Downplaying Authoritarianism: A Critical Review of “Catching Fire”

I became acquainted with The Hunger Games series when I saw the first movie. Impressed by the story, the world-building, and especially that gripping scene when the tributes are lined up on their pedestals, waiting to leap toward the cornucopia, all for it to end in a bloodbath with an eerie soundtrack and lightening-fast cuts between slashes and stabbings… I had seemingly no choice but to read the books my sister had bugged me about for ages. Like many others, I finished the trilogy in less than a week, equally enchanted and disturbed by the developments in Panem.

Yet the second movie, “Catching Fire,” fell far short of expectations.

In the book Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins presents us with an intricate and, I believe, persuasive argument against authoritarianism, and goes so far as to argue that anyone who benefits from a corrupt/dystopian political and social system is culpable–not just the figurehead of that (imaginary) society. Told from Katniss’s first-person perspective, Catching Fire drips with resentment, anger, and a desire to overthrow the existing system. The love triangle in Catching Fire is a secondary plotline, far less important than Katniss’–and everyone else’s–unrelenting struggle against the omnipotent Capitol.

The movie’s anti-authoritarian theme, on the other hand–which, indeed, hardly exists–is undermined by several factors. First, the media hype and focus on the new characters, particularly Finnick and Johanna, bowed to widespread pressure to make the movie more attractive to teens. I understand the appeal of a hot guy/gal as much as anyone else, but when it becomes a plotline all its own, and spawns satirical reviews like this one that The Onion posted, that brings it uncomfortably close to chick flick/rom com territory. And while I love Elizabeth Banks’ portrayal of Effie, giving her character more screentime took away from other aspects of the film. In the movie, she’s a fluffy mess of a character, all smiles and cotton candy, and we forget that she’s actually, well, evil. Banks, however, hasn’t forgotten this:

“The fact that the clothes are uncomfortable and constricting is just a reminder that Effie lives in a society that is uncomfortable and constricting. It’s all done sort of on purpose. You know, Effie is the physical manifestation of the capital… Effie is not interested in paying any prices. She’s very interested in the status quo. She fears change. And, you know, ultimately she will be proven to be on the wrong side of history in this case.”

This is all good and well to say in an interview that might make a few rounds on the Internet, but ultimately the messages about the harm of excess and overconsumption in the Capitol that are stressed in the Catching Fire book are completely undone by ridiculous product deals, such as Covergirl’s unveiling of their “Capitol Collection” which of course was prompted by the overwhelming success of the entire enterprise. 

How about that poignant and horrible moment in the book, for example, where Katniss and Peeta  learn that the revelers in the Capitol ingest emetics so that they can continue feasting? It’s a scene worth revisiting:

“‘You go along. Thinking maybe they’re not so bad'”…and here in the Capitol they’re vomiting for the pleasure of filling their bellies again and again.” 

Granted, this scene does also appear in the movie. But it is overshadowed by the grand staircase entrance and Katniss’s subsequent dance with Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s practically grandfatherly gamemaker. The excess is emphasized in the movie, and the horrible injustice that Peeta and Katniss experience is quickly swept away with glittery distractions. And that is precisely the warning that Suzanne Collins attempts to stress in her book: that glittery excess can make us forget that excess has to come from somewhere–and often that “somewhere” includes human suffering on a mass, systemic scale.

Something else that made me profoundly uncomfortable was the slow realization that all of the evil in Panem was being pinned onto one person: President Snow. With his white beard, triangular eyebrows, and slightly menacing way of speaking, President Snow reminds me of the perfect Disney villain. In the film, he is used as a scapegoat–he is the evil dictator ruining the lives of Katniss, Peeta, and the other too-attractive tributes. The culpability of the citizens in the Capitol, and indeed in the Capitol-supporting Districts of 1, 2, and 4, is nearly forgotten in the shadow of Snow’s pure malevolence. Yet everyone who benefits from the system is guilty, and Suzanne Collins makes this perfectly clear in the book. The system itself is evil, and by extension, so are its better-off participants; i.e., belief in and support of the system is also evil. Catching Fire is, at its best, a highly imaginative criticism of what happens when people become deluded into supporting an insidious political and social system. It is NOT a tale of stereotypical villains easily surmounted.

