avatarRachel Saunders

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Hunger Games, a retrospective

Liongate Films

In light of the fifth Hunger Games film being released on digital streaming this January I decided to go back and watch all four films to get a sense of how they have stood the test of time. I saw the first three at the cinema the week of their release, and at the time felt that the quality dropped from the first to the fourth, especially as the Mocking Jay: Part 2 (MJ:P2) felt like it dragged out the ending to the quadrilogy when I saw it on the big screen. Having watched A Ballard of Songbirds and Snakes (BoSS) before diving back into the first four, it was interesting seen how anodyne the new film felt even before I watch those original films, and my honest opinion is that the first four back-to-back actually do make for a cohesive set of films, providing that you do not see Mocking Jay as a hunger games film. So, are the Hunger Games still worth watching a decade on, or was I just remembering the films through rose tinted glasses?

The Hunger Games (THG) as a stand alone film is the best of the series, hands down. The cinematography is unique, treating Katniss as a reality TV deer in the headlights, a complete rube in an era of slick visuals and even slicker deaths. It is only right at the end of the film that the viewer gets to sit back and relax, as the tension throughout the film is real and present. The reaping scenes at the beginning has a rhythm to them that every subsequent film riffs on, and BoSS especially lacks the original’s deft touch. Every other film in the series lacks this originality, becoming slicker and more Hollywood as the series progresses. Indeed, only Catniss, Peter, and the their mentors have any real substantive arc as the series progresses, meaning that while the aesthetics change, the serial viewer can engage with the characters while the tone changes around them.

What makes THG special in my opinion is its way it conveys Katniss’ PTSD and trauma in the moment, the narrative thread which carries across the next three films right up until the second to last scene in MJ:P2, where both the book and the film fudge her trauma in favour of a neat ending. When you see all four films in sequence it is clear that President Snow should really have been present more in at least the second film to ground his character with a degree of empathy, which is part of the reason BoSS does not work on repeat viewing. It is Katniss’ trauma that bonds the audience to her, the thing that drives her onwards, knowing full well that she will only end up with more trauma the deeper she goes. Catching Fire (CF) does the best job of this, taking the wounded soldier narratives from The Deer Hunter and other war films and making it palatable for younger audiences. BoSS cannot provide this due to the narrative it wishes to tell, attempting to make Snow empathetic without latching on to what made THG and CF so watchable. Jennifer Lawrence conveys trauma in a way that the older characters can empathise with believably, and it is telling in CF that Kat is convincingly able to build her team with the trauma she experiences, rather than simply relying on the audience to see her as a Mary Sue heroine.

And this is where the first two films work well together as a narrative pair. CF does lack the more art house style of the first film, something which would have added more depth to the film by treating the trauma as an experience rather than passing comment. If you compare THG and CF to films like The Deer Hunter and Platoon it is clear to see where the creative team behind them drew their inspiration. Born on the Forth of July and Good Morning Vietnam also have elements present in the first two films, especially the cynical veterans who want nothing to do with the spectacle aside to get it over with. This is why in repeat viewing it is useful to separate out the first two films from Mocking Jay Part 1 and 2 and BoSS. While the later two films do carry over the narrative arc, it is clear the tone of the films shifts at the end of CF from a Vietnam style trauma story to a broader sweep post-9/11 war film. While Katniss remains the focus, this post-9/11 feel does jar compared to the first two, especially when hunger game elements are added to the Capital, almost as if the writers did not feel confident in the power of the narrative.

Which is part of the reason I struggled with the third movie at the cinema. MJ:P1 is a slow burner, allowing Katniss to decompress, setting up the threads for the final scenes of the quadrilogy, and introducing new characters who play larger roles in the second film. Because the narrative is so tight on Katniss it is hard to really gauge the new characters, to the point that as each is killed off in the second film you really do not care much about them. Yes, the first two killed off children with vicious abandon in many creative ways, but the director allowed you a moment to understand why and how. The first two films as almost like Charlie and the Chocolate factory in how the game masters invent creative ways to bump off the kids, yet throughout Katniss is always the point of view, our moral compass. In Mocking Jay she becomes more of a lone wolf desperate to get Peter back, with her previous shades of grey becoming an absolute. Trauma is used as the narrative tool to explain this, but even with the slow burn of MJ:P1 it still feels a volte face compared to the previous two films. Its almost as if the directors and writers had watch a Marvel film and decided a female Hawkeye would suit their style better than trusting that Katniss was just a traumatised kid who would never been near a battlefield.

