Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Fandom Struggle is Real with The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games fandom struggle
The Hunger Games symbol
Franchises can be universally loved, hated, or a mix of in-between. No series wins the hearts of absolutely everyone. After the monumental success of Harry Potter, Hollywood started its crusade of the Next Big Young Adult Phenomenons. Many a teenage flick has tried to fill the void left by the Boy Who Lived. Only one has been the most successful: The Hunger Games.

A part of me is truly excited for the epic conclusion with Mockingjay Part 2. A three year journey will end. Another part is not so happy. It doesn't feel like the revolution I signed up for. My inner fangirl has a major love and hate relationship with this series.

Released in 2012, an adaptation of Suzanne Collins series arrived on the big screen about civilians in a futuristic dystopia from twelve districts competing to the death for entertainment of the wealthy government. Fresh face actress Jennifer Lawrence catapulted into the global spotlight playing the young heroine Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers on behalf of her sister.

Katniss hails from one of the poorest districts of the country; no one has hope that one of their own will ever succeed in the games. But, the Capitol is like the arcade game known as the Claw; a merciless machine wrenching unwilling participants into a life of hell. For every person who is selected and dies in the games, the claw wins. And, then one year, Katniss is "picked" (alongside another tribute Peeta Mallark), and cleverly, she changes its winning streak for good.

This initial film explores the stakes of what should be an absolutely terrifying society. Every selection ceremony commences with a reminder by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) of why two children from every district are sacrificed for "the greater good". Families in absolute poverty wait to be split apart as their children are treated like slabs of meat. Later when we visit the training arena and the city's residents take bets on who has the best chances of living, the beginning of the movie sets up how these kids are pawns in a really sick chess game. The dystopia isn't a selling point by the studio yet; it's a natural atmosphere of the environment.
Once entering the games, moving through training, and trying to win the hearts of the city's residents, Katniss and the other tributes are mannequins to the Capitol, temporary idols paraded around with special treatment before being put into the slaughterhouse.

Though Katniss is at the helm, minor characters make her world more complex and fuller. While moving through the games, a star-crossed lovers angle is created between her and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) so interest in their survival rises. Their complicated friendship possesses that the will-they-or-won't-they chemistry so many teen movies fail to express. Drunken mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), supportive fashion designer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), and eccentric events organizer Effie (Elizabeth Banks) shape their images and chances of winning. Even tributes from other districts who are gunning for Katniss become merciless enemies and sympathetic allies in a very short amount of screen-time. It's refreshing that there are no throw-away characters.

More importantly, a lot of actresses face the insurmountable tall order to become the face of a new franchise. Lawrence succeeds not only as the face of a franchise. She owns the transition of being an unknown catapulted into stardom as well as her character's emotional journey. Katniss is a full-fleshed out heroine. Lawrences' range exceeds what most movies, let alone action flicks, try to achieve: emotionally vulnerable and complex, physically capable, clever character. Here, you can see why Katniss will set fire to nationwide anarchy and why Lawrence was about to become a household name at the time of the movies' release. She gives a bold, vulnerable performance that is unmatched in the next movies.
Surprisingly, the 'original' is not highly regarded by movie goers. In many fanatical circles, it's almost considered the worst of the series, comparable to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire type of dislike. I really disagree. Everything that I'm looking for and hoping for exceeds expectations with this one. The inevitable love triangle is hinted at. A symbol for the revolution is born. And, there's a lot of interest in the characters no matter how minor their role is. Katniss' perseverance in maneuvering her survival leaves enough of a lasting conflict between her and President Snow to desire a sequel.

The games themselves, the production, even with the shaky cam, gives a feeling of unpredictability - but also establishes how these kids' deaths would be broadcasted across the country. Katniss is the focus of the games, but we get a sense of how all the tributes are killing each other to win. It's action-packed, suspenseful, and brutal - all in a stunningly safe rating of PG-13 (really), and creates actual characters to be invested in.

Studios usually don't know what kind of possible success they have on the first film they are trying to make into a franchise. Usually, they aren't selling a phenomenon, and in its earliest stage The Hunger Games has natural possibilities to become one. No amount of words may express how much I ****ing love what we start off with here.

The success of the first film for any series cements if a second film will be made and how it will be put on a pedestal for even more installments. Like the Capitol re-inventing the stadium, as twenty-five previous Victors including Katniss and Peeta return for another round of the hunger games, Lionsgate goes balls to the wall for Catching Fire.

