Latest installation of ‘Hunger Games’ trilogy satisfies despite drawn-out story

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What does it mean to be a symbol of hope? For the first hour of the “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) grapples with becoming an emblem she doesn’t want to be. For Katniss, being a symbol means being controlled and given minimal agency over her actions and decisions.

The second installment in the trilogy of “The Hunger Games” deals with far more sophisticated themes than those presented in the first, capturing its protagonist’s struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and her acceptance of her inflammatory role in instigating an uprising throughout much of Panem. Given the lionization of figures such as Malala Yousafzai — a 16-year-old girl who, whether through her own free choice or not, is regarded as a symbol of hope for girls’ education in Pakistan — or President Barack Obama — a man whose election strategies were engineered by a genius team — the questions surrounding what goes into the creation of figureheads are particularly pertinent.

“Catching Fire” picks up with Katniss tending to her psychological wounds. Thankfully, or perhaps for some, disappointingly, the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) is not given nearly as much time as it is in the books. Fans looking for a teen series in “Catching Fire” will be slightly let down — the movie is slow-going and takes its time showing close-ups of Lawrence’s face as her inner turmoil roils across it.

Peeniss (yes, that is their couple name, as per the Internet; no, I will not be using it again) are forced to enter the arena for the 75th Hunger Games, a special “Quarter Quell” whose participants are all former winners. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) is intent on wiping out Katniss and “her species,” and by species, he means other hope-bearing Hunger Games victors.

An oft-cited criticism of the second book is that it takes forever to get to the actual games — as I watched the movie, I too found myself impatiently waiting for our characters to enter the arena.

There’s a moment where Katniss is ruffling her dress, getting ready to present herself to the Capitol’s adoring masses, when she glances up at the screen and watches as a tribute before her cries about some fake sob story. Katniss asks something to the effect of, “Ugh, do people actually buy this?” As a viewer, it’s easy to sympathize with her sentiment. But when she turns her head to the right, she sees three stylists crying for the sob story. Clearly, people do buy this.

“Oh, those foolish Capitol citizens,” we think to ourselves. How can a society become so enamored with the glitz and glamour of a clearly cruel event? How can they so eagerly lap up the fictional tales of people about to meet their deaths? When are we going to move past this part of the movie and actually see some action?

And then, in that moment, there’s a metaphysical realization: Are we, as viewers, any better than the Capitol’s citizens? We’re all thirsting for our characters to enter the arena — we’ve all paid good money to see Katniss, Peeta and company fight to the death. The Games themselves are what constitute entertainment here. And yet, how is that any different from what the Capitol’s citizens want?

Are we, as fanatical, midnight-premiere-attending consumers of an entertainment form in which people kill people on screen, really that different from the Capitol?
Perhaps we’re here to watch for other reasons, but our impatience to see the Hunger Games themselves and our complaint that “it took too long to get there” or that the Games were way too short place us on the same plane as the Capitol.

Go see the movie for the stunning Jennifer Lawrence. Go see it for its ability to embed sophisticated themes within a teen series. Go see it because, as you ache for the Games after an hour of build-up, you’ll find yourself culpable of the same crime the Capitol’s citizens commit: You’re not interested in the characters — you’re only interested in seeing them go after each other.

“But it’s not real for us!” you say. Neither is it for them.

Contact Lynn Yu at [email protected].