Catching Fire: Young Adult Fiction-to-Film with a Flare

catching-fireThe Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second in a series of four in The Hunger Games franchise, has just been released in theaters, and is a worthy follow-up to the first movie. Though I admit some bias, as Catching Fire was by far my favorite of the three novels, the theatrical adaptation truly delivers. The books, begun in 2009 by Suzanne Collins, follow a stubborn, fierce teenage heroine in her reluctant role as the lightning rod for revolution in the fictional future dystopia of Panem.

The film’s biggest success was its refreshingly realistic portrayal of the various forms of oppression in the Districts, namely socioeconomic injustice — a subject rarely explored in “teen movies.” While most of the people in the Districts are living lives of abject poverty, the Capitol of Panem is a seemingly endless font of immoderation and luxury, reaping all of its resources from the Districts that it oppresses. Such oblivious immoderation becomes all the more gruesome in light of the suffering it ignores. As the people in the Capitol attend extravagant parties and wear bizarre, over-the-top fashions (shown in imaginative, colorful visual detail) they are entirely unaware of the suffering and poverty that is daily life in the Districts (shown in bleak, almost monochromatic industrial settings). Fleeting trends and material culture dictate life in the Capitol, its citizens more absorbed in their own vanity and transient consumer desires than in the fact that their lifestyles are unsustainable. The parallels between the materialism of our own society and the Capitol are drawn very creatively in the film, with the impracticality of such a cosmetically oriented culture underlined in each costume, each hairstyle, each plate of food.

Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of the protagonist Katniss Everdeen is even stronger and more convincing than in the first installment, bringing a softness and a dark humor to a character who in writing is disagreeable and hard-hearted. She has fought and won the Hunger Games, but what her victory accomplished was far from reconciliation. To win, she and her fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta Mellark, nearly commit suicide to avoid one losing the other. What to her was an act of desperation, and for him an act of love, was to many an act of defiance. The highest authorities have taken notice, and Katniss is in more danger than ever. The spark of revolution has been rekindled, and, as the title of the second installment suggests, is catching fire.

Personal liberty does not exist in the totalitarian Panem, not even in the vibrantly wealthy Capitol. Though its citizens have been lulled into a sense of complacency by the distractions the government has provided, they are still slaves to consumerism and styles. Katniss, already well aware of her lack of freedom, is brutally reminded of her powerlessness when she is visited by none other than Panem’s autocrat, President Snow. She is soon torn between the choice to go along with the Capitol’s tyranny, playing the role of the adored, love-stricken victor in order to protect her friends, family, and home, or to somehow collude against the oppression she and the nation survive every day.

Desperate to keep her and her loved ones safe, Katniss attempts to convince Snow and the Capitol that she really is just a young girl made irrational by her love for Peeta. For Katniss, there isn’t a choice — either do what the Capitol wants and live, or fight against it and have everything she loves taken away. As events unfold, it becomes all too clear that this decision is not even hers to make, and worse, it has already been made for her. She already means something to the people that she did not choose, did not decide, and does not want. Unable to contain the symbol of what she means to the people in the districts, the government takes drastic measures to silence her influence. In a sadistic twist, President Snow decides that, since this year’s Hunger Games will be the 75th — a Quarter Quell — a special Games should take place. The tributes are now to be taken from the existing pool of victors, and Katniss and Peeta are again thrust into the violence and terror of the arena.

With the horrors of the Hunger Games fresh in Katniss and Peeta’s minds, they embark on yet another fight for survival, constantly struggling to remember “who the real enemy is.” Two of their allies, Johanna Mason and Finnick Odair, played by Jena Malone and relative newcomer Sam Clafin, respectively, give superb performances. The jolting dramatic irony of the situation is that some of the contestants knew about a plan for revolution, but Katniss did not. Ultimately, Katniss needed to be Katniss, strong and brave and deeply human, in order to survive. Little did she know that the rest of the districts of Panem, in embracing her as a symbol of hope, were also relying on her for their survival and freedom. Everything she loves hinges on her cooperation, on her choice of whether or not to take on the role of poster child for revolution.

Catching Fire, though certainly an exciting, powerful, and well-interpreted adaptation, does not stand perfectly on its own. That being said, take this Thanksgiving break — and maybe take a break from the chaos of Thanksgiving — to catch up. Stream or rent The Hunger Games with friends or family, and then perhaps instead of frantically trying to catch all the Black Friday sales, go see the bargain matinee showing of Catching Fire.