Fire Burns Brighter this Time Around, but Gamemakers Still Could use Some Schooling from my College Students

Three years ago, I began using The Hunger Games as a required novel in all sections of my Expository Writing classes at Mayland Community College. Most of my students had never even heard of the book, and only one or two had read it before, but it was a unanimous success that changed students’ outlooks on everything from reading to politics. We anxiously followed movie news, as the film adaptation got underway just up the road from our campus, and some of our students and their friends and family members worked on the movie.

When the film debuted in March last year, we made arrangements with a local theater to have a Mayland showing, at which we could all yell things like “I can see my house from here!” in scenic shots, and the students who were extras could exclaim, “Hey, that’s the back of my head!” Other than such delights, the film held a fair few disappointments for us, most of which could be summed up in the phrase “Less Seneca Crane! More Madge!”

This time around, I kept my expectations low, as the removal of Madge, the absence of a circular gold cornucopia, and the elision or removal of so much of the first novel’s symbolic power had not prepared me to be impressed with the sequel. But I made arrangements with the delightful Yancey Theater (if you are ever in Burnsville, NC, please support this local business and enjoy a classic old theater!), put out the word, and rounded up 70 or so students, faculty, staff ,and friends to see the movie early on opening day.

Much to my surprise, it seems as if, this time around, we have Gamemakers who have actually read all the books; though they might still be able to take more than a few lessons from the savvy crowd who saw the show with me Friday, they at least seemed to have made an effort to be faithful to the text, even if they miss (again) much of its symbolic weight.

Rather than distracting from Louise Freeman’s superb Top Ten list (almost all of which draws a hearty cheer of support from me), I’d like to just add my own thoughts on what, in our three-part ring-composition story, is its turning point.

What They Got Right

1. That darn cat--Since these Gamemakers have evidently read all the trilogy, they finally give us a Buttercup who looks like Collins’s Buttercup. My students never believe me when I tell them that the seemingly unimportant awful cat from the first book is, in many way, a more important character than Gale Hawthorne (he’s just not as pretty). After all, Buttercup is introduced in paragraph three; I don’t think that’s coincidence.

2. By any other name– There are roses everywhere this time, not just in President Snow’s garden: in bouquets on trains and the in the training center, bedecking the chariots in the Tribute Parade, and of course, in Snow’s lapel, setting us up for events in Mockingjay. I’m not sure the film folks get all the powerful symbolism packed into the roses in this trilogy, but somebody did notice they turn up an awful lot in the books.

3. A cast worth crediting. Though they try hard and often do a fine job, I have not always been thrilled about some of the actors cast in the first film (and, of course, now we’re stuck with them; but, as with the Twilight films, some of those mis-placed actors may improve and grow somewhat into their roles). The newcomers this time around, though, are absolutely fantastic fits for their literary counterparts.

As I suspected he would be, Sam Claflin is out of this world as Finnick Odair: sexy, funny, unpredictable. He conveys beautifully the depth behind the (very) pretty smile, and his role as a “peacock’ (Haymitch’s word, but perfect, as I like all the bird motifs). That jabberjay scene is phenomenal, and he carries it perfectly; plus, his expression after Peeta’s electrocution perfectly sums up his realization that Katniss loves Peeta (even if the pregnancy references vanish).

Lynn Cohen as Mags is extraordinary, making us love her just as Finnick does, without ever speaking. Haymitch says she’s a wonderful lady. I agree. Jena Malone’s angry and unbalanced Johanna Mason is also a completely perfect fit (think I called this one, too); more on that later.

I cannot say enough about Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee. He brings just the right level of complexity and ambiguity to this fascinating character. I sometimes describe Plutarch as a good guy who is not really a good….guy. He is, at his core, a Gamemaker after the endgame regardless of the cost: as long as he captures the opponent’s king on the other end of the board, he is perfectly willing to sacrifice any number of pawns in the process. Though he says he wants to see Katniss “get her hands dirty,” not many folks in this story have paws dirtier than his.

Few double agents are appealing human beings (even Severus Snape is not a fun guy, despite his more noble motivation of love versus Plutarch’s of ratings). I enjoyed the gasps of the few students and guests who, unlike the readers, didn’t know Plutarch’s true intentions until the end, and I didn’t mind even the added scenes with Plutarch and Snow (necessary without Katniss’s first person limitations), as they worked in the story and provided more chances for Mr. Hoffman to own this role. Wow.

