Tuesday 10 December 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Towards the end of the final act of Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Katniss Everdeen, after destroying the safe barrier between the arena (where the games are played) and the world outside (where, as President Snow threatened, games turn into war) – literally breaking through the fake heaven that the Capitol has created – she is being lifted from the ground, fire spreading underneath her, blood on her face. It’s the climactic moment of the film, in which Katniss Everdeen finally completely becomes what she does not want to be: a symbol of the rebellion against the Capitol, a forever reluctant revolutionary, a martyr who survived. 
It’s a climactic moment because the whole film works towards it. While Katniss has returned to District 12, to the lonely Victor’s Village (just imagine Haymitch spending the past decades there, all on his own), she is still struggling with nightmares and horrible visions of the games she barely survived. There is a sense that she isn’t entirely connected to the world she knew anymore, her economic position elevating her and estranging her at the same time, her mother and sister changing and growing on their own terms, without her noticing. The fiction she created in order to make it out alive, and to save Peeta, is haunting her. It has taken on a life of its own – what was a very personal act, a desperate attempt to skew the odds in her favour, is interpreted as an act of rebellion both by the inhabitants of the districts, desperate to change their terrible living conditions, and the President of the Capitol, who realizes the power that such a symbolic figure has, even if the citizens celebrate her romantic love. Katniss is eager to run away into the woods, escape, survive on her own with her family and Gale, but he reminds her that this wouldn’t change the circumstances of everybody else. Already, having become a symbol against her own will means a responsibility that she isn’t quite ready to face, because she never asked for any of it. 
But like the title suggests, it’s already gotten too out of hand for anyone or anything to stop it. On the victory tour, visiting the other districts and finally the Capitol, Katniss sees the effect that she has had. It takes troops – eerily faceless in their armour – to keep the masses in order, who rally behind the quiet sign of their allegiance with what they’ve turned Katniss supposed temporary victory by changing the rules of the Games, into. She witnesses an old man being brutally shot, while President Snow’s threat hangs over her – she is supposed to make him believe the fiction of loving Peeta, turning the rebellious gesture into one of love, stopping the inevitable. It’s an impossible feat, and the film makes this point quite brilliantly, contrasting the deprivation in the districts with the decadence of the Capitol, whose inhabitants are completely ignorant of the price that their luxury demands. 

Eventually, after an attempt to turn the people against Katniss Everdeen fails (because rebellion may not be the first thing on her mind, but she is fiercely protective of the people that she loves) Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the new Head Gamemaker, suggests a different strategy: to dismantle the symbol Katniss Everdeen in the arena where she was created. It’s the most powerful moment of the film, Katniss hearing President Snow declare that the 75th Hunger Games will be special because each district will send a male and a female winner to compete. She knows she’s the only female winner that Twelve has ever had, that she will return to the most horrible place imaginable, and her reaction isn’t heroism or defiance, it’s sheer terror. She knows that there are no winners, only survivors, and as Haymitch told her, you never quite leave, even if you survive, because the Capitol drags you back into it year after year, as a mentor, as a public figure, with eternal reruns of all the things that now haunt you in your dreams. But now it’s a literal return, and an inevitable one, and the only thing left to her is try and save Peeta, and she fails at that as well. 
Whom she truly loves was never the compelling question of the story, even if the film predictably (if sadly, since the first part avoided it) puts more focus on it. The interesting question is if real emotions are even possible if your very survival depends on faking them well, if your entire life is fear and anxiety and panic. Katniss is being moulded, both by people she knows and by unseen ones, and remaining herself in the process, or thinking of herself as a person who can make choices about her future beyond running away and surviving, seems almost impossible. Reading the sincerity of feelings is a difficult task anyway in a world that is so filled with distrust – it takes Katniss a moment to realize that Effie Trinket’s fear for her life and insistence that they are a team is absolutely genuine, because previously, the only person from the Capitol whose emotions she trusted was Cinna, who wears his heart on his sleeve (both Elizabeth Banks and Lenny Kravitz once again deliver brilliant performances). When faced with the alliance forged by Haymitch behind her back, Katniss mistrusts everyone out of principle, but not everyone is who they seem to be.
A friend of mine pointed out that the violence in the arena never feels that terrible, even if it’s children killing children, because it looks like a videogame – which is the point, and even clearer in Catching Fire, with the contrast of the real, non-staged violence that Katniss witnesses before – against the inhabitants of the district while she’s on the tour, against Gale, against Cinna, right before she’s thrown into the Game. It’s the necessary fiction, the aesthetics necessary for the audience in the Capitol, to hide what is actually happening, the brutality of it. The way the Games are mastered create a lie about death, to make the citizens more comfortable in their homes. The spectacle distracts from reality. At the same time, it’s necessary for the story (and maybe sadly so) for Katniss’ hands to remain clean, so to speak, so she doesn’t kill unless it is in some way justified, even if it is by the fiction of careers being inherently evil (even if it could as well be argued that creating an institution to deal with the reaping is a completely reasonable and rational reaction by a society, at least it gives the children the best possible chance of survival). The truth about the Games are the nightmares that Peeta and Katniss still have, Haymitch’s incessant drinking, the other winners from previous games, most of them seeming broken in their very own way. The Games pit them against each other, and their very function is to keep the districts from thinking of each other as allies in a similar situation, but Katniss is told to remember who the real enemy is, beyond the flickering magnetic shield that she eventually breaks through, with the help of a newly forged alliance. 
Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) are perfectly translated from the books – Finnick’s full story hasn’t been told yet, but he hides the scars from the games behind sarcasm – and Johanna Mason is like Katniss Everdeen, through the looking glass, utterly broken but also invincible because there’s nobody left she can lose, so she has no one to protect, and can defy the Capitol more openly and more fearlessly than the others. It's a terrible realization for Katniss, that the only way to have an edge over the overpowering enemy is to lose everyone she cares about. Johanna's rage is turned outwards, and more political than Katniss’, but she's also a testament to what happens when the brutality of the Capitol meets a strong and stubborn will. 
It’s a good ending as well, beyond the being lifted, because it’s a sobering moment when Katniss realizes that she isn’t in control of anything anymore, that even Haymitch used her, keeping important information for her, using her as a pawn in a much bigger game that will eventually be revealed – and her home has been razed into the ground in revenge for a rebellion she never meant to start. Catching Fire ends with Katniss, moving on from grief over the loss of her home to defiance and wrath. She will still be a reluctant symbol, but at least the fight is her own now – and President Snow’s war has just begun. 

2013, directed by Francis Lawrence, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Jenna Malone, Sam Claflin, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Paula Malcolmson, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Willow Shields, Donald Sutherland, Lynn Cohen. 

No comments: