A Song of Ice and Fire: Politics, Performance, and PTSD in Catching Fire
REPEAT OFFENDER: Catching Fire (2013)
THE REVIEW: While I’ve already talked a lot about it here on the blog, I finally got around to seeing Catching Fire (you can find my review of the book here and a shorter review here). All I can say is Damn. Dayum. This is one movie not to be missed. Even in the age of Netlfix and increasingly large televisions, seeing Catching Fire on the big screen is worth the price of admission.
Let’s get the obvious (and largely redundant at this point) out of the way first. This movie has been praised for its status as a battering ram against gender stereotypes and marketing/demographic pitfalls in the movie industry. Its outstanding box office success blasts the whole “woman heroes don’t make money” myth to hell. The fact that Frozen and Catching Fire held the number 1 and 2 spots on Thanksgiving weekend further drove home that movies with female characters and female relationships at the forefront can and do make money if you write them well and give them adequate advertizing.
Katniss is a total badass, relatable to total badasses or wanna-be total badasses everywhere. Her struggle, to keep her family alive and find someway to navigate a corrupt political landscape, is by no means gender-specific, making this movie equally accessible to non-female viewers. Then there’s the fact that Prim, Johanna, Nuts, Mags, and even Effie offer us different kinds of interesting female characters with different ways to be strong or useful or smart or brave. Lady Hero is not one-size fits all and treating women like diverse individuals instead of a quota to be filled does wonders for both feminism and the quality of the film (somebody please tell The Avengers).
The film also does this for guys as well, offering us multiple views of masculinity and more than one way for a man to be a hero, whether its Gale chomping at the bit for a war or Peeta channeling his wholesome, sensitive, well-spoken presence into a potent political tool. Cinna shows us that fashion can be a more powerful weapon than most in what is probably the most gutsy move in the entire film. Who’d’ve thought a male fashion designer would play such an important role in an action movie?
There is one other thing Frozen and Catching Fire have in common besides monetary success and sisters at the heart of the drama: female directors. Glass ceilings and domed arena forcefields are shattering everywhere. However, the gender of the director is hardly the most notable thing about Catching Fire’s direction, which has increased dramatically in quality this time around.
To be fair, Catching Fire is a far better book than The Hunger Games, sequels have to do less worldbuilding via awkward exposition, and this installment really makes the trilogy a political drama instead of just teen action flicks. All of these give the new director a leg up. However, the acting, the worldbuilding, the dialogue, the pacing, and just about everything else have improved. And no more shaky cam! Huzzah!
Instead of being stuck purely in shaky, shaky, 1st person POV, this film really takes advantage of not being limited to Katniss’s thoughts and experiences as the book is. This change does wonders for the characterization and worldbuiling. It also allows us to see President Snow in his own environment rather than just during his menacing supervillain moments with Katniss.
Whoever thought up the interactions with his granddaughter is brilliant and deserves a medal. That was an amazing addition that further separates this story from more black-and-white dystopian tales. And again, look at how political fashion is. Who knew? Even Effie channels her vapid consumerism and accessorizing into a political statement.
And speaking of Effie, can we talk about what happened at the Reaping? I know movie Effie’s slow realization that Katniss is a person and the Capitol isn’t all blue hair and butterfly dresses is very different than book Effie, who’s only upset about Katniss and Peeta’s imminent deaths because they get her into all the cool parties. And I do miss the weird dynamic between Katniss and the rest of her stylists in the book, who are blubbering over her to the point that she has to comfort them, which makes her resent them seeing as she’s the one dying and all.
However, movie Effie’s redemptive arc does make up for a lot of the more nuanced commentary on privilege and power in the first book that was lost in the movie. Effie’s utter powerlessness highlights that those privileged by the system 1) are not wholly evil, just ignorant of the experiences and perspectives of others, and 2) may have no more power to stop it than the impoverished workers of District 12.
