Monday, November 25, 2013

CATCHING FIRE and why Katniss Everdeen is a too-rare heroine

Hunger Games heroine Katniss Everdeen is the sort of female hero I wish we saw more of in popular culture.  She's the female protagonist who drives the plot specifically through her actions and her decisions.  Her "specialness" is not her birthright, it's because she has made choices that have fostered far-reaching consequences. 

This stands in stark contrast to many heroines in Young Adult literature who are often born "special" or "different."  They don't have to do anything to earn their position as "Girl Who Would Change the World."  Before Catching Fire, I saw a trailer for the upcoming Divergent, which appears based on a similar sort of idea. The heroine of that series is subjected to a test that is meant to declare her proper role in society.  Apparently in this dystopian future, the free will to choose one's own path has been stamped out in favor of letting "the test" determine that. Much to her shock, our heroine learns that the test "didn't work on you," setting up a story that surely will place her in opposition to society, probably as part of a revolution.

A brewing revolution is also at the heart of Catching Fire, but in this case it's not because Katniss was born with a defect, or because she's a special snowflake.  Here it's specifically the fallout of her defiance at the end of the first Hunger Games.  By being willing to die rather than play the Game the way her leaders demand, Katniss has become a symbol of defiance against the oppressive government.  This puts President Snow in a difficult position. He cannot tolerate the seeds of revolution, but Katniss is too popular among the people for him to move against her directly.

The opening act of the film does a good job of laying out the early rumblings of rebellion. Snow's new Gamemaster, the absurdly-named-even-for-this-series Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), suggests that Snow first attack Katniss as a symbol. "Show them she's not one of them anymore." When it appears that long-game is taking too long, Plutarch pushes Snow to another action, cut all the champions of the Games down to size by making 24 of them participate in what amounts to an all-star match-up.  If everything goes to plan, it will eliminate the Champions as potential instigators of insurrection and force Katniss to either get her hands dirty or die.

That's a strategy that works only if the Champions are willing to toe the party line, and it's evident from the early media tours it's clear that most of them have no interest in being the Capital's dancing monkeys.  There's a thrilling sense of inevitability here.  What Katniss has brought about is too large to be put down by any government edicts or propaganda.  Before the onlookers may have bought into the lie that this bloodsport had some honor to it, this time the political strategery reeks of bullshit a mile away.  Every move Snow makes seems likely to only incite further defiance.

And all because of one girl who volunteered herself as tribute in order to save her sister.  Everything in The Hunger Games saga goes back to that one moment.  It's not an act she was fated to take. It's not an action she was born to make, and it's not something she took on because she was special in some way.  It's a moment of pure free will, and it plants the seeds of further resistance in the name of free will.

One girl can change the world, and not because she's destined to from birth - but because she is capable of having an impact beyond her station.

Twilight merely asserts that Bella is somehow special because the vampires can't read her mind.  Later entries in the saga further this concept of her "specialness" by having her become pregnant with a vampire's child.  Bella doesn't have to really earn her place as the girl who changes her world. She merely has to show up and play out a predetermined script, in a way.  It's the polar opposite of how Katniss becomes the axis her world turns on.

Not that the "destined hero" doesn't have its place, or is inherently bad.  Buffy certainly would fall into that catagory and she's an excellent female protagonist.  What helps there is that even though her powers are her birthright, the series was often shaped by the consequences of how Buffy made use of that power.

I get why many young adult leads might share this "born special" idea.  At that age, everyone feels like an outsider.  It can be a great metaphor of how teenagers feel like they are special even as they're forced to fit in with the crowd.  It's a power fantasy, even if the subtext of "the people who change the world were fated to it, so nothing the non-chosen ones do matters" is a bit disturbing.

But if there were more heroines who pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, it wouldn't be such a bad thing.

I enjoyed much of Catching Fire, though I have to confess I've never read any of the novels.  This seemed to work in my favor during the first film, as I came away with a more positive reaction than many of my friends who were devotees of the source material.  This is definitely the Empire Strikes Back of this series, right down to the darker tone, larger scope and bleak cliffhanger.  When the film faded to black, I couldn't believe I'd have to wait a year to see the next chapter.