What they got REALLY right

Every now and then, film people add something to a move that isn’t exactly textual, but which works beautifully, like those extra moments with Heavensbee. In the first installment, many of the additions were unnecessary and off-putting, but this time around, there were several that beautifully fit the novel’s meaning and preview coming attractions.

1. Katniss flashbacks and forwards--In one of the first scenes in the movie, Katniss shoots a turkey, but sees her arrow hitting Marvel, the District 1 boy she killed in the first arena after he killed Rue. It’s a great visual that captures her mental state. When Gale tries to calm her down, he says, “You’re safe,” which foreshadows Johanna Mason’s idiotic “head doctor” in Mockingjay, who tells her the same (asinine) thing.

At the end of the film, when she is lifted from the 75th arena, the filmmakers have positioned Katniss so that her arms extend in, as Louise points out, a brilliant cruciform symbol, but, with all the fire around her, this also beautifully foreshadows her end of Mockingjay physical and emotional nadir as she deals with her burns and loss while imagining birds above and monsters below. And, of course, she looks like a bird.

2.That’s not in the book, but it is– The film folks this time around added a few lines that, unlike Effie Trinket’s now pop-culture stand-by crack about mahogany (which gets a little side joke in this one), are truly profound and actually capture the story in fantastic ways. Effie gets to show some of her facets that aren’t on jewelry.

When Katniss, in her wedding dress, is headed onto the stage, Effie tells her to show the audience “what true beauty is,” a great addition that shows some character development with the flaky Effie, who falters, despite her glorious butterfly outfit (a hat tip to the Capitol woman Katniss shoots in Mockingjay) at the Reaping and, as the Games begin, weeps over “my Tributes,” telling them she is “truly sorry.”

The other interview addition is Johanna’s super rant at the cameras, complete with a bleeped F-bomb (confirming my mental casting of the character as pop star Pink). Though she often sticks to the script with expected lines about her idiotic stylist and making Snow “pay for it” when he forces Katniss to wear her wedding dress, the added lines are nicely in character.

Also added is Cinna’s “I think I’m done,” as he tweaks the white wedding dress that will flame out into a black mockingjay dress. Indeed, our Cinna is nearly done; this dress is his swan (or mockingjay, perhaps) song. Haymitch, like many of the characters, has many of his lines right out of the text this time, but a couple of additions are apt ones.

He tells Katniss: “You never get off this train!” summing up her internal musings that Victors never really leave the arena, but are trapped there, in their minds, forever. He also stresses the lack of a real “winner,” epitomized by the pitiful and perverse group of former Victors we meet this time around: “Nobody ever wins the Games.”

One of Haymitch’s textual lines is handed off with good effect. In the novel, his reminder to “remember who the real enemy is, ” echoes mentally for Katniss just before she chooses to complete Beetee’s mission and fire his charged wire into the force field; in the film, Finnck does the re-stating, which helps the audience know what’s going through Katniss’s mind, and puts Finnick in just the right spot for their rescue moments later.

3. Super symbols—As I’ve noted before and below, sometimes movie people are surprisingly un-savvy on symbols, but this bunch added a few really useful symbolic elements that work with great effect. One of my favorites in the blood that colors Snow’s champagne as he lowers the clear flute after taking a drink. Since we can’t smell the blood on his breath in the study with Katniss, this works well at establishing an important facet of his character. The addition of his granddaughter, as Louise has noted, is excellent, and she is a wonderful symbol of his slipping power, his perversity, and his complexity.

Also, along with the flower-bearing girl who tells Katniss she wants to volunteer when she grows up, triggering a whole round of flashback nightmares, the charming little girl in the lair of the snake should evoke both those chilling photos of Hitler accepting bouquets from sweet little children, and serve as a reminder that Snow is more than a one-dimensional paper villain.

His complex relationship with Katniss is also echoed by his sitting at her desk beside the framed photo of her father. Is it any wonder that Katniss struggles with relationships when her one positive male father figure died, abandoning her, and her life is now in the hands of a perversion of the kindly grandfather figure?

Some of the best symbols are threaded into the costumes. Effie’s outfits are just as outrageous this time, though there is more thought in their symbolic power. That butterfly ensemble is brilliant, and the symbolism of the gold pieces tying together Team 12 is woven into her hair. Katniss’s mockingjay wedding dress and flaming chariot outfits are true to the text but also beautifully symbolic and innovative, even if the pearls are missing.

