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.