Even Snow is questionably powerless, doing what he thinks he must to keep the system in place. It’s the rock and hard place of any exploitative power imbalance, the fear of what the inevitable reckoning may bring. Be it Panem, modern day America, the Roman Empire, the British Empire, or Imperial Russia, the story is still the same. Those in power may feel uncomfortable about what has been done to get/keep that power, but that does not change the fear of losing it. This is some Game of Thrones level politicking and far more than I expected when I started reading That YA Series All The Kids Were Talking About. Sometimes kids have excellent taste.
But back to Effie. Elizabeth Banks does a spectacular job here with no melodramatic dialogue to express her feelings. It’s all in her heartbroken face as she looks on in horror but reluctantly continues to play her part. I already praised the performances within performances in the book, but this scene and the interview really bring it home in the movie. This is a show. This is a pageant. This is a game.
Johanna’s rage at having to play again is highlighted by being the only time in the entire series that someone curses. Haymitch’s alcoholism is reinforced by the rampant drug use of his peers (though far less overt than in the books) and his ability to improve enough to take a seat at the chess board. Even Peeta is learning to play the game, becoming a much savvier character.
Josh Hutcherson has improved as well, becoming much more likable and useful this time around. Watch as Josh Hutcherson plays Peeta playing Peeta. His voice catches just enough on that baby stunt (which is then dropped and never mentioned again). While I was sad much of Peeta’s PTSD art therapy has been stripped (for obvious time and medium differences), his nonchalant response to Katniss’s night terrors was a great moment. On one level, it was kind of funny, but it also showed how normal this was for him. It’s just a part of life now.
The acting was definitely the strength of the first movie and this time around it’s just that much better. The fact that Prim, Gale, Peeta, Effie, Cinna, and all the new characters actually do stuff and get a little characterization makes this all the more noticeable. Mags and Johanna were spot on, I finally accepted movie Cinna, and everyone held their own. My only qualm with the casting was Finnick. I was promised tall, dark, and handsome. While this guy may have a bigger cup size than all the ladies, Finnick Odair he is not.
However, the scene where he and Katniss freak out over the Jabberjay voices screaming was intense. This brings me to the two best parts of the movie: Jennifer Lawrence and the film’s treatment of PTSD. I love Jennifer Lawrence. She carried the first movie and, while she has much more support this time around, she is still worth the ticket price herself. This movie is a non-stop, adrenaline-fueled, trauma-laden nervous breakdown and without a Katniss who can flip out at the drop of a hat and still be likable and strong, it could have fallen apart.
Jennifer Lawrence achieves the magical balance of totally competent, badass action hero while still feeling entirely vulnerable and fragile. Too often “strong female characters” sacrifice character flaws (read characterization) and relatability in order to prove that they are strong or brave or competent (see Kim Possible, movie Black Widow, et al) and then somehow still need the boys to save them. Katniss saves and gets saved left and right and nobody gets their panties in a bunch about who’s saving who (except maybe Gale).
Katniss is a deeply flawed, dysfunctional, increasingly broken human being. And this does not for one second undermine her as a character, action hero, or well-written female protagonist. Her serious issues stem from her environment and experiences, not her gender. Finally! Women can be as unhealthy as Batman or Sherlock Holmes! And, perhaps because it is more socially acceptable for women to be hysterical, her issues are not lampshaded the same way Bruce and Sherlock’s are.
This really must have been exhausting to film. Frankly, it was exhausting to watch (in a good way). But Katniss is screaming or shaking or running or being anxious or collapsing in a fit of Jabberjay-induced full-on PTSD freakout in pretty much every scene. And Jennifer Lawrence does not do the pretty cry or the one-hair-artfully-out-of-place emotive model look of fear or grief or the minimal-dirt-carefully-applied-by-a-make-up-artist Legolas perfection.
No, Jennifer Lawrence commits. She screams, cries, and loses it with every fiber of her being and her face all but folds in on itself in horror. Don’t get me wrong, JLaw is beautiful and sexy, she just doesn’t rely on being beautiful and sexy in every single scene. Somebody get this woman a medal.
