issues with the Hunger Games trilogy were both things that have gone unchanged in the film adaptations. The structural sameness of the three books may have had a purpose, but it particularly affected my enjoyment of the second book, Catching Fire, where it felt lazy and formulaic rather than meaningful. The same can be said for the books’ close first-person perspective, which I found particularly limiting in the glimpses of a bigger conflict in Catching Fire that the perspective gave the books no chance to explore.

What I found most interesting about my response to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Francis Lawrence’s adaptation of what I identified as the least successful of the novels back in 2011, is that I liked it much more than its predecessor despite the fact it doubles down on these elements. Some of this has to do with how “first-person perspectives” function differently in literature vs. film, certainly, but I think it’s also a case in which one of the film’s most potentially frustrating choices successfully neutralizes one of the book’s biggest problems.

[Spoilers for the film, and then separately marked spoilers for the series, follow]

The first portion of Catching Fire effectively serves two purposes. One of them is to offer Katniss and Peeta a glimpse of the rebellion growing in the other districts, so as to set up the stakes for the Quarter Quell and eventually Katniss’ escape from the arena. The other is to remind readers about the world of Panem, and the characters’ various relationships with one another, and to effectively pretend that readers hadn’t read the previous book.

The first part is frustrating because the book ultimately abandons it once the story enters the arena, leaving lots of stories untold. The second part is frustrating because—at least when you’re reading the books back-to-back as I was—it’s wasting time that could have been spend on those untold stories. The need to reset the table means that the table grows smaller, as though Collins has big ideas but instead chooses to just go back to the arena to tell the same kind of story at the same basic pace.

There are elements of recap built into the opening scenes of Lawrence’s adaptation (like Katniss’ flashback while hunting, or Snow’s projection of the berries incident while confronting Katniss in her home), but the film nonetheless hits the ground running. Rather than feeling like a retread of the previous film, it functions as though almost no time has passed between the two events, giving the viewer no time to settle back into a status quo before Katniss and Peeta are rushed off on their tour. It happens again at the Reaping, when the time usually available to say goodbye to family is stripped away.

Some of this is in the book, certainly, but it never manifested as particularly urgent for me in the book. Some of this has to do with being able to see the unrest in the Districts (although this remains largely framed through Katniss’ perspective), but it also has to do with the way the film emphasizes the sense of lives being disrupted. Catching Fire, the film, is the story of lives being disrupted: the victors were promised a life of peace by winning the Hunger Games, and that is being ripped away from them in the interest of maintaining the tentative peace the Hunger Games are designed to commemorate.

In introducing this disruption so quickly, the film does two things to mitigate my issues with the book. The first is that the status quo it disrupts becomes the first film and not the beginning of this one, making the tour itself a narrative bridge rather than a prologue to the arena. Second, however, it makes the sudden shift away from the Districts to the retread arena sequence more purposeful, using some expanded characterization for Snow as a window into how the Arena functions within the story and not just as a narrative pattern Collins was comfortable working in. It was as though the structure had a purpose beyond structuring the story, and that there were diegetic motivations for decisions that on the page felt like tropes and crutches.

The same goes for the first-person focus, which on a basic level—as in the first film—is infinitely more palpable when it’s watching Jennifer Lawrence act the hell out of this role instead of having to actually read every bit of internal dialogue. However, what I didn’t consciously realize in reading the book is that Katniss is never alone in the arena in Catching Fire, a point that makes the close first-person perspective take on different meanings than in the first novel (where it was often used to heighten her sense of isolation). Here, Beaufoy/Arndt’s script and Lawrence’s direction do a nice job of identifying this shift in meaning, emphasizing her isolation from the plan that eventually saves her.