Of course none of this would make for a compelling post-9/11 Marvel esque ending to the series, something that would have made an intriguing book does not necessarily make for great cinema. This is the key sticking point for me, and one which lingered ever since I watched MJ:P2 originally: Katniss is not Hawkeye, nor is she set up to be anything other than a girl who survived because she found an ally in Peter. Pete is rendered an obstacle in Mocking Jay, a liability that Katniss has to literally fight through, and the only real pay off is that they settle down and have kids in the happily ever after. Mocking Jay rushes through their dynamic, treating Katniss as a simpering girl help bent on doing anything to rescue Peter, even at the expense of her own sanity at one point. It flies in the face of the girl we see at the beginning of THG and even Katniss at the beginning of CF, and yes, I appreciate that characters are allowed to grow, but the short period of time in world makes it hard for you to really care about this new dynamic.

If the writer and directors had really wanted a post-9/11 Marvel esque story then stripping back the sections with Peter in Mocking Jay would have made for a much tighter and more interesting narrative. Katniss does not need to be a simpering lover to being a great character, and it is to the detriment of the final two films that Peter becomes baggage rather than an effective ally. Gale’s rejection by Katniss hardly makes for a love triangle, and while it is clear that directors were aiming for tension, because Peter is such a different character compared to the first two films it makes it hard to actually care about either men.

Which brings me on to the end scene with Katniss at the execution. I get why it was written this way, I completely understand why they shot it this way, yet in having Katniss act as executioner it goes against everything the four films have set her up to be. Her trauma story in the first two films does not need her to act as literal executioner to complete, and the war story of Mocking Jay lacks the deft touch of Band of Brothers or Zero Dark Thirty to make you really care. President Snow is not in the films enough for you to actually care about his death, indeed you care more about the game makers and presenters than you do about him. Its almost as if the series imagined itself a television show with enough time to show you his actual machinations than the amount of screen time he had. I appreciate that he had his poisoning even moments, but even those are ruthless dictator rather than someone to actually care about.

Suzanne Collins did a great job with the world building and narrative arc right up until that point, and while Katniss does kill the right person in the end, the fact Katniss was even in that position, for me, runs counter to the overall arc of the series. It also makes BoSS a harder sell, because Snow at no point is shown as being a likeable or empathetic character in the four films. Yes, villain back stories have be en vogue in Hollywood with Disney over the last decade, with Maleficent being the best of the bunch, but did we really need a President Snow origin story? The simple answer is that The Hunger Games brand sells, so of course there was always going to be a story to tell. Yet, in retrospect BoSS is a pail imitation of what made the first four films so good. Snow simply is not an empathetic character, his personal trauma is never fleshed out the way Katniss’ is, indeed, his very station in life means he cannot experience her trauma, let alone take it all in.

It does not help that much of BoSS is noticeably CGI in a way THG and CF were not. Yes, all five films rely heavily on CGI, yet THG was able to transcend it in favour of focusing on Katniss’s personal narrative. BoSS tries to do this with Snow, yet because he is a mentor it is impossible for you as a viewer to care much about his personal stakes. He will survive, he will thrive, and he will poison someone at some time. He is simply not made an interesting character, and the those who have a better narrative to tell are either killed off or treated as lost loves for whom he forever pines. Unlike the Vietnam or post-9/11 vibes of the first four films, BoSS simply relies on Hunger Game tropes to get it through, with coming-of-age private school cliches abounding. Collins clearly knows her world and the history she wants to tell, it is just a pity that she uses Snow as the vehicle through which to tell it.

I certainly recommend rewatching THG and CF back-to-back, maybe even watching Mocking Jay as well. They all stand up compare with other YA films of the period, in part due to their tight focus on Katniss, as Jennifer Lawrence is always a joy to watch being moody with all and sundry. THG as a stand alone film captures something which only the best war films do, the trauma and struggle in an uncaring world. BoSS on the other hand is a paint by numbers villain origin story that takes the tropes of the first four films and does nothing special with them. Indeed, it feels much weaker precisely because you cannot ever really empathise with Snow in the same way you can with any of the hunger games contestants. Even a film like Cruella makes an effort to explain why the puppies need to die in the end, something which BoSS never does with the kids aside from to say that power is its own special ends and reward.

All of which is to say that a prequal has to be something unique and different to the original in a way that is hard to quantify. Marvel, Star Wars, DC, and other franchises suffer from the same issue, with only the very best prequal stories such as Rogue One ever really elevating themselves above their source material because they dared to do something different. BoSS fails because it simply retreads without giving you a reason to care, something with Mocking Jay comes close to in the final act of Part 2, but it manages to overcome because with have been with Katniss for the preceding seven hours. There is something to be said about The Hunger Games as a series would be better as s limited run television show on Apple that as five films, as this would give viewers and creatives time to allow all the narrative threads to breath. I am glad I have reseen them a decade on, and I would recommend at least the first two films for movie night if you have an evening to kill.

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