Though, as I mention below, that’s evidence that the movie folks don’t get the circle imagery at all, I liked seeing Mags’s wedding ring, which hints, as I’ve always wondered, that she might be Annie’s grandmother, but is a gold ring, which we are missing in the arena otherwise

What they got wrong

1. This is not a story about Gale Hawthorne— My students are always amused at my insistence that Gale is a functional, not transcendent character, but it’s true, and there is far too much Gale and Katniss snogging, and, due to editing, it looks like some other girl that he’s kissing in Snow’s footage of the troublesome smooch. At first, I thought, “Hey, that might be Madge, finally,” but it was mostly just confusing.

2. This is not a happy story— Like deleting most of the physical trials of the characters in the 74th arena (dehydration, Peeta’s lost leg), the Hollywood Gamemakers this time tone things down. Though Plutarch suggests big crackdowns in tandem with glamor shots of Katniss, we don’t see much of the hardships, and we never see the five other wedding dresses for the photoshoot. The suffering goes by pretty quickly, partly to keep the PG-13 and partly because the victors have to be pretty for Hollywood, I mean, the Capitol.

3. They just miss the point (unless it’s on the end of an arrow)– The film folks have a pretty tenuous grip on symbolism. At first, I really thought they were getting it this time, mostly due to the setting of Katniss’s study where she is confronted by Snow. Behind him is a window with stained glass panels featuring red and gold elements in groups of three. This was almost as exciting to me as the lamp with its arrow decoration. I began to think somebody in Hollywood was finally getting the alchemical color theme and the triumvirate nature of the story, but then they miss several opportunities to follow the book and adhere to Collins’s beautiful use of symbol.

My students generally figure out pretty quickly that if they can’t remember a number from the book, to just guess three, and that they should mention that circles and alchemy matter, but the film folks miss it. Despite some nice added symbols, the Gamemakers still muffed quite a few necessary ones this time out.

That hideous Cornucopia in the center of the clock arena is almost as bad the one from the first film, which looks like a 747 fuselage and is neither round nor golden, both of which it needs to be to pull the symbolic punch.

They also miss the circle train with the pearl; taking the falling pearls of the transforming dress undermines the power of this crucial symbol, and then, the pearl Peeta finds for Katniss isn’t even white, as it must be as a contrast for the coal of District 12 (those two items form the lead and gold, dark and light elements of the trilogy’s alchemical process). That’s why Effie makes that ridiculous statement from the first book about coal turning into pearls, and it doesn’t do the trick with a black pearl.

Peeta’s locket should also be circular, but it’s rectangular, like the box doing the countdown at the start of the Games. The circular countdown clock in the 74th Games was almost enough to make up for the Cornucopia gaffe. Almost.

What’s Left Out

Unlike some book purists, I understand that something has to go when a book makes the transition to the big screen. We just cannot get it all into a film, and some elements that work very well on the page falter on the screen (which is why, though I don’t always agree with the choices of Mr. Jackson in his forays into Middle Earth, I’m with him all the way on removing Tom Bombadil from the Fellowship of the Ring, as that guy is the reason it took me ten years and four tries to get through The Lord of the Rings).

That being said, there are some elements that are conspicuously absent (Mags has no cannon that I could hear), and there is still much that the Hollywood Gamemakers remove that I would have kept:

1. Haymitch’s Time as Tribute: With no Madge backstory, there is now no Auntie Maysilee Donner and Haymitch footage from the second Quarter Quell. Though Haymitch’s background on the Victors helps fill in the gaps we have from not seeing the old footage, the story of that Mockingjay pin is important, loaded with bird symbolism, and part of what motivates Haymitch: he couldn’t save his friend who wore that pin 25 years ago, so he desperately works to save Katniss when she wears it.

2. Missing characters: I agree with Louise that the trimmed prep trio probably means that it will be Effie who makes up the third person in the District 13 gulag, allowing Elizabeth Banks to have more screen time. Thus, losing Venia isn’t tragic, just different. I also hate that Bonnie and Twill are gone, but can see how the story needs to move on, and they don’t crop back up later (unlike Avox Lavinia, whom they’ve also forgotten about for the most part). But I would have liked to have seen the rest of the Hawthornes and Darius.

3. Peeta’s paintings: I do love Peeta’s icon of Rue, which we do see, unlike in the book, but it would be nice to have seen his other artwork and to have seen him having more interaction with the “self-medicated” District 6 morphlings before one of them flings herself to a monkey to save him. I’ve seen film stills of scenes that must have been shot, but cut, in which the morphlings paint him in training. Perhaps in the extended DVD, we’ll get some of that back.