They still don’t cut away to the narrative being sold to the Capitol, or Haymitch working with sponsors, or Effie fretting over them, or to how the different Districts were responding. However, the film highlights something the book failed to, in that the isolation is necessary to keep Katniss—and the audience—from realizing the game within the game being played by our heroes. Whereas this felt like a missed opportunity in the book, the film has given me new appreciation for how her isolation has shifted in meaning if not in structure, all without changing any significant portion of the story or its perspectives.

It’s what makes the film a strong adaptation, in that it adheres to the modern rule of adaptation—the text is sacred to the point of refusing to fix fundamental flaws in the text—but nonetheless makes the material significantly better through small inflections and smart choices. It sold me on things I wasn’t sold on the first time, and made me want to return to the novel to see how much these ideas were present on the page. It took the best part of the novel—the arena—and didn’t just coast on its novelty, and instead built meaning into the story that would make the repetition both more purposeful and ultimately more effective in driving the story forward. It doesn’t exactly begin or end, but that choice—one that Collins didn’t quite manage the same way—actually transforms my problems with the novel into assets for the cinematic “trilogy.”

Cultural Observations [No Book Spoilers]:

  • I saw the film in IMAX, which I’d say is worth it: the additional scale really heightens the already effective arena concept, and I will admit to being a sucker for any film that changes aspect ratios mid-way through the film, especially in the way Catching Fire does (I won’t spoil it for those who don’t know).
  • Casting was all around fantastic, but I would say Jeffrey Wright and Jena Malone made the biggest impact—the former through capturing the subtlety of a role that could have felt gimmicky, and the latter for wholly embracing the gimmick (and nailing what will surely become an oft-emulated character introduction).
  • The film uses closeups effectively throughout, but that final shot is really, really striking. It’s the film’s definitive moment where Lawrence is trusted to sell a complex, “usually overly explained in the novel” emotion, and it’s damn well done.
  • Effie’s name was spoken! And Elizabeth Banks had more to do! I don’t know what exactly happened to minimize that character’s presence in the first film, but her expanded role is greatly appreciated.
  • Also, I would love to know how much of Stanley Tucci’s performance they intended to have in the film before they shot it, and how much they kept in because he was having way, way, way too much fun to cut any of it. The right choice was made, either way.

Cultural Observations [Book Spoilers]:

  • On that subject: I’m still not sure where they’ll split Mockingjay, but going to the above, it means that the films won’t all follow the same structure, as the books do, with most of the third book’s “arena” sequence pushed to the final installment. It makes me really curious to see what Part 1 looks like, structurally, given the above (and given a different writer).
  • In the foreshadowing department, that scene with Prim stood out to me, for obvious reasons—I would agree with those who found her fate in the final book a bit manipulative, so I’m curious how they use it in the films.
  • I’ve never been hugely invested in the love triangle, but I find it really interesting that they continued to play it up the way they did here given where it needs to end up. My dream is for them to play the epilogue—ugh, the epilogue—as bittersweet in a way, a sort of practical choice Katniss makes out of admiration more than love, as for me her relationship with Peeta is all about the impossibility of a great romance more than a romance in and of itself. I know this won’t happen, but I hope the complicated nature of this love triangle is acknowledged and not “resolved” when the series comes to its conclusion, as unlikely as that is.
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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Improving Without Changing: Adapting The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

  1. Great review. I haven’t seen the film yet but I’m looking forward to doing so, especially after reading this. Despite the overly repetitive nature of having another Games, I think the second book was actually my favourite. The characters seemed more developed and the politics were more overt. I felt that book three tries to be a bit cleverer and a bit different but doesn’t quite pull it off.

    I understand your frustrations with literal adaptations, but I’m a big believer in staying pretty true to the source material. Where films differ wildly from books, I always wonder why they didn’t just write an original screenplay. That said, I’d love to see more reaction shots and general scenes of life in the districts in these films – I agree that the first person perspective can be limiting in that regard.

    • I know where you’re coming from, but I guess for me I see adaptations as a second chance to tell the story; I agree that completely changing then story may be unproductive, but at the same time I like the idea of variation and experimentation to match the medium.

