The Girl on Fire

 
illustration by Brittany Brubaker

illustration by Brittany Brubaker

 

by Charlotte Orzel

“It’s okay, you’re okay, you’re okay,” Katniss Everdeen sobs as if saying it enough could make it true. Her dying comrade Rue is cradled in her arms. “You’re okay,” she says, but her hand gently cups Rue’s chin as the girl’s wound bleeds freely. Calmly, Rue asks if Katniss blew up their opponents’ food supply, and Katniss nods. “Good.” Rue’s voice drops to a whisper. “You have to win.” Katniss looks away, to the fallen body of Rue’s attacker, pierced with her arrow. She knows what winning means now. She doesn’t reply.

“Can you sing?” Rue asks tearfully. Katniss’s voice wavers as she sings a lullaby, trying to be strong for her young friend. The song is the same one she sang her sister on the morning she volunteered for the Hunger Games. Rue fades out of consciousness, her eyes going unfocused and blank. “I’m sorry,” Katniss murmurs, gently closing Rue’s eyelids, pressing a kiss to her forehead, and zipping her jacket to cover the wound.

Then, as she rocks and cries, her muted grief shifts, as if to counteract her apology. She tears at the ground, letting out a scream of rage that we can’t hear. Her face set, she takes a wicked-looking knife and cuts wildflowers, placing them around Rue’s body. She gives the girl’s face a final kiss, and looks up from her body to stare into a Capitol camera. Standing, she presses three fingers to her lips, and raises them overhead, gaze still fixed on the cameras that watched Rue’s death for entertainment. We see this image projected on a fifty foot screen before an enraptured crowd in Rue’s home district, who mirror the gesture and rise up in protest against the regime’s police force. Back in the arena, Katniss’s mask of calm defiance slips and she cries openly, gasping for breath on the forest floor.

This is one of my favorite moments in the Hunger Games series—the point where Katniss shifts from merely surviving the violence the Capitol inflicts, to turning their tools against them. Taking her enforced visibility in the arena’s drama, her act of commemoration shows the regime  her refusal to fit into the narrative of their media spectacle. In the books, what makes this moment important is as much her narration as her actions. Katniss mentally connects her grief to the broader injustice of the Capitol’s oppression, and discovers her urge to show them she can’t be owned. But onscreen, without any voiceover or explanatory dialogue, Gary Ross’s The Hunger Games externalizes this largely internal event in a way that makes its implications perfectly clear for the audience. It’s a skillful translation of the literary into cinematic language.

I first saw The Hunger Games in the spring of 2012, knowing practically nothing about the series except that it was poised to be a pop culture landmark. I loved the film, and devoured Suzanne Collins’s books a few weeks after seeing it. The books are not well-written, but they are written to be devoured, with cliffhanger following cliffhanger, in simple, digestible prose. Despite their shortcomings, I found something undeniably affecting about Katniss. I was fascinated by her journey and the layers of performance and emotion she balances as she moves through the thorny politics of an oppressive regime and a compromised revolution. And, since I grew up on the internet, on the edges of many different fandom circles, I began to talk about the series with friends and fellow fans on Tumblr. For a good chunk of that summer, as the movie was sparking new fanworks, graphics, and interpretations of the text, I made connections with smart, interesting people and enjoyed the satiated feeling of liking something that was widely popular.

Strangely though, my interest in the series didn’t wane. The further I moved into the narrative of the books, the more ambivalent I felt about them. This was especially true of the late shift of thematic ground from anti-capitalist revolution to an antiwar message in the last volume. This final twist of the narrative, which made the characters’ worst nightmares materialize before their eyes, felt as though the story was condemning them for their attempts at resistance. Worse still, it resolved both its dystopia and its characters’ trauma by flashing forward to romantic partnership and children, poorly glossing over the tragedies they’d experienced and whatever thematic resonance those events had. But there was still a lot in the text that I loved deeply, particularly in Katniss’s journey of self-discovery and hard-won agency despite omnipresent manipulation and control. I was still genuinely excited to see what the remaining books would look like onscreen.

