The Real Enemies, by Tyler Smith
When I saw the first Hunger Games, I was deeply frustrated by the film’s seeming refusal to fully explore the themes of a tyrannical government seeking to distract from its abuse of its people. In many ways, the film itself appeared to buy into the narrative put forth by the government leaders. It’s easy to see how the film could fall prey to this; a particularly prideful group of teenagers bred for savagery makes for an easy target for the audience, both on and off the screen. However, I felt that, in embracing this narrative convenience, the first film seemed to ignore the fact that everybody involved in the games- no matter how bloodthirsty they are- is at heart a victim of a much larger villainy.
I’m very happy to say that the new film in the franchise, Catching Fire, so effectively throws off that narrative- focusing instead on “the real enemy”- that I found myself not merely liking this film, but retroactively appreciating the first, now knowing where we would eventually arrive. The Hunger Games film series clearly has no interest in telling the same story over and over again, assuming that viewers simply want to see recycled plot and character beats. Instead, each film has a unique story of its own, while also expanding the world in which the characters live.
And as that world expands, we really get a sense in this film of a government that is truly oppressive, and an existence that is progressively more suffocating year by year. The name of the game last time was basic survival. But now the stakes have been raised and it becomes clear that even survival is proving to be a challenge. There is no freedom; merely the projected benevolence of an all-powerful leader. A person’s ability to speak his mind, be with his family, or even leave the house is subject to the whims of those in control. And just when our main characters feel as though they are able to navigate the intricacies of this existence, the rules change and they are reminded once again just how powerless they really are.
These circumstances are well-sold by the cast, with each character in a different stage of cynicism and despair. Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson play Katniss and Peeta, the winners of the previous film’s Hunger Games, as relieved, yet practical. They know that simply surviving the Games does not guarantee that they will be left alone, so they set to work figuring out what their lives will look like from here on.
Meanwhile, the previous “victors” know all too well that their lives are no longer their own; they belong to the government now, to be trotted out whenever the public needs a distraction. Played by Woody Harrelson, Geoffrey Wright, Amanda Plummer, Jena Malone, and others, these characters display a world-weary quality that helps set up the hellish life of a “victor.” It’s one thing to be oppressed by this regime, but it’s quite another to be used as an instrument of that oppression. Even Elizabeth Banks’ character Effie, Katniss’ official chaperone (and image consultant), seems exhausted by the weight of her constant smile and moral obliviousness.
A rebellion is forming and the next film, Mockingjay, will clearly detail that undertaking. In the meantime, we have Catching Fire, a solidly-made science fiction film that is everything that you could want a mainstream crowdpleaser to be. It uses the trappings of an action-packed adventure story to explore much deeper and- in many cases- more disturbing themes.
Here we have a government that will stop at nothing to keep its citizens in line, fully exploiting a combination of brutality and propaganda (in the form of celebrity worship) as a means of distracting the populace in order to stick a knife in their back. As we become more and more obsessed with what actress is having an affair with what actor or the details of royal weddings, we become blind to possible governmental overreach or corporate malfeasance. Science fiction is usually at its best when it looks to the past and sees a warning for the future and the Hunger Games series has a firm grounding in both.