      I expect they will be staying pretty close to the source material on this one, and that’s fine—I just hope they are able to articulate certain elements more productively, as they did here.

  2. Greeney28

    SPOILERS
    I’m Teem Peeta, so I’m definitely partisan here. But I have never gotten over the beauty of the final pages (pre-epilogue), where she explains why she picks him. Her touch there was so deft. But the other reason she picks Peeta? He makes her want. I suppose I’m being a bit romantic here, but the desire she feels during two of their kisses, I think that’s a different direction for her fight to take, and it works for me, since wanting….something more…is not really a part of this world.

    The epilogue isn’t as annoying as the Harry Potter one, and I sort of get why she wants to think about the issue of children, particularly for a character like Katniss, who has lost so much. Children mean a hope that the world will get better. But the book would have ended just fine without the epilogue. It wasn’t needed.

    As for the film and the book, I wasn’t nearly as bothered by the repetition as you. The second book gives a lot of structure, a clear set of characters, and a strong central conflict. I thought the decision to bring the victors back in another Hunger Games was pretty brilliant. I actually kind of love these books for the ways they don’t work. For example, I have no idea how they are going to make the third book into a movie, much less in two movies. Not much happens in that book, really. It is a lot of politics, and a lot of wandering through the streets without ever, really, achieving a goal. And not achieving the goal is pretty much the point. How do you make that work on screen?

    • I think Katniss’ choice makes perfect sense, for the record—I just also think that making sense is different than a great romance, there’s always been an element of tragedy for me in how her relationship with the two men evolves in Mockingjay.

      And yeah, I said at the time the fourth film was just a rumor that I would be more like to streamline than expand Mockingjay from a plot perspective, so I’m very curious how they’re handling this—Doyle had his work cut out for him.

  3. This is the second review I have read that critiques the first person perspective of the books and film for it’s limited view on the political scheming occurring outside of Katniss’ perspective. Considering the intended audience of the Hunger Games (young adult females), I think it is crucial that the perspective stay on Katniss – it makes manifest – on a micro level – the politics of the everyday. Even the love triangle (as made evident by Katniss’ final decision) emerges through the political upheaval of the series. The books/films demonstrate how what we often consider to be isolated, individual decisions are highly influenced by our socio-political environment. This is such an unusual take for a YA love triangle – particularly one targeted at young women. We have insight into how the political upheaval going on in the background impacts Katniss’ decision-making, relationships (romantic and not), and identity.

    Perhaps as adults, we want the political scheming more upfront as it resonates with us a bit more, but I think if we assume the audience to be young adult females than keeping the story largely on Katniss makes the complicated politics of the story more comprehensible while disrupting traditional notions of identity and choice.

    • This is a great point, and I’m not saying that the close first-person perspective on Katniss is in any way unproductive. However, while the micro-politics of the series are valuable, I wouldn’t say the problem is the absence of “political scheming” happening from that perspective. Rather, Katniss is in a very specific position relative to the ongoing political turmoil, and there’s a point in Catching Fire where her isolation limits the ability for those politics to be understood as a macro- rather than micro-phenomenon.

      You’re right, though, that this is very much an adult frustration with the novel’s adherance to its young adult structure. This is, for example, the exact same issue I had with Half-Blood Prince, which opened with that great glimpse of the global scale of Voldemort’s rise and then went immediately back to Harry’s limited perspective. I don’t want to make the argument that this is without value, but I nonetheless felt the limitations therein more than I felt the benefits, and think there was room for variation that could maintain the perspective’s value while exploring other angles simultaneously.

      It would appear Mockingjay’s adaptation, what with the need to expand the content into two films, may explore this potential.

      • Your mention of HPB made me think – I had the same critiques as yours. I think I find the limited character perspective of Katniss valuable for HG as YA stories with lead females so rarely achieve this level of attention unless they are a romance. For my interpretation, a lot of that value rests on her perspective as a complex, young female character in dystopian fiction adapted to the big screen – a politics of representation if you will.

