In less than a month, on 20 November 2013, Catching Fire Part 1 will be hitting the cinemas – just in time for the summer holidays. This film adaptation of the second book of the extremely popular Hunger Games trilogy is eagerly awaited by many avid fans – young adult or otherwise.
In 2012, I was introduced to Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games through the enthralling film adaptation (by director Gary Ross) of the first book. Like many others, I soon acquired the three books and devoured them – as did my teenage daughter. The books are pacey, with an intense and interesting plot, great characterization and intriguing setting. They are very hard to put down and even harder to forget.
Set in the dystopian totalitarian world of Panem in the near future, both film and books open on the day of the Reaping for the 74th Hunger Games. After defeating the rebellious thirteen districts of Panem, the decadent Capitol had decreed that every year two teenagers (12-18 years old) chosen by lot from each district, one female and one male, must fight each other in a specially modified natural arena until one lone victor remains.
The event is extensively televised, highly orchestrated and attracts avid fans in the Capitol, the ultimate reality TV show. In the poverty stricken District Twelve, 16 year old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take the place of her 12 year old sister. Katniss is whisked away into a new world of experiences. She must contend with the uncertain motives of her fellow tribute from 12, Peeter Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the drunk and unruly mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), the effete Capitol born team who “prep” her for the games, the enhanced dangers of the rugged arena habitat and ultimately with the other tributes whose aim is to kill her before she kills them. She must capitalise on her skills, form alliances and play up to the cameras to gain potentially life-saving sponsorship. In addition to the physical dangers, Katniss struggles with remaining true to herself while playing a part, grieving losses and not knowing who to trust and who the real enemy is.
Ross does a skilled job of converting 450 pages of first person present tense narrative into the medium of a 142 minute film while keeping true to the books theme and character driven plot. The film is visually splendid, well casted and acted, emotionally charged with a surprising, cliff-hanger ending.
As I watched this film I was split between being swept away by the gripping story, a likeable and strong heroine, beautiful cinematography, poignant moments, the dramatic ending – and being profoundly disturbed. The subsequent books are full of violent conflict though the focus moves way the enforced killings between teens to fomenting of rebellion against the unjust totalitarian state.
Both books and films have their champions and their detractors. And while, by it’s very visual and immediate nature, the film is at times more graphic than the books, at other times it shortens or glosses over violent scenes in the original (as in the final scene in the arena). How the movies Mocking Jay 1 & 2 and Catching Fire portray this is yet to be seen.
Hunger Games raises profound and difficult questions. It highlights injustice and inequality while showing that there are no easy or safe answers in working towards a just society. Hunger Games alludes to the misuse of media in modern materialistic societies, the gross inequities between the rich exploitative Capitol on the poor, oppressed districts reflective of global north-south divide of our own time and depicts teenagers killing each other for the entertainment of a decadent society.
Yet at two levels I found both books and film disturbing. Firstly, because violence and intimidation are the only repertoire ever considered on all sides in the conflict. And while there may be instances when violence is the only answer (though some would debate this) it should surely always be the very last option embraced. And secondly, in the process of challenging the distortions of reality TV, the very format of the a highly entertaining film placed me as viewer into the voyeuristic position it appeared to critique.
For me, the question left unanswered was does Hunger Games leave us outraged and motivated to change or at least resist perceived injustice and to askew violence or does it leave us hungering … for more entertaining celluloid brutality …“as lives are broken to fuel the fires of mammon, As the earth is stripped, and nations impoverished, as fugitives from danger are incarcerated, and young girls – and boys – starve and expose themselves in the halls of plenty to conform to a celluloid image.” (Cry My Beloved Country by Jeanette O’Hagan)
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