The movie seems to gloss over these difficulties. I suppose it’s hard to direct and deliver a profoundly subversive film to an American audience when the Hollywood movie industry itself is a massive corporation with extensive political, social, and economic power. But the first film in the series was truer to the intent of the book, and it’s not unheard of for movies to challenge fundamental ideas about how we live. I find it disturbing that we inhale dystopian fiction like The Hunger Games, which contains warning after warning about privacy incursions and ever-more-pervasive monitoring systems, and then accept versions of that surveillance in the form of cellular phones, Internet usage, and targeted advertisements.

With inequality deepening both within the country and across the world, the middle class shrinking, resources being depleted, and harmful, antiquated viewpoints being re-hashed in the name of social progress, I can’t think of a better time for The Hunger Games trilogy. But “Catching Fire” is a faithless adaptation of the subversive novel with its big-budget action scenes, over-emphasized love triangle, and distillation of evil into one easily despised figurehead.

Overall grade: C

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8 thoughts on “Downplaying Authoritarianism: A Critical Review of “Catching Fire”

  1. You’ve really hit on something that you don’t hear about in establishment reviews. I liked the first H.G. film (haven’t read the books) but wondered if the message was getting thru. Maybe we don’t have teens killing each for entertainment (not yet, anyway) but the more subtle economic violence perpetrated by a greedy 1% may leave younger generations with a country that looks more and more like District 12. Thanks for keeping it real.

    1. Thanks, as always, for the support! As you can imagine, I got several pointed comments when I posted my review on Facebook–quite similar to the reaction to “Wolf of Wall Street,” in a way. (That movie’s worse, though). I think maintaining the anti-authoritarian theme of “Hunger Games” in a big-budget blockbuster movie was basically an impossible task to begin with.

      It’s ironic that the movies themselves have become the very type of dangerous, distracting entertainment that Suzanne Collins warned against. (The kids aren’t really killing each other, but we’re watching a story based on a story based on a fable about how kids are killing each other, and trying to believe it and not believe it at the same time. The meta levels are insane!) Anyway. The books aren’t incredibly well-written (granted, they’re Young Adult literature) but if you make it all the way to the end of the third one, you’ll probably really, really like the ending, as I did. (Many people were disappointed with it – go figure!)

  2. Damn! I loved the movie (I’m a cad for glittery entertainment, I suppose) but you really are spot on. I noticed many of these same elements from the book being downplayed (though I didn’t draw such insightful connections about them) but was just blissfully going along. I love your eye and the way you looked at this… I’ll have to stick around for further commentary like this, huzzah!

    1. Thanks so much for your comment! I was quite motivated to write this review, but also a bit conflicted because there were parts of the movie I really enjoyed–specifically, most of the scenes in the arena, which was exactly how I imagined it. But yes, my very critical tone upset some of my friends on Facebook who adored the movie, which I fully expected! Thanks for following, and I look forward to discussing more films!

  3. ” The system itself is evil, and by extension, so are its better-off participants; i.e., belief in and support of the system is also evil. Catching Fire is, at its best, a highly imaginative criticism of what happens when people become deluded into supporting an insidious political and social system. It is NOT a tale of stereotypical villains easily surmounted.”

    Amen, amen, amen. It is so important that we realize (by virtue of reflecting on the Capitol’s actions) that as part of a system we are either abetting or undermining injustice at any time. We are never passive participants.

    Which is why, regardless of Effie’s personal sympathies, she is very much a tool of the Capital. Crying about losing two victors is completely different than doing everything in one’s capacity to end the games.

    1. yes, very glad you got my drift! Some folks on Facebook were none too happy with my conclusions…

      “We are never passive participants” – all too true, and something that as a student of Anthropology I *have* to believe. Everyone has some degree of agency, and even by supposedly *not* choosing to do something, you are still making a choice.

  4. I find your review very enlightening. I am also one of those women who immediately fell head over heels with the books (and then the movies). But most reviews focus on the love story, in stead of the ‘in your face’ authoritarianism. Great read!

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