        I do agree though that there is certainly a way to “maintain the perspective’s value while exploring other angles simultaneously.”

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts on my response!

      • Your review, and yours and Jenna’s comments here, made me wonder why I *wasn’t* bothered by the admittedly patriarchal “and this is what’s being going on the whole time, which you had no clue about!” at the end of Catching Fire. I have two theories on why it didn’t bother me:

        1) I have a ridiculously huge love of early-20th-century British detective lit, so maybe the “it’s the end of the story, so let’s explain what’s been going on” format is more familiar/comfortable to me than it might be to people who haven’t spent years with Sayers and Christie and Doyle.

        2) One of my very very very favorite things about Katniss is that her intensely loyal, intensely practical perspective is limited to the small circle of people she gives a crap about. Her indifference to “big causes” in favor of the immediate needs of her own pack is realistic, ordinary, and compelling. So I don’t mind missing out on some of the “big picture” story in favor of Katniss’ own experience navigating these events.

  4. KhammerNY

    SPOILERS
    Fantastic review. Catching Fire was probably my least favorite of the three novels, for the reasons you detailed above (namely – a very redundant structure. I think I audibly sighed when I realized they were going back for the arena, part 2). That said, I thought the film was light-years better than the first, and made me appreciate the novel in a way I hadn’t before. The pre-arena scenes were the strongest, but the games themselves – under Lawrence’s direction – were harrowing and elevated the menace of both the games and the world around them. Like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire final challenge (that infamous maze), you felt like the true action and evil was always just around the edges of the camera, but to me, both the GoF and Catching Fire films found a way to effectively bleed the two together. Less so for Catching Fire for obvious reasons (the big bad doesn’t physically manifest), but still immensely effective at setting the stakes and tone heading into the final stretch.

    With regards to the love triangle – I cannot agree with you more on what I hope plays out on film. While I absolutely think the final decision was the right one, I always felt it was borne out of tragedy. If all of these horrific, terrible things had not happened, what would have been? I think that’s a really important point that Mockingjay attempts to make (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) with all things regarding war, and particular these personal relationships (and also differentiated HG from many other YA series). I would hate for it to be “tied with a bow” and completely miss the underlying sadness. Let’s not talk about the epilogue. No good things come from epilogues in YA novels.

    And yeah, that last scene? Props to Jennifer Lawrence. What an image to part on.

  5. Thais

    SPOILERS FOR MOCKINGJAY

    The only place I see for them to split the movies if when Peeta tries to kill Katniss, but then they would have a whole movie that is basically Katniss being depressed and pissed about being used, only to turn back around very swiftly. I really liked that part of the book, though I kept hoping Collins would take the discussion about how all of those people were willing to use a young woman’s image and fake romance to benefit a cause – and how Kartniss at first couldn’t conciliate these things – to another level, and she never did.
    I agree with Jena that I find most critic of the gaps in the series unfair because it’s so targeted at the same public that buys the likes of Twilight, but I also agree with Myles that even so, the book and the movies sometimes let pass good opportunities to really let the story be as complex as it could be, without hurting it so much. Like, it flirts with the idea that even with the rebellion, and even after it’s over, Katniss never really has any control over her own life or freedom to choose who she wants to be.

    As for the movie, I really liked it. It was much better paced than the books and it cut out the fat effectively, while keeping the gravitas. I do agree though that since they opt to have scenes that are not privy to Katniss, like those with Snow, they could do a better job flash out the different districts – because other than 11, you can’t even tell them apart – giving better context to the rebellion. And this may be nitpicky, but I also wished they had made it a bit more clear that Katniss knows she’s as good as dead and that’s part of the reason for wanting Peeta to survive, instead of forcing it to seem so romantic and altruistic and I wish they showed something about Haymitch’s past and his own history of defiance.

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