The later movies, directed by Francis Lawrence, left a sour taste in my mouth. I came out of Catching Fire feeling like I’d just ridden a rollercoaster with three upside-down loops. I was giddy and babbling to a friend in the cab home from a midnight viewing. But once the adrenaline faded, I was bothered not only by omissions and changes to the text, but by what remained and how. Although Lawrence often kept complete lines of dialogue from the book, he failed to really animate the themes and characters. He departed from Ross’s intimate, verité style, making a movie that felt glossy and supercharged, but lacked the reflective emotion that made the first film affecting. The price of a blockbuster sheen seemed to be Katniss’s point of view; as the film hit the gas on plot point after plot point, her feelings and choices were submerged, even absent. This problem became more acute in both parts of Mockingjay, which were poorly paced, thematically muddled, and rarely brought her perspective to the surface in all its complexity, aggravating issues already present in the source material.

Even as it became increasingly clear that Lawrence and I diverged significantly on our narrative priorities, I remained almost perversely obsessed with The Hunger Games series and its adaptations. Sometimes I felt like I was leading a bizarre double life, an almost Jekyll and Hyde identity shift. By day, I was still an undergrad, studying great works of film and literature and learning how to talk about them in a sophisticated way. But by night I would crawl home from class or my retail job, fire up my laptop in my darkened bedroom, drink a pixelated potion of gifs and commentary, and become almost possessed. I wrote essay after essay in the tags of my Tumblr posts about an objectively silly young adult series that I hated more than half of the time. This went on for years, if, mercifully, in varying degrees of intensity. Fittingly, another user’s Tumblr post sums up the love/hate feeling of my later years in the fandom:

thg: [exists]

me: im over it

friend: mentions thg

me: LET ME WRITE YOU THIS 500000 WORD ESSAY ABOUT THE NARRATIVE STRUCTURE AND VICTIM BLAMING INHERENT 2 THE ANTI-WAR MESSAGE NO DONT FETCH THE BOOKS ITS FINE I REMEMBER THEM WORD FOR WORD ITS BEEN YEARS THIS ISNT WEIRD ITS OK ITS OK

“THIS ISNT WEIRD ITS OK ITS OK” was basically the sound my brain made whenever I thought about The Hunger Games series for more than five minutes.

Mostly, I was mystified that I still cared about a series that certainly did not care about me, as a reader or a viewer. The handful of times I watched Gary Ross’s The Hunger Games in those years of baffled rage, I approached it almost like a cipher, that, if decoded, could tell me why the series had kept such a hold on me.

Despite my rocky relationship with the rest of the series, the first film continued to come alive for me onscreen. Ross creates beautiful, dynamic sequences that elevate the blockbuster genre to visual poetry. Moments like a butterfly alighting onto Katniss’s fingertip in a quiet reprieve from the Games, or Peeta reaching to touch Katniss’s braid as they prepare to die, have genuine visual and emotional poignancy that’s rare in the later films, and action-driven blockbusters in general. But Ross also uses the film’s cinematography to convey, rather than explicate, information to his audience. Though the series, set as it is in an unfamiliar world with unfamiliar rules, does need some exposition, Ross is sparing with explanatory dialogue. Instead images, like a pan from a field of wildflowers to Katniss’s Capitol-provided knife in her final scene with Rue, illuminate the broader implications of the film's events with subtlety and restraint. Along with a well-paced script, foregrounding visual storytelling makes the film an effective adaptation by allowing the narrative to unfold for the audience.

The most important effect of the film’s visual style, however, is the way it makes Katniss’ point of view central and starkly clear. Though the verité approach creates beautiful visuals, it’s not simply an aesthetic preference. Shifting, imperfect compositions distinguish the audience’s gaze from the Capitol’s inclination to gloss and glamourize its violence. This is a crucial choice for a film that has us watch the Games it condemns the Capitol for orchestrating and broadcasting. The film puts us alongside Katniss in a tactile way. The camera brings us into her bodily experience, comforting her sister, tending a burn on her leg, feeling the romantic touch of a boy for the first time. It also stands back and lets us watch her act, reflect, and decide, showing not just general emotions like fear and defiance, but indicating decision-making and layers of performance. Jennifer Lawrence shines here, illuminating Katniss as someone balancing complex emotions, motivations, and needs, while simultaneously conveying her guarded nature. The entire film is propelled by Katniss’s perspective. This gives weight and dimension to the plot and her relationships—with Peeta and Gale, certainly, but also with Haymitch, Cinna, Rue, Prim, and her mother, all of which the film handles with great tenderness. That Ross’s commitment to Katniss’s point of view illuminates the story in this way is a testament to both his skills as a director and the power of making character a driving force of narrative.

So, perhaps this is a way to decode the cipher: Katniss’s character is what pulls me into this story. My fascination with her perspective has compelled me stay despite my ambivalence.

