“I don’t have a problem believing in God and Jesus. But in Genesis one has to wonder about these sentences that just go on and end without finishing. The thought is unfinished. Where did Adam go? What is he doing? Hello? There has to be some pages missing.”
– Bill Cosby, in an interview with the Florida Sun-Sentinel, 5 May 2011
When I first sat down to write this review, I was going to open with a statement about how with lots quotes and links about how we’re living within new halcyon days of long-form storytelling. The most popular books are longer, the average film is even further past two hours than it was two decades prior, and the popularity of OnDemand television has made “binge-watching” more and more common. Hell, it’s not at all odd to run into people who actively refuse to part in a new media entry (say comics or a new tv show) unless they can partake of it in one grand attempt (graphic novels and full-seasons, respectively).
On one hand this proves that audiences do indeed want their stories and characters to have the proverbial “room to breathe” and properly develop. This is a good thing. On the other hand it paradoxically confirms that audiences can be impatient; that the binging is symptomatic of not of wanting to wait a particular amount of time for a story to develop when you can partake of another story in its entirety right now. As someone who has indulged in both practices, there are obviously benefits of both. Still, there’s something to be said for absorbing one serialised chapter and pondering it for a good amount of time before absorbing the next. Maybe I just like putting in the extra effort?
Caught in the middle of this transition is the film industry. Unable to predict fluxating box office revenue, but ever desperate for a sure that delivers after the initial investment, it should come as no surprise that Hollywood is more franchise-happy than ever. In the pre-television days, it was the cinema that provided 24-frame serial entertainment. In the 21st century, studios are trying to recapture that magic by starting, continuing, or resurrected name franchises. For them it isn’t about making one appealing film, it’s about making the first of 10 hit films over the next decade. Hence they buy the rights to multi-volume book series and comic books – properties designed to have long-term appeal.
What tends to get lost in the shuffle is the difference between the respective media. In adapting a book, television allows for more development because it was designed to be broken into episodes the way a book is broken into chapters. Film, on the other hand, is expected to truncate an entire book into a short amount of time. As such, it makes sense for an episode of television to leave a good amount of questions unanswered so that you will return for the next episode. Film does not have that luxury – given the amount of time an audience is expected to absorb a story on film, it only makes sense that the film properly end. It can end with enough to wonder what happens next, but it must end. Cliffhangers do not work in film. Let me tell you why…
It’s been a year since Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark became the first couple to win the Hunger Games. Their joint victory has brought them great fame and recognition, with many seeing the two – Katniss in particular – as revolutionaries-in-the-making. This idea of possible insurrection does not sit well with President Snow and the powers-that-be, who have decided that Katniss must be dealt with permantly. After Katniss and Peeta take part in a state-sponsored publicity tour, they find themselves entered into a special edition of the games featuring all surviving victors.
Thrown back into the arena, Katniss and Peeta are confronted with new allies, new enemies, and countless new ways to die. This time they not only fight as tributes for their district, but for the lives of everyone who cares about them.
I can clearly remember that afternoon in May 2003 when I sat in a packed house to finally see The Matrix Reloaded. I remember being in similar situation in 1989 when me and my friends went to go see Back to the Future – Part II. And I definitely remember that evening in October 2003 when I saw Kill Bill: Vol. 1 for the first time. Whether I found the previous two-or-so-hours infuriating (Matrix – but then I hated the first film, too), confounding (Back to the Future), or entertaining as hell (Kill Bill), I had the same reaction to their abrupt endings: “What the fuck?” With the exception of Back to the Future – Part II, I went into each film knowing that it was part of a larger story to be completed in a later film. That didn’t change the fact that the ending to each was unsatisfying.
Kill Bill could at least fall on the excuse that it wasn’t planned as more than one film (and at least it’s cliffhanger was good), but the others knew full well that their story would be continuing, yet made no effort to give the story an appropriate close.
As you’ve probably already guessed: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ends on a frustrating cliffhanger. Not having read the books, I don’t know keeping said ending was with the source material. I will say only that a cliffhanger in a longform story is a sign of lazy storytelling. There’s wanting to get the audience excited for the next chapter, then there’s just not knowing how to spin a yarn. The Empire Strikes Back was produced knowing it was just the middle chapter of a trilogy, but it was still given a proper ending (ie. an ending that acknowledges what has come before, resolves as much of it as possible, but still builds anticipation for what comes next). Each of the original Lord of the Rings films were produced knowing that they were just one piece of a larger story, but each still has a proper ending. Just because you’re working on part of a larger story doesn’t mean that THIS part of the story is undeserving of closure.
And it’s a damn shame because I was really into the film until its stupid ending. I mentioned my Thor: The Dark World review (which, incidentally, I saw the same day as this film) that as an ‘80s kid and bookworm, I grew up with “darker” stories than are typically found these days. As such, the fact that the Hunger Games stories were reknowned for their high levels of violence didn’t really affect me (when you’re exposed to stories like Cain & Abel and Lord of the Flies at a young age, the idea of kids killing one another loses some of its shock value). Lacking that shock, I have thusfar found the stories to be fluff. Entertaining fluff, but still fluff. Perhaps the books go into greater detail regarding the socioeconomic machinations we only see in glimpses, but I still see an old story about “the downtrodden” being represented by pretty White people. They subtly touch upon this with the publicity tour, but nothing much is made of it.
But, as I said, the film is entertaining. Francis Lawrence wisely foregoes Gary Ross’s irritating shaky-cam for the most part, resulting in a much more tolerable film to look at. Likewise, all of the actors are clearly having a lot of fun playing the colourful characters as whom they’ve been cast. In fact, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) can be thought of as less as characters and more as a means to which we are introduced to far more interesting people. If I had a heavily made-up Lenny Kravitz designing my wardrobe, I’d never wear anything else again.
So far The Hunger Games has yet to prove itself as anything more than youthful fantasy fodder. It’s a youth’s interpretation of politics, it’s a youth’s interpretation of commitment and relationships, it’s a youth’s interpretation of technology, publicity, and social justice. But… that’s not exactly a bad thing. After the entertaining edge-skirting of Harry Potter series (what good is saying “Dumbledore is Gay” when nothing in the stories acknowledges it?) and the condescending Twilight series, it’s actually a relief to see such a popular work encouraging strong, pro-active characters – particularly in a female lead.
If only they’d gone with a good ending…
*I saw The Hunger Games: Catching Fire at the Century 20 multiplex in Daly City on Tuesday – 26 November 2013