The odds were never in our favor. With the exception of The Godfather (2, of course, not 3), cinematic history is lined with sequels that never quite live up to the promise of the original movie’s ending. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire now joins the pantheon of other series that should have left well enough alone. Or perhaps it is time for the countless sequels flowing out of Hollywood to adopt the buffet-style viewing model of shows like Netflix’ House of Cards, where series are shot – and released – all at once, leaving the pace of consumption and portion size to the viewer.
In Catching Fire, our Katniss is three years older than when she shot the original Girl on Fire – one Academy Award statue under her belt, and far too many red carpets etched in the minds of us mortal movie goers. Her magic in Girl on Fire – her innocence, her wonder, her communication with us beyond the words spoken, gone. This Katniss is hardened. She’s dark. She has strange black lines under her eyes, like I did in the seventies because I didn’t know how to use eye liner successfully, and we can’t find the girl we left on the screen at the close of Girl on Fire. The original Katniss is sorely missed. I worried at the change of directors after Girl on Fire. It’s hard to take that kind of perfection and re-create it with a new man behind the camera, allowing him to put his touch on it – all the while staying true to the memories those of us Hunger Games lovers have of the way her story unfolds. Francis Lawrence (Water for Elephants) does a decent job; but it’s choppy. Scenes end. New scenes begin and you know it each and every time. I’d have to see the movie again to see if that transition difficulty is because he hasn’t ended the scene before it or if it’s because the new scene has no relationship to the earlier scene. That’s not going to happen, so I leave it with you.
I love Katniss. I saw the first Hunger Games without having read the books beforehand – so I knew only of the debate about portraying child violence on the screen. Meeting Katniss in the original film – seeing her strength of character, her sheer force of intelligence and independence (yes, her fire), made me cheer. Finally there was a female action figure that might inspire young girls to follow their own inner voices, rather than the voice of the seventh grade bitch that led us all astray. I loved that she loved her sister and her friend. I loved that she could see the complexity of life’s other loves that show we are complicated creatures that have love for many in us, even though society often asks us to love only one. I loved that she was strong and her body was not the noun in her life but the adjective. Please don’t get me wrong. I still love Katniss for the girls around me. There is a scene in Catching Fire where President Snow’s granddaughter is modeling after Katniss, and I think it’s one of the best in the movie. She looks at you dead in the camera and you know she will follow Katniss anywhere. Give us these Katniss role models for our girls to emulate. They, and we, will all be better for it.
Familiarity breeds contempt? I have never believed that, but I do believe that the first time you see something is the moment that it will have its largest impact. The scenes for training the tributes and following them during the games mirrored Girl on Fire. It loses something the second time around. It makes you feel you are watching a rerun of a movie with a similar plot but different characters. Speaking of characters, Catching Fire tributes are too old to have the same power punch that Girl on Fire had. Grownups killing grownups is everywhere and doesn’t incite the rage needed to start a revolution. And the backstory of the return tributes is missing – and the film suffers for it. Finnick, for example, is one of the great characters in the series – but here you do not have enough information to see him as the amazing tribute he turns out to be. Rue’s character, in the first film, showed us her depth of character and sensitivity. Rue stealing the knife and the board showing her 60-1 odds of winning gave us her back story so we could know and appreciate her journey during the games. You gotta do the homework for us to understand the meaning of the story and richness of the characters in it.
Rereading this review feels as if I’m saying don’t see it. Not at all. See it. Have a Take A Girl to Hunger Games Day. There are many lessons in the film, and they are worth seeing. But when you compare Catching Fire to Girl on Fire, you will find Catching Fire cannot live up to its legacy. Like the second child following the first one in a high school, the teachers will always find the memory of the first to overshadow the second. Hunger Games asks us to dig deep and decide what we will stand for and what we will passively accept. The Hunger Games Trilogy is an important lesson in government and passivity. “Remember who the enemy is.” In our own political environment, when everyone seems so powerless, when we are all so very sad and angry at the ineptitude of those leaders we elected, it’s a call to action to find the heroes and help them lead. Katniss is a reluctant leader, called out by circumstances rather than the desire to be a star. She never wants the job to lead a nation. She rises to it.
One last thing. I’m so glad an action GIRL flick may set records this weekend. Hello, movie industry, wake up and smell Snow’s roses.