Posted by: kshayes513 | December 8, 2013

Watching Catching Fire and Tripping over Romance.

In many ways, Catching Fire is a better movie than The Hunger Games. It does an even better job of portraying the hideous disparities between life in the Districts and the oblivious, self-indulgent luxury of life in the Capitol. And it cranks up the stakes between them by personifying it in a direct conflict between Katniss and the despicable President Snow.

It brings back some favorite characters (Haymitch, Effie, Caesar, President Snow) and introduces some promising new ones (notably Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch and Sam Claflin’s Finnick). Most important, it avoids making the “games” half of the story seem like a repeat of the first movie, by abandoning the first movie’s emphasis on violence porn, and by changing the structure of the conflict.

I found it absorbing to watch from start to finish, yet it still left me feeling a bit dissatisfied. I wasn’t sure why, until I came across Linda Holmes’ article on NPR, discussing the non-typical romantic roles played by the 3 young leads.

“You could argue that Katniss’ conflict between Peeta and Gale is effectively a choice between a traditional Movie Girlfriend and a traditional Movie Boyfriend,” says Holmes. “…Her larger mission — her war against the Capitol — often drifts out of focus behind her smaller, more immediate mission: saving Peeta.”

The moment I read this, I understood where Catching Fire falls short. In this world of extreme haves and have-nots, in which the atrocities against the have-nots have begun to escalate in catastrophic ways, and in which the heroine faces another gladiatorial contest even worse than the one she barely survived – in this grim and violent world, the movie still manages to make Katniss’s romantic triangle with Peeta and Gale seem like her biggest dramatic challenge.

Now I agree that if I were a teenage girl faced with a romantic choice between two young men like Peeta and Gale,  I’d find that a serious dilemma. If, that is, I were an ordinary teenager living in a safe and peaceful community. But not this teenage girl, and especially not at this most dangerous moment in her entire life.

Even worse, the dramatic imbalance seems to be accidental. With the violence in the Districts, and Snow’s efforts to destroy Katniss’s status as a political symbol, the movie sets up the potential for tremendous dramatic fireworks that should easily overshadow any romance.  And early on, the movie even has Katniss tell Gale that she doesn’t want to think about love right now, because of the dangers ahead.

But then it kicks this wish to the gutter, first by having Gale pay no attention, and then by making us, and Katniss, pay attention to romance over and over again. It seems that every time we turn around, Katniss is confronted with yet another moment in which she must think about her feelings for Gale, or for Peeta, or for both, and how they feel about her being between them.

“Oh, which one? Gale is so hot, and he’s always been my friend. Drat, there’s that nasty President and his soldiers again. But, oooh, Peeta is loyal and selfless and has my back in the Games. Look out, here come the bad tributes to try to kill us. I must keep Peeta alive and make it back to Gale.”

Yes, I’m exaggerating. But there are far too many moments that feel this way, and too few that feel like, “All I want is to survive and protect my people, but everything I do seems to go wrong and bring more violence.”

The result, unfortunately, is that the final dramatic moments of the movie fall flat. We find it much easier to believe in Katniss’s hysteria on learning that Peeta has been left behind, than we do in her wordless rage at the much worse news that her resistance has led to the massacre of her entire District. We simply haven’t been prepared to believe she cares that much.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with making a romantic triangle the focus of a story, even in wartime (see Casablanca for how to do this right). But if your story is supposed to be about much larger conflicts than “girl meets boy meets boy,” make sure that your romantic scenes don’t overshadow every scene about the real conflict.

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