In Catching Fire, the normally unflappable Effie Trinket seems increasingly dismayed at her role as media handler.
The Hunger Games series is about a lot of things—growing up, violence, a boy with the same name as a delicious bread—but the new film, Catching Fire, has the feel of a political thriller.
While the first film the now-four-part (ugh) series focused a lot of its story on the action of the Hunger Games themselves and the life-and-death choices of each character, Catching Fire frames its story from beginning to end as a bigger, meatier critique of how governments use media to keep control.
In case the junior high schoolers in your life haven’t forced you to read the series, the Hunger Games is set in a near-future society where an authoritarian government based in the Capitol rules a country of twelve districts, exploiting the labor of the poorer districts to fund extravagant lifestyles of Capitol-dwellers and an expansive military. Every year, each district must sacrifice two children to the Hunger Games, a battle to the death that’s essentially pitched as the must-watch reality show of the year but serves the purpose of reminding citizens exactly who is in control.
Though I like the Hunger Games books, I had low hopes for the second film because the marketing campaign for Catching Fire undermined the anti-consumerism message that’s central to the trilogy. With Subway hawking Hunger Games sandwiches (“Be Bold At Breakfast!”) and Cover Girl pushing a luxurious Capitol makeup line, I thought the film, too, would gloss over the political message of the books and sell young adult crowds a cushy vision of revolutionary chic along the lines of, “Stand up to the man by buying an awesome iPhone case!”
Instead, the movie hits hard. Catching Fire begins with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) preparing reluctantly for a mandatory tour of the country to celebrate their victory at the Hunger Games. From the get-go, authority figures impress upon Katniss the importance of developing a media persona that furthers the government’s political goals. President Snow (Donald Southerland) makes a personal visit to Katniss to tell her that they need to be friends—essentially, that she needs to play the part of a clueless, love-struck puppet to placate the many restless citizens who see her as a symbol of change. Her handler—the always-flamboyant Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks)—hisses, “Smile! Be grateful!” as Katniss prepares to greet TV cameras for the first time.
Stick to the script, Katniss!
As Katniss and Peeta wave hello to the cameras in the snow outside their brand-new mansions, the contrast between reality and the image presented on national TV is stark. The cameras zoom in on the faces of the couple, bright lights illuminating their smiles. Just outside the range of the camera lens, the landscape is dark and frigid. As soon as the cameras shut off, so does Katniss’s smile. While she heads around the nation by train, Katniss savors glimpses of government television feeds that show actual scenes of poverty and rioting around the country. With that brief exposure to uncontrolled information, Katniss knows that the tensions in the country are much closer to breaking point than citizens who can only see the official story believe.
The most shocking and truly violent moment of the film comes as the couple begins their tour. While the television cameras broadcasting their trip capture the pair greeting crowds, they snap off before viewers can see military officers beating civilians and executing one man point-blank. After that man is shot, Katniss is hysterical at what she’s just witnessed—it’s not a glamorous depiction of violence, it’s a horrible, ugly moment that would definitely have left a deep impression on me as a teenager. The film certainly draws visual connections between its fearsome Peacekeepers and riot police today, as well as drawing a line between the delightfully grotesque quality of Caesar Flickerman’s talk show and current TV hosts who feed on the ratings that tragedy brings.
Hunger Games Peacekeepers and real-life riot police at Occupy Denver.
The kids’ mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) lays it out straight as he tells Katniss she must keep it together for the cameras, “Your job is to be a distraction. Your job is to smile, to read the cards that Effie gives you, and to live happily ever after.”
It’s certainly strange that a blockbuster film that raked in $158 million on its opening weekend revolves around a storyline about people in power actively shaping media to appeal to our sensibilities in a way that maximizes profit and marginalizes dissent. But if you can roll with that cognitive dissonance and treat the movie by its own creative merits rather as a piece of an elaborate and frustrating franchise whose sole goal is making money, Catching Fire has a lot to offer. It’s mainstream entertainment, but it succeeds at being riveting and deeply unsettling mainstream entertainment that casts a critical light on our current systems.
Gamemaker Phillip Seymour Hoffman (sorry, Plutarch Heavensbee) has a line in the middle of Catching Fire that stuck with me. Heavensbee is explaining to President Snow how they will make the country fear the Capitol by intermixing brutal television coverage of citizen punishments with wall-to-wall coverage of an impending wedding. His description of the planned program is an all-too-apt summary of the way 24-hour-news channels today treat trivial celebrity gossip and the horrors of war with equal weight: “What dress is she going to wear? Floggings. What’s the cake going to look like? Executions.”