I, along with almost every other college student out there, grew up in the generation of Harry Potter-mania, reading every book and eagerly hitting the theaters every summer to see the onslaught of Potter movies. Now as a college senior facing a life filled with overpriced rents and underpaid jobs, rediscovering my obsession with fantasy novels geared towards thirteen-year-olds has been quite the relief. And after binge reading the Hunger Games trilogy last week, I was skeptical to see how the movie adaptation of Catching Fire could possibly stand up to the scope of the novels. But director Francis Lawrence delivers, satisfying not just the 13-year-old book lover in me but also the cinephile. The latest installment of The Hunger Games creates a mature franchise for a post-Potter generation.
What makes this film work proves to be Lawrence’s fealty to the novel. In her trilogy Suzanne Collins’s gives us a first person account of Katniss Everdeen’s journey, as she inadvertently becomes the figurehead for a revolution in a dystopian world. The second film opens as Katniss tries to reclaim her life after deceiving the Capitol in her efforts to win the Hunger Games. But her actions during the games mark her as a symbol for defiance in the already volatile districts of Panem. To squash these murmurs of revolution, the Capitol sends Katniss back into the games to battle against previous victors—all expertly trained killers.
The main driving force of Collins’s wildly successful novels proves to be the strength of her protagonist. Unlike the Potter movies, Collins gives us a strong protagonist who succeeds through skill rather than magic. Perhaps what we are starting to see here is an advance in the genre of teen-fantasy through the use of realism. Although the world of the Hunger Games proves fantastical, with the exotic pomp and circumstance of the Capitol juxtaposed against the desolate poverty rampant throughout the districts, the narrative never loses itself in the fantasy.
Even when the second novel escalates the theatrics by exposing us to pieces of Panem we’ve yet to see, including lavish Capitol parties, various outlying districts, and an elaborate tropical arena for the games, Lawrence’s film never sacrifices the reality of the emotional narrative to these fantasy elements. Despite a 130 million dollar budget used to make the set truly spectacular, the story never gets lost under the spectacle. The clarity of Katniss’s motivation lies beneath every action she takes, which elevates the film by bringing it closer to a reality we can all understand. While Harry Potter takes us to a world we long to inhabit, The Hunger Games drops us into a world that feels far too real. It forces us to deal with visceral themes such as hunger, death and tyranny, all in a genre usually void of such mature subject matter.
And while Gary Ross’s version of the first Hunger Games approaches these subjects with a violent shaky camera and quick edits that mask much of the details, Lawrence succeeds in Catching Fire by portraying these themes without ever patronizing the viewer. He takes the world that Ross gave us a glimpse of and expands it to portray the brutality of this dystopian world with a steady panoramic hand that hides nothing. The product is a world that feels fully lived, colorful, and dangerous, keeping adults and thirteen-year-olds alike on the edges of their seats.
After the film’s haunting final shot, I found myself thinking back to the days of carefree Harry Potter-mania, when I would walk out of the theater lost in the fantasy of having magic powers and a pet owl. But as I grew up those fantasies faded away. Our generation has gone to college and matured (somewhat) and, in a way, fantasy films seem to be maturing with us. The fact that one of the year’s highest grossing franchises centers around a group of twenty-four teenagers slaughtering each other in an arena makes me wonder: what happened to the days of kids with wands and brooms cavorting around an oversized boarding school? The Hunger Games exposes us to a world where the dangers are real and the actions have bitter consequences. Whether Katniss fills the Harry Potter-sized hole in your imagination or not, she has certainly matured the teen-fantasy genre and never have I been more hopeful about dystopia.