The last shot in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the second in the big-screen saga based on the hit young-adult book series, is amazing. We can talk more about how it ranks among the all-time great closing shots when more time has passed. For now I just want to appreciate its genius: its general commitment, the lack of closure, the brilliant change in expression on Katniss’s face that signifies a new direction for the series as a whole. I won’t spoil what the shot entails, but suffice it to say, the new director Francis Lawrence was only able to pull it off because of how great his star is.
And we could say that about the entirety of both movies, couldn’t we? They wouldn’t be nearly as successful without Jennifer Lawrence, an actress who, it must be said, seems incapable of doing wrong. She would shy away from such a hyperbolic statement, but, come on. Even without her Oscar-winning performance in Silver Linings Playbook and her Oscar-nominated performance in Winter’s Bone, her performance in the Hunger Games movies would merit the same attention. Lawrence, with her body language and expressions, her choice of tone and pacing, and her general lack of passivity, gives every scene a pathos that screenwriters simply can’t convey in a screenplay alone.
It’s that lack of passivity that’s so interesting, since Katniss Everdeen is a remarkably passive character. In both this movie and the last, Katniss generally has things done to her or is told what to do by others. In case you’ve been under a rock (or maybe several, because how else wouldn’t you know?), The Hunger Games: Catching Fire picks up right where the first left off, with Katniss and Peeta (SPOILER ALERT FOR A MOVIE THAT CAME OUT NEARLY TWO YEARS AGO) back in District 12 after both leaving the previous year’s games victorious. They’re both summoned back to the titular games in a cruel twist orchestrated by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), along with two previous victors from every district. They’re all understandably pissed about this, but there’s not much they can actively do. Just like in the first movie, a lot happens to Katniss, but she’s rarely the instigator. As someone who very publicly spat in President Snow’s eye (metaphorically speaking, in the berry scene from the previous movie), the districts seize upon her as a symbol of revolution, a burden that she does not desire.
But Jennifer Lawrence makes her so much more than a symbol in the movie; for Lawrence, she’s a scarred person forced to be a symbol. Lawrence is so preferable to the Katniss from the books; in Suzanne Collins’s prose, you read every one of Katniss’s thoughts, which includes immature back-and-forth oscillating between her feelings for Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Gale (Liam Hemsworth). There’s none of that in her scenes with those two; every scene feels natural, driven by Lawrence’s raw emotions. She’s assisted this time by Francis Lawrence’s savvy management of a bigger cast as he raises the stakes from being about one game in an arena to a national revolution. Gary Ross was a fine director forthe last one; I liked his handheld-camera, nature-documentary vision better than most. But I must admit that Francis Lawrence is far more suited to the more epic material of the second book.
You can’t watch Katniss without being acutely aware of what a great role model she is for young girls or of how much of a Christ figure she’s meant to be. As a role model, she’s independent and self-sufficient without being totally asexual or aloof to the men in her life, a balance that Hollywood rarely gets right. And as a Christ figure, she’s self-sacrificing, a symbol of revolution, hated by the establishment, much like Jesus was during his ministry. But I think that Christ symbology (which Francis Lawrence definitely played up- she spreads her arms when she’s wearing her mockingjay dress, which could be coincidental, but it’s not) will disappear in the next two movies when Katniss becomes far less passive and basically becomes a destructive force.
In the next two films, Katniss will be even more like a superhero, which begs the question of whether or not these Hunger Games movies qualify as the best superheroine movies of all time. Their box office success certainly makes you wonder why Hollywood has so underserved women in action/fantasy/sci-fi movies. I suppose the studios originally saw this as a young-adult kind of series in the vein of Twilight or Harry Potter, which explains why they threw so much money at it (and it shows- not only is the movie itself fantastic, but it looks fantastic, and they spent well on the great cast too). But it’s not quite young-adult fare anymore- it’s dealing with themes that are way bigger than Percy Jackson or The Mortal Instruments. The Hunger Games is much bigger than those movies now, to the point where this installment is already being compared to The Empire Strikes Back, often enough to where the comparison can’t be ignored.
So we’re at a point where a female-driven movie is being compared to Star Wars in terms of quality and profit. Does this mean the studios are finally going to drop money on that Wonder Woman movie? Is anyone but Ridley Scott going to give a woman a chance to headline a major genre picture? This brings us back to that last shot in Catching Fire. It certainly signifies a major shift in the world of the Hunger Games movies, not to mention Katniss’s character. Maybe it’s a sign of changes in the world of cinema too.