Jennifer Lawrence, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Josh Hutcherson
Dir. Francis Lawrence
When I heard the news that the second novel in the Hunger Games series was being filmed I groaned inwardly. Don’t get me wrong, the first film was good, surprisingly good, but the idea that you could take Jennifer Lawrence and associated teeth gnashers and stick them in the jungle again for more teenage mayhem didn’t really appeal to me.
You know how it is with sequels. More of the same, but faster and noisier. The only thing that doesn’t get any bigger is the budget, but all due respect to the makers of THG: Catching Fire, they avoid the usual sequel mistakes. Instead the production design is as incredible as the first film: the monolithic urban architecture, the baroque costumes staying just the right side of steampunk, and the seamless special effects at work when the battling eventually begins. And rather than go through the motions and repeat the argy bargy of the first film, there is more subtlety, more brain and less brawn, the producers probably aware that the audience doesn’t want more of the same, they want the novel.
Even though the book is already in the public domain there’s no need to give away spoilers here, so to summarise. President Snow, a beardy Donald Sutherland projecting his malevolent grandfather image with tasteful reserve, is concerned that Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, the popular winners of the 74th Annual Hunger Games, are getting a bit too popular for their own good. He sees the signs of rebellion, a discreet signal here, the wrong emotion there, and decides that his heroes have become too heroic. And so the Quarter Quell, a twenty-fifth anniversary game contested by previous winners, is announced.
The pieces are put in place with an assembly of are-they-good-or-are-they-bad characters, brought out of retirement, lined up and fawned over by the brilliant Stanley Tucci once again playing the purple haired TV host Caesar Flickerman. And possibly the scene of the film takes place in his company. As he interviews Katniss on live telly, she twirls her voluminous wedding gown, which transforms into a dark mockingjay design. It’s these little symbolic twists and surprises which, to anyone who hasn’t read the novels, keep the film alive, keep it buzzing.
As the film progresses the symbolism becomes ever more recognisable as the parallels with contemporary society emerge and the warning signs that the Hunger Games stories are trying to communicate reveal themselves. The divide and rule principle, the demonisation of working class communities, freak show television and the seedy dictatorship hiding behind a veneer of affluence and capital city wealth. It makes you want to stand up in the cinema and cry: ‘Behold, citizens, our future. Are you going to sit there and let this happen?’
Trouble is, there are adverts in the cinema telling you not to behave like that because you’ll spoil others’ enjoyment of the film, and there’s the not too implausible possibility of being beaten up by the guy in the seat behind you, who can’t see Jennifer Lawrence in her hunting suit.
Donald Sutherland – no friend of the political right – when interviewed in the Guardian newspaper, hoped that the younger generations will revolt and prevent a Hunger Games-like dystopian future from happening. Richard Thomas, the UK Information Commissioner in 2004, warned that we were sleepwalking into a surveillance society. Well, thanks to Edward Snowden we now know that we weren’t sleepwalking, we were wide awake as the powers that be spied on us. Looks like Sutherland is hoping in vain.
So, you could say the world of the Hunger Games is already here, except we don’t have teenagers killing one another in the jungle, we have pseudo-celebrities being nipped and gnawed by an assortment of creepy crawlies. And X-Factor hosts don’t have irradiated teeth like Caesar Flickerman they have artificially high waistlines and bags under their eyes the size of rucksacks. And one detail the Hunger Games seems to have overlooked is that any future contestants in a battle to the death would be festooned with sponsors’ logos. Katniss Everdeen would be battling in Barbour countrywear and Peeta Mallik would be armed to the teeth with bread making equipment supplied by Hovis.
But this isn’t reality, it’s cinema. And as blockbusters go, good cinema. You can blame the film makers for milking us like cows by splitting the third instalment into two films, but hey, this is the free market, you don’t want to start getting all communist now, do you? You makes your bed you lies in it. And one day you might find yourself being ‘volunteered’ to entertain society’s elite. The warning signs were there, we just didn’t see them because we were distracted by Jennifer Lawrence’s dexterity with a bow and arrow.