When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone hit movie theaters in 2001, it was abundantly clear that more was to come. Nevermind that aficionados of the book series would only be satiated by a film series covering the whole of J.K. Rowling’s wizardry corpus. The simple fact that the first movie sucked, relative to just about every other blockbuster hit of ever, left much to be desired. It also paved a long runway for multiple directors to taxi up their aircraft, shove the throttle forward and throw the viewers so far to the backs of their seats that passing out would be preferable to the increasing pain being felt along the journey.
This is nothing against Chris Columbus, who directed and executive produced both Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets, and produced Prisoner of Azkaban with director Alfonso Cuarón. Had Columbus not been director and ep of the first film in the Potter franchise, the entire trajectory might have been all sorts of different. That’s because, to win the job, Columbus re-wrote the entire script, which Columbus admits himself was already brilliant.
If the beginning of the Potter saga established a lengthy runway for one series, it arguably forced multiple offshoots for those writers, directors and producers hoping to capitalize on the emerging young-adult fiction boom. The first such manifestation came through the Twilight series, though its dark and strangely animalistic, sexual niche was off-putting to a swath of the popular audience. If IMDB ratings mean anything, the “sucky” 7.3 earned by Sorcerer’s Stone vastly outpaces the 2008 debut of Twilight at 5.2. Sorcerer’s also raked in some $20 million more during its US opening weekend in 2001 than Twilight, even though both made it to the movies in time for Thanksgiving and Twilight’s revenues were ultimately inflated. By the 2012 conclusion of Potter, it had amassed a fan base willing to shell out nearly $170 million to see the show during that first summer weekend.
This weekend, Catching Fire, the adaptation of the second book in Susanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, earned $161,250,000 making it the fourth most successful premiere ever, according to one reporter at the Wall Street Journal, and the second best of the year. The Hunger Games not only exists as the most smoothly paved extant runway to Potter port, but also the most obviously well placed. Believe it or not, this is shaping up to be a functional airport.
The difference between fiction and non-fiction is in what each medium excels at providing readers when their stories have concluded. For avid non-fiction readers, especially those of the scholarly variety, there are clear paths for engagement beyond the content. One can construct paths of further inquiry, whether due to lingering questions or gaps in the existing study or a provocation or inspiring hypothesis prompted by a particularly interesting train of thought. This can lead readers to write their own response or simply seek other points of view from competing voices. In essence, the point of non-fiction is to inspire further investigation and work.
With fiction, however, the motivation to move beyond a logical end is less prompted by rationality than it is emotion. There is no inquiry to be made because no additional material exists. Professional reviews of the content can never satisfy because they remind us that there is something outside the world created via the fiction, namely our world and its need to respond to any work in the same way we might for non-fiction. What readers needed when the Harry Potter books concluded wasn’t a forum to talk about Potter, but a way to keep living in his world. The film put into color all the imagination that had been instilled in devoted readers for years. As much as one can live within a fictional world, Harry Potter readers did. Regardless of the film’s effectiveness of capturing an accurate representation of the collective mindset, the films would still have served their cultural purpose – extending the relationship between the reader-viewer and the external reality.
Hunger Games is a poorly written trilogy with numerous plot holes. It has a horrible ending. From a literary point of view, there is no need to read Hunger Games. In fact, had Hunger Games come before Potter, I’d venture that it wouldn’t have moved the popular needle to one-tenth the magnitude it has. The one major plot element Potter had in its corner was a clear and relatable trajectory. Everyone, well a lot of people, goes to school. The entire concept of school is built on the framework of personal progression toward an ultimate end. By embedding the entire story within the reasonable bounds of the education system, Rowling took advantage of a collective conscience that needed little help imagining what life might be like if school were somehow different than it actually is. And like other fifth graders, Potter and his pipsqueak first year comrades needed time to develop from children into adults. This is why so many fans were happy to give the first film – if not the first three – a pass. The chief hurdle in adoption was the acting. But at that point who cares? Everyone knows another school year is just around the corner. Maybe, it’ll be just a bit better than the previous one.
By contrast, Hunger Games hit the market with fully formed characters. Peeta and Katniss had grown up and somehow survived into adolescence, but not without their own scars. In the debut film, viewers are introduced to one of the first encounters between the two – one in which Katniss is apparently homeless and Peeta has enough burnt bread to toss into the pig pen in which she’s sought temporary refuge. There are two faults with this that any post-apocalyptic novelist and producer should have considered. First, Katniss has a home. We already know this. So, why is she slogging through the mud outside Peeta’s bakery shack? Anyone with enough sense of self-preservation would understand that rain, mud and pigs breed disease. Therefore, swimming with them is not in your best interest. Second, in what post-apocalyptic world would any family forgo bread simply because it has been burnt? And, an even more base principle to be observed, what kind of post-apocalyptic baker burns the loaves of bread he’s been raised to bake?
Audiences are supposed to believe that, despite their flaws, Collins’ protagonists can and do emerge victorious from the world’s most dangerous game. That Harry Potter and his friends had been doing this since they were eleven years old is the only reason Hunger Games is at all believable. What the Potter saga did for its audience was to create imaginative minds convinced that fantasy is possible and victory is achievable. Screw football. I’m going back to college to play quidditch.