Obviously, this is not a comprehensive list of the film’s strengths and weaknesses (give me time to watch the DVD for that. I’ll have more…), but I actually do understand Suzanne Collins’s use of the number three, and I do hope that those who have seen the film will add their thoughts.

I also will be posting my college students’ (and my twelve-year old son’s) thoughts and pictures; after all, they get it. They, unlike some folks in the Hollywood crowd, understand symbolism and allegory. They know that the point of this story is not how fabulous Effie toenails look or how much butt Katniss kicks, but something much more complex, which just goes to show that “my tributes” could still teach a thing or two to the Gamemakers.

Thoughts? Questions? Calls for my execution?


  1. This is a wonderfully rich post that I’m printing out along with Louise’s piece to really analyze before I see the film a second time. You caught so many subtleties, some of which escaped me on the first go-round, including a few of the roses! I missed seeing the picture of Katniss’ father’s on the desk where Snow sits — that is seriously creepy.

    I agree with you that the Gamemakers for the most part got it this time.

    I was surprised to find that I found some of the best lines — and best moments — were the new additions. Like you, I thought Haymitch’s line “You never get off this train” was chillingly good, as was his comment that “There are no Victors, only survivors.” Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch showed a good deal more complexity: I loved that moment after the District 11 riots when, having just ripped into Katniss with those scathing comments he then sees her desperation and takes her in his arms. I was glad that they showed his drinking and the pigsty he lives in — we begin to see that he’s just as broken as Katniss and that gives us a real sense of the permanent damage the Games do.

    Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee was amazing — it was such a slyly ambiguous performance. Plutarch gets another of those wonderful new lines, notably his comment to Katniss at the Capitol party: “It’s appalling, but if you suspend your moral judgement it can be fun.” Wow! Does that ever sum up our questionable enjoyment of this Hollywood!

    I loved Sam Claflin’s Finnick and Jena Malone’s Johanna. They hit just the right notes to again show how life as ‘Victors’ can be just as damaging as the Games themselves. Claflin completely nailed the sugar cube scene — even his remaining faint trace of English accent fit since he’s spent some much time as a ‘Capitol favorite’.

    All together a wonderful second act that makes me hopeful about Mockingjay.

  2. Just got back from my Thanksgiving day ‘second helping’ of Catching Fire 🙂 I liked it even better the second time around. Here are some leftover (but hopefully still yummy) thoughts.

    You were so right about all those white roses! Everywhere. I also thought there were alchemical colors all over the place. All that coal and fire — not to mention all the white roses. And also alchemical transformations, as the darkened arena shatters in flames to reveal a circular opening to the blazing white sky beyond.
    But did you also notice that at that moment, the only other color visible besides white, black and red/gold fire was green — Katniss’ favorite and the color of hope.

    Speaking of Cinna’s “I think I’m done” (Oh, Cinna!) — how about Effie’s “Curtains!” — curtains for whom??

    The butterfly dress really was wonderful: presumably butterflies as in Psyche, but also butterflies as in metamorphosis/resurrection, butterflies as in flashback to the first book/film, butterflies that are a symbol of spring’s rebirth, and of course butterflies that are Peeta’s favorite color, orange, a blending of gold and fire-red.

    And did you catch some of the cuter little Gamesmaker wrinkles, like the fact that Plutarch checks the monitor showing that Katniss’ number 12 was safe but in the water as he calls to stop the spinning arena.

  3. P.S. Did you notice how the Mockingjay fire logo at the end of the movie slowly opened its wings and took flight? Okay, I’ll stop fangirling and go eat my dinner! Happy thanksgiving, HogPro’s all.

  4. I think they’ve changed the symbolism of the pearl in the movie. In the book white pearls fall and scatter from Katniss’s wedding dress as she twirls to reveal the Mockingjay dress. It’s as if the Capitol’s plans for her have been discarded including the marriage to Peeta represented by the wedding dress festooned with pearls. It seemed to me that when Peeta gifted the pearl to Katniss in the arena, it was like a marriage proposal which Katniss then accepted. Only this time it was sincere and simple, unlike the pretense and excess of the Capitol.

    In the movie the pearl is black. It’s the same coal black as the Mockingjay dress. I think this represents Peeta’s support for Katniss to take on the role of Mockingjay.

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