The 75th annual Hunger Games begin with a change in scenery. Poised on a circular platform, the starting block in a race of survival, Katniss Everdeen, the main character of Francis Lawrence’s film The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (based on Suzanne Collins’s novel), emerges from the relative safety of her training area into the arena: the dangerous, ever-shifting, terrain in which she suffers, fights, and kills her peers. Although Katniss’s ritualized entrance into the arena is familiar to viewers of the first Hunger Games (2012) which begins the Games in the same way, the visual appearance of the arena in Catching Fire is drastically changed. The fifty-minute arena sequence of Catching Fire is specially formatted for IMAX theatres, so viewers in those theatres watch as the events of the games expand vertically, resulting in a larger aspect ratio than a traditional widescreen image.
This shift to the IMAX format opens up, visually, a way of examining how popular entertainment furthers injustice and inequality though public spectacle, an idea that the first film and, in some ways, the novel itself, have a tendency to obscure. Because it offers us a new kind of viewing experience than the one in which we have just been engaging, IMAX mimics for us the dissonance between real events and televised events that viewers in Panem experience when they tune into the Games. Even though we know we’re watching a mediated event—because we’re in a theater looking at a screen—the dramatic shift in film format jolts us into remembering that the concept of medium is absolutely vital to how Katniss and her people’s struggle plays out.
Some critics of the first Hunger Games have rightly pointed out that the movie often fails to underscore the meta-quality of the Games, or the way that the narrative is not just about kids fighting to the death but kids being filmed fighting to the death. But such criticisms, while valid, overlook the structure of the novel, which by its second half shifts its attention away from the stylists and dressing rooms that mark the Games’ performativity, becoming absorbed by the spectacle of the Games themselves. If the first Hunger Games film left the complex meta-quality of the Games on the cutting room floor, it was in no small part because the novel did the same. As a first-person narrator, Katniss has an inner monologue that details her thoughts about Prim, Peeta, and political power as she makes her way through the arena, but her voice’s function is also to render intelligible to us the emotional drive, calculated decision-making, and sheer physical ability that enable her to win in the face of incredible odds. We nervously bite our nails as we flip each page, following intensely along as characters stab each other in the back (sometimes literally) until we reach a dramatic final fight, where we find ourselves hoping that a teenage boy is torn to bits by a pack of genetically modified super wolves with eyes implanted from dead human beings. The Games are there for us to enjoy.
By contrast, viewers watching the film in IMAX theaters are directed to see the arena differently than we saw the events that led to Katniss’s arrival there: things are now clearer, larger, and more intense. The lake glistens sharply; the sky is impossibly bright overhead. We cannot forget that this is a different medium—and geographical space—than what she usually inhabits. While a number of action movie filmmakers have in recent years experimented with IMAX film, no feature film has ever included a continuous sequence of this length. Like the extreme natural expanses depicted in the first IMAX films of the 1990s, with their solar systems and galaxies, underwater trenches, and barren glaciers, where the foreign and physically beyond our reach come, almost impossibly, into focus, we can now perceive the environment Katniss has to navigate at an unexpected level of extreme close proximity. And yet at the same time, such proximity brings with it a kind of distancing. We know that those faraway, watery, and frozen worlds are brought to us artificially through the miracles of technology. The fact of their bigness, their detail, and their availability reminds us how very far away from us they really are. To see the vastness of our swirling solar system up close, in other words, conjures our own human limitations, insofar as we understand that without the use of robots and super advanced film, we would never, could never, experience it. Thus, Katniss’s experience in the arena, in being made hyper-real through IMAX film, is simultaneously shown to be a state of unreality, as the shift in medium forces us to see the Games for what they are: staged, manipulated, and overdetermined spectacles of unchecked power.
In this way then, the second film in the Hunger Games trilogy reminds us of our own experience as readers and viewers who, often enough, do not realize the extent to which we enjoy Katniss’s story in the same way that her Capitol sponsors do: as detached spectators who yearn for ever greater displays of violence and bloodshed. Like the citizens of Panem’s Capitol, we are invited to follow along with the Games and to delight in the suffering and inhumanity that comes with them. In turning to IMAX film in Catching Fire, Lawrence allows us to pause and to register what that delight means. The shift in film format tells us—in a way that is easy to forget in the first film and in the first book—that the Games are televised, an event transmitted to Panem’s viewers of means (to provide entertainment) and those without (to generate absolute obedience). When we recognize this fact, we can, if we choose, more easily be critical of the Games and what they represent: the entertainments of spectacular violence that exist in our own non-fictional universe as regularly scheduled programming. By changing the viewing experience—that is, by making it more crystal clear, but also more auspiciously unreal—Catching Fire’s use of IMAX film uses our experience in viewing the film to remind us that this story is a critique of our own devotion to televised displays of violence and extreme wealth and power.
Megan Walsh: Sometimes Goes to the Movies Alone