She manipulated the previous game-maker to allow her and Peeta to win; never has two Victors emerged from the hunger games. What is Katniss' aim now? She has to try to convince Snow that she and Peeta are truly in love so it halts the impending uprising. Everyone she loves is at risk. She is suffering from PTSD and begins to face a revolution that she inadvertently began.

But this one starts to suffer from the sequel syndrome. The script jumps all over the place and the character arcs are monotonous. Her relationships lose intensity and trust built from the first film. Instead, the heroine comes across as uninterested towards everything she attempts.

The Katniss who has experienced the strings behind the Capitol media blitz and the disgusting illusion of Snow using death as a way of keeping the peace becomes a Katniss going through the motions. But, it's not like she's doing this for the upteenth time and used to the glitz and glam, or even trying to tolerate the uncomfortable act she has to mask. In contrast to her previous performance as the Girl on Fire, Lawrence doesn't soar. Some reviews, too go ape over her work here, but it's not as fresh as her first one. Yes, she can cry and she can scream a lot - but there isn't a lot behind her panic or vulnerability. Instead Lawrence looks completely bored; her emotions and intentions are blank-faced (except for when she pulls her crying face).

She should be on another platform here: trying to protect her family from Snow, millions of people's lives resting on her shoulders, and doubly struggling with her feelings towards Peeta and Gal. The story respectfully delves into how Katniss is experiencing PTSD but her attempts at convincing Snow that she and Peeta are in love comes across stifled. When all Katniss wants to do is save Peeta, I'm left scratching my head. Their chemistry and intimacy has taken steps backwards, and as an awkward teenage love story, it is painfully awkward to watch.

Catching Fire sorta satisfies me but not entirely. I can't figure if it's because I devoured the book and thought the adaptation was decent, or that I just like it as background noise, or it's the middle of the series I already harbor an obsession towards. Having watched the movie to a point where I can quote it probably makes me a pretty big fan, but still: I can't help but wonder how good the movie is but how much better it could have been.

Because the studios know what kind of money maker they have on their hands, the production loses that natural flow and atmosphere. Everything is put on display rather than explored. This is how Catching Fire suffers from the sequel syndrome. The script and direction falls short. Characters and the continuation of a compelling story grow duller. Katniss' process of returning to the games puts excitement to sleep. Scenes, whether dialogue based or centered on action, are just pointing and shooting; people enter and exit but for the most part Katniss doesn't leave behind emotional resonance.

Meanwhile, other secondary characters are far more layered for the limited time they have on-screen.

Effie, the disillusioned Capitol event organizer treads the line of seeing the illusion of the Capitol and still being absorbed by its brainwashing.

Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), a charming Capitol favorite with a shocking, severely dark past. Claflin hits all the right notes, even though he was not given an in-depth background as much as he should have. Convincingly, he pulls off balancing the big question of whether his intentions as an ally are trustworthy.

Johanna Mason (Jenna Malone), a scarred and unpredictable bitter Victor, steals every freaking scene. Malone has been in the Hollywood game for so long, starring in and out of indies, and acting circles around her counterparts. Even in a big budget movie event of the season, she nails the rage and raw intensity of the only surviving Victor in her district.

I often want to see their stories more than Katniss'. This trio and the games make up for what other parts of the film lacks. All three steal the show, but it doesn't help Lawrence that performances by Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, feel forced and out of place.

Next to some new faces that hog all of my attention, the action sequences are suspenseful and keep me on my toes. Bigger is better in some regards, mostly having to do with the production. Costumes are more intricate. CGI, during the games, doesn't usurp the characters; it's used sparingly but believably. Scenes like the birds mimicking Katniss' sister screaming in pain is freaking terrifying. The games are exactly how I imagined them from the books and deliver on my silly geeky wish fulfillment. 

But in an adverse way, Katniss kickstarting a rebellion has some good action scenes that are enough for me to be invested in but still feels stale. As a bridge between the first to the third film, the tension is slim. Why should I keep caring that Snow is trying to off Katniss? The feud between them is distant. He could just kill her, and the other Victors, or demolish the districts - none of it really makes sense on why the post-games matter. One violent encounter against a Peacekeeper is more intriguing than anything Snow attempts against Katniss. (That's an actor who is taking his role almost too seriously.) Her love triangle between Gale and Peeta lacks spark. The girl who clawed her way through the first games spends most of her time screaming out for other characters in a forced panic, or behaving painfully neutral towards everyone. The whole production weakens her resolve.

