Part of a successful studio business plan, Catching Fire’s stance on celebrity, revolution and economic disparity is positively schizophrenic.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the Francis Lawrence-directed sequel to The Hunger Games, is primed as allegory. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), survivors of a televised game in which poverty-stricken teenagers from ghetto-like districts of the near-future are made by the state to fight, must continue the charade of their celebrity ‘romance,’ lest they wish to be denied the spoils they’ve been afforded since their victory. Only they, and the oppressed people of this world, are looking to revolt, and change things for good.
The Hunger Games gasps at the decadence of the 1%, but happily takes your money to fund the lifestyles of studio execs
The contemporary parallels are obvious – Catching Fire disapproves of the way things are. But like all the times in Fight Club when Brad Pitt tells you you don’t need to be rich and beautiful to be happy, Catching Fire frequently criticises things it’s guilty of being. It mocks those obsessed with movie star-style physical perfection, and casts primmed versions of Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth among its leads. It sneers at the increasing exploitation we see on our screens, then uses its 12A-bothering violence to entertain. And it gasps at the decadence of the 1%, but happily takes your money to fund the lifestyles of Hollywood’s rich and famous.
And Catching Fire, moreso than its predecessor, latches on to the voguish attitude of rebellion currently hanging in the air, and makes revolution its key theme. But distributor Lionsgate is no more interested in smashing the status quo than any other successful movie studio would be. The Hunger Games is smart; not in its concept, which is a rip-off of Battle Royale and countless other dystopian sci-fis, but in the way it gets to have its cake and eat it with hardly anybody noticing the hypocrisy.
Outwardly, The Hunger Games satiates the disenfranchised with a tale of an anti-authoritarian uprising, and satirises aspects of western society that are ripe for a good prod: Politicians are duplicitous despots interested only in retaining their power as the people remain well-trodden, while TV personalities are veneered, plasticky avatars, hosts of moronic, emotionally exploitative programming. The Hunger Games speaks to our helplessness, our distrust of the state, and our disgust at both the financial divide and the over-trivialisation of the media. The film appears to agree with us; “I’m angry too,” it’s saying, as it vicariously allows us to live the revolution that many of us dwelling at the bottom secretly desire.
The Hunger Games is covertly non-subversive, a part of the system that’s happy to let you pretend it isn’t
The Hunger Games is critical of the media, of the contrasting outlandish excess and suffocating poverty of the capitalist framework, of western politics as some giant chess game for an old boys’ network. But The Hunger Games is also a movie franchise that fully utilises blanket media coverage, and a cinematic behemoth that is strategically prepped to take money from millions of regular schlubs and deliver the resulting enormous paycheques to a handful of execs. The Hunger Games is covertly non-subversive, a part of the system that’s happy to let you pretend it isn’t.
Other ‘pilots’ for prospective YA franchises, films like The Host, Beautiful Creatures and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, flopped because they were too focused on flimsy storytelling. Only these days, people in general are too tuned in – two hours of mindless trash just won’t do when there are more pressing issues to think about. Uniquely in YA movies, The Hunger Games tapped into the disillusionment of the average cinemagoer. This wasn’t the only reason for the film’s success, of course – The Hunger Games arrived with a thriving inbuilt fanbase – but that ‘something’ about the series that appeals where The Host and Beautiful Creatures didn’t is that it just happens to speak out about the right things at the right time.
But so much about The Hunger Games franchise is oxymoronic, the more overtly political Catching Fire in particular: it’s a revolutionary call to arms from the people who brought you The Expendables; a movie series promoting a simpler, less materialistic way of life that has its own toy range and clothing line; a franchise opposed to state control, released by a distributor that will take up cinema screens in bulk to ensure your movie choice is as limited as possible; and a saga scathing in its indictment of celebrity, crafted by a studio system that makes stars of its actors so it can use them to sell its products.
Catching Fire isn’t a bad film, but there’s no escaping that it was made and financed by the kind of people it purports to criticise
Catching Fire isn’t a bad film. It’s a marked improvement on the first Hunger Games instalment, and engages in important social matters where the vast majority of pasteurised Hollywood slosh doesn’t. But there’s no escaping that this film was made and financed by the kind of 1% it purports to criticise. At its worst, Catching Fire appeals to and takes advantage of our collective despondency in order to bring in box office gold for the already rich. That the plan’s been successful is a mark of genius on the part of whoever’s behind this thing.
Late 60s and 70s Hollywood cinema was turned-on socially and politically. But ‘message’ films that spoke to western audiences of the time were made on a fraction of today’s budgets, by filmmakers that just wanted to make something as resonant and artistically rich as possible. This was back when ‘movie franchising’ was a term in its infancy. Today, a crucial issue is global economic chaos and the fact that rich and poor alike remain in hierarcichal stasis. “Isn’t all so terrible?” says Catching Fire, as it points fingers at a system to which it’s intrinsically linked. It comforts you, lets you know it’s on your side, hopes you’ll buy the soundtrack and just knows you’ll be back for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2.
All images: Lionsgate Entertainment