Speaking of both football and quidditch: Greg Gumbel everyone.
If you thought for a second that Harry Potter isn’t the cultural phenomenon it’s cracked up to be, explain to me why America’s favorite CBS football TV personality showed up on the Early Show to report on quidditch for muggles. Is this really what the entire sports world looks like without football?
Reality aside, Potter convinced a global audience that it’s okay to feel real emotion for characters, worlds and problems that don’t even exist. So, when the whole thing came crashing down as the credits rolled on Deathly Hallows, Part 2 last year, an entire segment of America was reminded that their belief in victory above all odds was based in young-adult fiction and that humans can’t really become wizards, even though the most sporting among us can quite obviously try.
Now, no one really believes that the human race as it exists today could ever evolve to include wizards, witches and an entire educational system devoted to their magical advancement. While the racist undertones pointed out by several academic analysts do reflect historical reality to a point – and even predict alongside modern post-apocalyptic authors like Veronica Roth a future in which social factions determine the pecking order – there is only so much magic a generation can believe in before it needs a fantastical world rooted in reality. And so, at the height of fantasy realism championed by all things Potter, enter Suzanne Collins and Hunger Games.
A world in dire need of a replacement for real life finally had its next story. One that didn’t begin the journey with elementary school children, but continued the narrative where it left off, setting of-age, average people in a reality that hearkens back to dystopian novels of old and bases itself in a plausible reality. Who cares that the books are terrible? The entire thing makes sense simply because it exists and makes sense for those who needed it to.
Like Potter, Hunger Games did have some stage-setting to do before audiences could fully buy in. Sorcerer’s helped create a reality in which multi-film series are required to accomplish this up front to make room for what’s to come later. Overcoming the growing pains of transitioning young-adult literature into a dark film for a mass audience is a necessary hurdle, but one that was overcome for Hunger Games by the fantastical framework through which the audience already approached the film.
After the awkward millennial love boat had been established and audiences had gotten over the fact that film moved entirely too fast by creating an incredible bad lip read of the whole thing, stuff quickly fell into place.
And, before we all knew it, last weekend arrived and Catching Fire was making so much money that theaters were opened at ungodly hours of the morning just to funnel through people (like me) who like to watch movies alone on opening weekend, at like 9 am. Hunger Games is a hit. Unquestionably, but remarkably so given that Jennifer Lawrence has taken roles in other films, something the Potter characters could never have conceived of and still struggle to overcome today. Before we draw this comparison to a close and dive into just why Catching Fire is one of the year’s best films, it’s worth mentioning that the finale of this saga will be split – like Potter – into two separate films. This, I think, could become a norm among films of the genre, meaning popular book-based dramas. Regardless of which Potter film you watched, there was always the sense that the films moved too quickly, especially after you’d watched how elegantly the seventh book was split in two, though even that left gaps. Critiques of this nature have nothing to do with neglecting to account for specific portions of their related books. It all comes back to what the audiences feels and needs from these films. The appetite will always be for more. Fleshing out every possible detail gives those viewers reason to believe in the worlds they inhabit through fiction while helping studios pad their pockets.
So, why was Catching Fire spectacular?
Jennifer Lawrence was in it
JLaw, as a couple of my favorite Grantland contributors call her, makes this movie. There’s a reason her face fills the first and final frames of this film. The choice to bookend with one of the generation’s most emotionally savvy and versatile actors was production gold. In the very first scene, we can assume Katniss has hit rock bottom in her struggle with games-induced PTSD. This assumption is incorrect, and director Francis Lawrence was challenged to create a film in which the weight of her depression is abundantly felt while giving the audience little reason to believe it will improve. Rock bottom is still a way off.
Likewise, Lawrence (Jennifer) was challenged as an actor to embody and even represent one emotional state, while displaying another. At the deepest levels, Katniss is two characters. First, and likely most neglected by the audience, she is a teenager who, through an act of familial preservation and self-sacrifice, was required to kill 22 people, most of them near her age. She did not enjoy it, and one could argue that killing herself was less an act of direct defiance than it was an effort to obtain psychological release from the realization that the reality of her world was far more hellish than she’d been raised to believe.
Coincidentally, depression plays a starring role for Lawrence’s character in Silver Linings Playbook, too.
The depressed teen wants nothing to do with the games or anyone affiliated with them, hence her almost automatic agreement with President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) when he arrives at her home to threaten her and her family should she fail to convince Panem of the lie from one year earlier. The teenage Katniss wants nothing to do with revolution or rebellion, partly because she has no framework with which to interpret or understand that pending revolution was her doing in the first place.
The second Katniss – the viewer-friendly version – slowly internalizes the collective mindset adopted by the districts, feared by the government and stupidly neglected by the capital populace. This comes with help from Snow, her sister, the district killings during the tour, Gale’s beating and reaches a tipping point when Plutarch (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, more to come) is discovered to be a double agent working within the government on behalf of the rebellion. Throughout the film, her fear and depression are supplanted, though never fully replaced, by an apathy whose end can only be realized when the government is placed in a position to fear its citizens in the way its citizens have feared the capital.
