If you read “The Hunger Games,” the irresistible series of dystopian novels, you’ll surely see the movie “Catching Fire,” and you should. This second film installment — out of four — is satisfying and terrifying, better than the first, save for one thing. It’s less about TV.
“Catching Fire” is set in the future of America, now a totalitarian nation called Panem, where a group of tweens and teens from 12 poor provinces are forced battle to the death in an arena once a year in a televised event. It’s a story of fascist suppression, teenage love, rebellion, and, foremost, Katniss Everdeen, the heroine who becomes a reluctant symbol of resistance. She’s a sullen teen, a fashion muse, an excellent wearer of eyeliner, and a girl who embodies modern feminist ambivalence about power and love. (As another character puts it, in slightly different words: She’s not leaning in; she’s just trying to survive.)
Katniss is OK, if not entirely original: Humans have a long history of worshiping young women with bows and arrows. My favorite character, by far, is Caesar Flickerman, brilliantly played by Stanley Tucci: an unctuous emcee with glowing-white teeth and painted-purple hair. He’s Tom Bergeron on acid, and his job is to distract viewers from the cruelty of the enterprise and focus them, instead, on the pageantry.
Suzanne Collins, wrote the “Hunger Games” books, has said she conceived the series when she was watching TV one night, toggling between Iraq War footage and reality shows. Her books nail the way reality tropes have seeped into our culture: Everything is framed as conflict or elimination, whether it’s women choosing wedding dresses (as their mothers look on disapprovingly) or milquetoast men trying to find their mates.
And everything has a storyline – which, in the world of Collins’ books, is the genius of the Hunger Games themselves. They send a message about the regime’s capacity for oppression. But they also reveal how easy it is to lull the public through high entertainment. The Games come with Olympics-style opening ceremonies, sappy one-on-one interviews, and superimposed narratives that may or may not be true. Every moment in the death-match arena is recorded and broadcast to an enthralled nation. Rebellion is sparked after Katniss and her sort-of boyfriend, Peeta, figure out a way to survive by manipulating the story – and shattering the viewers’ expectations.
“Catching Fire” recounts the rebellion, but – in favor of a hurtling plot — glosses over the idea that the cameras are constantly watching. It’s only Caesar Flickerman who brings us back to the television theme, when he interviews angry, veteran warriors. They’ve been through this charade before. They know what they’re supposed to say. And they know how the public will react when they deviate from the script.
That’s something that doesn’t happen often enough in our own reality TV. The genre is too mature, by now, to be labeled all good or all bad; for every Kardashian spinoff, there’s a warmhearted “MasterChef Junior,” and I’m on record in defense of Honey Boo Boo. But reality shows have become totally predictable. We know we’ll see conflict, trumped up by willing, coached participants and edited to extra-sharpness. We know we’ll often get collateral damage. (The formerly married couple of Jon and Kate Gosselin recently announced that — shockingly — their eight once-televised children seem a little messed up now.)
That’s what makes those moments with Caesar the most intriguing parts of “Catching Fire.” Action sequences are a dime a dozen. But the half-lost look on his face, as he tries to steer the conversation away from death and back to clothes and love, suggests that even our lower-stakes world of TV could get a little more interesting.
What would happen if more reality-TV stars characters jettisoned the script, rebelled against the hosts, and — like the characters in “The Hunger Games” — allied against the genre, instead of each other? What if they chastised judges for their incoherence, lambasted producers for asking leading questions, acknowledged what it felt like to have cameras in their faces? It’s a thought experiment, obviously. The regime of producers and network suits would never let it happen. But “The Bachelor” would be a very different show.