Throughout the series, this perspective is defined by Katniss’s struggle to resist being bent into the shape of a symbol for others’ causes. While the series has other themes—capital, war, and trauma among them—this one is both the most consistent and the most personal. In the first film, we see her budding resistance as she strikes back at the Capitol’s spectacle from within the arena, first laying flowers over Rue’s body and then feigning a double suicide attempt to ensure both she and Peeta can survive the Games. Later in the series, this theme is complicated as the Capitol coerces her to play the part of star-crossed lover to appease the districts, and District 13 attempts to co-opt her influence by forcing her into the role of revolutionary figurehead. Both powers struggle to contain the complexities of her anger, desire, and trauma within their narratives, where, as a mere symbol, she can serve their ends most effectively. Being inside Katniss’s head and seeing the fullness of her character as these events unfold reveals the fundamental violence of this narrativization, even before she finds ways to strike back against it.

Troublingly, in its last installments, the series itself seems just as eager to restrict Katniss to the role of symbol. After the destruction of her home district at the end of Catching Fire, Katniss is bombarded by pain, trauma, and loss as the revolution marches on. The litany of suffering Katniss witnesses and experiences, along with the growing sense of District 13’s similarity to the regime it wants  to overthrow, makes clear the series’ position that war is devastating and futile. The death of her sister—who she originally went to the Games to save—is the final blow. In the aftermath of this event, Katniss shoots the revolution’s power-hungry leader, President Coin, personally ending the war and her own participation in the revolution. She retreats to the rubble of her district, where she and Peeta rekindle their romance and attempt to heal, eventually having children. Her family with Peeta comes  to symbolize hope for rebirth. Katniss, however, refuses to be reborn. In her narration, she notes the terror of bearing her children, that they don’t realize they play on a graveyard, and that her nightmares will never go away. Even though this chapter seems intended as a message of hope, these statements complicate and confuse the narrative. Ultimately, Katniss refuses to be a straightforward symbol for anything, and forces the reader to encounter her in all her complexity and difficulty. If the series itself is limited in these final chapters, this persistent, unbounded intricacy is what makes Katniss a great protagonist, and keeps drawing me back in to revisit her journey.

Francis Lawrence’s final two films omit much of her ambivalence during these events, simplifying behaviour and emotions that are much more complicated on the page. In a series that so persistently critiques the way narrativizing at the expense of human complexity constitutes and enables violence, Lawrence’s failure to convey the depth of Katniss’s perspective is a serious thematic flaw. Furthermore, on an aesthetic and narrative level, it removes the very elements that makes the story most compelling. Ross’s adaptation of The Hunger Games works because it takes fidelity to character seriously, and is willing to shape the rest of the film around that end. In doing so, he creates an intimate, effective blockbuster and a story that brings his protagonist to life as a whole person, not a symbol or a plot device.

These are important principles given the series’ themes, but also hold true for adaptations at large. So often, when reading, we connect most deeply to the characters who tell us the story through their eyes. In the best stories, these characters don’t feel like characters at all, but people we can imagine in more fullness than they exist on the page. They inspire fascination, loyalty, and even love. Ross’s film reminds us that good adaptations, and good films, should strive to realize that enchantment onscreen. When movies make the audience feel that limitless potential, they can elevate—and even transcend—their source material, and make their stories take root in fans and new viewers alike.

In the final scene of the film, Katniss and Peeta return as victors to their home district. They’ve been warned that failing to convince the Capitol that their star-crossed lovers strategy was genuine will make them targets for brutal suppression. Holding Peeta’s hand before the cheering crowd, Katniss armours  herself with a wide smile and the placid, dreamy eyes of a girl in love. But then, she catches sight of her mother, sister, and best friend, Gale, waving to her from the crowd. The smile falls, replaced by the awe of seeing her loved ones again. After a long, breathless moment, she breaks into a true smile, one all the more affecting for its undercurrent of sadness.

For a moment, we see Katniss unvarnished and unguarded, as she experiences a well of emotion we understand but can’t quite touch. This may be the last time in the movies that the tension between the sheen of narrative and the depth of reality is communicated so clearly.

I’m grateful that, at least once, we got to really see her at all.


Charlotte Orzel is a Master’s student in Media Studies at Concordia University in Montréal where she researches multiplex film presentation. She spent several formative years scooping popcorn at her local indie cinema and in the process fell in love with film, television, and criticism of all kinds.