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screenshot: is katniss everdeen the new face of feminism?

Image: film still from The Hunger Games

Image: film still from The Hunger Games

High expectations are dangerous. Too often it means something you’d been looking forward to, or stood in the line for hours (and paid a small fortune) for, falls hopelessly short. Thankfully the same cannot be said for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and its famous heroine Katniss Everdeen – the series has already called out the assumption that films with primarily female protagonists can’t appeal to both genders, but it isn’t the ‘girl on fire’s’ precision with a bow that makes her a feminist.

When the first installment of the hotly-anticipated Hunger Games trilogy hit the cinemas last year, its main character, the bow- toting, fiery Katniss was quickly stamped with the “strong female character” trope/ tick of approval by fans and critics of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling series. It’s difficult to remember when she’s blasting baddies or sparking a revolution, but Katniss’s survival strategy doesn’t just depend on her stoic, independent demeanour alone. From the outset she’s neither the most intelligent nor the fastest or strongest, but the girl on fire embraces one characteristic that saved her life in the first Hunger Games and continues to do so in Catching Fire: her ability to nurture meaningful relationships.

From her sister Primrose to coal miner Gale and the baker’s son, Peeta, Katniss draws strength from those around her but, far from being an ideological revolutionary, the rebellious girl from District 12 just doesn’t want anyone dictating what to think and how to live, though for the first half of Catching Fire this is exactly what Katniss is forced to do, continuing her “performed” relationship with Peeta beneath the ever-watchful gaze of the Capitol. Performance is a major theme of Catching Fire and for much of the film, Katniss struggles under the pressure of playing equal parts the symbol of a revolutionary war and the target of a mysterious and malevolent government.

Here, Catching Fire picks up where the first film left off. At the climax of The Hunger Games, Katniss declared her love for Peeta, the male contestant from District 12, to save their lives. Believing the last remaining survivors of the 74th annual Hunger Games would commit suicide and become martyrs to a growing rebel movement against the Capitol, rather than one killing the other as planned, authorities were prompted to declare them the Hunger Games’ first winning pair. Now Katniss faces the consequences of breaking the rules of the Games and ruffling the feathers of President Snow who, angered by Katniss’s rising fame, reinvents the Hunger Games for its 75th year. Like Survivor: All Stars but with more death and less Jeffrey Probst, the list of male and female competitors are drawn from a ballot of victors and given Snow’s beef with Katniss, it’s inevitable she and Peeta will make an appearance.

The Games’ revamped line-up comes with a budget boost – and it shows. We’re finally treated to seeing more of the Capitol with better special effects and the crowds have lost the cardboard cut-out feel of the previous film. Director Francis Lawrence uses his new found financial freedom to its full effect and we’re given a better idea of the relationships and individual functions of the districts. Filmgoers who experienced vertigo in the first film will be pleased to note the shaky camera effect has been replaced in favour of smoother transitions that take in more of the landscape and in lieu of the panicky chases and kids murdering kids, Lawrence creates a series of lush battles that seem more realistic and frightening because the competitors are experienced veterans. There’s no facade of childlike innocence to hide behind here.

Lawrence, Hutcherson and Hemsworth still dominate the scenes as Catching Fire‘s principle trio, but the supporting cast are also given moments to shine. Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch is equal parts delightful and infuriating and likewise, Sam Claflin more than earns his stripes in his role as Finnick Odair from District 4. But it is Jena Malone who frequently steals the scene as Johanna Mason, a fast-talking axe-wielding warrior from District 7. These supporting characters are particularly important for getting out of Katniss’s first person narration – it is only in Catching Fire where Effie Trinket’s personal discomfort and care for her District 12 victors finally receives acknowledgement.

Equal parts a critique of gender roles and the rampant consumerism of capitalist societies, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a resolute change from the love triangle narratives we’ve seen in YA fiction of recent years, with an emphasis on revolution and cultural change over romance. Katniss is a feminist – she’s attempting to bring equality to the impoverished districts of Panem while taking on a heroic role traditionally reserved for her male counterparts (hello Thor), but it would be ignorant to paint her with the “strong female character” brush, because Katniss Everdeen is more than just a two-dimensional trope.

She’s the girl on fire.

 

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