And here’s why I am absolutely in love with Catching Fire. This movie handles PTSD miles better than just about any movie I can think of. It’s not a plot point that disappears when no longer needed or gets fixed when the hero wins and comes home. It’s the focus and it is omnipresent in every scene, in every action, in every close-up.
I heard recently on a radio show praising The Hunger Games for the excellent lessons it can teach tweens (or anyone really) that Suzanne Collins’s father was a Vietnam vet. That makes total sense. Having studied combat trauma in college (be it in modern personal accounts, Fantasy/Sci-Fi, ancient epics, or Greek theatre), I have given a great deal of thought to these issues. Collins, though not exactly Shakespeare, handles war and trauma with a genuine raw honesty and maturity that many, arguably better writers lack.
Said radio show also pointed out something else important. This series does not paint war as a glamorous heroic thing the way many books, television shows, and movies do. It shows war, even just, totally necessary war, as a costly, scarring, terrible thing. Even if Katniss and the revolution are 100% successful, the flashbacks and the night terrors and the loss and the pain and the horror will remain.
Perhaps this is best seen in the DEVASTATING SPOILER at the end. In a film loaded with action, death, and anxiety where no holds are barred and anything goes, that came along and still drew gasps from the audience. It’s a little bit like the Red Wedding that way. A final jab out of left-field to once and for all drive home that THIS IS NOT GETTING A HAPPY ENDING.
And once more, in a single scene with no dialogue, just a silent close-up, Jennifer Lawrence shines as the vulnerable, broken, determined, deadly, nothing-to-lose Katniss that we know and love. She and Arya Stark need to hang.
Then that stupid, flaming mockingjay kind of ruined the moment. If I did have one complaint about the movie it would be that they never explain the political potency and meaning behind the mockingjay (largely the fault of the first film). This is why worldbuilding is important.
However, while on the subject of the mockingjay, Catching Fire shows us that revolutions don’t just happen. It takes the courage of some dude in District 11’s simple gesture. It takes a little girl and her terrified mother saluting in defiance even if they let the government take their sister or daughter away. It takes people willing to get shot or flogged or firebombed or blown off the map or dragged through hell. It takes a fashion designer willing to get hooded, beaten, and dragged off (another great moment of Katniss losing it). It takes a team of drug-addicted, sociopathic, addled tributes to work together for a shot at undermining the status quo and the performance it relies on.
After the first installment of this series, I doubted anyone would be reading The Hunger Games in 10 years. Now, however, I will be handing the series to my children. And anyone interested in war, trauma, political uprisings, wealth inequality, or colonial/imperial/oppressive power dynamics, be it personally or professionally.
And finally, I tip my hat to the costume designers. The Capitol must have just been a licence to go nuts, but they also had a great handle on the costume of District 12. I want all of Katniss’s homespun stuff. I know that kind of defeats the point of the whole anti-consumerism message, but, hey, even Katniss was enamored with a pretty dress. And that pretty dress made all the difference. You never know what might light the spark, eh?
As a nerdy gesture of fellowship to the Hunger Games fans out there (Tributes? Mockingjays? Whatever we are.), I bring you this song that I think perfectly sums up both District 12’s regional/economic character and the series’ themes of exploitation and powerlessness. If this plays during the credits of Mockingjay it will make my life.
THE CONTROVERSY: I’m not aware of any big controversy facing the film. At least nowhere near the level of the first film. I’m sure some people think it’s too violent and I know others are still unhappy with the casting, but that’s been pretty quiet this time around. And, though Katniss’s unclear ethnic background is probably not the same as Jennifer Lawrence’s, Lawrence made these movies. I cannot regret her casting.
Any controversy specific to Catching Fire I am aware of has been around the marketing and the various products cashing in (see previous posts here and here), not the film itself. Catching Fire has forced a conversation about gender roles and women in film, which inevitably leads to controversy somehow, but that is less to do with the film than the age-old discussions it has sparked.
On that same note, Catching Fire has influenced a smattering of political movement tie-ins and articles about income inequality, most notably the Odds in Our Favor campaign and this little gem from The Daily Show.