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Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the movie, has taken what appears to be an action/adventure/thriller raised it to the level of a serious, well-done drama. There are many reasons for this, Suzanne Collins and Jennifer Lawrence are principal among them.

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Overall, the cast does a fabulous job, especially Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy and Donald Sutherland as President Snow. Jennifer Lawrence is, imho, one of the best actors of her generation. Here stiffness in trying to control herself in the original Hunger Games, her crying over Peeta injury or attitude with Haymitch all point to this brilliance. The range of emotion and different types of dialog, scared to sarcastic to reflective, allow her to adapt to a complex role.  The source material obviously is critical as well. Catching Fire is that perfect example of one of the reasons why I continue to read YA (I’m over 50). Part of this is to be aware of the books and movies my kids read and watch which leads to many an interesting discussion. However the chief reason is that there are great books in the YA category, Ms. Collins books among them.

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So, why do I say that Catching Fire rises above its action/adventure cohorts to something more – to be considered a drama in its own right? I suggest four reasons:

  • The themes of self-sacrifice is handled maturely.
  • The politics are more realistic (this will become even clearer in Mockingjay)
  • The relationships are portrayed in a relatively complex manner.
  • The movie sticks relatively close to the original source and the source lends itself as a basis for a movie.

The repression from The Capitol of Panem is so typical of how we wish to handle problems – rather than deal with the root cause of why the districts rebelled in the first place, we’ll build this elaborate system of games to put the districts in their place. Snow embodies this through his adroit manipulation of Katniss and the other Victors to ensure there’s just enough hope to keep workers motivated to keep things working but not so much hope that they’ll rebel. The most adroit management cannot change the fact that core issues aren’t being addressed. Katniss is no fan of The Capitol; she is, however, a reluctant rebel whose initial focus is to the ones she is closest to and loves (about which more below).

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Catching Fire also continues to incorporate the idea of self-sacrifice, first to other individuals and later to the cause of liberty. One of the things I love about Katniss (and one of the irritating things as well) is that she is never the pure starry-eyed adherent to The Cause. She cares about others and their freedom but is under no illusion that nirvana is to be found in different government. She reminds me of the Benjamin Martin character from The Patriot:

Mr. Howard: We ARE citizens of an American nation! And our rights are being threatened by a tyrant three thousand miles away!
Benjamin Martin: Would you tell me please, Mr. Howard, why should I trade one tyrant three thousand miles away for three thousand tyrants one mile away? An elected legislature can trample a man’s rights as easily as a king can.
Col. Harry Burwell: Captain Martin, I understood you to be a patriot.
Benjamin Martin If you mean by patriot, am I angry about taxation without representation, well, yes I am. Should the American colonies govern themselves independently? I believe that they can, and they should. But if you are asking me, am I willing to go to war with England? Well, then the answer is most definitely NO!

Katniss is going back into the Games with the thought of Peeta coming out of it alive with Haymitch’s help; this, of course, precludes her from emerging from the Games alive. She sees the other tributes and victors as enemies, even while she’s reminded to focus on the real enemy. This comes on the heels of throwing herself in front Commander Thread for the sake of Gale. She also understands and connects with Haymitch in a way that the others don’t, even as they are “nicer” in taking care of him. Her sister is now one how takes control when it’s time to heal and help. So, in short, nearly all of her relationships have morphed, grown and become more complex.

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Fan art from Domilie4ever

Assuming that Mockingjay follows the books, and given their track record, it has done quite well on this score, these trends of sacrifice, complex politics and real and diverse relationships will only continue and deepen. Indeed, keeping relatively close to the source is one of the reasons the movies are so good. As I’ve argued previously, books almost always trump movies and that remains true here, but to a much smaller degree. To these themes, add a marvelous cast that acts like an ensemble with many first rate actors and you have great drama. Mr. Lawrence does have fabulous and, at times, nuanced job directing. Contrast this, for example, to Mr. Jackson’s handling of The Hobbit, and you see the benefits of remaining close to the source. Mr. Jackson’s movies are fun, but not drama.

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Suzanne Collins

For the few who haven’t seen it yet, I highly encourage you do so. More importantly, if you haven’t read the books, you really are missing out.

Finally, here’s a great look at why we love Jennifer Lawrence at her funny, real and earthy best:

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