The results of Catching Fire is that there is a bigger unclear direction of where the revolt is heading and why. Lacking suspense, Mockingjay Part 1 is pretty much one long commercial for the next installment. Even the remix caught on more excitement than the film itself.

Millions of people are rooting for her to lead them, and that acceptance being held off until the fourth movie is too late. She grew up in one of the poorest districts. Her compassion towards her neighbors and the hatred towards the Capitol was inside her before the games began; she only had to volunteer as tribute for that to be unleashed. This seems to be forgotten. Her symbol is supposed to be aflame bird taking flight, igniting millions of people to follow her into the battlefield, and instead her ascension seems like NASA stalling a rocket launch countdown forever.

More than half the running time is filled with Katniss' companions trying to convince her to be something she doesn't want to be. Except for a few instances where she witnesses strangers' risk their lives or are violently murdered by Snow in her name, the story doesn't handle the personal responsibility she should feel or capitalize on. (I think this is a character development handled much more intelligently and strongly in the Divergent series than here). Her initial show of defiance that inspired all of this transforms into a running gag of what an awkward, unbecoming leader she is to inspire the rest of the abandoned rebels into a united front.

Carried on from Catching Fire, Katniss' sole drive is for a captured Peeta to be kept alive. Unless you really read between the lines or read the books, that romantic affiliation doesn't strengthen from what the sequel lacked. She wants Peeta back. Peeta is shown being hurt. Katniss vows to be the Mockingjay. Someone else gets hurt. She refuses to be the Mockingjay. She'll be Mockingjay if she can get Peeta back. Rinse and repeat.

Contrary to the first two movies, we don't spend time in the arena. Instead, the discovery of a seemingly defeated District 13 (the nuclear district) comes out of nowhere. Any hints of its existence, except in the conclusion, is completely ignored in the previous installment. When its emergence arrives, it feels plopped into the script as a haven for fallen citizens of the districts for convenience. We have no connection to this new place except that it's a hang-out with a lot of resources that probably could have taken out the Capitol before. Here, Katniss and a few of her last left-alive loved ones will be (or won't they) be safe for the time being while Snow continues to burn his nation to ashes.

Katniss' compelling allies all but disappear except for a few "cameos". Their arcs don't develop further than that. In the meantime, she waits for Peeta to be rescued by going through the motions of whatever District 13 has in store. The whole movie becomes one long Skype between Katniss and Snow, and we end up watching a girl who (for the millionth time) doesn't know how to make people like her try to make people like her.

The supposed conflict and despise between Katniss and Snow doesn't have enough real stakes to feel like an epic showdown is about to take place. Yes, we see the suffering of the commoners but for too long no one seems to really want to come to their aid. By the time she chooses to accept her position as the chosen one, I'm pretty much bored to tears.

Compared to other young adult movies with horrible direction and world building, Hunger Games is not a terrible franchise. It has its own individual style that grows as the production and off-screen hype explodes; something that makes the series feel grand but also breaks the fourth wall. The scripts aren't atrocious but they had more potential.

Where will my love / hate relationship take me for the second half of Mockingjay Part 2? I really don't know, and that's a major source of excitement and confusion. Katniss is leading the country to finally defeat Snow. The trailer offers enough of the secondary characters I grew to love, and still gives me hope that it comes to together with full circle development for Katniss. Having read the books, I hope the ante is amped up significantly to feel like this is all worth it, and her last showdown has to count for something before the final credits roll.

I love this series but also hate it. As such a hugely successful YA franchise, it's growth is admirable for what it has accomplished so far. The first one is just killer and Catching Fire has redeeming qualities for the most part. But, let's just forget about Mockingjay Part 1 and count that as the Goblet of Fire of this series (and I'll be honest, I love Goblet of Fire too).

My admiration for the first installment seems to carry on my interest for the rest of the films. What I invested in at the beginning morphs and changes much more than any other series where a love of the hero and its world is consistent. I wish a lot of my interest still laid in Katniss and the symbol she became, but this series is something I'm ready and entirely not ready to see conclude.

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