Having said that, I'm fully aware that my reaction would be very different if the following chapter wasn't a certainty.  These days, you can't take it for granted that a film will perform well enough for a follow-up, not even if the original movie is based on a successful series of books.  Just ask anyone involved with The Golden Compass.

The first Hunger Games could have worked as a standalone film. If it somehow had bombed, you could still walk away from that movie feeling you got a complete story, much the same as how the the original Star Wars could easily stand on its own.  Catching Fire - like Empire Strikes Back - is very much an Act Two.  There's enough meat that it doesn't feel like it's only there to set up the third part, but I'd be lying if I said it provides much closure or resolution.

In fact, there are so many sudden reveals in the film's final ten minutes that I'd probably tear into the film under any other circumstances.  A lot of very important stuff is unexplained, though I'd wager that much of it will be laid out in the third chapter, as it ends up being explained to Katniss.


In case you're curious what those issues are:

- Plutarch Heavensbee has been on the side of the good guys all along?  How did he get Haymitch to trust him? How was Finnick brought into the scheme?  Should we really trust either of these guys?

- How did the aforementioned steal the aircraft that picked up Katniss and Beetee? Does the Capital know about this and if not, why did they apparently send a second craft that nabbed Peeta and Johanna?

- Much confusion about Beetee's motivations in splitting up Peeta and Katniss during the climax.  The way things went down, Katniss improvised on the fly and brought the house down, but what was the "real" plan? Why make Katniss deliberately suspicious by seeming to send her and Peeta into separate traps?  Since she knew to cut out Katniss's "tag," Johanna was definitely in on the plan, which makes me even more curious about how all of this came together.  This is one area that I think could have written and revealed more smoothly.

(By the way, if these are explained in the novel or subsequent novels, don't tell me. I'll see how Mockingjay handles these points next year first.)

There's a lot in the climax that has the appearance of coming together too neatly.  Knowing that at least some of it was part of a plan helps, but there are a few wildcards within that plan that are inviting me to nitpick.  The series has earned my trust that much of this will be explained, so I'm not letting it get to me too much.

But know that if you are writing a script that has some of these issues, you will NOT get the benefit of the doubt.  As I've said before, never write a spec script that ends with "To Be Continued."  Don't end a script with so many character's motivations in confusion as they are here.  The filmmakers wouldn't have taken that big of a risk in the first movie.  They had to earn that chance.  If you're submitting a spec, you haven't gotten the same cred, and thus, judgement will be harsher.

Overall, I think I enjoyed Catching Fire even more than the first film.  This time around it was less irritating that circumstances kept Katniss from having to get too cold-blooded in the Games.  The last time around it was drilled in pretty hard that anyone who wasn't on Team Katniss was an outright asshole who probably deserved to die even outside the battle royale situation.  Katniss seems to end up with even less blood on her hands this time around, but the overall morality feels less manipulative than before.

The filmmakers have definitely raised their game here and hopefully they'll push it even further in the two-part finale, the first of which is set to open next winter.


  1. Great point. I did read the books and it is refreshing to not have a Chosen One protagonist.

    A tricky line that the story tries to walk (in both book and film) is having a protagonist who needs to make pivotal decisions and yet is very much in the dark while other characters are making moves and driving the plot around her. I like that she doesn't want to be this rebel symbol, that she's not interested in war, that all she wants to do is protect the people she cares about, but whenever she's put in the shit, she instinctively rebels anyway. A reluctant protagonist can only stay reluctant for so long though.

  2. The Divergent preview did not do a good job explaining the premise. But, in the book, yes, she's one of many "special" people, but the point is she has to make a choice and make choices and those decisions change things. Always an important step in having actual female characters.

  3. The Divergent trailer doesn't exactly give you a lot to go on. If you had read the series perhaps we could see Tris Prior and Katniss Everdeen as alike. By the end of each series, we see both females display the same type of courage and selflessness.