Lawrence was perfectly positioned to master such a complex character and convince audiences that it mattered that she, not someone else, played Katniss. There is little doubt that Divergent could fail to match the gravity communicated by Lawrence’s Katniss, if for no other reason than the person playing the part of Tris.
Oh, and so was Philip Seymour Hoffman
When they’ve seen a smart ass, most people know it. Do you remember the trailer for Mission Impossible III? It doesn’t matter that Philip Seymour Hoffman played Truman Capote in a film about the man or that his filmography includes some of the most decorated work of the last 20 years, not the least of these being The Big Lebowski. I will always remember Hoffman for using his cool, smart ass attitude to piss off and freak out Ethan Hunt. I was convinced that he could get away with whatever plan he’s concocted.
When I finally got around to seeing Money Ball, I found Hoffman once again playing the only character he could possible play – a belligerent general manager who showed little regard for anything anyone said – and I knew he had, in fact, gotten away with killing Hunt, torturing his girlfriend and ending the entire Mission Impossible saga.
You could analyze Catching Fire and accurately dispute this claim, but Hoffman appears to smile throughout much of the film’s duration. His coy and convincing demeanor do more than comfort Snow into believing he has an evil ally, they almost ensure the uneducated viewer is none the wiser to his true status as a double agent. With Hoffman around, the pending rebellion may actually have a shot.
The costume designer had enough sense to put a crotch pad over those peacekeeper uniforms
Much has been made of Catching Fire fashion, with no shortage of commentary on Lawrence’s attire. And this makes perfect sense for a film where the plot relies upon the fact that the best fashion designer in the most outrageously fashionable city ever uses Lawrence’s character as his muse. But, for at least 10 minutes after swaths of faceless, capital peacekeepers descended on the districts, my imagination was immediately clouded by the thought that Lionsgate had run out of money and all constumes heretofore would be made of the kind of one-size-fits-all Spandex that leaves as little to the imagination as Nacho Libre’s sweats.
Thankfully, and following the path of better films before it, the mass-produced peace keeper suits did include a handy crotch pad, though one that reveals just how vain capital fashion really is. In what world would low-grade Underarmour protect anyone from either (a) revolting masses of black market-dealing peasants who exist in a persistent state of mental preparation for the day when they will need to kill someone in the games or (b) a Panem winter? Peacekeeper suits were a fashion statement in as mush as Effie’s hair was, although I think we can assume some level of fire protection given Cinne’s history with flames and the too-close-for-comfort roasting of the black markets.
Rebellion and the David principle
Revolution in and of itself is a universally salient storyline that makes for great films, at lease in America where revolution is still relatively new compared to civilization as a whole. Ask dinner party guests about their favorite history subject, and 7 of 10 are likely to say, “The American Revolution.” Revolution is also the central inspiration behind why we root for underdogs. In a space where little is at stake, should the lesser have an opportunity to beat the greater, society often rallies behind the competitor for whom the odds are not in favor. The greatest single line of this franchise communicates that odds can be in favor of those who have no chance to win, giving the marginalized very little reason to fight.
Grantland’s NFL writer Bill Barnwell describes how this concept plays out in football: “as a huge underdog, [it] would be smart to pursue ‘David’ strategies, opportunities that involve taking on some risk to increase the slim likelihood of actually winning the game.” Underdogs, already at a disadvantage, have the opportunity to take substantial risks to increase the odds of winning. It is, in fact, both necessary and predetermined that risks must be taken in these situations, pending a colossal melt down of the proverbial “Goliath.”
To successfully execute a Davidic revolution, the underdog has to take risks that buck convention and are unaccounted for by the more conservative, favored party. Katniss’ decision to commit suicide at the end of the first film not only helped her win the game, but exposed a universal weakness in the “fragile” government system. Her actions are carried forward into Catching Fire, where she manages to unconsciously find favor for her cause, not only among the outlying districts, but among the capital residents as well.
And this is where the story truly begins to get good. Catching Fire concludes with Katniss experiencing the full consequences of her actions, though not through punishment. She’s told, in the company of Hoffman’s character, that the revolution is beginning, and has been well underway, brewing quietly beneath the government’s own nose, since before the games even began.
In this way, the film masterfully accomplishes what the book never could because it was written from the perspective of a teenage girl. Rather than tease the reader with a weakly developed, to-be-expected love triangle, the film elevates the essential themes necessary to move the narrative forward just far enough to frustrate the viewer beyond the point where she can logically return to a normal reality. Winning in this space is as much about delivering upon the reality championed by viewers as it is subtly reminding them that the reality is still fiction. The dystopia is exciting to imagine, even embody, but far more difficult to realistically comprehend. America, at least, is likely far from letting post-apocalyptic themes fade as a staple of our entertainment diet. We still have two years of Hunger Games to go and at least as many with Divergent, should it become even half the success. What comes next is most likely already in the works. We have much to look forward to.
Coldplay recorded the first track for the credits, and there’s a ridiculous animated Mockingjay pin immediately following the final cut. They were distracting, but I suppose they did the job of making me feel appropriately depressed walking out of the theater.